“One of the most significant books ever to chronicle Australian music and cultural history…”
Review by Ian McFarlane.
Buried Country, The Story Of Aboriginal Country Music (Revised and Updated Edition), Clinton Walker, Verse Chorus Press (352 pages)
On its original publication in 2000, Buried Country was a revelation. I thought – and still believe – that it was a major work, one of the most significant books ever to chronicle Australian music and cultural history. To me it captured the very essence of how to conduct historical research and present it in an eminently readable and heartfelt fashion. Bringing together such seemingly disparate storylines into one coherent volume was exemplary in execution and style.
It was an essential reading experience for anyone remotely interested in the source of the music in question. And author Clinton Walker had the playing field all to himself.
Which is why he’s now revised the book and presented it in this new, updated edition. The stories and profiles within are still captivating, it’s just that a lot has happened in the ensuing 15 years. We’ve seen the deaths of performers such as Jimmy Little, Lionel Rose, Ruby Hunter and Mandawuy Yunupingu, for example. Then again we’ve also seen the rise of important new artists such as Dan Sultan, Jessica Mauboy and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.
Walker doesn’t devote a lot of space to such new names (covered in the Afterword) yet manages to draw together some of the loose ends without disrupting the original flow. The extended profiles and interlocking sidebars from the first edition remain, with the addition of a new chapter looking at artists such as Kev Carmody, Archie Roach, Ruby Hunter and Tiddas. You can still follow the main signposts and songlines which provides the engaging narrative.
At the very heart of the matter, and why this book remains a landmark work of cultural history, is that Walker sheds light on the link between country music and Aboriginal identity. Some of the stories are tragic but in the end it’s the optimistic and joyous nature of many of the characters involved that remains uplifting. And the music is there as well; you only have to go out and find it and Buried Country is the perfect catalyst to help you on that search.
Ian McFarlane in conversation with Clinton Walker, author of Buried Country
Congratulations on the revised and updated edition of Buried Country. I consider the original book to be one of the most significant works ever to chronicle Australian music history. It’s great to have a new edition so, obvious question to start – what is it about this work that draws you back to it again?
Well, it’s kind of a demanding mistress! I don’t have much choice. I mean, whether I like it or not it’s taken on a life of its own – which of course is flattering to any writer, that your work has that sort of impact, that people want to know about it – and so then every now and then it kind of rears up and I just have to kind of try and ride it out, you know, tend it, protect it, which is part of it too, grow it, keep developing it. Because there is sadly always someone trying to chip away a bit of its legacy. But in very practical terms, the book had all but effectively fallen out of print and so I got the rights back from its original publisher, Pluto Press, and I’d been thinking for a while that the book’s real time was still yet to come and so when I mentioned wanting to get it back out there again to my publisher in the US, Verse Chorus Press, Steve Connell there couldn’t move quick enough to get it back into production. He’d been a fan all along. That a book like this, however, has to go offshore to get published is another bittersweet irony that I’ll leave to others to try and interpret…
How did you approach the revision process? And what might have been some of the pitfalls or challenges that process tossed your way?
So much had happened in the intervening fifteen years since it was first published, not least of all that so many of the major characters had died. Which was part of the urgency of doing it in the first place. And so I had to just try and tweak it a bit throughout to acknowledge those sort of changes. And just do a bit of catching-up on more recent developments. The big new roots music revival has given a great opportunity for Koori country to reinvent itself through a whole new younger generation of performers, and that’s very happily happening. The other thing was that basically Buried Country was done in the 90s before the internet had really taken hold, so now this time around I had that sort of resource to draw on too, and it did give me all sorts of bits of pieces that added to the story, substantiated some things, added some new things, certainly meant I was able to find some more great photographs that were held by institutions.
As you were saying, since the original publication in 2000 we’ve seen the deaths of such major figures as Jimmy Little, Lionel Rose, Ruby Hunter, Gus Williams, Mandawuy Yunupingu and many others. Yet we’ve also seen the emergence of new artists such as Jessica Mauboy and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, plus – more importantly for country / roots music – the likes of Dan Sultan and Benny Walker. The development of Aboriginal music continues but as you say in the book’s Afterword: “And so the struggle continues.” Can you give some examples of what that statement means?
Probably the easiest example to cite is where we might have all these arts festivals and they will import a musicological show like, say, that Lomax tribute show that was out here a few years ago, and yet at that same time there were still some of the living legends of Koori country around who couldn’t get arrested. In other words all those career cultural gatekeepers are kow-towing to the imported exoticism or authenticism, but can’t see their own right under their noses even when I’m screaming at them to look at it!
Thinking back to the many in-depth interviews you conducted in your research for the book, is there any one person who still stands out as a significant or inspirational subject?
The subjects who are freshest in my mind are a handful and for pretty obvious reasons. All of them are men, it has to be said, and men I got to know quite well: Jimmy Little and Bobby McLeod because they have both passed away, and both were amazing people who I had great affection for, and Roger Knox and Vic Simms I suppose I have to say for the opposite reason, that they are in fact not dead, but still very much alive, and of course both amazing characters and talents too, and both of whom it’s been my great privilege and pleasure to lately have been involved with in some of their recent endeavours. So those people are really important to me, they’ve been part of my life and still are.
Oh and of course Lionel Rose too I have to add, Lionel was a boyhood hero of mine as a world champion boxer and I got to have a joint with him – now I only need to have a joint with Willie to complete the set, because I’ve certainly had a beer with Slim Dusty. Who was wonderful in Buried Country too.
As a record collector, I’ve managed to get hold of copies of some great albums, Lionel Rose’s Jackson’s Track, Auriel Andrew’s Just For You and much of Jimmy Little’s 60s and 70s output for example but a few such as Georgia Lee Sings The Blues Downunder and Vic Simms’ The Loner have eluded me, such is their rarity. Fortunately, those two have seen release on CD in recent years. Are you beholden to the idea of having the original artefacts? What is the one record you’d love to have in your collection?
Well, having seemed to have lost my vinyl copy of The Loner, I’d like it back! A great record. But no, I’m not usually hung up on having an original original sort of thing you know, just so long as I’ve got a copy of the music in some form, and so actually in the case of The Loner I’m quite happy now to have the CD reissue. But there’s a few things on cassette that I’d like in a decent form, any form – I’ve always hated cassettes – one of which is the Black Allan Barker album from the early 80s called Fire Burnin’. It had to go back wherever it was it came from back when and that was before you were able to upload a cassette at home and so have a copy of it. So, a lot of the stuff on the original Buried Country CD, that’s the only stuff I’ve got. But yeah really, the single most phenomenal record I reckon is the Jim Ridgeway 45 ‘Ticket to Nowhere’, which is just so incredible it becomes almost like a totem that you’d mount in a glass case, you know! And listen to the restored track on the CD. I am, I should mention, producing a new rebooted edition of the CD, for Warners, and that will be out as soon as we can get it out, but I also have to say its tracklist will be quite different to the original disc, because, well, that original disc did what it had to do – and now that genie’s out of the bottle you can’t stuff it back in, it’s all over YouTube after all – so I think, shift the emphasis a bit and so there’s a lot more of what’s happened in the last 15 years. Which is some great stuff!
There are so many great profiles in the book – Jimmy Little, Lionel Rose, Georgia Lee, Auriel Andrew, Harry & Wilga Williams, Roger Knox, Kev Carmody, Archie Roach & Ruby Hunter etc – but some of the most heartfelt centre on the even more outsider characters like Black Allan Barker, Vic Simms, Dougie Young. Were there any particular aspects about the lives of these kinds of performers that you found truly revelatory?
In short, pretty much everything about these people just floored me. What it was they’d been through, and the way they dealt with it, part of which was that for all the horror they’d endured and which could have so completely crushed them as it did so many people, they were still able to find a positive approach to trying to get on with life, get on with their music, do what they could to help their people. I found it all just completely and utterly humbling and it makes you thankful for the small mercies we do enjoy.
I was watching the movie Wrong Side Of The Road again recently (featuring No Fixed Address and Us Mob) and while it’s not necessarily a great picture as such, it struck me as how strong it was as a socio-political statement. Do you think there might be a separate book in the making that focuses on Aboriginal music in film and TV?
I think what there might be separate projects in their own right are books and films on practically every character in Buried Country, and in Deadly Woman Blues that I’m just completing now. I mean, that was the thing, I looked at Buried Country originally and thought, jeez, there’s a book in practically every one of these characters, and of course subsequently more than a few of them have come out with their own biographies or documentaries, but I just couldn’t let any one of them go, I had to do it as a gallery of portraits. Really it’s that group show thing that’s not that different from Inner City Sound or Stranded, you know. And so I’m pretty sure we’re going to see a stream of all the more artefacts along these lines because this is a rich repository of stories that are really important to Australian history.
Now that you’re working on a revised version of the Buried Country CD, it begs the question, although this is not always an easy task: can you select one song that might encapsulate or reflect the very essence of what you’ve achieved in print?
Well, yeah, that Jim Ridgeway track I mentioned, ‘Ticket to Nowhere’, is one, and I just love Jimmy Little’s ‘Yorta Yorta Man’ on a purely sensual level, which is how I react first to music at the best of times. Black Allan Barker’s ‘Run, Dingo, Run’, Vic Simms’s ‘Stranger in My Country’ – and the Painted Ladies’ recent version of ‘Stranger in My Country’ for that matter too – and a couple of songs by Roger Knox, ‘Koorie Rose’ and ‘Goulburn Jail’, Auriel Andrew singing Bob Randall’s ‘Brown Skin Baby’ in an amazing recent recording, Harry Williams singing ‘Blue Gums Calling Me Back Home’, his wife Wilga singing ‘Arnhem Land Lullaby’. Actually I could go on, it’d just become like a greatest hits album tracklist! There’s also some fantastic stuff from more recent times. Kutcha Edwards’ ‘Get Back Up Again’ – what a track. But I won’t reveal all the surprises that’ll be on the new CD, you’ll just have to wait and see!