Research Notes 4 – A Conversation About Australian Blues Music: Life Beyond The Mainstream

letters from fred mar i
letters from fred mar i

“Scars Of The Soul” 

During the 1960s and 1970s, the protest song focused mostly on Vietnam.  At the time there were other little known protest songs by other little known blues singers.  There were activists motivated to bring the soldiers home. The following story journeys through some of these experiences and conveys attitudes at the time

research notes 4 – a conversation about australian blues music: life beyond the mainstream

5 Dec 69.  2150HRS SVN Time

Well, old cock, finally got this far without too much trouble.  The trip over was quite good but a little tiring.  We stopped at Darwin to refuel & then Singapore for breakfast & changeover of crew. Saigon was then only about 11/2  hours away.   

Arrived at Nui Dat about 12:30 on Wednesday 19th Nov […]  the base itself is quite large & our company area, in general, is probably the best.  I have a tent to myself, & at the moment I’m trying to start a garden outside it. 

The other night we had a stand-to about 9pm[…] The platoon commander of 1 platoon reckons he saw two figures outside the wire & opened up on them, but he only fired a few rounds.  We then called for illumination […] but couldn’t see anything.  So then we fired a few DF’s, which seem to surround this place.  So far we’ve had no information on this night in queston.  However intelligence seems to point to a possible attack against 1ATF, in retaliation for the killing of 4 high ranking officers some 2 weeks ago by the Task Force D & E platoon.

Yesterday I went up with an American FAC while he directed an air strike against an enemy camp located the day before. […]  On the way back to Nui Dat, we flew around some of the country side, & the pilot allowed me to fly for a short while. […] it was a wonderful experience never to be forgotten

Tomorrow we’re going out for 24 hours to work with some tanks & APC’s.    Whilst it is familiarisation training we also have the task of stopping enemy moving south through the Bink Ba rubber.  Next week we go on our first operation which is supposed to last for about 1 month, however, I wouldn’t mind betting it goes for longer than that.  Oh well, it just means more money saved & less booze to spend it on. […]  

Well, folks, I might have my beauty sleep now prior to action.  Fred

Broderick Smith “Man Out of Time”

Mid 1966, Broderick Smith was about eighteen, playing harp and vocals for Adderley Smith Blues Band.  Dressed like Paul Butterfield Blues Band they were involved in the roots scene playing urban blues.   Connected with the folk scene, the jazz scene and beat group scene; promoters would lump them in with the Rolling Stone, Yard Bird style clubs

Brod met Dutch Tilders around the scene and although he wasn’t much older, maybe three or four years, they regarded him as kind of like a father figure;

“Dutch was never in the Adderley Smith Blues Band but he played with us.  We played with him, I did some recording with him on Bootleg in the early 70s.   Dutch would have parties at his place, wild parties, we’d all go to Frankston somewhere and …get you know… wake up covered in mud in the backyard or whatever”

Dutch Tilders and The Blues Club “House of the Rising Sun”

“I don’t know when I fell in love with it to be honest because when I was a little boy I was aware of Josh White and vaguely of Big Bill Broonzy.  I came up through the folk roots [scene] not a pop background although there’s pop music in my [history].  So I gravitated from Burl Ives and that sort of thing into the country blues.  Initially acoustic country blues Sonny Terry and John Estes from Texas.  Those two acts, particularly, were the first acts that knocked me out.  Then when I heard Muddy Waters doing the original version of Mannish Boy in the 50s, my hair stood on end and I was gone.  I sort of moved more on that.  So it’s basically anything that would make my hair stand on end and it sounded like real men’s music.”  Broderick Smith interview 8th May 2019

research notes 4 – a conversation about australian blues music: life beyond the mainstream (Courtesy The Foreday Riders private collection)

Brod met The Foreday Riders, while doing National Service in Holsworthy, south west of Sydney.  Friends who were in the cast of “Hair”, living in and around Darlinghurst, put him up.  There was another guy in the Army who, around ‘69 to ‘70, introduced Brod to The Foreday Riders.  They played at French’s Wine Bar on a Friday and Saturday night.  Brod would sit in with them and jam with them

He knew of The Foreday Riders because Adderley Smith Blues Band would advertise in Go Set magazine, or Oz or whatever.   The Riders knew about Adderley Smith Blues Band too, kind of like sister/brother bands.   Ron and Jeff, Jill Drury (Tweedie) [not pictured], John Murphy on bass, Roly Utzsinger on piano and Geoff (with a beard) [that would have been Rick Lock] on drums

“Ron was a very good harmonica player and a very good understanding of playing in different tunings.  [The Riders] tended to be vaguely academic a little bit but that’s also the nature of the Sydney scene to some degree.  They had great riffs.  I remember they always had really, great riffs.  And I don’t know I just seemed to fit in with them as friends and we are still friends after all these years”

Lettters from Fred:

research notes 4 – a conversation about australian blues music: life beyond the mainstream

13 Feb 70   Dear Terry, […]  Thanks for the newspaper clippings – they were very interesting to read.  As you can probably imagine we’re receiving quite a few clippings from home after the recent mine incidents and I did read the one from the “SMH” of 2nd March which gave a pretty accurate account of the incident involving 1PL. It would appear that the pressure’s on the govt to start withdrawing from SVN.  Ron Saw’s article and Pat Burgess article would probably be right.  When we were there, we were carrying 5 days rations, 5-6 water bottles plus wearing flak jackets, which are SOP for the Long Hais.  As you can imagine, its impossible to move very far, or for that matter, very carefully with that much gear.  The day of the mine disaster, 28th Feb, our B Coy was scheduled to do a heli-assault along about 21/2  thousand metres of ridge line.  At that stage, a platoon from C Coy was up the Long Hais about as far as us, but to the NW & 1 platoon was being pushed down into a re-entrant as a block also.  I now hate to think what might have happened if B Coy’s assault had have got under way.  We’d have probably lost a complete coy!! Anyway, 1pl found a booby trap in the location they were heading for, shown on the map as “ruins”, & they’d just got approval to blow the booby, when one of the engineers stood on the mine.  Probably because 1 pl were bunched up they took that many casualties – I don’t know.  The second mine was set off by, & killed, one of the section comds.  He’d cleared a path to a rock & was guiding a chopper to him which was lowering down another mine detector & engineer.  As he reached out to take hold of the detector, he off balanced and stood outside his cleared lane & initiated the other mine.  This killed him, wounded the engr being lowered & damaged the under-carriage of the chopper.  It was probably a million to one chance.  After the whole thing was over, I heard there were only 2 mines in that area, & they both were initiated. 

According to some folk songwriters, the 70s were really hard to write songs because there wasn’t much to protest about except Vietnam

Vietnam was your big protest

You could leave a job one morning and grab another job the next day.  Jobs were everywhere

But you could also get drafted

You were given a rifle and told to shoot at somebody you hadn’t been formally introduced to

“I was at Mess one morning about three hundred guys were there and I was getting bored like you wouldn’t believe. Nobody was into Jazz or anything like that.  I remember standing.  I just stood up and yelled out ‘DIZZY GILLESPIE!’  Really loud, nobody answered me.  Then I yelled out ‘JOHN COLTRANE’ or something.  Then way off, I heard this voice ‘Charlie Parker’ … and it was a corporal.  We got up and walked towards each other and hugged each other, like we were in a wilderness, and his name was John Baird.  John, he was a character and a half and he introduced me to The Foreday Riders“

Brod’s father offered to send him to Canada, his brother was there, because he didn’t believe in it.  His father was in the Aboriginal Advancement League, the Australia Party … he was very altruistic wanting to help people, kind of person.  Not necessarily a socialist but definitely not a capitalist.  Brod said, “well … no, the family should give one son to the country even though we don’t believe in this.  I’m going to go in the Army and I’m going to do it but I’m not going to Vietnam.”

So coming from a military family, Brod went in the Army.   He enjoyed a lot of the Army and a lot of the bush stuff, it was fun

Brod did his darnedest not to go to Vietnam.  He didn’t agree with it because he’d read a lot about it.  He didn’t agree with the Domino Theory.   These folks had been fighting since 1935 for a unified country and they had been ripped off all along the line

“I don’t want to go into great details about this because guys that went to Vietnam … the more I’m talking the more I’m undermining them as people.  And it’s got nothing to do with them.  Its governments tell the army what to do.  They are just innocent farm boys a lot of them … you know and their dad’s said ‘well I did my bit it’s time for you to do your bit’ and that kind of stuff.  So there’s no more questioning that initial point … the questioning came later”

Brod is a big believer that if you send people into harm’s way then you should treat them accordingly when they come home.  Without any documents to prove anything, his feeling is they [the government] probably don’t help them enough.  Particularly in an older age cos around fifty a lot of them do … what they say, hit the wall and they fall apart.  Brod says that guys are taught not to express their emotions.  At some point they do come out one way or another and there doesn’t seem to be enough help for them

In Holsworthy, Brod became emotional and felt he was being coerced into going to Vietnam.  He ended up working as “Batman” to The Brigadier

The Brigadier, was a very famous soldier at the time, he wasn’t one of the ten Chiefs of Staff.  Sometimes at night, he and Brod would talk about family and stuff.  He’d have a few scotches.  He asked for Brod to be his batman because the Brigadier knew Brod didn’t believe in Vietnam.   He wanted Brod to sign on for three more years and go to England with him but Brod thought “Nuh”

“This is 1969 and one night we were sitting, he told me that at that point, eight of the ten Chiefs of Staff didn’t believe in Vietnam.  Only two did.  They thought it was wrong.  They thought we were doing it to suck up to the Yanks.  (Again, we are going into that dangerous area for those guys.)  He said to me one thing he said, “have you ever wondered why we have low casualties?”  and I thought because we are great soldiers.  He said you can think that if you want but he said, “we had lost six hundred over ten years, one is too many but we lost six hundred.”  He said that the politicians come to the Chiefs of Staff and tell them they want to have this war or whatever and the Chiefs of Staff examine it themselves and go ‘No Problem’ [Brod salutes] Then they go away and fight that war […] but its purpose is to bring back as many guys alive as possible …”

research notes 4 – a conversation about australian blues music: life beyond the mainstream

28 February 1970         Long Hais  SVN

Dear Terry,    Ureka – 600m up in the Long Hais & still in one piece!  We’ve (A Coy) now been in the Long Hais for 4 days & at the moment we’re in an ambush position with quite a good track in front of us & a good view of the surrounding features.  B Coy today flies to the W of our posn & starts to push E while A, C & D Coys provide blocks. […]

How did we come to be here?   On the night of Sunday 15th, a platoon from C Coy, who was protecting the land clearing team, contacted an estimated 60 VC [Viet Cong] in their (C Coy) ambush posn.  The en [enemy] returned fire & 9 platoon was flown in first line amms [ammunitions] during the night.  A platoon from D Coy moved out that night in APC’s to assist.  By Monday night, B, C & D Coys were in the general area, with BHQ set up near Route 44.  A Coy was deployed further E into the swamps & mangroves to stop any VC breaking out that way.   (page 3/.)  For the next few nights they hit the Long Hais with airstrikes, gunships artillery, mortars & Shadow.  There was a report then of about 60VC going to Dat Do for medical treatment & moving E towards the ocean via the river which runs from Dat Do, to be picked up by boats.  1 Platoon shot up a boat one night & the next morning directed fire onto 4 people they saw on the beach.  Gunships finally took these 4 PW, but they turned out to be “draft dodgers.”  We then moved back to the Dat & redeployed 2 hours later in APC’s to the Long Hais.  The morning of the 25th our MFC was killed by a booby trap as coy HQ was setting itself up.  The area had been checked for mines, but who’d expect a bloody booby trap under a brick in a pile of rubble.   B. & C. coys in their clearance of bunkers destroyed just on 100 odd bunkers & found  (page 4/.)  A tremendous amount of gear in caches.  As these initial incidents seem to give us a firm footing into at least some of the area, our Co moved into this area, & our deployment to 5RAR’s AO was aborted for some time.

By now you will have read &/or heard about the 8 killed by a mine today, & the many wounded.  As I was writing the last page (page 3) we heard an explosion to our South where 1 platoon had moved.  They found an M26 grenade booby trap & as they were preparing to blow it, one of the engineers stood on an M16 mine.  7 of the killed were from 1 platoon & the other was an engineer. […] my platoon sgt, who was acting pl. comd of 1 pl while their pl comd (also a sgt) was on R&R, was killed. 

Terry, I have now lost 2 good friends & it’s not a nice sensation.  I don’t know how many were wounded, but it took from 1130 till 1700 to get everyone out  (page 5/). The reason being of course that the choppers couldn’t get in because the area had to be treated as mined.  Enough of that –

Broderick Smith “When The Minstrel Passes”

Brod believes country music influenced Australian music.   The landscape Australians’ imagined, through drovers and the big cattle stations, linked to American country music.   Most of the records being released here were having to go through an English filter, which is why, he says, “we never got any blues much at all.  A bit of old jazz but we got lots of country music”

Buddy Knox “Squeaky Chair Blues”

Buddy Knox didn’t hear much of the blues growing up.  When he was 7, his mother taught him D, G & A on guitar.  His father listened to a lot of country music but early days he listened to a lot of rock n roll.  Buddy’s dad, Roger Knox, was an influence:

“Yeah to be the son of a famous singer it feels good and I got opportunities that I wouldn’t have got without him in the early days.  Yeah it was always going to be a good thing, I just like being around the music.  I watched him play and just learned from there I didn’t get one-on-one from anybody.  And I think he would have learned [that way] too.  He told me that, one old guy from where they’re from, he could play a bit and if [Roger] cut up some wood for him, he’d teach him another chord.  That’s what he was doing.  But I didn’t go in for any of that, just watched him.  And it was good to be around him cos it gave me an opportunity to do what I do.”

Robert Johnson is an influence of Buddy’s too.  Robert did things that no one else could do.  Son House and Charley Patton saw him before he disappeared.  When he comes back, he was so good and playin’ better than they could.  The story goes he went to the crossroads at ten to midnight and sold his soul to the devil.   He came back and played the blues better than anybody.   Robert Johnson, he had to learn how to play polkas, country, a bit of jazz styles, as well as the blues songs.  He’d play round, other than black people, he could play round whites and some of them want to hear that stuff.   So he had to learn how to play it

The Robert Johnson legend suggests a suffering of the soul.  As Buddy asks “Do you have to suffer to have the blues?”

“Early times that’s how it was.  My grandfather didn’t play the blues, he lived it and that’s what I do I live it.  I still live it, you know it’s not 1920, 38 or 40 its different times now so none of it holds you back.  But I still live it.  I had to because my father gave it to me and his father gave it to him.  But we don’t even worry about it.  We just play the music that makes people happy”

Buddy understands the struggle that has been part of his Aboriginal heritage or just being in a situation where it’s just hard

“It doesn’t matter which race you are from we understand the struggle.”  You don’t need to struggle to get the blues and to play blues music.  There’s the music and there’s also the struggle.  You know what I mean the hardship if you’re in the certain different races.  So not today you don’t need to struggle”

For Buddy “the struggle” is doing what you need to do to get where you need to go.  You just do it.  He says he has sold his soul plenty of times just to get where he needed to go.  Robert Johnson’s story is the same even though it’s grounded in legend

The shallowness of mainstream culture, the superficiality of capitalism endows blues music with an attractive depth of honesty.  Blues music exposes a heart of lived experience.  That is the attraction to blues music, a conversation of human experience

So is cultural music only able to be authentic when performed by the original creators/artists?

When discussing playing the didgeridoo with Buddy Knox, he concedes that non-Aboriginals do play didgeridoo well.  However, as far as his community are concerned only Aboriginal people have the spirituality to play a didgeridoo authentically

Here is a long talked about debate among Australian blues people.  Apologetically, they say “it’s not our culture”.  When discussing enjoyment of creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (2013) suggests;

“Unless enough people are motivated by the enjoyment that comes from confronting challenges, by discovering new ways of being and doing, there is no evolution of culture, no progress in thought or feeling.”


Timeline of Aboriginal Resistance featuring Black Allan Barker – “Run Dingo Run”

Buddy recorded Black Allan Barker’s song “Run Dingo Run” but he doesn’t know much about him.  In fact, most blues people who Amanda has researched never heard of Moarywaalla aka Black Allan Barker

Matt Taylor met him only once.  According to Matt he was like Fred McDowell, Mississippi Fred McDowell you know just sort of banging at it and just vibing over the top.  Matt said “he was a very primitive blues singer”;

“Well you go back to the 1920s in the South where the guys who were playin’ didn’t have many skills but boy did they have some solid emotion.  There was just something about it … if you cleaned it up it would be terrible.  But in the primitive state it’s in, it’s just magnificent.  I only ever saw him the once and I thought it was great because most Aboriginal people are into country music.  I hadn’t met an Aboriginal person who was into blues before until I’d met Alan.  As I said, I only met him the once, I saw him play and really enjoyed it.  Many years later I heard that he’d died but again one of the early pioneers of Australian blues”

The idea of stealing “theft” is given a new perspective in Doc Reese’s Story (Lomax 1993)  His story reveals that because their lives had been stolen from Africa, it’s his opinion that to steal from the white man was “evening up the score.”(p288)  So too have the Aboriginals, you may not understand their argument about land rights but you can understand that their land has been stolen from them.   Denis R Byrne (2003) in Nervous Landscapes: Race and Space in Australia refers to Aboriginal mind maps and cites the people of Birpai country (Taree NSW) before the settlers came.  They would leave the ocean and walk to a freshwater stream where they would eat and live.  The arrival of the white settlers meant construction of fences across the walking paths.  The settlers would shoot the Aboriginals for trespassing on “their” land and deny them access to food, water and their home

Margret RoadKnight “Girls In Our Town”

Margret RoadKnight is indefinable.    Her hit song “Girls In Our Town” is a reportage on a slice of life and a song that many Australians can identify with

Whether activism, politics or just bringing an awareness of issues through her music, Margret has been involved in social issues.   She feels that the music that finds a voice [in the mainstream] doesn’t say anything controversial and awkward situations are totally unknown.   She also doesn’t feel that blues music today taps into social issues too much “It’s good time music”.   Margret cites Taj Mahal stating that he is personally engaged in political issues but his music doesn’t reflect those ideas

Paul Robeson was a person definitely engaged in political activism.   Margret was the Music Director, and one of the creators, of “Robeson Keeps Rolling Along” a show that celebrated his centenary birthday in 1988. The show travelled to nine regional Performing Arts Centres throughout Queensland.  Anywhere from Cairns to Mt Isa then on to Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne too

Paul Robeson is famous for his performance of ‘Ol Man River’ in “Showboat” both on stage and film

Paul Robeson sings for the workers at Sydney Opera House

Margret comments on Robeson’s influence in the song:

“When Showboat was staged in England, he did ‘Ol Man River’ and then he was in the first film.  He wasn’t particularly political in his early days, but he did draw the line at the “N” word.  He said “do you mind if I don’t sing niggers all work on the Mississippi?”  He sang “Coloured folk work on the Mississippi” and then he actually tossed it out.  He didn’t sing any of those things he just started somewhere else in the song.  I’ve got about a dozen versions of it and “You get’s a little drunk and you lands in jail” became “you show a little grit and you land in jail” He changed a lot of things along the way.  He was still singing that even on his [Australian] tour of 1960.  He could still be singing it from the 20s, he turned it almost around and it became a militant sort of song”

research notes 4 – a conversation about australian blues music: life beyond the mainstream

(courtesy Margret RoadKnight private collection)

Margret originated in the folk revival scene “the folk scare days” of the early 60s.   That scene tapped into the issues of the day; moratoriums about Vietnam, early environmental movement and women’s movement just to name a few

“we were more focused on the civil rights movement in America without realising that we should have been concentrating on our own but we could use some of those songs to make some points and yeah so it was a mixture.”

Not all but most folk singers were political, lending their voices and their names to causes or benefits.  Covering songs like Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary  

Margret admits that the songs didn’t change anything.   But at the rallies, the songs strengthened camaraderie among the protesters and cultivated an enthusiasm for the cause.   The moratoriums were in support of conscientious objectors rather than ‘gung-ho’ patriotism and called into question why Australia was involved in Vietnam;

“we should never have been there.  America shouldn’t have been there and we are still following, we still do it.  We learn nothing”

When Amanda discussed his time in Vietnam with Fred, he told her that the worst time for him was when Australia Post went on strike, around the time of the Moratoriums.  The letters from and to Vietnam were sitting on ships waiting to be delivered.  This meant that the soldier’s only link to home, away from the war, was stopped.   It also meant that those at home did not know if their sons, husbands, men were still alive

LETTERS FROM FRED               24.04.70

Dear Smith, Having waited so long for word from you, I finally weakened & decided I’d best write to you & keep the rear link going.  How are you keeping?

At the moment we’re still out on our 3rd operation, phase 3 – phase 1 was 10 days ambushing around Ap Suoi Nghe – phase 2 Cordon & Search of Ap Bac (part of HoaLong) & now phase 3 – a 3 battalion exercise – oops, wrong, operation E of Dat Do & SW of Xuyen Moc, with elements of TFHQ tagged on to 8RAR FSPB, (probably so they’re qualify for their combat medal).  The general area seems to be void of anything interesting, although on the first night 1PL contacted 7-10 en[enemy] whilst moving to their AP at about 2000hrs.  No bodies were found, but 3 sandbags they found had blood on them.  On the 22nd, 7RAR had a contact in a bunker system with 2WIA [wounded in action] (own) & neg. en results.   Also on the first day the 20th, 5pl B Coy while on APC’s hit an 80lb mine which blew the APC over.  11 Aust WIA & the driver subsequently died, after they amputated both legs to free him.  Yesterday morn, 6RAR had a mine incident which killed the FO & seriously wounded the CSM.  6RAR are now back at the Dat ready to RTA.  This morning, 8PL had a mine incident & had 2 WIA.  So the tally for phase 3, overall is NIL enemy for 2KIA [Killed In Action] & 16 WIA [Wounded In Action].   Lousy odds. 

It looks like we might be quitting here in a day or two & ambushing around Dat Do & HoaLong.   I hope so

Chris Finnen “Nuclear Wasted”

First published Friday April 10, 2020 @ 8:00am

©Amanda Dweck March 2020

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