Deadly Woman Blues

Clinton Walker


Edited extract from the introduction to Deadly Woman Blues, by Clinton Walker

For a long time, black women were, at best, a spectral presence in Australian music, barely breaking through the invisible barrier that prevented them from being seen as human beings, let alone stars. Mostly, they just hovered on the fringes as exotic visitors from elsewhere or unwanted reminders of a blight all too close to home.

But since the 1990s, black women have risen up to become a more vital component of Australia’s musical landscape. The 2012 feature film The Sapphires, which hit a feel-good chord as the story of a 1960s Aboriginal girl group touring Vietnam to entertain the troops, is but the highly polished tip of the proverbial iceberg.

This book is the story—the secret history—of black women in Australian music. It starts pretty much the day before the whitefella arrived and comes right up to the present day, or yesterday. It is not so much a sequel as a companion piece, or better still sister volume, to Buried Country, my book/film/CD on Aboriginal hillbilly music.

‘Australia should be ashamed of its treatment of women and especially the disgusting treatment of Aboriginal women’, Janis Koolmatrie wrote in We Are Bosses Ourselves, in 1983, ‘ […] our bodies and minds have been raped, battered and damaged’. It is remarkable enough, then, that Aboriginal women have survived at all, let alone even broached the achievements outlined in this book.

When Buried Country came out in 2000, the germ of the idea for Deadly Woman Blues was already in my mind. In Buried Country, I shoehorned in a chapter called ‘Deep North Blues’; I say ‘shoehorned in’ because in the narrative of Aboriginal country music, I could only pass off such a structural digression—on mainly women, mainly from the Deep North, mainly singing jazz and blues—as a sort of counterpoint, a nod to the flipside of the dominant tradition that cast that A-side in sharper relief. I couldn’t resist putting in something because, like so much of the rest of Buried Country, it was history in danger of disappearing. But even then it was apparent to me what I would have to do: expand that chapter out into a whole other book on its own.

It was only when that imperative collided with a way to actually do it that the book became possible. Deadly Woman Blues exists only as a consequence of its graphic format. As I came to appreciate the full extent of the story after nearly two decades of on-and-off research, I realised that the best way to tell it was to present it as a series of illustrations, a gallery of portraits, accompanied by the briefest of biographical notes. Like an album of old-fashioned cigarette cards, or set of bubblegum cards. Like a variation on the now highly collectible Popswops cards that Scanlens put out in Australia in the mid-1970s.

Deadly Woman Blues isn’t oral history like Buried Country, it’s graphic history. Not investigative but impressionistic. Based not on interviews but images.

One of the urgencies of Buried Country was to talk to ageing artists before it was too late, and these interviews gave Buried Country its narrative backbone. But Deadly Woman Blues could never be oral history. There are too many characters, too spread out, too many long gone. So much is already lost. This is history barely noted by the wider world even at its brightest flickering. It became a salvage job just to remember half these women, certainly those in the first two parts of the book, let alone offer more than the barest sketch of them. Sometimes, quite literally.