May 2015

Noted

‘Buried Country’ by Clinton Walker

By Anwen Crawford
‘Buried Country’ by Clinton Walker
Verse Chorus Press; $29.95

In Clinton Walker’s Buried Country: The story of Aboriginal country music, Bob Randall observes that Aboriginal people like himself could relate to the stories of loss in American country songs “because we’d lost everything”. Randall is a Yankunytjatjara elder and musician, and the author of ‘Brown Skin Baby’, a song that described the sorrow of the Stolen Generations decades before most white Australians either knew or cared about the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families.

Then again, Randall didn’t write his song for whitefellas. Like many of the musicians in Buried Country, his audience has been largely Aboriginal, scattered through the remote and rural communities of black Australia. Though ‘Brown Skin Baby’ has been covered countless times, Randall has never accepted royalties for his composition. “It’s a gift from God,” he says, “and I’m meant to share it.”

Pride, deeply felt religious belief, and resilience in the face of terrible odds recur in the tales of many performers discussed here, from groundbreaking Yorta Yorta balladeer Jimmy Little to Gamilaroi musician Roger Knox, “the King of Koori Country”. There is also a certain mystery, as the recorded legacy of these artists is so often disproportionate to their importance, confined to obscure vinyl pressings and dusty cassette tapes. Walker’s book is an outlier itself: originally published in 2000, now updated and reissued, it remains the only widely available study of Aboriginal Australia’s most popular musical genre. The book debuted with a documentary of the same name, and a two-CD set of recordings – since deleted, which goes to show just how little valued this music remains.

Each chapter of Buried Country outlines the life and music of one Aboriginal country artist or group, interspersed with a number of shorter, stand-alone sections on related topics. Though the book proceeds in roughly chronological order, from Little through to contemporary songwriters like Kev Carmody, time frequently seems to fold back on itself. Country music is often a dynastic enterprise, and Aboriginal country music is no different: many of these artists knew one another, and several were related across the generations, criss-crossing through desert communities and mission settlements, playing the Tamworth Country Music Festival or, more rarely, the few city pubs willing to host them.

Though the scope of Buried Country is dauntingly large, Walker handles his body of research well. His descriptions pique a reader’s interest; of Central Desert musician Isaac Yamma, for instance, he writes, “Isaac sang like no one before or since, a laughing, crying kookaburra”. And indeed, a curious listener today can turn up a handful (a very small handful) of Yamma’s recordings online, all in traditional language, with Yamma’s strong voice flying over acoustic and pedal steel guitar.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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