Review: Toby Martinon Jimmy Little

From Little Things

When reading Frances Peters-Little’s new book, I was thrilled to see a mention of Jimmy Little’s 1999 comeback gig at Sydney’s Hopetoun Hotel (the ‘Hoey’) in Surry Hills. I was there that night. In fact, the Hoey was pretty much my lounge room at the time. My own band, Youth Group, played there a lot, as did other like-minded, scrappy rock bands of inner-city Sydney. But this was something different, something with more gravitas. Little had just released the Messenger album, a collaboration with Karma County’s Brendan Gallagher, containing versions of loved Australian indie rock and post-punk songs, such as The Church’s ‘Under the Milky Way Tonight’ and Paul Kelly’s ‘Randwick Bells’. These recordings were informed by the singing styles of an earlier era: gospel, jazz, early rock ‘n’ roll all fed into it – as did Little’s enveloping, warm, tremulous voice, his imaginative phrasing, and the nuanced arrangements. It was as if he had taken these songs back in time, laid them flat, rebuilt them, and then returned them back to the end of the twentieth century. Watching Little’s version of The Go-Betweens’ ‘Cattle and Cane’ on the ABC’s 10:30 Slot you can hear how personally he inhabits the song. Dressed in a suit, taking his time with the lyrics, he appears to be singing about his own rural childhood (one so different to that of Grant McLennan, who wrote the song). He draws on a deep wellspring of experience in his phrasing of the words. Messenger gave a new angle to Little’s career – bringing him to the ears of new audiences, like those of my age and background – and helped listeners understand the robustness of these songs. 

As well as his sound, it was his life, and what he stood for, that made Jimmy Little such a seductive figure. Not only was he our deeply stylish crooner, our Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra, our own treasure from another era with a voice and a presence to match, but he was also Aboriginal. The fact that he managed to carve out a career in the 1950s and 60s – in the assimilationist, pre-Referendum era – seemed miraculous and heroic. He represented a history we hadn’t been told about, one where Aboriginal pop stars managed to defy the odds and become glamourous household names.  

Around this time I began to dig a little deeper into Australian music history. I was starting to find out that while Little was the biggest Aboriginal pop star from this period, he was by no means alone. Few books on Aboriginal musicians existed then, and none like Peters-Little’s biography of her father, but there were some glimmers. Through the recordings of the artists themselves, and through Clinton Walker’s Buried Country (2000), a multimedial exploration of Aboriginal country music in book, CD, and documentary form, I began to discover artists such as ‘Little’ Vicky Simms (later Vic Simms) and Georgia Lee – artists whose legacies grew into the 1970s and 80s and informed others such as Roger Knox, the Country Outcasts, and Auriel Andrew.  

These discoveries led me to do my own PhD, which was a cultural history of country music in Australia. What my research showed was that country – or ‘hillbilly’ as it was known until the 1960s – illuminated the broader patterns of life in Australia during the twentieth century. It tracked how Australians enthusiastically embraced modernity through the latest forms of American pop culture, but also how they looked to idealised notions of the bush and country to find a respite from a changing world. Australian artists and audiences took American hillbilly music – the latest craze – and applied it to their own experiences of country, work, family, and migration. Country songs provided a case study of the ways in which pop music quietly advocated for progressive politics and social justice movements. As I’ve written elsewhere, Slim Dusty was writing songs about historic Aboriginal massacres and the exploitation of Aboriginal labour in the pastoral industry in the 1950s and early 1960s.  

Following my PhD, I undertook a ‘Folk Fellowship’ at the National Library of Australia where I researched Indigenous songwriters from western NSW in the 1950s and 60s – in particular, collaborating with James MacLeod on the songs of Dougie Young (MacLeod’s grandfather). A Gunu man from Barkandji country, Young recorded and released a series of hard-hitting and bitterly funny songs about race relations in Wilcannia. Outside of Aboriginal communities, he remained a cult figure; however, his songs influenced the next generation of performers such as Archie Roach and Roger Knox, who went on to reach much wider audiences.  

Such evidence countered two dominant narratives in Australian cultural history: firstly, that popular music is a kind of ‘opium for the masses’, made for commercial gain, and propping up the status quo by pacifying and sedating audiences; and secondly, that Australian culture was ‘silent’ on Aboriginal justice issues until anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner’s 1968 Boyer lectures. What country music history showed, in fact, was that issues of Aboriginal justice were being discussed in the post-War period, but that these conversations were often happening outside state and academic institutions, and in particular were being driven by Aboriginal popular music artists and activists.  

As Peters-Little shows, Jimmy Little was one of those artists. In 1958, five years before his breakout smash hit with the gospel song ‘Royal Telephone’, Little released the hillbilly-flavoured track, ‘Give the Coloured Lad A Chance’, a song written by his father about going from employer to employer looking for work and trying to convince them that an Aboriginal man would work as hard as a white man. This bold and courageous statement for the 1950s was released on EMI’s offshoot Regal Zonophone. It was certainly not underground music.  

Peters-Little’s wise and balanced biography is one that Little richly deserves. It combines the care, soul, and perspective of someone with a deep personal connection to the story with an academic’s interest in research and eye for the larger context. Peters-Little has already had a significant career as a filmmaker and scholar, and this book showcases her talents as a storyteller who is able to move between detail and the bigger issues at play. Peters-Little also shows how her father’s gentleness was mistaken for passivity, and that he has been misrepresented as merely a beneficiary rather than an instigator of more tolerant attitudes – a revelatory and important part of the book. It also very sensitively juxtaposes Peters-Little’s own voice with that of her father, who is well represented through many rich, and often lyrical, quotes. This book very much reads like a conversation between the two of them. It is also full of vivid and fascinating details – from Aboriginal gumleaf bands of the 1930s, to the lively hillbilly music scene of Sydney in the 1950s, to the political activism of the 1960s – that serve as both the backdrop to Little’s life, and part of a broader cultural history.  

More than just a great biography, Jimmy Little: A Yorta Yorta Man also allows readers to understand everyday life for Aboriginal people on the east coast of Australia in the mid-twentieth century, often seen as the highpoint of the ‘Assimilationist’ era. While this book traces many of the hardships and struggles of that moment – the policies of the Aboriginal Protection Boards, the often inhumane conditions on the Missions, the role of the church in spiritual and musical education, the constant movement of families to follow seasonal work, and the ever-present threat of the removal of children – it also demonstrates that, despite these struggles, Aboriginal people found agency, expressed identity, experienced joy, protested, made art, connected through sport and music, led political conversations, changed people’s minds, and worked toward a better future. The brave and ingenious ways that Aboriginal people took what was available, such as gospel and hillbilly music, and fashioned these things into expressions of culture and selfhood make for a powerful story and constitute a key aspect of Australian history. 

For instance, and as Peters-Little’s book explores, gumleaf bands were a feature of Aboriginal communities across Eastern Australia in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Practitioners played the leaf by holding it tightly across their lips and blowing air through it, the leaf functioning in a similar way to a saxophone reed. This art form encompassed traditional and ongoing cultural uses of the instrument as well as elements of modern pop music. As Laura Case has shown, gumleaf musicians worked with violinists and banjo players to create Aboriginal jazz bands. An important part of Aboriginal communal life, gumleaf bands also frequently performed for non-Aboriginal audiences at official functions, such as the opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Amanda Harris’ recent book, Representing Australian Aboriginal Music and Dance 1930-1970 (with contributions from Shannon Foster, Tiriki Onus, and Nardi Simpson), shows the importance of such ‘official’ performances for maintaining identity and culture in this period.  

This kind of research fleshes out the backstories of such performers, shows the extent of musical cultures, and brings to light stories not often included in conventional histories. What these scholars model is the way that intimate histories of music can evidence cultural exchange, cultural survival, and expressions of identity and community. Some folk music researchers and collectors were pointing the way towards this kind of history some years ago. In his 1988 article for Australian Aboriginal Studies, Chris Sullivan describes the incredible amount of activity among Aboriginal popular musicians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, its importance to communal identity, and the ways in which artists like Jimmy Little drew on this musical and cultural wellspring. Peters-Little’s book is a vital contribution to this field of history, providing first-person accounts, new information, much-needed detail, context, and an Aboriginal perspective. 

Some of the most memorable parts of Peters-Little’s book describe Little’s parents and his early life. Jimmy Little was born in 1937, the son of Frances ‘Sissy’ McGee and Jimmy Edward ‘Kunkus’ Little Sr. Sissy was a Yorta Yorta woman, who grew up in and near the Cummeragunja Mission on the Murray River, and Kunkus was a Yuin-Monaro man from Wallaga Lake on the south coast of NSW. Both were musicians: Sissy was a singer and Swiss yodeller whose beautiful voice was a key part of the well-known Cummeragunja Choir; Kunkus was one of the Wallaga Lake Gum Leaf Band’s ‘flashiest performers’.  

The Wallaga Lake Band had one of the best reputations in the business, and it was because of its extensive touring network that Sissy and Kunkus were able to meet. The Band came to Cummeragunja as part of an extended tour that had already seen them walk the 670 kilometres from Wallaga Lake to Melbourne, and then journey another 250 kilometres to Cummeragunja. 

The choir and band began to play shows together, and Peters-Little’s descriptions of Aboriginal music-making in the 1930s shows just how diverse the scene was and its attraction for mass audiences outside of Aboriginal communities: 

Gumleaf playing would generally accompany in harmony with the hymnal choruses that were sung – as well, there was blackface minstrelling, along with travelling shows and campfire recitals. The band appeared at football dances, on the backs of trucks at district shows and gymkhanas, and at sports picnics on the beach; they would sing Black American spiritualist songs and do traditional dances with sticks and spears. Step dancing, tap dancing, burlesque, clowning, accordion and fiddle playing became a part of their cash-based economy, with them hamming it up as much as they could for their audiences, who were a mixture of White and Black Australians. 

This type of historical detail is beautifully interspersed with Jimmy Little’s personal recollections of these shows as a young boy: 

My father was a dancer – in terms of traditional dance and show business, vaudevillian dancing – and he was a comedian […] As a boy in the audience, I remember watching Dad on stage with a lantern and a little fan, and some crepe paper […] Mum, on the other hand, would come out in a lovely evening gown, and sing in a clear voice, singing Swiss-type yodelling songs. 

Jimmy Little identified as a vaudevillian, an entertainer comfortable across a variety of musical styles and contexts, and from these accounts of his parents you can see how his upbringing informed this flexibility. Peters-Little presents a Little who was not just a country singer, but a singer equally at home with pop, blues, gospel, and rockabilly. His decision to leave his label in 1959 and go to Festival Records was based on the very shrewd analysis that ‘Regal Zonophone wanted to label me as just a hillbilly country singer’. He was right. Without that move, there would have been no ‘Royal Telephone’ – and very possibly nowhere near the same degree of stardom. 

The first lines of Little’s song, ‘Yorta Yorta Man’, which provides the name for Peters-Little’s book, is: ‘I was born on the banks of the Murray/ Yorta Yorta is my mother’s tribal stand’. As well as being a Yorta Yorta man, Little was also the descendent of several political agitators, and closely linked, at a very young age, to one of the biggest political events of the nascent Aboriginal civil rights movement, the Cummeragunja walk-off. In 1939, 300 Cummeragunja residents protested the appalling conditions of the mission by staging a strike and walked off the station, including Little’s parents with a very young Jimmy Little in tow. Another walk off followed, and while the Victorian government eventually broke the strike, it was activism like this that helped pave the way for the movement’s later achievements. The walk-off is dramatised in the acclaimed opera Pecan Summer, written by composer and singer Deborah Cheetham-Fraillon, who is Little’s niece and author of the prologue to Peters-Little’s book. 

Following the walk-offs, Sissy and Kunkus were forced to leave Cummeragunja in order to find work. The description of the period that followed – with Kunkus’ employment in the timber industry across southern NSW – illustrates the intersecting networks of family that Aboriginal people relied on for support, the hardships and joys, and the ever-present threat of the Aboriginal Welfare Board’s taking children away. It was also in this period that Little remembers his father’s radio accompanying his early mornings before work: ‘I would get up and he would have the radio on, the old wireless, and would be listening […] to country music, hillbilly music. All the early cowboys of Australia and America were always on the radio and I soaked all of that up’. Country music was intertwined with rural and itinerant labour, to which it provided the soundtrack and which in turn provided the music with much of its inspiration. 

Each chapter of the book begins stylishly with the lyrics from a Little song, or a poem that he intended for a song. These poems are lyrical and detailed, full of sensations and imagery from Little’s life. The poem that begins the chapter on ‘Woorigee’, the name of the Aboriginal community on Yuin country, near Nowra, where the Little family eventually settled, shows the deep affection Little had for nature, community, and family growing up, and how fondly he recalls these years: 

Paperbark, spotted-gum and tea-tree 
Line the pathway that led towards home 
From the corner crossroad by-way 
Right there at ‘Greenwell’ Point road […]  
The Williams, Mumblers and Hickeys 
Carpenters, Connollys and Coombes 
Chapmans, Kennedys and Perrys 
And McLeods to name a few. 

(The verses list well-known Aboriginal families from the Nowra region. Bobby McLeod also became a singer-songwriter and an activist who helped found the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.) 

However, this more blissful period was shattered by Sissy’s death, caused by tetanus from an oyster cut. At the time, Sissy was just twenty-nine, and Little thirteen. This event was another key influence on his music: ‘In my own deep feelings for the loss of Mum, I used to pour my emotions out in playing guitar and singing songs […] I felt I needed to express my love of life, and what blessings I had, even though my family had been disrupted’. It is impossible not to think that the melancholy and gravitas that infuse Little’s music, as well as its positive spirituality, are partly the result of this experience – an experience alchemised into healing for others. 

Following Sissy’s death, Kunkus moved his family further down the coast, back to his home of Wallaga Lake. This period is shadowed not just by the death, but by the more intense pressure from the Aboriginal Welfare Board. Unlike so many of their family and community, Kunkus’ children escape being taken. Once in Wallaga Lake, as Little entered his mid-teens, he began performing publicly up and down the south coast at talent quests and variety nights. Often thought of as a holiday destination for Sydneysiders, the area, it struck me as I read the book, has such a layered social history – not only pre-1788 Aboriginal history, but also one that reflects life and culture and continuing connection to Country: gumleaf bands, fishing expeditions, travels up and down the highway, interlocking family dynasties, and spiritual connection with the natural world. Little’s life, music, and poetry provide a keyhole into this history. 

Little describes his father’s vital support in this period: ‘He bought me my first guitar, and he was the one who helped arrange my audition on Amateur Hour. And he’s the one who walked around Sydney […] waiting for me for the audition […] in York Street – and we barely had a quince to spare’. The two were also artistic collaborators. Kunkus’ song ‘Give the Coloured Lad a Chance’ seems to merge the experiences of father and son (and, indeed, of so many Aboriginal men) and was recorded by Little in 1958. It was, as Peters-Little says, ‘probably the first ever Aboriginal protest song to be recorded for commercial purposes’: 

My name is Jimmy Little 
And from Wallaga Lake I came 
A charming little spot along the coast… 
I went to the city  
Trying hard to find some work 
I travelled the city night and day 
I went from place to place 
With starvation on my face 
But the people say no coloureds they employ 
I’m an honest Koori lad
And to work I’m not afraid
To please you, I’d rather sing or dance 

Kunkus put his heart, soul, and money into Little’s career and was able to see his son’s star rise during the 1960s. Kunkus himself continued to perform and was involved in official celebrations of Aboriginal culture as they developed in this period, including playing the gum leaf for a NAIDOC event in Sydney in 1961.  

Little left Wallaga Lake when he was sixteen; how he departed and got to Sydney is worthy of an epic, or at least a Coen brothers’ film. He hitched a ride overnight on a truck loaded up with produce for the Sydney markets: ‘I remember climbing up on top of the load of beans and sitting right in the middle, on the truck, way up top, travelling all evening till early morning until I arrived at Sylvania Heights.’

The Sydney he arrives in is bustling with live music, and this part of the book is a charming description of that milieu: the Kalang showboat country music harbour cruises, concerts at town halls, clubs and pubs, and the burgeoning radio scene, spearheaded by 2GB’s influential Amateur Hour. Little plunges into the hillbilly scene, performing as the ‘Continental Duo’, with English guitarist Pat Ware – which morphed into the ‘Jimmy Little Trio’ – all the while living in a boarding house in St Peters and commuting via Marrickville (I appreciated the local Sydney details of this book) to his work at a timber yard in Mascot. The work ethic he inherited from Kunkus meant that Little kept his day jobs for several years, remaining a ‘city cowboy’ – as he put it – unable to tour extensively due to his work commitments. It is not until 1959, and his acting in the film Shadow of the Boomerang, that Little became a full-time musician.

This part of the book is also a history of Aboriginal Sydney in the mid-twentieth century – a multicultural and vibrant world. The continuing displacement and movement of Aboriginal people meant Sydney would go on to have the highest population of Aboriginal people of anywhere in the country. Peters-Little describes how Southerners – Yuin and Monaro – moved into La Perouse, northerners – Gamilaraay – lived around Redfern and Erskineville, along with those from the west such as Wiradjuri. Sporting events like the Redfern All Blacks rugby league games, and music and social events such as the dances at Waterloo Town Hall, provided a place to meet.  

In fact, it is at a dance at Waterloo Town Hall that Little met his wife-to-be, Marj (Marjorie Rose Peters). Their union lasted the rest of their lives, and was characterised by deep mutual respect and admiration. As Little comments, while other pop stars of the 1950s and 60s were out on the town, he came home after gigs to his growing family – an unusual position and one that helped keep him grounded and calm. When their daughter Frances Claire was born, Little wrote a song about her that became one of the sixteen songs that Regal Zonophone released.  

These early releases helped Little develop a broad audience – there had already been colour spreads and interviews in mass market publications (including a 1959 story in the Women’s Weekly about the birth of Frances Claire that called him a ‘part-Aboriginal’ singer). However, it was his 1963 release, ‘Royal Telephone’, on his new label Festival, that turned him into a fully-fledged pop star. ‘Royal Telephone’ was the first song by an Aboriginal Australian to achieve genuine mainstream success, reaching No.1 on the Sydney charts and No.10 nationally. This was a gospel track, a re-recording of a Lutheran hymn, made popular by Burl Ives a few years beforehand, that featured a seemingly non-confrontational lyric about a hotline to the Lord.   

The book does not shy away from some of the backlash to the song, in particular the criticism that it was assimilationist in ‘selling Christianity’ to Aboriginal people. Peters-Little describes, for instance, the way in which visual artist Tracey Moffatt used the song to ‘grating’ effect, juxtaposing it with harsher images, in her video artwork Night Cries (1989). Little himself said, ‘I think some people may have thought I was pushing a religion [but] I wasn’t influenced by any particular affiliation, because I just grew up in the faith of my own Aboriginality teachings, from our tribal ways, which I combined with the Christian teachings.’ Very interestingly, Little goes on to explain that he sees the song as reflecting wonder and glory in the natural world, particularly the landscapes in which he grew up. Peters-Little’s account of this helped me understand that a ‘royal telephone’ is not just a hotline to Jesus, but also a description of spiritual epiphanies. For Little, when we have this experience – of the deep beauty and spirituality of nature – it feels like we are on the ‘phone to glory’. Like so much pop music of the mid-twentieth century, it embraces modernity and technology – the gleaming telephone – but also seeks respite from it. 

The criticisms aimed at ‘Royal Telephone’ were reflective of wider misconceptions about Little, namely, that he was an Aboriginal celebrity who conformed to White ideals of respectability; that he passively ‘sat on the fence’ over Aboriginal rights and was not an activist. This book very bravely and clearly resists such characterisations by showing that both Jimmy and Marj withstood immense pressure to assimilate. They embraced the opportunities opening up to Aboriginal people, but did not lose touch with their Aboriginal identity, families, and culture, seeing themselves as ‘modern Aborigines’.  

As Peters-Little shows, Little was an activist, though pursued a form of gentle or ‘quiet resistance’ – different to the type of activism and public protest that characterised the post-1967 era – often working behind the scenes. He was aligned with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), a key organisation that sought to change the Constitution, the subject of the 1967 Referendum. Legendary activists such as Charlie Perkins and Bobby McLeod held him in high regard and acknowledged that they were all fighting for justice.  

Another misconception that Peters-Little successfully dispels is that Little’s success was a result of the growing tolerance of non-Aboriginal people for Aboriginal people in the 1950s. Rather, it was precisely because of the talent and fortitude of Little, and people like him, that attitudes began to change. As she writes, ‘There was barely any publicity about the political campaigns of Aboriginal people during the 1950s, nobody was singing songs in Aboriginal languages or about treaties and stolen children. Even the 1967 Referendum and the Australian civil rights movements only happened after Jimmy Little became a radio star and national pop idol.’  

By bringing a much needed intimate and Aboriginal understanding to the bigger patterns of cultural history, music, and activism in the mid-twentieth century, Peters-Little’s book has added depth and substance to my knowledge of Jimmy Little’s life. What I saw and heard at that 1999 Hoey gig was the performance of a wonderful and stylish singer who had overcome the barriers of structural and everyday racism to commune with a large audience. As Peters-Little’s book shows, this required work, intelligence, dedication, and community support. Peters-Little illustrates not just Little’s musicality and gentle, generous spirit, but also his toughness and his smarts – characteristics that have not always been foregrounded. Little was visionary and strategic about his career and music, as he was with the civil rights movement. His successes grew from his early life which was full of love and care, connection to Country and family, and a spiritual world, but also hardship, grief, and activism. Peters-Little’s portrait is of a quiet, but still highly principled man, who drew on his family and community, and used his musical talent to connect and unite people. More than just a country singer, indeed.