Even on the streets of Melbourne, country music was the soundtrack to my soul
Eighteen years ago, a documentary premiered at the Sydney film festival that revealed how deeply the lives of Aboriginal people had been affected by country music. The film, by music journalist Clinton Walker, was soon followed by a book and a double-disc anthology featuring 45 tracks by black artists, including the great Jimmy Little, Vic Simms, Tiddas, Archie Roach and Lionel Rose. Yes, that Lionel Rose – the world-champion boxer.
Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music was a journey into the camps, missions, card games and inner-city ghettos of our not so distant past, and proved so popular that a follow-up anthology – something of a “refresh” – was released in 2015, titled Buried Country 1.5.
Now, US label Mississippi Records has released an abridged vinyl LP version in collaboration with Australia’s Flippin Yeah Records.
Back in 2000, I bought the original Buried Country anthology from a music store in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, where a boutique clothes shop now trades. It was cold and there was a small fire smouldering in a hearth. At that point I hadn’t been aware of Walker’s film, or the book. What caught my eye, after I picked up the case and turned it to read the track listings, was the 1981 song by Harry Williams and the Country Outcasts, Streets of Old Fitzroy.
I’d been wandering the back streets of Fitzroy in search of the yearning sentiment of the song since arriving in Melbourne a couple years earlier. I’d found remnants of it on Gertrude Street between Carlton Gardens and Collingwood – a stretch once referred to as the “dirty mile”. There were scraps of it in weathered patches of graffiti scrawled in the bluestone side alleys long ago, and it was present among the mob who assembled on the buckled corner of Moor and Smith.
“City lights are driving me cah-ray-zee / As I walk the lonely streets of old Fitzroy”, warbled Harry Williams, and behind him I trailed, playing those two discs in every pub I could find until they became so scratched they’d snag the laser every time.
There were other standouts. Maisie Kelly singing My Home in the Valley conjured a past in the country of my great-greats, who I’d known as a boy and whose stories I’d committed to heart. Vic Simms’ Stranger in My Country made me smash things and Archie Roach’s Took the Children Away made me weep. In brief, it was a country album that did everything it was supposed to, and plenty more.
The latest iteration runs slick with just 11 cuts. Some tracks are carried over from the 2000 release, others from the 2015 edition. There are also a couple of brand-spankers: the Kooriers’ protest song Sick of Being Treated Like a Mangy Old Dog has been unearthed from a cassette recording that’s been lost since the 70s; and there’s a rare 1958 gem from the gentleman, Uncle Jimmy Little, titled Give the Coloured Lad a Chance.
There’s some appeal in the cover too, with the front artwork being painted by Vincent Namatjira, the great-grandson of Albert Namatjira. The image itself is of celebrated artist and stockman Kunmanara Jimmy Pompey, the younger Namatjira’s father-in-law. Kunmanara himself painted the back cover but passed months before the records release.
It’s not difficult to imagine how well-received this album could be in the US, given its affinity with the renowned Southern Journey volumes of the Alan Lomax Collections released by Rounder Records in the late 1990s. There’s also something exquisitely congruous in the hard times songs of blackfellas here, influenced by the sorrows and travails of so many oppressed black and native lives from there, making their way back across the roiling waters like a spiritual call-and-response.
First Published by The Guardian in 2018: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/dec/05/even-on-the-streets-of-melbourne-country-music-was-the-soundtrack-to-my-soul