When Leah Flanagan announced early this year that she was pregnant, we were all not only naturally delighted but hopeful-confident it wouldn’t cause too much disruption to her regular schedule. But when the baby refused to emerge for a few weeks beyond the due date, it was clear the Buried Country show at Dark Mofo in Hobart would have to do without one of its star attractions.
And so, when young Tom Emilio Jones, aka Tuco, was born on Monday, May 29, just days before the Hobart show – and it should go without saying that all our congratulations went and go to Leah, Tom and the little fella; we know they’ll make a great, loving family – we thought the show would have to be dedicated to him… so, this one was for Tuco…
And happily, as the Buried Country mob has made it fairly standard practice, it was a top show.
The festivalisation of culture is a syndrome that seems to enjoy almost universal approbation. But I am surprised there isn’t tad more wariness about it, or concern, like I feel. I mean, it’s state-controlled culture after all, and at worse when, say, in a place like my hometown of Sydney, the grass-roots that was once a thriving live music circuit has effectively been killed off – meaning if nothing else, where do to tomorrow’s festival stars come from? In Hobart, it’s a bit different, because the Dark Mofo festival of which BC was part largely comes down to one man, David Walsh, who’s not a bureaucrat or public servant but rather a wildcat philanthropist who’s almost single-handedly put Hobart on the culture map, and certainly bolstered its tourist trade, with his amazing MONA gallery and all the events that spin off it, like DMFO. Walsh and his empire is not beholden to the corporate-politics that so often stultify festivals. I’d been to MONA on one previous occasion and while there was almost as much art there that I wasn’t fond of as there was that I did like, that’s the point, and what’s great about it.
DMFO was much the same, among the attractions I was able to squeeze in, some fantastic, some less so I thought, but all of them adding up a vibrant variegated whole, which is how it ought to be.
I’d like to think Buried Country was generally one of the highlights. If audience reaction is anything to go by, certainly they seemed to enjoy it. In fact, I don’t think we’ve had a better audience, in terms of foreknowledge. There was a real nice little record shop (remember them?), Music Without Frontiers, virtually next door to the Odeon Theatre, and walking past it on shownight the strains of “Blue Gums Calling Me Back Home” rang out, and that was a lovely little touch that doubly encouraged me to buy a couple of disks (remember that too?). The audience for the show recognised many of the songs and gave them encouragement in anticipation, and responded with terrific applause and, at the end, with a standing ovation. We were all humbled and so, thank you, Hobart. Thank-you too to more than a few friends from Sydney and other parts of Tasmania who made the effort to be at the show, and played a part in its success.
In the absence of the new young mum, we re-shuffled the set slightly. Warren Williams, who opened the show as he usually does and with his usual stirring spirit, is to be doubly commended for pushing through some tragic sorry business back home. Luke Peacock has been enduring some trevails too and apart from wrestling one of our hire cars in an altercation, performed well too. Nobody was going to tackle Leah’s “September Song,” but Franny was game to take on “Brown Skin Baby,” as on offering to Leah, Tom and Tuco, and she pulled it off, again, with customary verve, a bit more country than Leah’s version.
The following morning, a few of the mob went into to the ABC for a session with Radio National’s Books and Arts program, which you can listen to here, and then over the next two nights, a few of ’em played short solo spots at the Winter Feast. For me, I finished my five days with a visit to MONA to see the opening of its latest exhibition, the Museum of Everything, and I was totally blown away by a vast show of outsider art or whatever you call it that I couldn’t see any other state-controlled gallery in the country ever daring to put on. Buried Country is a bit like outsider art too – my favourite kind! – and we will continue in our campaign to storm the citadel.
Buried Country was represented on last weekend’s fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Referendum that accorded Australian Aboriginal people citizenship in their own country – a weekend when Aboriginal people were making more history with the Uluru conference on constitutional recognition – when I was honoured to be asked to go into ABC Local Radio in Sydney and, with the ABC’s Indigenous Affairs Editor Stan Grant, go on a ‘Sonic Journey’ on Simon Marnie’s morning show through some of the pertinent music of the era. Stan is a long-standing Buried Country fan (“It’s the soundtrack to my life,” he said), and a top fella who really knows his tunes.
Our hour included the unveiling of a recently remastered version (thanks to Darren Hanlon and the guys from Vinyl Frontier) of Jimmy Little’s legendary B-Side from 1958, “Give the Coloured Lad a Chance,” which was written by his father and certainly the first-ever Aboriginal ‘protest’ song committed to wax. Given the nature of the song, the nature of Australian radio back when and the rarity of the record (I’d not even seen a copy until just recently, when Bruce Milne gave me this one; thanks Bruce), it’s possible that this is the first time it’s ever been heard on air, period! If the podcast of Simon's show has already disappeared, you will have to wait to hear it: The track will hopefully be included on a new Buried Country vinyl LP coming out of America soon; but that’s another story I’ll get to in good time…
BC: Live opened the main stage at the Port Fairy Folk Festival on Friday night, in a set dedicated to Auriel Andrew after her passing in January, and we all had a ball and felt it was a good showing – and one that Auriel would have approved of! We hope Barry enjoyed any bits he’s seen. Teangi Knox stepped up to sing his nan’s song for her, ‘Ghost Gums’, and he showed he’s got a voice of his own that’s strong, and the set closed with the whole cast on another of Auriel’s specialities, ‘Arnhem Land Lullaby’. The setlist was quite significantly re-shuffled around. On the night it went as planned:
1. Western Wind - WARREN 2. Raining on the Rock - WARREN 3. Ghost Gums - TEANGI 4. Run, Dingo, Run - BUDDY 5. Brown Skin Baby - LEAH 6. September Song - LEAH 7. Ticket to Nowhere – JAMES 8. Yorta Yorta Man - JAMES 9. Pretty Bird Tree - LJ 10. 18th Day of May - LJ 11. Shadow of the Boomerang - FRAN 12. Blacktracker - FRAN 13. Brisbane Blacks - LUKE 14. Get Back in the Shadows – LUKE 15. Wayward Dreams - ROGER 16. Blue Gums Calling Me Back Home - ROGER 17. Arnhem Land Lullaby ROGER, TEANGI + CAST
A long session in the Elvis(-actually-Alistair Crowley) Room at the fab Bakehouse rehearsal studios in Melbourne the day before was spent working in some of the differences. New songs: Luke Peacock swapped ‘Ticket to Nowhere’ with James Henry and took on Vic Simms’ ‘Get Back in the Shadows’, and ‘Brisbane Blacks’, dedicated to Mop and the Dro-Outs’ late Angus Rabbit. With two generations of the Little family now on stage together, James Henry, in addition to doing ‘Ticket to Nowhere’, retained ‘Yorta Yorta Man’, and Franny Peters-Little added a stunning almost-acapella rendition of ‘Shadow of the Boomerang’.
It feels so good to be able to say that so much about the set just feels like smooth sailing. Often in situations like this credit is given to the professionalism of a cast, but that’s not quite the right word in this case I don't think. Not that the show doesn’t run as efficiently as the whole concept of ‘professionalism’ might imply – I guess I’m just trying to say it has that bit of special something beyond just a professional level. I like the show because it’s deep and it’s a bit gnarly at times but overall has this great sense of good humour and strong commitment. So I continue to be just blown away, and I think the whole team shares this confidence - and I’m also pretty sure everyone’s having a great time doing it! And I think that’s important, you wouldn’t have as good a show, or it would be harder to mask or overcome, if you didn’t have that wonderful shared sense of purpose and camaraderie that we do. It gets a bit crazy at times but that’s how this black country-rock roadshow revue rolls. I hope I’m not drawing too long a bow to say it, but when, as a music lover, I contemplate and listen to legendary gigs like, say, the first Stax tour of the UK and Europe in 1967, or one-nighters like The Last Waltz, where a once-in-a-lifetime bill comes together and just makes some magic, some history, well, I sometimes like to indulge myself with the thought that Buried Country is a tiny bit like that too: Giving audiences the opportunity to see this amazing cast of stars, to catch up on a whole world of vital Australian music, to join in on a celebration that might not pass this way again... I went away after the show as I’ve tended to do and had to catch my breath. What a great show – a lot of us think our best to date – and so we can't wait to do more… Unfortunately we only had the rest of Friday night to try and catch some of the weekend’s other fine attractions. Backtracker Band MD Brendan Gallagher has to be a contender for the festival’s busiest picker, staying on after the rest of us returned to Melbourne to play with two other acts, his own Karma County plus blues supergroup the Pinks, as well as sitting in with Kutcha Edwards. I myself caught quick bits of Melody Pool (good) and Don Walker (good too), at least up until the power blew out on Don! Not that that was typical of the festival generally; in fact it was all very convivial and well organised, and so congratulations to the team of Fairies for keeping up the game for more than forty years now. I was flattered when the aforesaid great don of Australian songwriters, Don Walker, gave me some lovely words of praise on Buried Country; I couldn’t resist responding by photo-bombing him into the picture here:
The Walker brothers? Jason, me and Don, in the green room
All the rest of us went back to Melbourne and on the Saturday night most stayed on there for some sideshows, Luke Peacock and his band at the Thornbury Theatre, Jason Walker solo at the Retreat and, at the Grandview Hotel, maybe echoing so many nights that happened there so many years ago when Harry and Wilga Williams and the Country Outcasts called the Fairfield pub their own, there was a show by Roger, Buddy and Teangi Knox and Warren H. Willams. All reports say all went well, and I understand the rock’n’roll flowed on until late into the night. I flew home mid-evening with Jim Elliott, L.J. Hill and Leah Flannagan, who, I should add, has all our best wishes as she digs into her final tri-mester – you go girl! L.J. stayed over at my place and slept with the dogs, or rather they slept with him, since my absent son’s bed was where he dossed down and where the dogs usually sleep too, and I think everyone was pretty happy with that arrangement; and then I got L.J. to the airport with early Sunday morning coming down and, with him and Franny in mind, I thought of Kris Kristofferson: I'd smoked my mind the night before/With cigarettes and songs that I'd been pickin'…
Since Buried Country: Live in Concert lost Auriel Andrew earlier this year, when she passed away, aged 69, in Newcastle in January, our set at the forthcoming Port Fairy Folk Festival will be dedicated to her memory. BC will be opening the whole shebang with the first set on the main stage on Friday evening (March 10) starting at 7pm, so if you’ve got a ticket – and you'll need one, because the event is already sold-out – don’t miss it. We will be performing some special songs by way of a tribute to her, and there will be some other extra features as well. Auriel typically brushed aside health problems to be part of the first few Buried Country shows late last year – there’s no show without Punch! and she wouldn’t have missed it for quids – and she set a standard and a tone, as she did generally in life and her career, that the entire BC cast and crew is proud to just try and live up to: and we’ll be giving it our best at Port Fairy, be assured!
Auriel Andrew was buried in Newcastle on Monday, January 9. It was a fitting farewell, a funeral service that was packed to the rafters and full – as I’d hoped, as appropriate to Auriel – with as much laughter as tears, plus more than a little singing too of course. There was a wonderful warm feeling for her that just inhabited the space and the day; a feeling that I only hope won’t ever fade, but rather, and certainly if Buried Country: Live in Concert has anything to do with it, will just grow… … and so perhaps it’s apposite to say here now, as Auriel herself, ever the trouper, would have agreed: The show must go on! – and so this is to say, by way of a formal public announcement: Buried Country: Live in Concert will continue on, to play throughout the forthcoming year (and hopefully maybe beyond!), and not with a replacement for Auriel because you couldn’t replace Auriel Andrew, but with just a bit of what I like to call panel-beating; and also, I don’t doubt, with the beautiful benign spirit of Auriel smiling down on us, spurring us on… This next one’s for you, Big Mamma!
It is with great sadness we have to announce that Auriel Andrew has passed away. Auriel had had some health problems for a while but, typically, she brushed them aside in order to be part of the the first few Buried Country shows late last year. She died peacefully, surrounded by loving family and friends, on January 2 in hospital in Newcastle, where she was admitted in mid-December with advanced cancers spreading throughout her body. She was 69, and is survived by her husband Barry Francis, her children Serina and Reuben, 13 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and her sister Rhonda, plus the sprawling extended family that is a characteristic of Aboriginal life in this country.
Pic: Ryan Osland
Auriel is survived also by her legacy: by the wonderful music she made all through her life, and the courage and dedication it took to make that music starting at a time in the late 1960s when Aboriginal people were barely seen or heard in broader white Australia; she will be remembered and celebrated for that, by the great number of people who were touched by her and her songs, and she will be remembered for her selfless generosity and the inspiration that that provided too; and she will never be forgotten for her cheeky sense of humour that even as I sadly squeeze out these words, can still bring a smile to my face! Auriel was an Arrernte woman, born the youngest of seven children in Darwin in 1947. She grew up in Alice Springs and it was as if ordained that she would go into showbusiness. As a singer, she had all the assets – and gags! – of a classic old vaudeville hoofer, and knowing her as I was privileged to do, I know she would be chuffed at that tag. Raised in the bush by her mother and her ‘Dad Simmo’, as she related in the songs she belatedly started writing only recently, she only narrowly averted being taken away because her step-father refused to leave her in town, where the authorities could easily have stolen her as they did so many other children. After making her stage debut at the Italian Club in Coober Pedy in 1968, she set out on her own, a slip of a girl at only 21, to go Adelaide to try and launch herself as a professional singer. And this she did, sustaining a successful career for the next five decades; yet though Auriel won numerous garlands through her lifetime – including an OAM – her achievements, given their degree of difficulty, still warrant greater recognition.
Auriel Andrew did everything and more that an Aboriginal artist could do in the 70s and 80s, and I’ve put that that way because the opportunities she was presented with were lesser than those that white artists would have enjoyed at that time. In Adelaide in the early 70s, she became a regular on national TV, on Reg Lindsay’s Country Hour – she was, it has to be said, a babe! (as the clips on YouTube show) – and in 1971 she released her first album, Just for You. It was only the second album made by an indigenous woman in Australia.
With husband Barry and cousin Warren H. Williams at a reception at the Victorian governor's residence, October 2016, off the back of the Buried Country shows at the Melbourne Festival. Pic: James Henry
Same tour, at 3RRR with Dave Graney, Roger Knox and yours truly
She moved to Sydney in the mid-70s, and thence on to Newcastle. She toured the country with legends like Jimmy Little, Chad Morgan and Brian Young, who called her ‘Big Mamma’. She played the Opera House and the Tin Sheds, and did Playschool and your local pre-school. She recorded her second album in Tamworth in 1982, but it was when she cut her third, Mbitjana, for CAAMA in 1985, that she really came into her own. With its title that of Auriel’s skin-name, the album saw her establish herself as the prime interpreter of the Aboriginal country music canon, singing songs by groundbreaking writers like Bob Randall, Herbie Laughton and others. She made her own Randall’s anthem of the stolen generation “Brown Skin Baby.” I first met Auriel I suppose it was around the end of the 80s, after I’d gotten to know a few of the folks in the Koori country community, and I got to know her better through the 90s as I worked more on Buried Country. Like practically all the artists profiled in Buried Country, Auriel welcomed this whitefella into her world with open arms, and this was humbling for me, not to mention illuminating, and a general delight. If I said she was always friendly, funny and modest that shouldn’t be to suggest she wasn’t also equally forthright, and proud of who she was and what she’d achieved. It’s probably worth adding at this point too – as Auriel herself would doubtless agree, if not without the addition of some sardonic qualifying wisecrack – she was always given great support and encouragement by her husband Barry, and her kids, Serina and Reuben, and by so many of her fellow country singers like Jimmy Little, Col Hardy, Brian Young and Roger Knox. Together with Roger Knox, in fact, she led what might be called the first family of Koori country, with the way her daughter Serena married Roger’s son, guitarist Buddy Knox. Son Rueben too followed in his mother’s footsteps, and is today a musician working on an international level as a member of the Viper Creek Band.
With Bob Randall and yours truly at the 2000 Buried Country premiere
Onstage with "the outlaw son-in-law" Buddy Knox, grandson Teangi Knox and son Reuben Andrew. Pic: James Henry
When Buried Country was effectively reborn in 2015 with the mounting of the further dimension of its stageshow adaptation, there was never any question that Auriel had to be involved, especially after her 2013 album Ghost Gums saw her finally penning some brilliant autobiographical songs of her own. In retrospect now, I can imagine she was already unwell even then, but again, knowing Auriel as I do, I know there was no way she was going to miss out – there’s no show without Punch, after all! – and indeed, I’m just so pleased she got this opportunity to bask a bit, for this one last time, in the spotlight to which she was born. The Buried Country show had its sort of off-Broadway premiere in Newcastle in August not least because this was Auriel’s home town. One idea was that Auriel would in effect hand over one of the songs she’d become so strongly associated with, “Brown Skin Baby,” to another cast-member, Leah Flanagan, to sing, like passing on the torch to a younger generation. Leah too was born in Darwin, was always close to the song, and it was one of the show’s wonderful moments, with the affection that sparked between Auriel and Leah, and the moving rendition of the song as Leah performed it. The affection and rapport was obvious and touching too when Auriel’s grandson Teangi Knox, who plays bass in the Buried Country house-band the Backtrackers, pulled up a stool next to his nan's to help her through “Ghost Gums,” a difficult song to perform not just technically but also emotionally for Auriel, since it’s about her mother.
Auriel conveyed emotion directly, which many a lesser, showier singer could learn a lesson from. She loved the spotlight. You couldn’t shut her up. She was hilarious – but serious when seriousness was warranted too. The audience loved her. When she was ushered onto stage, to be introduced by her former son-in-law Buddy Knox (“the outlaw son-in-law!” she called him), and she was directed to her stool, Buddy quipped, “What, is that your throne?…” Perhaps my abiding memory though will be of Auriel after that Newcastle premiere, presiding over the after-party, and as I understand it (since I went home relatively early myself), the last to leave! In retrospect, again, I can imagine now how much all that – and the subsequent shows we did at the Melbourne Festival and in Dubbo – must have taken out of her. But – again – I know she wouldn’t have had it any other way. As at the very end – she did it her way. With pluck and stoicism, refusing to burden others. Sitting up in her hospital bed, still cracking wise! I loved her, like everyone did who was lucky enough to know her. She leaves as she lived, on the wings of a song…
Just back from Cambodia, where I presented a screening of Buried Country as part of the ‘Indigenous Voices’ program in the 2016 Kampot Writers & Readers Festival. I was prevailed upon at virtually a moment’s notice to say a few words at the event’s official launch at the British Embassy in Phnom Penh, and I quickly decided that my theme would be ‘rhetoric and reality’, since I could see two instances of it at hand. Firstly, in the instance of Aboriginal Australia, the word ‘reconciliation’ has become a virtual cliché we hear all the time in this country, but which I think has little reality for most Australians, since most white Australians seem not to know any black Australians. Certainly, that was my own personal experience, or at least for the first 25 or so years of my life, growing up stranded in the suburbs. It’s only in the last 35 years, so much of which has gone into BC, that the cliché, the rhetoric, has taken on some real meaning for me, as I’ve gotten to know so many Aboriginal people, and to appreciate the sort of lives they lead. Another – the second – bit of rhetoric we hear a lot about in Australia is that we need to start seeing ourselves as part of the Asia Pacific region, rather than, say, as a subject of the British Empire, or an ally of the US. But again, for me, this didn’t take on much reality until I started actually going to SEA, Cambodia and Vietnam, and meeting not only ratbag expat Aussies there, or even Khmer people themselves, but also other people from all over the world, especially Scots, Swedes and Americans. We can all get caught up in our own individual little world, and I’m just thankful that I’ve been able to find whole other worlds not only outside my own country, like in Cambodia, but even inside it, in Aboriginal Australia.
Presenting the film was a slightly bizarre experience, not least because the venue, as pictured above, the old Le Royale cinema, is said to be haunted. But then so much about Cambodia seems to be at least existent in a sort of long dark shadow. As I’ve described to some of the folks involved in our BC roadshow, who may not be so aware of Cambodia’s history, blackfellas in Australia may have had to suffer almost genocidal oppression at the hands of the whitefella, but in Khmer, Pol Pot murdered nearly three million of what were his own people, not some other race or religion that was deemed inferior, but his own brothers and sisters! Most of the world still finds that even more incomprehensible than racism. Anyway… The film went down well. Still the strongest reaction though came from the handful of expat Australians in attendance, and I suppose I should count it as a success that it can still have that same quality as degree of impact: A couple of lovely ladies from the Australian embassy I think they were, were just gobsmacked to learn of this history about which they previously knew nothing. I’ve encountered that reaction before. As I have this one: “I don’t normally like country and western,” British filmmaker/journalist Tom Fawthrop told me, “but that was great.” I was almost shocked when a woman originally from Melbourne who introduced herself as Liz quickly ducked up to her hotel room and came back with a fresh new copy of Inner City Sound she asked me to sign! “It’s full of pictures of all my dead friends,” she said. She bought and I signed for her a copy of Buried Country. “It’s full of pictures of many of my other dead friends,” I told her. “But also plenty of others who happily are alive and well and, in fact, making our current roadshow the powerhouse it is!”
Buried Country’s reach continues to expand, and further overseas too. Country Down Under is a BBC Radio 4 documentary that was directly inspired by it. Writer/producer Rachel Claire Hopkin, a US-based British musicologist, happened to hear the interview I did with Denise Hylands on her 3RRR radio show Twang (that you can hear here), and got in touch. I gave her every assistance I could and when she came out to Australia in June she conducted interviews with me along with such luminaries as Roger Knox, Kev Carmody, L.J. Hill and Auriel Andrew and also, I was delighted to note, other such fine artists such as Glenn Skuthorpe and Sue Ray, which at least added a new dimension beyond what BC already covers thoroughly. Yet though I am listed in the program description as an interview subject I was cut from the final result, on the BBC’s insistence apparently, in what I can only interpret as an act of reverse discrimination, that wanted the show free of whitefellas. Still, I can’t complain too much because it’s small beer compared to the outright discrimination many of the featured artists have always had to endure, and the show is a good albeit brief glimpse at Aboriginal country music that gets the message out there that bit moreso… Click through the below panel to hear a podcast as long as it stays up there…