Graham Seal and Rob Willis, editors, Verandah Music: Roots of Australian Tradition (Curtin University Books, 2003)
Australia has much in common with the United States. Despite being a British colony, its culture bears the influences of each of the myriad immigrant groups that have arrived on its shores, as well as those of the indigenous peoples who inhabited the land long before any Europeans appeared. These different ethnic groups brought their own musical traditions to Australia, and many performers built a significant local reputation playing folk music. With Verandah Music, Graham Seal, Rob Willis, and a small army of researchers and musical collectors have not only compiled a broad assortment of songs covering the full spectrum of Australian folk traditions, but also tell the stories of the people who made the music that was popular in the local dance halls and on the front porches. The book consists of brief biographies of a litany of small-time singers and local legends who've graced every nook of the Australian landscape over the past century and into the present. Accompanying this book are two compact discs of music, performed either by the people described in the book or by musicians of the present generation inspired by the older performers.
All told, the stories behind 47 different musical performers and groups are presented in Verandah Music. Nobody's story is expounded on in very much detail, but this allows for as comprehensive a list of performers as possible to be included. The writing style is not dry or academic at all; in fact, the editors clearly intend for this book to appeal to a broader base of people than just music scholars and field researchers. Anybody curious to read about amateur and low-level musicians leaving a big impression in a very small area will enjoy this book, as many fascinating stories are contained within.
Wendy Eva learned how to make music with a gum leaf through her father, an old bushman who learned the trick from Aboriginal players. The original Wedderburn Old-Timers had all played in local dance bands in the twenties and thirties, but didn't become a band until 1975, when the presentation of an old fiddle to a local museum led to a few phone calls, a benefit concert, and an avalanche of requests to perform throughout northern central Victoria. Swedish immigrant Ulf Steinback was given a nyckelharpa as a gift, but as he couldn't find anyone in Australia to teach him the instrument, he took "lessons" over the telephone with a player back in Sweden. Immigrants from Malta brought with them the fatti, epic songs extending beyond an hour which recount family histories and other factual events.
Maynard Bani composes kores, Christian religious songs in Aboriginal style and language, for a church on his native island in Torres Strait. Sally Sloane was fairly famous in her prime for singing and playing a variety of instruments in an Irish style, but always had tea and food ready for anyone who came by her house to hear her in a more intimate setting. The editors state that "one of the motivations for compiling this book was to make these traditions better known and to document a slice of Australia's rich and varied folk life," and Verandah Music succeeds nicely in this regard.
Verandah Music suffers a loss of cohesion between the book and the two compact discs, however. The songs are not organized to correspond with the passages in the book, and the absence of an index makes cross-referencing a bit of a challenge. Worse, the song titles are only listed on the discs themselves. I'd have preferred not to place a pair of CDs into a photocopier in order to know who was singing or playing what. Most of the music contained on these two CDs consists of either field recordings or live dance hall performances, and almost all the tracks have some charm to recommend them. For example, both The Bill Case Band and Jack Lynch contribute humorously angry looks at army life. The gum leaf is played on a few tracks; I couldn't begin to tell you how it is played, but the instrument sounds in various hands like a theremin or a supernatural jazz horn.
The one piece I didn't really care for was the 22-minute segment of a fatt, which dominates the second disc. If the musicians were willing to play that long, they could have at least taken a few minutes to ensure that all the guitars were in tune with each other first. They could also have come up with a bridge, or key change, or anything to deviate from the same melody and chord progression over and over and over and over again. Oh well, I guess fatti are an acquired taste. Still, the second disc is actually the better of the two, because it also contains a couple of gems. "Jacky Jacky," a famous Aboriginal song with as many different versions as there are people who sing it, is performed by Herb Patten in a style pleasantly evocative of Harry Belafonte. Renowned Aboriginal singer Seaman Dan's ukulele-driven "Forty Fathoms" is guaranteed to put the listener in a boat out on the ocean, or at least in a very comfortable chair on a tropical beach. Newcomers Kate Burke and Ruth Hazleton perform an exquisitely harmonized arrangement of "Lovely Nancy," originally popularized by Sally Sloane. Despite the fact that most of the music is performed by amateur or semi-professional musicians and recorded on portable equipment in homes or dance halls, the discs generally hold up well, and will maintain the interest of the inquisitive listener.
Verandah Music covers a very broad range of performers, albeit in relatively small detail. The book is clearly not aimed at people looking for very specific information on one or two performers in particular. That being said, anybody curious about how music develops in a particular town or region will find all sorts of interesting and entertaining vignettes about people from many different backgrounds, linked simply the fact that they all made music in Australia, and an extensive bibliography and list of references in the back will aid anybody desiring more information.