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Australia Day

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Australia Day


Written 2018 for AUSTRALIA DAY

I am, You are, We Are, Blah Blah Blah.

I am now quite resigned to the arm-swinging chorus that tells me ‘I am, you are, Aust-ral-ian’. After hearing the song ad infinitum in Rugby World Cup promotions, Salvation Army Red Shield campaigns,  endless loops from Telstra, school assemblies, and anything else that vaguely smacks of flag-waving, I am preparing myself for the song’s annual main day outing – what is currently referred to as ‘Australia Day’.

I say ‘currently’ because it seems many Australians would like to throw their two cents into the ring on the current debate as to whether the name or date should be changed to reflect modern day Australia. It’s changed before and could possibly change again. Besides, Australians have shown they rather enjoy tormenting government over public opinion as evidenced by last year’s marriage equality survey. (Oh, now I remember, that particular victory was  also celebrated in the bleachers of Parliament with joyful ‘I am, you are, we are’ arm-swinging.)

I usually head for the hills on Australia Day. Despite being a cultural historian and performer steeped in stories and songs about our history I find the annual celebration too jingoistic, too predictable and, in some ways, too disturbing. I grew up in the forties and fifties when Australia Day was just a pup. Coincidentally, I was born in January 1946 the same year and month the Commonwealth and state governments agreed to unify the celebrations on January 26 as ‘Australia Day’. It also confirmed that the Monday closest to the date be a public holiday. My childhood memories of are of phoney-colony re-enactments, cannons firing over Sydney Harbour and the curiosity of having more Australian than British flags flying. I also remember tokenism towards indigenous Australians who were not included in the census and were not entitled to vote.

Australia has travelled some wild roads and, of course, we have earned the right to celebrate. Even our very first immigrants and freed convicts felt an urge to celebrate their new land. We know that as far back as 1808 the 26th of January was seen as an appropriate date to celebrate what they described as “the love of the land they lived in.” The arrival of the British with their First Fleet on the 26 January seemed a natural for the British – they were the conquerers, they raised the Union Jack. Little thought was given to the feelings of the indigenous population. Had the Aborigine fought back like the Maori it might have been a different story. Had we negotiated a treaty it would have been a different story. I have sympathy for those who refer to the date as Invasion Day for there is no denying that we as a nation have not always done the right thing by our indigenous people. Some will say this is all in the past, some Like John Howard, took a more cowardly stance refusing to say sorry. We are now a smarter people, a more compassionate people and if nothing else comes out of the present-day debate it is to be hoped formal recognition in our constitution will move to fruition.

An odd twist to the Australia Day story is that the main protagonists to unify the colonies into a federation of states was an organisation called the Australian Native’s Association. Formed in Victoria its membership was restricted to ‘all white men born in Australia’. It was instrumental in developing the White Australia Policy and, later, the call for a unified date to celebrate a national day.

To many Australia Day is just an opportunity for a major piss up. Although BBQs, funny hats, patriotic slogan t-shirts and buckets of grog have some appeal, the day carries many messages. We are a indeed a lucky country and even our convict birth proved a success. It didn’t take long for the young Australia to realise ‘colonial born was superior to sterling born’. Our wide, brown land offered endless plains and opportunities. We struck it rich early with the discovery of gold in 1851 and we’ve been flogging those minerals ever since. We rode the boom times with sheep, beef and wheat and even in the mean and lean times of the 1890s and 1930s economic slumps we lived in a ‘fair go’ land. We travelled a strange road with the most restrictive immigration policy in the world – no coloured people allowed – to emerge as the most racially accepting country in the entire world. We now have more ethnicities than the USA, Uk or Canada. We’ve done all this in a relatively short span of history. Yes, we have more work to do in acceptance, nation building and revealing our national identity, and Australia Day is a good opportunity to reflect on how we can move forward as one – because I am, you are, very lucky Australians.

Warren Fahey AM is a cultural historian, writer and performer. He received the Order of Australia ‘gong’ in the 1989 Australia Day Honours.

Into The Bloodstream. Archie Roach.

Review for Rhythms Magazine


The so-called popular music industry can be a cruel beast. Artists, often in their creative prime, get chewed up and spat out at a gobsmacking rate and, usually, at a relatively scary young age. Indigenous artists have additional hurdles to leap. The music industry has often described its rationale as ‘throwing music against the wall to see if it sticks’. Rhythms readers, being musically educated and amazingly discerning, know that there is another musical world where artists thrive and longevity is seen as a positive. Archie Roach, undoubtably our best-known indigenous singer, released his landmark Charcoal Road twenty-two years ago when he was 36, and the young man sketched on that album cover is now hurtling towards his 60th birthday. His new album Into The Bloodstream is testimony to his creative spirit, determination and knack for adventurous collaborations.

I caught up with Archie Roach in October after he had performed at Uluru for the 30th anniversary celebration concert of Shane Howard’s Solid Rock. I wanted to know how he has been traveling over the past few years where he has had to contend with the loss of his partner and soulmate, Ruby Hunter, and a string of medical nightmares including a stroke and the loss of a chunk of his lung. I wanted to put his state of mind alongside the new collection of songs which are, surprisingly, remarkably positive and joyous. I asked him how important the songwriting and recording experience was to his personal healing.
“It was vitally important for me as a songwriter and person. Into The Bloodstream is an album of songs that I really didn’t believe I was going to make. That was it, I thought I had lost my creative spirit. Ruby was always my sounding board and I did know if my songs were good enough or if I could do anything with them. In the old days we used to sit around the kitchen table and swap songs. Ruby encouraged me and steered me in the right musical directions. I had some songs, and some half written songs, and needed someone to bounce ideas off. I was also unsure of my voice after losing part of my ‘engine room’.”

The missing link proved to be musician, producer and Audrey Studios principle, Craig Pilkington. Craig also recorded Kutcha Edwards album which I was slated to review for the magazine so I hunted him down for a few comments on both projects. I knew his name from various sleeve notes but had forgotten our paths had crossed before and he reminded me I had released an album of his band, The Killjoys, on my Larrikin label in 1998. The album, which by the way, was really good, was a final nomination for an ARIA – ‘Best Adult Contemporary’ – but lost out to Archie Roach’s Looking For Butterboy. As Craig observed, “the planets keep aligning!”

Archie spoke genuinely about Craig’s role in making his music come together and, in some ways, opening doors to his healing. “We tossed the songs around and he had the vision to make it all happen. He brought me back and gave the songs the life that I had in my head. He is really good like that, good with arranging musicians and in getting the right sound to carry my songs. Sometimes I find it confusing even to prepare a performance gig list – the order song should fall, but he does it so naturally.” Craig identified that Archie’s songs were “a combination of messages, philosophies and stories that leant themselves to a gospel/soul treatment so it was obvious we needed a large Hammond organ-led ensemble that could be powerful and majestic as well as joyous and dancing, and we needed a big choir.”

Archie Roach’s music has evolved into something that salutes several genres – gospel, blues, country rock and folk – but above all has retained the singer’s own voice. Archie freely admits that as he has grown older so has his respect for music. “I like nearly all music and, as a songwriter and singer, and after recording the new album, I am feeling more confident, stronger. I think I can take any musical road ahead, I don’t feel restrained or restricted.” Well, Archie certainly doesn’t sound restricted on this album. At several points his voice soars upwards and drops to what could only be called a growl reminiscent of Louis Armstrong or Cab Calloway. I asked Archie where that growl came from – “I don’t know, it was something that came to me recently, it’s just there and, I admit, it is a bit menacing.” Craig went deeper, “Archie was amazing how he explored new areas in his vocal expression and range. Having half a lung removed changed things physically, and he used that to his benefit rather than let it limit him. We always had an oxygen tank close by, but I reckon he sang higher and lower than he ever has.”

Storytelling in song is something Rhythms readers know about and Archie’s songs on this album are solid stories. As an indigenous artist he is part of an age-old tradition of storytelling that, as he says, “I grew up with stories even today and one of my greatest pleasures is to sit down and have a good yarn.” These are Australian stories too and, to his credit, he hasn’t allowed his songwriting to slip into the darkness of his recent years. He has also successfully avoided Americanisms in either words or styles. We discussed how many local contemporary singers, especially country artists, have allowed themselves to endorse Americana. “I hate people singing toons instead of tunes. I could go on but you can hear our language disappearing in so many singers. It doesn’t make sense not to sing in the way we speak here.”

One of my favourite tracks on the album, and there are many, is ‘Big Black Train’ which rolls along, complete with a ‘chug-a-lug’ railway rhythm, from the very first bars from Craig Pilkington’s Hammond organ through to the swinging vocals by the Indigenous Choir. Borrowing ideas from This Train Is Bound For Glory it effectively advises listeners not to get on board –

This train’s not bound for glory, this train
This train’s not bound for glory, this train
No, this train’s not bound for glory, taking only the unholy
This train, this train, this train.

The Indigenous Choir is something very special. As indigenous Australia has been finding its voice this one was all about time and it was worth the wait. Next stop should be an album featuring this choir. Space precludes me from naming them all but the 19 voices reinforce the songs with definite joy and add a great contrast to Archie’s lead vocals. Craig, who recorded the choir at St. Brigid’s hall at Crossley, an old church owned by the community, explained how he recorded these tracks, especially ‘Song to Sing’ and ‘Top Of The Hill’. ‘At Audrey Studios we always try and create a space in our recordings and you can hear this ‘room’ in the way we physically recorded Archie and the choir. We wanted to make a big statement with Archie’s messages and the choral and string arrangements helped give us a dramatic power where we needed to be big but not necessarily loud.”

Of the dozen songs in this collection all but two were written by Archie. Of the two remaining he co-wrote ‘’We Won’t Cry’ with Paul Kelly (who sings on the track) and the other, ‘I’m On Your Side’ is a Paul and Dan Kelly song. In talking to Archie about songwriting we discussed the way traditional songmen like the Kimberley’s Nyalgodi ‘Scotty’ Martin receive songs from their dreaming. I asked whether he thought he was part of this tradition? In his song ‘Mulyawongk’ he addresses Ruby Hunter in a beautifully uplifting lament. “The song came from the river and Aboriginal people say their ancestors live in the river. It is a powerful totem. I hope my song possesses some of this magic.”

‘Heal The People’ and ‘Wash My Soul In The River’s Flow’ are two aspirational song from the album. They are aspirational but not in a naif happy-clappy way. Both offer the simple message that we all have a responsibility to care for the land. Archie’s straight-forward comment is “If the rivers are doing okay then our society will do okay as well.”

While I had the chance of yarning to Archie I wanted to ask a couple of questions that these sort of interviews usually follow.

W: Who are your musical heroes?
A: Paul Simon. When he was touring Australia with his Gracelands concert I met him backstage at the Melbourne Concert Hall and he asked if he could visit my home. He came for two days. We swapped songs and he visited the local community. It was a big thrill as I’d always liked his music. Then there’s Paul Kelly, Mahalia Jackson and soul singers like Sam Cook and Al Green.

W: What about non-music heroes?
A: My foster father Alexander Cox, Uncle Banjo and my big brother, Johnny Roach.

W: When you have switched off, want to relax and dream, what music do you listen to?
(I’d love to see the faces of Rhythm readers as they digest this response)
A: Bagpipe music! I have always loved Scottish music, especially the pipes. It is something I inherited from my father who was a Scot. I still like ‘The Flowers of the Forest’, ‘The Rowan Tree’ and songs like ‘The Scottish Soldier’. I used to sing these with my father – even the gaelic bits.

This is a very satisfying album from one of our national treasures. The next step is the roll out of the live show. It will be a “big show” primarily for festivals and major concert halls. With 24 people on stage, including the Indigenous Choir, and a creative visual component, it will showcase the album’s arrangements. Whether bagpipes will feature is yet unknown.


And The Band Played On


Robert Holden. Published by Hardie Grant Books.

Review for the SMH/The Age 2014

When Britain sounded the first bugle call for the Great War Australian patriotism leapt to attention. Men and boys from farms and factories across the nation marched into makeshift training camps like Broadmeadows, Puckapanyal, Marrickville and Liverpool and were as ‘green’ as any new chum imaginable. What they lacked in preparation they made up for with gumption and determination that eventually identified the Aussie Diggers as the ‘fighting kangaroos’, a force to be reckoned with. This year marks the beginning of WW1 and bookshelves are already starting to groan with the sheer number of publications. This interesting history of a little-known aspect of war deserves a place alongside the big guns..

History tells us that WW1 was incredibly loud – bolt-action rifles, rattling machine guns and deafening field bombs rained on the troops day and night. And the Band Played On, as the title suggests, explores a different sound of war, the music and live entertainment that helped divert our soldiers from the horrors of the front line where death was never far from mind. Our troops trained and marched to war to the sound of brass bands, buglers summonsed soldiers into action from morning to night and, when there was a break, be it in the mess huts, transport vehicles or the endless time spent in lice-ridden trenches, songs were sung, poems recited or music made on simple instruments like the harmonica, jaw harp, tin whistle or concertina. This ‘down time’ was incredibly important in fortifying our troops encouraging relaxation, camaraderie and a reminder of better times. It was diversion therapy of the very best kind.

Robert Holden points out that Australia appeared to recognise the importance of wartime entertainment before Britain. This possibly had something to do with the fact a decade or so prior to the war the bulk of our population lived in the bush where singsongs and party pieces, especially recitations, along with community dances, were the main form of entertainment. Certainly the majority of our first army entertainers were enlisted from relatively untrained musicians and singers. We were a nation of people used to entertaining each other although the then recent population migration to the cities, and the growing popularity of the gramophone, radio and motion pictures, signalled a developing passivity.

One aspect of Holden’s history that puzzles me is the obvious disregard for the oral tradition. Australians were extremely clever in creating and circulating parodies, especially bawdy songs, however they hardly get a mention. Even our first anonymous parody of ‘Waltzing Matilda’, itself a relatively new song at the time, received wide circulation.

Fighting the Kaiser,
Fighting the Kaiser,
Who’ll come a fighting the Kaiser with me?
And we’ll drink all his beer,
And eat up all his sausages,
Who’ll come a fighting the Kaiser with me?

Anonymous songs and ditties, and there are hundreds from WW1, had a knack of addressing topics that popular song typically avoids. Holden rightfully points to the popularity of songs like ‘Little Grey Home in the West’ and ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’ (although he fails to mention Australian-born Florrie Forde popularised it and the other WW1 classic ‘Goodbye-ee’) however these singalong songs hardly capture the harsh reality of folk songs like ‘Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire’ or ‘I Want To Go Home’ (Oh my, I’m too young to die, I want to go home). These are songs that acknowledge the reality of war where your mate’s head could be blown clear off yet you had to stand ground.

Holden has done some fine digging in TROVE and the Australian War Memorial archives to tell us who the army entertainers were and why they were recognised as real soldiers. One quote nicely sums up the soldier-entertainers as ‘necessary as the dry socks and duckboards’ and ‘as much a part of the army as the Machine Gun Corp’. Certainly the accounts of front line stage shows, where the whizz bangs were flying far too close for comfort, give new meaning to the term ‘stage fright’.

There’s some tantalising entertainments mentioned. What I’d give to hear the No. 1 Army Service Mouth Organ Band, the No. 2 Army Service Drum and Fife Band, or sit through a performance by the HMAS Sydney’s Hobo Band. The most intriguing accounts cover two theatrical show bands, The Coo-ees (often accompanied by a full orchestra) and the wonderfully named Anzac Coves featuring their ‘star turn’, Vic Kemble, a female impersonator. The army magazine Aussie summed up the show’s highlight , ‘Aussie has seen a lot of girl girls not nearly as girlish as Pte. V. Kemble’s impersonation.’ (Kemble ultimately received three medals for his war service.)
Warren Fahey is a cultural historian and author. His latest e-book is ‘The World Turned Upside-Down’ a history of the Australian gold rush era. www.warrenfahey.com