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  Issue No 62 Official Organ of LaborNet 14 July 2000  




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Little by Little

extracted from Buried Country (Pluto Press)

Clinton Walker's groundbreaking book, CD and video charts the careers of indigenous artists like the legendary Jimmy Little.



Jimmy Little has an almost regal presence. Perched on an old kitchen chair under a shady tree in his overgrown backyard in Sydney's inner west, he offers white-sliced sandwiches from a Tupperware container and a choice of soft drinks from an esky underfoot. Planes thunder overhead.

"Here I am," he says softly, intently, "looking out in my semi-retiring years in quiet suburbia - at the pulse of what's going on in the world - and we come from the river, and went to mission schools and mission churches... It's wonderful to reflect on one's own good fortune. I've been divorced from the hardship and heartache. I look back on my life and think, boy, I had smooth sailing. When I look at my fellow artists, I travelled the same path, but..."

Born in 1937 at Cummeragunja near Echuca on the Murray River, Jimmy Little carried on the daring spirit of the place. As one of the oldest missions in the country, which produced two of the great pioneer fighters for Aboriginal rights, Pastor Doug Nicholls and William Cooper, Cummera was always a community in the vanguard, a veritable Aboriginal Athens. Jimmy Little went on to become Australia's first black pop star. In the late fifties the only other Aborigines as well known were Albert Namatjira and Harold Blair, and maybe a few boxers.

"This is where" - now Jimmy leans forward as if to share a secret he's only just discovered himself - "I don't want to sound like I'm blowing my own trumpet, but I realise I'm unique, one of a kind, as the first commercial Aboriginal artist." Surprise lights up his face.

"Still current," he adds. "I could easily have been described as being novel in the beginning, a token, but I believe my staying power, my endurance, has finally convinced them I'm not. I'm not seasonal."

There were times, along the way, when Jimmy contemplated becoming a preacher like Pastor Doug. Indeed, he has an aura of serenity, warmth, control - not to mention a tendency to get cosmic. Jimmy was strongly committed during the sixties to the temperance movement. But Jimmy was chosen to do something other than dedicate his life to religion. He was chosen to sing. He was perhaps not so much ambitious for a career in music as it was pre-ordained. His father, Jimmy Little Snr, was an entertainer, a song-and-dance man as well as a religious man, and so Jimmy simply followed in his footsteps. It is the tribal way.

Jimmy Little is all, pure voice. Some musicians are like that. He can sing anything. That's what everyone's always said. And even though he may never have written many songs himself, who has ever complained of Sinatra, say, or Elvis, or Normie Rowe, that he never wrote his own material? When Jimmy's wife of forty years, Marj, talks of her husband and his artistry, it is in terms of singer's singers like Sinatra, Charlie Rich or Tony Bennett.

To this day Jimmy can reinvigorate, freshen every song he sings with an extraordinarily bold less-is-more approach. Jimmy can pare a song back to next to nothing, and it will still be more potent than any fully blown arrangement. Even near-accapella, Jimmy's sound is at one epic yet intimate, and delicate. Listen to him sing the Reels' 'Quasimodo's Dream' on his 1999 comeback album Messenger, and when he takes it all down to a tense and breathy silence, it is a most powerful moment ...

"He would sing so softly, but so strong, I was afraid to touch my guitar," says Kenny Kitching, one of Australia's leading pedal-steel players, who worked with Jimmy in two separate stints in the late fifties and early seventies. "A lot of jobs he would do he'd go out on stage and there might be an eight-piece band there, and he'd turn around to them, off mic, very politely, and say, Look, I only need piano and bass, all you other guys can have a break, go and have a drink. And then he'd turn around and tune his guitar and he'd have the crowd eating out of his hands."

In the early fifties, when Jimmy first came to Sydney, he was a hillbilly singer. It was only when he left EMI Records in 1958 and joined Festival Records that he steered in a more polished pop direction, balancing 'evergreen' Irish songs with country-gospel, and soon struck all-consuming success.

In 1963, just before the Beatles swept the world, Jimmy released a rousing version of the country-gospel standard 'Royal Telephone'. It went to number three. It was the year's biggest record, and the third-biggest local record to that time. Everybody's magazine, the bible of the teen scene at the time, named Jimmy Australian Pop Star of the Year in 1964.

If this was a peak for Jimmy, and for Aboriginal Australia, he rode out the British Invasion the same way most artists of his generation did, keeping a loyal audience in the clubs. His sound was 'countrypolitan', as the awkward Nashville term of the day went, a hillbilly ballad base with pop trimmings. Today, after an enormously successful comeback in the late nineties, Jimmy Little is acknowledged as an icon, the elder statesman of Aboriginal music and an elder of Australian music generally - just a much-loved Australian. But this status comes not before his trials. There was even a period, in the militant seventies, when Jimmy lost his Aboriginal audience. He was seen as part of the old guard, too polite; he wasn't called 'Gentleman Jim' for nothing. He was called other less-flattering names though too. With typical grace, Jimmy continued to work with the Foundation in Redfern, at the same time as playing almost exclusively to white audiences in the clubs.

"I don't want to be a leader," he said in 1979. "I just want to express myself and contribute to the happiness of everyone who comes in contact with me."

But maybe Jimmy had to accept he was a leader of sorts whether he liked it or not - and by now, of course, he seems to have done that. Yet he wears it with humility. He is a beautiful and generous man whose pride, though understated, runs deep.

"I never try to sell myself as a recording or television star," he told Pix in 1962 as he approached his breakthrough. "To me, it is far more important to be a success as a human being than an entertainer. More than anything, I want to show my people that it is possible for them to succeed in many of the fields which they have come to regard as exclusively the white man's domain."

"He started life as a piccaninny in a blackfellows camp in Echuca," Pix itself said. "He was the oldest of five picaninnies and his father was the local balladist and dancer. At 14 he started work as a casual labourer and later earned 30/- a week as a bean picker."

Jimmy Little Snr was himself an Aboriginal legend, a Uwen man from the NSW south coast who met Jimmy's mother at Cummera during the Depression. Jimmy's father used to tag along with the Wallaga Lake gumleaf orchestra, one of the first touring Aboriginal acts, which formed a union with Cummera's vaudeville troupe in the twenties, and he was one of a number of the Uwen men who resettled at Cummera and married.

Jimmy fondly remembers growing-up during the war years. However difficult it was, at least his mother was still alive. Cummera itself, though, was by then in decay

Founded originally by Wesleyan Methodist Daniel Matthews as the Maloga Mission Station in 1874, Cummergunja sits on the NSW side of the Murray, opposite the Victorian township of Barmah, 20 miles upriver from Echuca. By the 1930s - by which time NSW's original Aboriginal population of around 60,000 had withered to 11,000, and Victoria's from 15,000 to only a couple of thousand - the Depression was motivating political activism generally. Increasingly wised-up Aboriginal people, encouraged by white bolsheviks, started making a noise. Jimmy was just a toddler in 1939 when the people of Cummera walked off the reserve as a protest at deteriorating conditions and management. Encouraged by the presence of Doug Nicholls, the people crossed the river into Victoria. Jack Patten, president of the NSW Aborigines Progressive Association, was arrested. As Mavis Thorpe Clark wrote in Pastor Doug: "They moved from the Murray to other river banks on the edges of towns where there was some prospect of obtaining at least casual work. Their humpies jostled the shanties of unemployed whites around Mooroopna and Shepparton."

After Australia got involved in the Second World War in 1939, the protestors returned to Cummera. Then, just after the war ended, Jimmy's mother suddenly died, choking on a mussel. Jimmy still seems saddened.

"Mum was the baby of eight girls and four boys. She met Dad when she was 15; she had me when she was 17. She died when she was 29...

"When the heart of your home is removed - whether it's Mum or Dad, or both of them - it must turn your world upside down. I felt there was a void, an emptiness - but there was also a challenge."

"Now," says Jimmy, drawing a breath, "going back to my grandparents, on both sides, that was back in a tribal existence. With each family in the clan, the natural skills are passed on, the sons would carry on the father's trade. The storytellers, in dance and song, would carry on the trade, the medicine people would carry on their trade.

"In my grandfather's day, he saw new people come into the country. This is colonisation. So they knew they couldn't continue, that those lines wouldn't be passed on, and the children had to be prepared: develop - instead of me playing the didgeridoo, I'm playing another wood instrument, the guitar.

"See now, my grandfather, he had to get a line of work. His skills from tribal days - tracking the animals. So he was employed by the police force, tracking human beings. So we were told as children, keep the skills sharp. Apply them to the new trade. My dad, he worked in a timber mill, fruit picking, peas and beans and corn. He liked to be outdoors, not cooped up inside. He was a freedom man. We all loved freedom.

"Music was an automatic family thing. Mum and Dad were vaudevillians. They used to arrange entertainment at the various Aboriginal mission settlements, and my father would also organise teams of our people to give concerts throughout the district to raise funds for the mission. My uncles were vaudevillians, and that's how I got started."


*    Purchse Buried Country online

*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 62 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Fair Trader
AMWU boss Doug Cameron is gearing for a showdown with the ALP over their free trade agenda. But what's he really on about?
*  Politics: Free Trader
Trade Minister Peter Cook states his case for coninuting trade liberalisation and why the 'fair trade' agenda is against the interests of Australian workers.
*  History: Organising - Fifties Style
What do the new wave of organisers do? Pretty much the same hard slog that Audrey Petrie did in the 1950s around Sydney for the Hotel, Club and Restaurant Union (HCRU).
*  Unions: The Whistleblower
A lone Chinese seafarer is fighting to stop a Panamanian flagged vessel from dumping toxic waste into Australian waters
*  International: Jakarta Breakthrough
Indonesian workers have just won a new historic bill of rights which gaurantees them legal protections when they form unions.
*  Solidarity: Rio Versus the Rest of the World
Union members around the world have taken part in a week of international action against the mining giant Rio Tinto. Andrew Casey looks at all the hot spots.
*  Satire: Amnesty Branch Targets Lazy Letter Writer
Police are investigating claims that the Glebe branch of Amnesty International has captured and tortured a member whose tardiness in letter writing had become renowned.
*  Review: Little by Little
Clinton Walker's groundbreaking book, CD and video charts the careers of indigenous artists like the legendary Jimmy Little.

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