By Clinton Walker
Pluto Press, 323pp, $38.50
ISBN 1 86403 152 2
It has been claimed in the past that country music is the white man's blues,
the singularly most honest, impassioned and downright intimate expression of the
life and times of non-black, working-class people. That same logic suggests it
is impossible for white folk to really comprehend the blues because, regardless
of what they tell themselves, it is beyond their experience and emotional range
to understand and feel what drives black artists to write and sing with such a
cry from the heart.
Even if we accept this notion then it is a more than reasonable question to
wonder what happens when black musicians try to perform the so-called white
man's blues. Can it work? Is it little more than an equally slavish copy of a
white cultural form?
Until the publication of Clinton Walker's magnificent Buried Country,
subtitled The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, it is fair to say that the
majority of Australians didn't even think about those questions because they had
only the slightest glimmering that there was such a thing as Aboriginal country
music. The bastions of so-called taste in Australian country music have always
decreed that, with very few exceptions, white was good and black was, at best,
The accepted definitive text on Australian country music is Eric Watson's
two-volume Country Music in Australia published in 1975 and reprinted in 1982.
Except for scant mentions about the likes of Jimmy Little it would be easy to
believe that country music in Australia was an almost exclusively white domain.
The Book of Australian Country Music (edited by Jazzer Smith) published in 1984
presented things a little more accurately but only just.
I must admit that, as a child of the 1950s with a passion for country music
who has made a living from writing about music, the list of Aboriginal country
singers I was aware of was quite limited before reading this book. Yes, I knew
of Jimmy Little. Yes, I knew of Lionel Rose, but mainly because he was a boxer
who had gone on to record country music. And yes, I knew of the performers who
had emerged in slightly more enlightened times Archie Roach, Ruby Hunter,
Tiddas, Troy Cassar Daley and the more rock 'n' country artists like Yothu
Yindi, the Warumpi Band, No Fixed Address, Us Mob and Coloured Stone. And yes,
because I was lucky enough to see him perform a few times at Tamworth years ago,
Roger Knox is in my musical spectrum.
But had I, in some ways one of the more musically aware people in this
country, ever heard of Vic Simms, Bob ``Brown Skin Baby" Randall, Auriel
Andrew, Bobby McLeod, Isaac Yama and so many of the dozens of other singers that
feature in Buried Country? I could be cool here and pretend I did, but the
truth is I had no idea they even existed, let alone had any knowledge of what
their music sounded like. It was astonishing to see a photograph in this
well-illustrated book of Fanny Cochrane Smith, the first Aborigine ever
recorded, singing in Sandy Bay, Tasmania, in 1903.
Why is this the case? So much of this music was released only on cassette
and in very limited runs. It was, and still is, the expression of a culture
that, for whatever reasons, white Australians seem to have ignored. But, and it
is a big but, why are there few Australians who don't know the names B.B. King,
Robert Johnson, Miles Davis, Charley Pride, Al Green and John Coltrane?
It is not as if we don't embrace the greats of black expression in jazz,
country and blues (and let us not even mention Whitney Houston, Macy Gray and
hundreds of other contemporary pop artists, or the Supremes, Smokey Robinson,
Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and legions of others from the soul field). But it
seems to me either we haven't had the opportunity to hear the musicians written
about in Buried Country, or we think that black artists are acceptable just so
long as they come from another country.
Buried Country is much more than a dry academic tome about Aboriginal country
music. Its closest comparison is Nicholas Dawidoff's In The Country Of Country:
People and Places in American Music, which tells the stories of a disparate
array of white performers, not in straight biographical form, but from observing
what they do and why they do it. Like the music itself, it is storytelling
first and factual second.
Walker's previous books include Highway to Hell (a biography of the AC/DC
singer Bon Scott), Stranded (Australian late '70s and '80s punk rock) and A
Football Life (a personalised look at Australian rules football).
He knows how to tell a good story and get the facts right at the same time.
In Buried Country he also does what Peter Guralnick has done for American soul,
rockabilly and country music: recorded the story of a musical lexicon in the
words of its creators.
The book is the third component in a trilogy on the subject: the documentary
film of Buried Country was premiered at this year's Sydney Film Festival and
screened recently on SBS; and next month Festival Records will be releasing a
double CD of music by the artists featured in the book.
This trilogy does not tell a tokenistic tale of bad-to-ordinary musicians who
happen not to have been born with white skin. It is a book about extremely
talented, frequently astonishing, musicians who transcend any debate about
background and skin colour.
If anyone who reads this book takes the time to hear Black Allan Barker
singing Run Dingo Run and doesn't remember the excitement of first hearing Bob
Dylan in the mid-1960s, then I am on the wrong track.