Research Notes 1- A Conversation About Australian Blues Music: Life Beyond The Mainstream

Part One

Mississippi Memphis Copyright 3aa
Mississippi Memphis Copyright 3aa

American blues music in the beginning represented the oppression and suffering felt by freed slaves and African-American people.   Among other things, I suggest blues music communicates feelings of rejection on a deep emotional level primarily unrequited love.  However, paradoxically, because of these very human connections this renders blues music inclusive.   As this title suggests, blues music is a conversation expressed within the music and culturally.   In the past it may have been class defined, however since the British Blues Explosion of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, this music has touched post World War Two generations regardless of class distinctions.   Practically all Australian Blues musicians, who created blues music in the 1960s and 1970s, were influenced by British blues music.   Their creativity grew out of connecting to blues music culture, endlessly practising, and performing throughout their lives.   Even the musicians with “day jobs” appear to have lived their lives for blues music.   It is in the 1960s and 1970s where I have concentrated my questioning “Why is blues music in Australia?”  because as the musicians interviewed have attested to, it is not part of Australian mainstream culture

So how does this music connect to so many people?

Questioning musicians like Phil Manning and Matt Taylor of Chain who supported Muddy Waters and produced a record with Muddy Waters band.   Researching Matthew “Dutch” Tilders (29/08/1941-23/04/2011) who forged a very close bond with Brownie McGhee and supported B B King.   Interviewing The Foreday Riders, Ron and Jeff King and Jnr & the Gold Tops’ Bruce Bongers who all supported Junior Wells and B B King when they toured Australia in the 1970s. Margret RoadKnight appeared in concerts with Odetta, Taj Mahal, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, as well as American Gospel choirs touring Australia.  It is the rare few who identify with being exclusively blues.  The majority of musicians categorise some blues styles as folk music.  Nearly all musicians for this study derive from an Anglo-Celtic-European ancestry.  Apart from one Australian indigenous musician, Moarywalla also known as Black Allen Barker

Combining elements of African-American blues music and Anglo-Celtic-European folk music makes for a fluid Australian blues music genre.  Interviews with musicians who performed blues music in the 1960s and 1970s reveal an influence on the Australian blues musicians coming after; Geoff Achison, Fiona Boyes, Ian Collard, Greg Dodd, Winston Galea, Peter Howell, Shane Pacey, Lloyd Spiegel,  to name a few.  These Research Notes are organised to discuss the topics of homelessness, charisma, improvisation, Australian convict influences on folk music, the protest song and Vietnam moratorium.   These topics will be represented in the proposed web series “A Conversation About Australian Blues Music: Life Beyond The Mainstream”.  The evolution of Australian blues music has been analysed through a spectrum of blues musicians; by looking for historical and political connections, studying creativity and listening to their experiences.  This music has informed a unique Australian blues music scene/family across Australia.  To my knowledge Australian blues music of the 1960s and 1970s including some prominent Australian blues musicians who have evolved this music from those pioneering days have not been documented


Trailer “A Really Heart Thing” 2min 18 secs

“A Really Heart Thing” – A little blues music research history

Alan Lomax (1993) examined Mississippi Delta and Hill Country blues music and culture for the “distinctive performance styles of black African” origins in The Land Where The Blues Began.  Organised in conjunction with The Fisk University, the book was written from Lomax’s notes documenting 1930s and 1940s field trips recording blues song and music.  Lomax’s interest focused on the people of the Mississippi Delta and Hill Country [Holly Springs National Forest and environs].  Detailing eye witness accounts of treatment that the musicians and singers had to endure at the hands of police and land owners during his recording journey.  The Preface states in 1992 although humanity had moved on to an age of digital technology, that “melancholy dissatisfaction that weighed upon the hearts of these black people” to some extent, today all of us are experiencing this state of being.  His question to Big Bill Broonzy “where does this music come from?”  Big Bill’s reply;

“And the thing that has come to a showdown that we really want to know why, and how comes, a man in the South have the blues.  I worked on levee camps, extra gangs, road camps and rock camps and guys singin’ uh-hmmm this and mmm that, and I want to get that thing plainly that the blues is something that’s from the heart.  I know that, and when so ever you hear fellows singing the blues – I always believed it was a really heart thing, from his heart, you know and it was expressing his feelings about how he felt to the people” (Lomax 1993 p460)

Lomax categorises “feelings” in the music;

  • Anomie – a state or condition of individuals or society characterised by a breakdown or absence of social norms and values, as in the case of uprooted people
  • Alienation
  • Orphaning
  • Rootlessness
  • The sense of being a commodity rather than a person
  • The loss of love and of family and of place

The music gave these people the tools to adapt to an environment built upon economic strategies dictating ideologies of a capitalist system.  Their dreams of better days gave them a sense of freedom from the oppressors and an escape from the tortuous day-to-day anxieties played out in the name of profit. (Keesing & Strathern 1998 p354)    They sung satirical verse that appeared complicit with the stereotypes the oppressors created about them, as Lomax describes, performing with youthful energy in a kind of Br’er Rabbit cunning over Br’er Fox. (Lomax pxiv)

Leroi Jones’ analysis “Afro-Christian music and Religion” in Blues People: Negro Music in White America, states that Christian music was a sanctuary for the slave and a road to an American “assimilation”.   Suggesting that “assimilation” is an “imagined” concept. (Jones 1963 p9.) The ideology of assimilation was to exclude non-White people in the socio-political arenas of society.   To classify, build and portray non-White people the ‘un-assimilated’ as a problem to be excluded from the social, political and cultural spheres of society. (Hage 1998 p137)   The Afro-Christian grew to believe that the concept of Africa would not represent freedom.    Christian Negro’s music was a desire to “cross Jordan” and “see [The] Lord”.   Now waiting until death before reaching the ‘Promised Land’.  “The later secular music protested conditions” [in America] with a new sense of belonging, their intention was surviving better in the hope of living longer.  Emotions were at the core of African ritual dances and songs.  The Negro Church blended African religious and ritual practices diversifying Christian fundamental arrangements.  Meanwhile regarding all secular music, after Emancipation on January 1, 1863 as “devil’s music”.  The violin and banjo were known as the “Devil’s Own” instruments. The sinning church goer, a “back slider” or “heathen”, found a better walk of life and “devil’s music” outside the church after the “Abolition of Slavery” (Jones 1963 p39 – p49)

Jones argues that blues’ form and content have been dictated by slavery the “so-called emancipation.”  England banned the slave trade to the Caribbean in 1807 and abolished slavery altogether thirty years prior to the Americans (Williams in Keesing and Strathern p354)   Through repressive Redemption methods, violence against freed Negroes by insurgencies like the newly formed whites only Ku Klux Klan in the first years after the Civil War and transfer of political and economic power when “the Northern industrialists joined with the Southern planters to disenfranchise the Negroes” rendering them powerless within their own country.  Later through other social repressions such as the segregation laws or “Jim Crow” laws, Negroes became isolated from mainstream American society.  So grew “a verse of social reference on love, sex, tragedy on interpersonal relationships, death, travel, loneliness etc.” (Jones 1963 p51 – p55)   Between Emancipation and the movement of people to the industrial north, the Negroes felt more distanced from American mainstream than ever.  It is reflected and embodied in the music through the removal of the imitated white articulations and the growing emphasis on “the shouts, hollers, yells, spirituals, and ballads” of African influences.  (Jones 1963 p59)

Homelessness is represented by blues music on a profound level.   Jones refers to a line of a song ‘The sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday!” (p63 & p64) This music was not just reflecting that Negroes did not have a house to live in.  It reflected that they were not considered human.   They were treated like a commodity something to be disposed of when the American master did not require them anymore.    They yearned to find a paradise, their Garden of Eden and freedom.  When slavery was abolished, some had left the church, what Jones calls “Primitive Blues” was developed at this time.  Leadbelly once told Alan Lomax;

“When you lie down at night, turning from side to side, and you can’t be satisfied no way you do, Old Man Blues got you.”  (Lomax 1993 Preface ix)

Particularly at the time of “Primitive Blues”, this music represented emotions and reflected the hardship of the Negro’s experience.

I argue blues music’s function was charismatic

Len Oakes’ quantitative and qualitative research on cults and charismatic groups Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities is useful in describing the homogeneity of charismatic groups and blues music.  His interest was in the hearts and minds of the followers and leaders of cults and charismatic groups. (Oakes interview 29/03/2016) Oakes states that the Prophet draws attention to “repressed impulses” and that “charismatic movements often exaggerate neglected trends in society” (p3) John Potts (2009) in A History of Charisma defines Charisma as “a special innate quality” however these definitions have been applied to special individuals (p2).   I have researched blues music under the definitions and descriptions of charisma.   Examining those things attributed to charismatic groups and applied them to blues music

Why has blues music the incredible following across the world?   Where people as young as eight years old can hear a song and be “in love” with this style of music for the rest of their lives and in the Australian musicians’ case, dedicate their lives to this style of music

Cont.  Part 2 – Research Notes – A Conversation About Australian Blues Music: Life Beyond The Mainstream

First published: December 27, 2018 8:00 am


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