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Indigenous music – singing country, the land and people

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Australian Indigenous country music is a unique sound with Aboriginal intonation and rhythm that reflectson Indigenous histories and their own definition of country. The song themes of loss, grief and being outcast might conform to the country and western genre but the loss is the loss of country, grief over the loss of stolen children and being outcast in their own country.

Kev Carmody

Kev Carmody performing in 2012, winner of the 2013 Don Banks Award, image byTony Mott, courtesy of the ABC

Indigenous country music has emerged as a recording and performance phenomena since the 1970s. It is defined by a series of singers, songwriters and recorded groups that became prominent in the 1980s, especially from the desert country of central Australia, the Darling Downs (Queensland), northern NSW and Redfern (Sydney).

Singing about country and sites affirms identity. In this way, the places, the country itself becomes the song, as in The Docker River Song or, the language and the people are the song as in Nyanpi Matilda, a Nyanpi version of Waltzing Matilda. This belonging to country sometimes extends to the names of the band. Some clear examples are the Areyonga Desert Tigers, North Tanami Band, Lajamanu Teenage Band and the Docker River Band. There is also the case of claiming the loss of country as in The Country Outcasts.

Indigenous country music has developed as a new genre of music with distinctive intonations and altered rhythms to country and western music. Its emergence was related to the fact that country music was the main type of non-Indigenous music that Aboriginal people were exposed to on the pastoral stations.

Mac Silva

Mac Silva, drums and Wilga Munro, bass in the Country Outcasts, Alice Springs, 1977, still, Aboriginal Arts Board

It has fused traditional Aboriginal music forms with country music as well as with many other contemporary music types across Australia, including rock, roots, gospel, soul and folk music.

Its performers have also influenced and combined with the sounds of other unique Indigenous music types – desert rock; saltwater – freshwater music; jazz, blues and soul with island crossings; and the survival ballads and swing tunes of the south.

Today many Indigenous country singer songwriters, like Kev Carmody, don’t like to be ‘handcuffed’ to a particular type of music. They see that there are many different music types that they can explore in order to express themselves, their culture, histories and own sense of music.

From the Indigenous run Yuendumu Sports Carnival, started in 1962, with the Battle of the Bands through to the Barunga festival to the Tamworth Country Music Festival, Indigenous festivals and the festival circuits are part of a connected geography. While festivals expose Indigenous musicians to different audiences, commercial interests and contribute to their earnings, they reinforce the tradition of gathering for ceremony, to dance and exchange songs.

Recording, public performance and distribution

Col Hardy

Col Hardy on the cover of his album Black and White Tangle, 1982

Recording, public performance, broadcast and distribution has always been difficult for Indigenous musicians out of the mainstream. There were only a couple of exceptions: Festival Records signed Jimmy Little in the 1950s and World Bantem weight boxer Lionel Rose in 1969. Little, a YortaYorta song man from the Murray River recorded over 40 singles and albums and crossed over many genres, including gospel.

Even in the 1970s, there were few recording options for Indigenous country musicians. Small independent studios in Tamworth (NSW), a centre for country music broadcasting and a talent quest, were an option for country music performers who made it to Tamworth. Hadley Records (established 1968), as well as Enrec Studios and Opal Records, recorded a few Indigenous country musicians. But you had to be in Tamworth. Larrikan Records was another option – in Sydney. This made it difficult when most Indigenous country singers were based in rural and remote Australia.

The Aboriginal country artists visiting Tamworth in the 1970s and 80s that recorded with Hadley Records were the Country Outcasts in 1981 and Gus Williams in 1994. Around the same time as Hadley Records were established, Ross Murphy's Opal Records set up and then recorded Col Hardy’s four albums between 1973 and 1991 as well as Auriel Andrew in 1982. Enrec Studios, established in 1983, recorded all five of Roger Knox and Euraba Band albums from 1984 to 1993, as well as Vic Simms for his 1988 single. Larrikan Records recorded Kev Carmody.

Enrec Stusio

Enrec Studio, Tamworth

Indigenous musicians depended upon one another and their supporters for touring, recording, backing vocals and sharing shows. Even when musicians had recorded outstanding music, air play on radio and television was not guaranteed. This was largely due to competition and racism which made it difficult to secure financial returns.

Kev Carmody reflects that it is difficult for Indigenous country music to get airplay – due to the populist style of mainstream radio. He observes that, the industry

has an obsession with ‘radio friendly’ music; promotional singles just get thrown in the bin. They won’t even touch anything that’s not safe to play. They don’t like anything or anybody that’s singing from outside the system and communicating messages that criticise that system.
Kev Carmody, interview 1996 in Peter Dunbar-Hall and Chris Gibson, Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places, 2004, p. 63

However, since the 1980s, these distinct styles of music and individual Indigenous country music artists have become accessible to a wide music audience due to the development of sound recording studios established by Indigenous organisations and dedicated labels.

Recording live in CAAMA Studio

Jonathon Doolan recording four bands and a choir live to air for CAAMA in the RIBS studio, courtesy of CAAMA.

Larrikin Records was one of the few recording companies to maintain a separate Indigenous catalogue as part of their commercial output. Warren Fahey acknowledged that it was the sales from Kev Carmody’s albums that subsidised a myriad of other Indigenous recordings due to the difficulty in gaining distribution and airplay. Imparja Records (later CAAMA) in Alice Springs began to record and distribute Indigenous country music from 1982. This has had an enormous influence on Indigenous musicians.

A record label operating a long way from the mainstream can have a powerful effect. Playing music in your local community is one thing. Putting it down on tape, hearing it back, working out what you’re doing and then hearing it played on the radio is another, and it creates a strong feedback loop. Bands gain confidence and get better quickly.
Paul Kelly, Desert Songs: Thirty Years Of Australia's Hidden Hit Parade, The Monthly, October 2012

New audiences

The new recording arrangements have seen Indigenous stories, songs and music become available to a wide audience. Songs like My Brown Skin Baby, They Take Him Away (Bobby Randall) confronted white Australia as well as became Top Hits. Mac Silva’s Malabar Mansion became an anthem about the spirit required to maintain self-respect and pride in prison.

Contemporary Indigenous music has played a large role in the notification and negotiation of political issues about the removal of children, high imprisonment rates and land rights on the political agenda. Music, song and country became linked in very forthright ways to these political issues. For example, in 1984, Indigenous country singer, Isaac Yaama, who sings only in Pitjantjatjara, toured all the Ngaanyatjarra communities before playing at Warburton for the Seaman Inquiry into Land rights. (Michael Breen, Our Place Our Music, 1989, p. 59)

Lionel Rose – signed to mainstream label

From 1969 to 1970, Lionel Rose recorded three singles and an album with Festival Records., The single I Thank You with Summit records was produced and written by Johnny Young and engineered by John L Sayers. This became a national hit single. It was played as a substitute to the Australian National Anthem during radio broadcasts of the State of Origin Rugby League football series, and other sporting events by the comedic sports commentators, Roy Slaven and H.G. Nelson.

Harry Williams and Wilga Munro – the Country Outcasts touring band

Wilga Munro and Harry Williams

Wilga Munro and Harry Williams, 1981, image by Eric Scott, courtesy of Hadley Records

Harry Williams was called the father of Koori country. Williams was born in Eurambie Mission near Cowra, NSW. His father ‘Knocker’ Williams led a travelling tent show in which Harry played. Harry Williams and partner Wilga Munro helped to establish the Aboriginal country music scene in New South Wales and Victoria.

Wilga Munro was born in Tamworth (NSW) and named after the wild orange tree under which she was born. As a child she learnt the accordion from her father and sang duets with him, learning guitar at 13 years old. After serving in the Air Force she returned to Tamworth and started performing. Harry Williams taught her to play bass guitar and they started performing together in a band called The Tjuringas (meaning sacred object) around Newcastle in 1969.

In 1974 they moved to Melbourne, forming The Country Outcasts with Ian ‘Ocker’ McKie and Bert Williams (Harrys' oldest son to wife Ella Cooper Williams). Other band members have included Harry Thorpe, drummer vocalist Mac Silva and vocalist Auriel Andrew. They called themselves the Country Outcasts as a statement about themselves in relation to being outcasts in their own country.

Their first song was Nullarbor Prayer recorded at a record studio in Currabubula. It took about three or four days to record and was written and narrated by Eric Onus from Melbourne. It got quite a bit of airplay on community stations in Melbourne.

Country Outcasts

Country Outcasts at Hermannsburg, 1977, still from documentary, Aboriginal Arts Board.

The outcasts were known for the upbeat fast syncopated rhythms on electric guitars that showed their excellent musicianship – appreciated from Melbourne to Hermmansburg and beyond to New Guinea. Their music is not unlike some of the great electric country blues guitarists. The pace was reminiscent of the fast patter song style of Dougie Young, a renowned Indigenous country music artist from Cunnamulla.

Harry and Wilga were supporters of Black Arts in Melbourne, and the Black Theatre for the Arts in Redfern. At a weekly talent night at the Grand View Hotel in Fairfield (Melbourne), Harry and Wilga encouraged young performers. Much of their time was spent organising music festivals across Australia.

We used to organise country music festivals all around Australia. Sometimes they would run over two days and sometimes only one day. We would take those who won first and second place from each state and invite them to Tamworth for the national finals. There was some fantastic talent and a lot of them ended up forming their own bands.
Wilga Munro, interview with Vibe, 30 November 2007

On a trip through Central Australia in 1977, funded by the Aboriginal Arts Board and hosted by singer Ted Egan, they toured with drummer and vocalist Mac Silva, local country blues singer Gus Williams and vocalist Auriel Andrew. At the end of the Central Australian tour at Yuendumu, when invited to watch the dance and song in a corroboree, Harry Williams felt that he was one with them and belonged to his country for the first time. The documentary of their tour to the red centre is still being shown as part of classic Australian cinema and music.

Wilga Munro and others

Wilga Munro (centre left back),sister Cheryl Blair, Wilga’s daughters Arana and Nioka and sons, Wayne and Michael, 2009, courtesy of Red Ochre Festival

The Country Outcasts toured widely throughout Australia and New Guinea and released two full length albums (in 1979 with RCA and in 1981 with Hadley Records).They received many awards, with performances at the Sydney Opera House, Melbourne's Myer Music Bowl and the Adelaide Festival Theatre. In all, the band made five complete tours of Australia and New Guinea.

The success of the Hadley Records’ production of the Country Outcasts inspired other Aboriginal artists and groups, such as Archie Roach. After the tour, Gus Williams of Ntaria (Hermannsberg) recorded with Hadley. Their song The Streets of Fitzroy has been referenced by Roger Knox and Dan Sultan.

After Harry’s death in 1991, the Country Outcasts did not perform publicly. It was reformed in 2009 for the Red Ochre Festival, Dubbo with Wilga (Williams) Munro and her sister Cheryl Blair along with Wilga’s daughters Arana and Nioka and sons Wayne and Michael.

Auriel Andrew OAM – one of the finest singers

Auriel Andrew

Auriel Andrew singing on tour with the Country Outcasts, 1977, still from documentary

Auriel Andrew (born 1947) is an Arrernte women and country musician. She started singing at the age of four, and began her professional career in the late 1960’s working with Chad Morgan in the Adelaide and Port Lincoln areas. She has worked with Reg Lindsey performing on the National Country Music Hour, Johnny Mack, Ernie Sigley, and many others.

In 1973 she moved to Sydney, and toured with Jimmy Little around NSW. Andrew is regarded as one of Australia’s finest country singers performing at the Sydney Opera House for the venue’s grand opening.

In 1977 she toured with the Country Outcasts to Central Australia, returning home to Alice Springs after five years. In 1982 she recorded an album with Opal Records in Tamworth and thenMbitjana with CAAMA in 1985, which is still selling. Andrew sang Amazing Grace in Pitjantjitjara for Pope John Paul II during his Australian tour and continues to perform across festivals, cabarets and other venues.

Andrew was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2011 for her contribution to the arts, music and education.

Gus Williams OAM and Warren H Williams – a long road travelled

In 1977, when Gus Williams supported the County Outcasts on stage in his community of Hermannsburg, he sang about fellow countryman Albert Namatjira (with permission from the artist’s family) to create a rare public performance about the personal civil rights story.

>Gus Williams

Gus Williams singing about Albert Namatjira,Hermannsburg, 1977

Gus Williams and Country Ebony recorded five albums with Ntjalka Records from 1992–93 before recording with Hadley Records in 1994. However when Gus and son Warren first tried to play together in Tamworth in 1990 they found it very hard to get a gig.

In 2007, Gus toured with son Warren H Williams and family in The Bringing Back The Country tour. They performed in Port Pirie, Port Augusta, Wilcannia, Brisbane and Tamworth playing all the favourites including My Journey Home, Gidgee Coals, Raining on the Rock and Learn My Song.

Williams acknowledged that it was a long road travelled over 30 years. However by 2007, with Gus and Warren both receiving recognition at Tamworh, he could reflect

It really has changed. It’s taken a long time. I’m on this side of the fence and now I can see it’s changed. Now people [in this industry] have more respect for Aboriginal musicians.

Gus Williams received an OAM for his services to country music and services to the Aboriginal community.

Mac Silva – country rock with blues grooves and soul

Vocalist and drummer Mac Silva learned to play drums on empty sunshine powdered milk tins. Malcolm (Mac) was born in Kempsey (NSW) in 1947. He lived on Burnt Bridge Mission until his family moved to Sydney in 1965.

When he was 19 he formed Silva Linings with Geoff Compton and Steve Lugnan. They won the Battle of the Bands in 1968, at Coolangatta. A year later they went on New Faces Channel 9. In 1972 they changed their name to Black Lace and added lead guitarist Drew Donnelly and rhythm guitarist Arnold Williams to the line-up. Black Lace toured country NSW for 20 years.

Mac Silva

Mac Silva playing drums with Black Lace, 1978, still

Black Lace performed at weekly community dance and concerts in Redfern. In 1977, Silva was the chosen drummer for the tour of the Country Outcasts with Harry Williams who he supported at the Black Theatre for the Arts. Sylvia Scott organised weekly dances at the Black Theatre.

On tour in Alice Springs, Silva performed Midnight Special, a traditional song written by a prison inmate in the American south, about a train route – referred to in early recordings as Running through Mississippi. It has been covered by many artists.

Silva’s version is as dynamic a feel as has been contributed by others if not more grounded in its roots. Silva has a longer slow bluesy introduction, pacing out the shuffle of the prisoners and the slow yearning for salvation in the rhythm of the train, before busting out, and launching into a driving shuffle which references New Orleans. Silva’s early pace reflects the lyrics

Get up in the mornin' when ding dong rings,
Look at table — see the same damn thing

Silva can be compared to other world leading drummer vocalists such as Levon Helm from the Canadian group The Band who melded country with gospel, Cajun and rock. Like Helm, Silva added his own unique sound across many songs.

Black Lace played a round solid rock feel with country swing, with a reference to Chuck Berry, as well as old ballads, especially Long As I Can See the Light also known as Put a Candle in the Window. Silva’s arrangement of Malabar Mansion, about Long Bay Jail, was a little known lament written by a young Aboriginal man which Silva popularised amongst Aboriginal listeners.

Building Bridges Concert and Radio Redfern – mainstream and local broadcast

Building Bridges album cover

Building Bridges album cover, detail, 1989

While Black Lace was synonymous with Aboriginal music of the 1980s, they had little success in gaining recording contracts, an experience common to Aboriginal musicians. As in other sectors, Aboriginal people faced discrimination in the music industry, struggling to secure record deals and airtime on radio. In 1988 Silva worked with the The Building Bridges Association, formed by musicians Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly to link Aboriginal people and the wider community through music.

At the Building Bridges Concert in January 1988, all musicians had equal billing, something that Silva had been advocating. Silva performed Before You Accuse Me. Indigenous artists such as Joe Geia and Archie Roach launched themselves as solo artists at the concert. The album Burning Bridges (1989) was released by CAAMA Music and distributed by CBS. It reached number 47 on the Australian album charts and represented a milestone in the embrace of Indigenous music by the mainstream.

The Burning Bridges concert was eventually absorbed by the Survival Festival Concerts, run by Indigenous people.

Silva was also involved with Radio Redfern, set up in the 1980s until 1990 when it was bulldozed with the Black Theatre site. In 1993 Gadigal Information Service was set up and later acquired a license as Koori Radio. In 2008, Koori Radio returned to the renovated Black Theatre site.

The Mac Silva Centre was established in 1990 in recognition of the needs of homeless Aboriginal people who lived in the Black Theatre and of Mac Silva’s commitment to supporting emerging Aboriginal singers and actors.

Tamworth talent

Col Hardy OAM – a giant of country soul

Col Hardy

Col Hardy singing Black and White Tangle, c. 1982, still from video clip

Col Hardy, a Kamilaroi man, was the first Aboriginal singer to be awarded a Golden Guitar at Tamworth's Country Music Awards in 1973. Born at Brewarrina, NSW, the son of a shearer and farm labourer, Hardy entered competitions at Moree and Walgett. He was taped by Myrtle Cox, a NAIDOC organiser, before heading for Sydney to perform and record. Jimmy Little and Harold Blair helped him out with introductions to the industry, and Col Joye gave him an introduction to play on Bandstand.

In the 1960s, he played in the All-Coloured Revue with Freddy Little (Jimmy’s brother), Noel Stanley, Betty Fisher (a jazz singer), and Cyril Green as well as another group called The Opals, which toured nationally. At this time Hardy also performed with the Jimmy Little Band. In the 1970s he toured and shared bills with Auriel Andrew.

In 1972, Hardy released a single Protest Protest. An album followed Black Gold, including a Jimmy Little song Australia Down Under. Three other albums followed: Col Hardy Country (1978), Black And White Tangle (1982) and Remember Me (1991) – all recorded with Opal Records.

Hardy names his influences as Roy Orbison (whom he listened to when he was a young boy working in the shearing sheds and later met), Buddy Holly and Marty Robbins as well as enjoying Slim Dusty. Hardy has also inspired other country singers such as Roger Knox, believing that it is a wonderful thing for an Aboriginal person to be up on stage singing their songs.

Hardy’s rich voice shines out from the classic three chord structure in some songs and then, in others, he provides a lilting upbeat rhythm with an irregular ¾ signature.

Col Hardy received the Order of Australia Medal in 2007 for service to the country music industry as a singer and recording artist, and to the community through the delivery of outreach zoological education programs in regional areas.

Roger Knox and Euraba Band – from Toomelah mission to Tamworth

Roger Knox

Roger Knox, front right with Euraba Band

Roger Knox was born at the Toomelah mission near Moree on the Queensland border. Growing up on the mission he sang gospel and listened to Slim Dusty country music.

Knox’s first album, Give it a Go (produced by Euraba drummer Randall Wilson) was recorded over a couple of months with son Buddy on guitar and released for the 1984 Tamworth festival. Songs included new versions of Harry Williams’s Streets of Old Fitzroy as Streets of Tamworth, Jimmy Little’s Black Tracker and Koorie Rose. In 1985, Col Hardy put on a show at Tamworth’s Regent Cinema featuring himself, Roger, Auriel Andrew and Euraba Band.

New alignments for talent promotion

By 1986, a new generation of Indigenous country musicians aligned themselves with the newly formed Tamworth Koorie Kountry Music Association, which had received funding to promote Indigenous ountry music. It was the last of the talent quest days of Harry and Wilga Williams who hosted their last talent quest at the Tamworth Town Hall. Harry Williams never played Tamworth again.

Collaborations and covers

In April 1988, Roger and his Euraba Band toured the Northern Territory starting at the Alice Springs swimming pool, a Rock Against Grog outing with settlement band lkari Maru. After that they stepped up their commitment to playing prisons, banding together with Vic Simms, Mac Silva and Bobby McLeod (who had just recorded his debut album at Enrec).

It wasn’t till 2004 that he followed up his first album with a second containing some new material. The backing musicians included Buddy on guitar and included the classic tracks mentioned above as well as Malabar Mansion a signature tune of Mac Silva. The album had minimal impact. Roger cut back on gigging as Buddy Knox became busy with his own solo career as a bluesman.

Troy Cassar-Daley – a voice deep in country

Troy Cassar-Daley

Troy Cassar-Daley in concert, promotional image

Troy Cassar-Daley has been performing music since the age of 11 when he first appeared on the stage at the Tamworth Country Music Festival in 1980. He won Search for a Star six years later. Born in Sydney, to an Aboriginal mother and Maltese father, Cassar-Daley grew up in Grafton and learnt his early country music influenced by his mother’s vinyl record collection, especially Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, Slim Dusty, and George Jones. Cassar-Daley is now a multi-award winning country music star.

Troy’s beautiful mellow voice melts in your ears with longing and conveys roots deep in the country, a country that many of his fans relate to with longing.

His first single Dream Out Loud in 1994 won him numerous awards including a Country Music Awards of Australia Golden Guitar for Best Male vocalist 1994. He has won ARIA’s in 1995, 2006, and 2009 for Best Male voice and Album and APRA Country Work of the Year Awards for 2008 and 2010, as well of numerous Tamworth Country Music Awards.

He has recorded in the home of Country music, Nashville USA, with Steve Dorff. He has 10 albums to date including a duo with Adam Harvey called The Great Country Song Book (2013). Controversially, some country music people see his status, standing and approach as more global than Australian.

Pitjantjatjara country

Isaac Yamma

Isaac Yamma, 1988, still from Festival of Aboriginal Rock Darwin

Isaac Yamma – country gospel in Pitjantjatjara

Isaac Yamma (1940-1990) was born at a waterhole near Docker River. He played with his relatives in the Pitjantjatjara Country Band touring most of Central Australia’s communities, singing solo or with his wife and sons singing harmonies in Pitjantjatjara. His many original songs are celebrations of his homeland where the grandfathers sit and where there is an inexhaustible supply of bush tucker.

His sound is distinctive, the tunes being at the gospel or old ballad end of the country spectrum. They are typically syllabic, but with lyrical excursions, with very little syncopation and mostly three chord accompaniments and lots of expanded and contracted phases. The famous ‘Docker River Song’, to an introduced Fijian folk tune Isa Lei, fits into this repertoire. He sings only in Pitjantjtjara, in a husky voice which owes much to tribal models and nothing to American ones.
Marcus Breen, Our Place Our Music, 1989, p. 59

Yamma’s style is part of the strong gospel tradition in central Australia where there are many gospel choirs and singers. The Ernabella Choir toured to the Fiji Islands. Gospel music has spun off from traditions in central Australia of chorus singing.

Trevor Adamson – a new national anthem Nyanpi Matilda

Trevor Adamson, an initiated Pitjantjatjara man and teacher, has a country gospel style which he sings in both Pitjantjatjara and English. His style features extra half bars, creating 5/4 bars and he is accompanied by children singing in their traditional voices. Adamson’s 1994 version of Waltzing Matilda, Nyanpi Matilda sung in Pitjantjatjara, inverts the meaning and offers another layer as to why many Australians consider this as Australia’s ‘genuine’ national anthem.(Marcus Breen, Our Place Our Music, 1989).

In his album My Sunburnt Country, Adamson pays tribute to both his heritage and Slim Dusty. Adamson translated and recorded Slim Dusty’s The Rain Tumbles Down In July in Pitjantjatjara as a tribute. He has also written several other fine ballads, Yangupala Tjuta (with Leonard Burton), Ngura Nyangatja Wirunya and the sweet and gentle instrumental My Home. (Deborah Minter, My Sunburnt Country, Review)

Frank Yamma – Indigenous Roots music, husky haunting and beautiful

Frank Yamma

Frank Yamma, Countryman album cover, 2010

Frank Yamma, Isaac’s son, is regarded as an extraordinary songwriter and an exceptional guitarist, singing ‘spiritually charged’ songs. He writes about his country and his people, and proceeds to break hearts with consummate ease (Raymond Soltysek).

Frank launched his first solo album Playing with Fire (1999) through CAAMA Music as Frank Yamma & Piranpa ('skinny white lizards' in Pitjantjatjara).

The release of his album Countryman in 2010 attracted international performance dates in London and Europe. Reviewers across these performances commented that his songs in Pitjantjatjara, such as Ngura Watjilpa have even greater impact than the songs in English. Yamma performs mainly solo or accompanied by David Bridie (album producer) on piano and Helen Mountford on cello.

Indigenous country ballads – the personal becomes political

Herbie Laughton– desert country rhythms with zest and waltzes of lament

Herbie Laughton

Herbie Laughton, still

Herbie Laughton is a country singer born in 1927 in a creek bed near Alice Springs with connections to Arrernte people. He was removed from his mother when he was five years old to the Old Telegraph Station, known as The Bungalow. At age ten, he heard country singer Tex Morton and was inspired to write songs.

Laughton wrote topical songs as well as of his My Finke River Home and the MacDonnell Ranges, and became well known for songs such as My Desert Rose and Ghan to the Alice, a ballad about a person returning to his place of birth.

Laughton sang with zest as well as with lament about some of the tragedies in his country, based on a slow waltz format but omitting beats at particular times. His songs have been covered by Buddy Williams, Auriel Andrew and Trevor Adamson.

Bobby Randall – slow polyrhythms with deep emotion

Bobby Randall

Bobby Randall, 2006, courtesy of ABC

Yankunytjatjara elder Bobby Randall was born at Angus Downs station in 1934 to a Pitjantjatjara mother. His father was the white station owner, Bill Liddle. When he was a small boy, Randall was taken from his family, never to see his mother again. He was taken to Croker Island. As an adult, he and his wife set off to Central Australia to find their lost families and the identity taken from them.

CAAMA produced Ballads by Bob Randall (1983) and Bob Randall (1984). He learned to play on home-made guitars while at high school.

His songs are in a hillbilly ballad style which often shows signs of country and western, both in the slightly twangy voice (whether high or low), and the often swung rhythm. But his rhythm is strongly Aboriginal. Frequent half bars are added or deleted, apparently standard oompah figures do not always keep time with the changing bar lengths, andso cause a kind of slow polyrhythm.
Marcus Breen, Our Place Our Music, 1989, pp. 51-2

His Red Sun, Black Moon is sung hypnotically in a deep country voice about the Conistan Massacre of 1928. In the 1970s he became famous for his slow country and western ballad, My Brown Skin Baby They Take Him Away, which brought national and international attention to the stories of children separated from their parents. The song arouses very deep emotions when it is sung with its poignant harmonies and the haunting wail of ‘Ya’awie’ of the mother losing her baby.

Dougie Young – a fast country patter melds into electrified country

Dougie Young was a balladeer born near Cunnamulla, Queensland in the 1930s to a white father and a Gurnu mother. He worked as a stock rider on stations at Wilcannia, up on the Darling River. Young performed in the 1950s and 60s, and was recorded in the 1960s and 70s. His songs included his own stories as an Aboriginal stockman, defiant about his life riding the country as well as ’cutting the rug’, and protesting ‘the white man took this country from me’.

The white man calls me Jack
It’s no crime, I’m not ashamed
I was born with my skin so black
When it comes to riding rough horses
Or working cattle, I’ll mix it with the best,
In the land where the crows flies backwards
And the pelican builds his nest

Dougie Young’s vocal style was described as bright and racy with a clipped Aboriginal accent, with a fast patter. In 1964 he was also recorded singing a tribal fun song, a Fred Biggs song about a lost boy, sung in the Ngiyampaa tongue from Western NSW, although this was a foreign language to him. Two albums were recorded: The Land Where the Crow Flies Backward (1965) on Wattle Records, including the song They Say it’s a Crime and The Songs Of Dougie Young (1993) by AIATSIS and the NLA. Dougie Young songs form part of the soundtrack for the Philip Noyce classic short feature Backroads.

A researcher in country music, Toby Martin formed The Rug Cutters in 2011 to perform Dougie Young's music as electrified country. The band includes Jimmy James (Dougie Young's grandson) on vocals, ARIA-nominated Jason Walker on steel and electric guitar, Patrick Matthews (also of Youth Group) on bass, and Neville Anderson on drums.

The title track was covered by country star singer Chad Morgan amongst others. Dougie Young’s recordings were listed on the National Film and Sound Archive Sounds of Australia Registry in 2013.

Kev Carmody – folk roots with a rich earthiness and the heart sings

Kev Carmody

Kev Carmody in concert, Sydney Convention Centre, 2012

Kev Carmody is a singer songwriter from the western Darling Downs area of Southern Queensland, singing Indigenous country, folk and roots songs, known for crossing genres and regarded as the godfather of melded Indigenous country music.

As a child he absorbed everything from country music to classical from an old valve wireless, and spent many nights singing folk and popular songs around the campfire. Carmody says

I can never remember a time in my memory where there wasn’t music around….Some of these so-called illiterate people made up wonderful poems and rhymes and stories…They would play gum leaves or bang on a bloody log or something. We had clapsticks or a mouth organ, anything you could carry in your pocket.
Carmody in Thompson, 1997, pp 48-9, quoted in Dunbar-Hill, p. 91

Carmody has a voice that has very strong 1960’s folk roots with a sense of tone and quality that gives out a richness and deep earthiness. Repeated listening conveys how truly unique and vibrant is his voice. His heart sings. Kev Carmody speaks to the impoverished, the alienated, the Indigenous country, culture and life.

Kev Carmody

Kev Carmody, 2012, courtesy Deadly Vibe

His song themes usually speak to the broad spectrum of injustice shown to Aboriginal peoples in Australia. His debut album Pillars of Society had a transforming effect on Australian music, with such songs, as Thou Shalt Not Steal (1990) which explores the irony that Europeans stole Aboriginal land but uphold the Christian commandments. Or another song Cannot Buy My Soul (1991) that speaks about the strength of self-worth in a colonial racist culture.

Carmody co-wrote the song From Little Things Big Things Grow (1991), with Paul Kelly about the famous Gurindji stockmen and walkout strike from the Wave Hill cattle station in 1966. The singer songwriter Paul Kelly recalls Carmody’s early songwriting talent and the effect of his first songs,

Thou Shalt Not Steal and Cannot Buy My Soul made my jaw drop the first time I heard them. As our friendship developed, Kev and I went camping and canoeing on Wivenhoe Dam in Queensland. One night around the fire we wrote From Little Things Big Things Grow, an update of Gurindji Blues .
Paul Kelly, Desert Songs: Thirty Years Of Australia's Hidden Hit Parade, The Monthly, October 2012

The stature and influence of Kev Carmody was recognised in 2013 with him winning the Don Banks Award ‘for musicians over 50 whose career has contributed a sustained and outstanding contribution to Australian musical life’. Carmody has recorded nine albums. In 2014 he released a four volume CD of previously unrecorded songs, recorded in a packing shed in Southeast Queensland, all accompanied by the sounds of farm equipment, bird noises and the odd conventionally stringed instruments.

Indigenous Country – unique and diverse sounds hitting the charts

Warren H Williams

Warren H Williams, 2004, courtesy Deadly Vibe

Country musicians lived on the road, touring, playing to the people, but movement was severely restricted for Aboriginal musicians – in Queensland, until as recently as the mid-seventies. The story of Aboriginal country music since the 1970s is inseparable from the personal stories of growing up Aboriginal in a colonial society and the changing social, economic and political environment. In Buried Country – film, book and soundtrack, writer Clinton Walker comments

politics were, and continue to be, intrinsic to the music – whether it’s Jimmy Little singing about a Koori lad trying to get a job and being rejected (a song Jimmy’s father wrote), or Bob Randall singing about being a stolen child.
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Whilst the recorded legacy of Aboriginal country artists across the 1970s is relatively slim, the records from the 1980s and 1990s catalogues are testament to the unique and extraordinary sound of the music. Much of it now re-mastered and re-released on the soundtrack Buried Country: Original Film Soundtrack (Larrikin Records). Earlier Larrikin produced The Best of Koori Classics – classic Aboriginal country (1996).

Today the diversity of Indigenous country and western performers has built upon this unique Indigenous country music heritage. From James Henry of Melbourne, the grandson of Jimmy Little – whose songs span Country-Rock, Reggae and Hip Hop and talk of his Aboriginal identity and society’s rules – through new artists such as Sue Ray, Thelma Plum, Kodi Lane, Benny Walker, Luke Austen to Warren H. Williams, Indigenous country music is now defining the unique sounds of Australian music and song. Warren H Williams, the son of Gus Williams, with five albums to his credit, has his album Urna Marra (Good Country) sitting on the ARIA Top 20 Country Chart.

The unique sound of Indigenous country music has developed both a wide audience as well as a cult following in Australia and overseas. Its fresh sound, reliant upon Indigenous rhythms, and confronting themes about growing up in country, is recognised as being a highly significant contribution to the sounds of Australia and the experience of Australians in recognising their own country.

Useful Links

Look, Listen and Play

Singers and musicians

Emerging artists

Listings of Indigenous performers

Education Kits

  • Buried Country: The story of Aboriginal country music – film, book and soundtrack. Buried Country tells the story of Australian country music in the Aboriginal community, based on the book written by Clinton Walker, and narrated by KevCarmody. Teachers Notes

Awards, foundations and distribution

Indigenous and other select festivals

Print References for further reading

  • Marcus Breen, Our Place Our Music, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1989
  • Peter Dunbar-Hall and Chris Gibson, Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places: Contemporary Aboriginal Music in Australia, UNSW Press, 2004
  • C J Ellis, M Brunton and L M Barwick, 'From Dreaming Rock to Reggae Rock', in McCredie, A.D (ed), From Colonel Light into the Footlights, 1988
  • S. Kleinert and M. Neale, Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture. Oxford University Press, 2000
  • Clinton Walker, Country Man. Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, Pluto Press, 2000

Last updated: March 2014
Creators: Kathryn Wells

 

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