Research Notes 3 – A Conversation About Australian Blues Music: Life Beyond The Mainstream

Part Three

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Mississippi Chicago Copyright 3aa scaled

Further research is needed for this study on the roots of Australian folk music.  According to Keesing and Strathern (1998) in Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary Perspective, England had banned the slave trade to the Caribbean in 1807.  Citing Williams’ (1944) notes “before African slaves were economically advantageous in the Caribbean, poor whites had been sent from England in virtual bondage and their labour exploited under conditions almost as bad as those endured by the black slaves later.” (p 354) Of course, songs by the convicts transported to Australia would echo nineteenth century Irish and English folk songs.  Chain’s Black and Blue as a work/protest blues song reflects those days of convict servitude.    Weissman (2005) notes that the conceptualisation of blues as a protest song differs among scholars.  He argues that John (father) and Alan (son) Lomax had white conservative political values stating that there was no trust from the people they recorded.  Alan Lomax (1993) describes blues music as satirical when recording a prisoner “BAMA” singing The Yahoo song.  With a prison guard sitting opposite, Bama “launched into his version of the yahoo song.  This took nerve, because it was the piece that other singers were afraid to sing before whites.”  The lyrics sung by Bama reveal stereotypical racial vilifying, the words the white man would say and thought about negroes.   Bama laughing at the prison guard sings a song with derogatory verses, here is one of the verses;

“Girl, bring me my shotgun,

                        Rifle ain’t got no trigger

                        We goin down to the party tonight,

                        Might meet another nigger” (Lomax 1993 p279)

The Protest Song developed out of adversity.   It was a way for blues people to steal a sense of power that had been stolen from them.   It was a way to describe the conditions they had to live in and surreptitiously pass on those feelings to others in the same predicament.  Paul Oliver (1990) in Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues reveals that the share-cropping scheme as it was “worked out” by the land owner led black “croppers” and tenant farmers into more and more debt that enslaved them once again. (p14) This is where the rise of the protest song takes shape.  Indirectly songwriters like Sleepy John Eastes and Big Bill Broonzy wrote ironical songs representing the land owners and boss-men as “being all right” (p19)

Industrialisation brought work to the cities however for the segregated negroes forced to live as ‘other’ in their own country, there was a whole new category of oppression to navigate.  The most vile of which was lynchings.  Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is testament to these heinous acts of inhumanity.  Big Bill Broonzy’s “Black, Brown and White” is about the attitudes most negroes looking for work had to endure.    Matt Taylor of Chain describes the style of blues played in Black and Blue as a “Work” song.  I suggest that the lyrics are projecting an incident that happened to him when he was sixteen.  In 1965, he was taken to the Roma Street police station in Brisbane by “two or three big burly Queensland detectives” who, regarding him as a juvenile delinquent, had decided his shoulder length hair was too long and cut half of it off to make him go to the Barber to get the rest cut off.  This incident had a devastating effect on the innocent teenage Matt, although he had decided that he would be a blues man because “I knew now what it was like to be hated for the way that you looked” (Taylor Interview 27/11/2017)

Most Australian musicians like Ron King and Jeff King of The Foreday Riders, recognise that their lives have in no way been as hard as it was for American negroes;

“[…] the music to us has always been for enjoyment really and it is a way of blowing off steam.  We’ve always thought that but we haven’t had, I mean everyone has trials and tribulations in their life you know and we’ve had some dramas but no more than anyone else so I wouldn’t describe us as tortured souls “

(The Foreday Riders Interview 06/07/2017)

Oliver (1990) states that “the overseers and straw bosses were well aware that anger or humiliation that gains an outlet in song is less likely to seek one in physical violence.” (p115)

The British Blues Explosion was an evolution that brought blues music exponentially to a world audience.  There is some information that shows the music was taking off in countries like Holland and Germany.  However, it was through the United Kingdom (UK) that Australian’s really connected to blues music.  The question is why did this music connect with some post-war British youth and not the pop music of the time?  What was it about this music that resonated?   Arriving in the UK via merchant navy sea men, people like the Beatles in Liverpool and particularly John Mayall in Manchester, first heard this music through friends or over the radio. (Figgis 2003).  Stuart Hall’s Resistance through Rituals: Youth Sub-cultures in Post-War Britain describes why sub-cultures form whereby they try to solve problems in the contradictions of the parent [mainstream] culture.  Interviewed in the documentary Mose Allison: Ever Since I Stole The Blues, Pete Townsend of The Who states;

”without hearing [Mose Allison’s Young Man’s Blues] I don’t think I would have written “My Generation”.  Sings ‘People try to put us down, Talkin’ bout my generation, just because we get around.’ It was very Mose influenced […] the anger is there isn’t it?  You know for me it wasn’t about the old men having all the money.  In my post-war generation, the old men had all the respect because they’d fought the war.  What you had to do you had to stand back when the old man walked by”

Here is a contradiction of post-war English society because Pete Townsend’s generation were not involved in a war he felt they were not respected

The Vietnam War was characterised as an atrocious war when contrasted with the Second World War.  An attitude developed between those who fought and lived through the Second World War about the ‘baby boomer’ generation born after 1940.   In Australia, the Government conscripted young men to fight the war from 1965 – 1975 many were maimed and lost their lives.  The attitudes of the 1939-45 generation regarded conscientious objectors to compulsory military service as either cowards or members of marginal religious sects, whereas the Vietnam generation was increasingly willing to see them as heroes and martyrs.” (Edwards 1997 p352)   An attitude of disrespect cloaked the Australian soldiers returning from Vietnam.  Protests and moratoriums against the Vietnam war were held around Australia.  The protest songs were used to rally people to the cause of bringing home our soldiers from Vietnam.  Margret RoadKnight attended these protests lending her voice to the cause

Matt Taylor wrote a song “My Arse Is Black With Bourke Street” after the huge Moratorium held in Melbourne

Why can’t I fly, birds sing so free

So hard I try, just like Tweetie

They’ve taken away, they’ve taken away, everything the little boy had known

His cars and his train, his joys and his pain

And the right he had to be full-grown

No-one would employ that blonde long-haired boy

Now at least those troubles all are gone

They’ve taken away, yes they’ve taken away, everything the little boy had known

Birds fly southwards, no need to reason why,

But why do the bad ones live, and why do the good ones die?




The Web series “A Conversation About Australian Blues Music:Life Beyond The Mainstream” should be completed by 2020.  For more information on Australian blues music and updates follow

First published: December 29, 2018 @ 8:00am


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