Australia’s attitude to its indigenous people has changed dramatically over the centuries and still has a long way to travel. Recording early indigenous material presents major dilemmas for any folklorist as the material is often racist and sexist. My job is to record such material and I would caution anyone wishing to use this material in a detrimental way.
The attitudes expressed in traditional and popular songs referring to indigenous Australians is an interesting, if somewhat depressing, study. Much of the material is outright racist or condescending. This is in line with the general public (misguided) attitude to Aboriginal people for much of the nineteenth century and early twentieth. Not surprising when indigenous people worldwide were considered ‘primitives’ and (in Australia) not included in the population census until the mid-late twentieth century. As a folklorist I strongly believe that these songs (and poems) should be made available on this site – they are an expression of popular culture and the ugly side of our national identity needs to be accepted.
The racist material is covered elsewhere in this site and much of it details what popular expression described as ‘gin jockeying’ – a term used to describe white men who had sex with Aboriginal women. In truth many European men found successful and long-lasting unions with Aboriginal women but this is rarely indicated in the songs.
The majority of songs about indigenous people fall into the category of ‘quaint’, which really translates as condescending. I call it ‘Witchitty’s Tribe’ music – after the highly successful (and highly condescending) comic strip of the same name. I’m fairly sure cartoonist Eric Joliffe (1907-2001) did not see himself, nor his work as racist, and probably not condescending either. His cartoons were typical of the insensitive times.
In many of his Aboriginal cartoons the joke depends on the incongruity of the Indigenous Australian’s two worlds, e.g. woman outside humpy smacking baby while husband with spear is saying, “Now, where’s the exponent of child psychology?” (1955).
Popular song also misinterpreted indigenous people. eg ‘My Boomerang Won’t Come Back’ (Rolf Harris). – WF