It is sad indeed to have to report on the death of James Djagamara Macleod, one of the stars of the Buried Country 1.5 album. That’s James’s voice you hear at the start of the mash-up ‘title sequence’ that opens our every BC: Live in Concert performance. When the time came in 2015 to put together the BC1.5 CD, I was so determined to have a track on it by the sometime band James had with Toby Martin – the Rug Cutters, a sort of tribute band to James’s grandfather, the legendary Dougie Young – they became the only act to purpose-record something for it.
And now I’m even gladder we did that, because not only was it a great thrill for James, but serves as something of a small legacy… we remember James and fondly, and convey all our condolences…
Now, for the real deal, over to Toby Martin, who from his current UK base penned the following testimonial that was read out at James’s funeral in Queanbeyan, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of James’s family:
I first met James in 2011. I had just started a fellowship at the National Library in Canberra where I was researching the music of Aboriginal folk and country artists, including the legendary Dougie Young. I got a phone call from a friend of a friend one day who said, “I’ve got the number of Dougie’s grandson for you!” James and I arranged to meet at a café outside the Eora centre in Redfern, where he was studying. He had a guitar with him and, there and then, at the café, he busted it out of his case and gave me a full-throated rendition of his own songs, as well as his arrangement of his grandfather’s powerful song about black identity ‘The Land Where the Crow Flies Backwards’. It was different from the original version – it was fuller, more strident, more rock, very much done in James’ own style. Inside his guitar case were a few gum leaves that he told me had picked up from a river bank at Michelago a few days beforehand. That was my first introduction to Jimmy: charming, crackling with energy, a bit wild, interested in connections to Country and his people. Utterly and truly himself. It was a first-impression that was to prove consistent throughout the time I knew him. James discovered his Aboriginal family when he was 21. So he was already a musician himself when he found out who his Grandfather was and the respect with which he was held in Aboriginal communities. If it was a coincidence, it was a pretty mystical one. James and I got a country-rock band band together to play Dougie Young’s songs. We called ourselves the Rugcutters, after the famous Dougie Young song ‘Cut A Rug’. James taught us his arrangement of ‘The Crow’. He also did a beautiful, bitter, stripped-down version of ‘Old Wilcannia Town’, and a spoken-word turn on ‘I Don’t Want Your Money’. We played some great gigs that year: at the Block in Redfern with kids down the front and seated Aunties at the back, at the Sandringham Hotel in Newtown where Jeremy Beckett, the anthropologist who originally recorded Young, came up to us and said, “Dougie’s finally got his rock and roll band!”, and at the Canberra Folk Festival to a packed tent of folk afficiandos. People were often struck by the way we had re-interpreted Young’s acoustic songs, and in particular the fresh life James had breathed into his Grandfather’s music. A few days after the folk festival, James and I went into the recording studio at the National Library and laid down about eight Dougie Young songs.
RugCutters live in Wilcannia
We played sporadically over the next few years. Most memorably, we were invited to go and play in Wilcannia, the town in which Dougie Young spentmost of his life and wrote most of his songs about. I remember the thirteen-hour drive west from Sydney, the trees becoming more sparse, the soil turning to red. James was uncharacteristically quiet on that drive, he spent most of the time looking out the window – and I think going to the Country of his Aboriginal family stirred some complicated emotions in him. It was the first time James had spent a significant amount of time in Wilcannia, and while it was an incredible experience for him, he also later described those couple of days to me as “pretty full on”. The gig itself took place in a park on the main intersection of town. Lots of people were there. People who had known Dougie, and people who were descendents of the friends that Dougie wrote about. People who loved the way James was singing his Grandfather’s songs and who were keen to meet him, to hug him and to talk to him. A descendent of one of Dougie’s mates showed us around town. He took us out to the cemetery where we unsuccessfully searched for Young’s grave. “Sorry son,” he said to James, “I really wish I could find it for you.”
Following our Wilcannia tour, the Rugcutters did full-band studio recordings of ‘The Crow’ and ‘Got No Time For Dancin.’ The recording of ‘The Crow’ appeared on the 2015 CD Buried Country 1.5, the re-release of the influential collection of Aboriginal country music put together by Clinton Walker and featuring artists likeRoger Knox, Troy Cassar-Daley and Vic Simms. It was a well-deserved honour for James’ music to feature alongside these singers. James and I alwaystalked about doing more – about doing a whole tribute album to Young, about writing songs together – but musicians talk and dream a lot and act a lot less. Still, I am very proud of what we achieved together and the way in which it got James respect for his own music, and raised the profile of his Grandfather’s amazing legacy.
Through playing music together, James and I became close friends. He made a very big impact on my life – both as a musician and as a person. He made me re-think some of my ideas about music and culture and friendship and identity. I loved him like a brother. Life was not always easy for James. He struggled with some fairly serious health issues and many of the times I hung out with James the surroundings and occasions were not as fun as the ones I have described above. And yet in almost every situation his lust for life and positive spirit shone through. He turned my visit to the psychiatric unit of Goulburn hospital into a lunch date and a tour of the op-shops of town, followed by a jam session in the garden out the back. I left with my spirits raised! James said yes to things. He said yes to forming a band with a complete stranger, he said yes to going to Wilcannia, he said yes to people and to opportunities. His willingness to say yes and worry about consequences later was a trait I greatly admired in him. He was a huge force of positive energy, dreams and enthusiasm. He died too young, but I feel very lucky that he came into my life when he did.