If you have more than a passing interest in the history of Australian music, you’ll be aware of the seminal role that Clinton Walker has played in chronicling our recent musical history, particularly the dusty backroads and fringes of popular music that would—but for Walker’s persistence and diligence—have been forgotten and lost for all and ever.
Most notable has been Walker’s contribution to preserving and valorising the history of Aboriginal music, particularly through his book Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, first published in 2000 and revised and enlarged in 2015.
No Australian author has contributed more to documenting and preserving a part of our musical history that would otherwise have remained a minor ethnographic footnote in the annals of popular culture. Buried Country has spawned a CD, documentary, a dedicated You Tube channel and a live stage show.
I don’t often agree with Nicolas Rothwell but cannot but concur with his nomination of Buried Country as his book of the year for 2015 in Australian Book Review.
For Rothwell, Buried Country:
… is a re-edition of a masterwork first published fifteen years ago, but expanded and reconceived so thoroughly as to be something new: an account of vernacular Aboriginal creativity in mid-century Australia, the influences it soaked up and the impact it made – a back channel history worth more than a thousand academic sociologies. Roger Knox, Bobby McLeod, Vic Simms: these are the heroes of its pages: ‘Where the crows flies backwards’ is its central song, an anthem that defines both an era and a state of mind. What more can a book do than bring you back the past and make it real – especially a past you never knew?
The follow-up companion volume to Buried Country—which mainly documented the contribution of male Aboriginal country musicians is Walker’s tenth book Deadly Woman Blues: Black Women and Australian music published last month.
Early reviews were enthusiastic and glowing—for the Sydney Morning Herald’s Fiona Capp Deadly Woman Blues is a:
… vibrant graphic history of black women singers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, salvages and celebrates the many talented singers who have been largely overlooked by those who document mainstream music … From the first classical Indigenous sopranos, Lorna Beulah and Nancy Ellis, to rising pop stars such as Jessica Mauboy, this marvellous book is bursting with gutsy, black voices that demand to be heard.
Nathania Gibson at industry journal Books + Publishing pointed to the singular importance of Deadly Woman Blues:
Walker also calls attention to lost opportunities and unfulfilled promise—‘less about superstars than shooting stars’—and he doesn’t shy away from detailing the double standards and disadvantages black women faced, and still face today. The brightly coloured illustrated portraits inspired by Popswops trading cards (also by Walker) offer an alternative view to the historically male-centric imagery of popular blues music and culture … this accessible yet unflinching collectible anthology will appeal to art and music history fans looking for stories that centre the female experience.
But it appears that somewhere along the way Walker failed in his due diligence and research. Earlier this week the Sydney Morning Herald—among others—reported that Deadly Woman Blues would be withdrawn from sale by publishers NewSouth and pulped, “never to be re-printed”. NewSouth told Fairfax that it had:
… agreed to withdraw the book from sale, to pulp unsold copies, to never reprint it, and to issue a series of corrections on its website. It has also vowed to examine its own editorial procedures.
Contacted by Fairfax on Tuesday, Walker said he was reeling from the response to his work, which he had intended to be a celebration of a neglected part of Australia’s musical history. However, he conceded he got the process of compiling it horribly wrong. “I’m in a real state, but I’m sure it’s not half the state I’ve managed to put other people in,” Walker said. “That’s why I’m leaping to apologise to a number of women who feel they have been violated and misrepresented by errors of fact that I admit do exist in the book. “I didn’t try to obscure what I was doing [in the book, which he began working on in 2010], but I didn’t take all the appropriate steps,” he added. “I’ve been involved in underclass music forever, and in some ways this is no different, but in other ways it is very different.” Ideally, he said, the fracas would be a spur for “a young indigenous woman” to write about the topic.
News of the immediate withdrawal of Deadly Woman Blues sparked a outraged pile-on we’ve not seen for a while in Australian media and literary circles. For mine the more informative—and informed—comment came from music industry insiders. Toby Creswell, journalist and (like me) long term colleague of Clinton Walker, provided his thoughts on Tuesday night over at Facebook:
You may have read about the controversy over Clinton Walker’s book. It is one of the most shabby moments in Australian culture and the behaviour of the so-called intelligentsia is just disgusting.
1. People feel free to comment on a book they have not seen and know almost nothing about.
2. There are serious factual errors in these complaints such as Clinton is exploiting people for financial gain – that’s a joke right? You make more in a Nike factory than writing this kind of book. That it could have a negative effect on someone’s career – really? People don’t want to be written about? Well, you know if you make art you invite artistic commentary and it’s not up to anybody to control what is said or by whom or where. Freedom of expression is fundamental and sometimes things will be wrong.
2. Clinton has admitted that there are a couple of factual errors to be corrected. Fair enough. They will be corrected but the vilification of Clinton around this is just appalling. This is a guy (and he and I have had plenty of differences) who has championed indigenous music for decades. He was there in the trenches when no one else was. But that counts for nothing when four aggrieved voices make complaints which are, on the best reading of them, very minor ones. For that level of sinning we’re going to pulp the stories of 96 other black artists whose stories will now never be told? Because, let’s be clear, no one other than Clinton is going to put the time and the effort into telling these stories – all that art will get lost from history.
3. Clinton deserves respect for decades of work and the benefit of the doubt and to acknowledge that to err is human, correct the errors and keep your eye on the main game which is surely to create a multi-cultural, respectful world.
4. It’s really about time people stopped responding with knee jerk outrage and thought about the issues, the context and the appropriate response. It’s really about time also that people stood behind their colleagues and friends.
Comments in reaction to Creswell’s post ranged far and wide from outrage that Walker failed to follow the well-known and widely accepted ethical research protocols developed by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and that, as a whitefella, it was wrong for him to tell the stories of blackfellas without their permission and full approval of all published information.
To that last issue of cultural appropriation, journalist Richard Guilliatt pointed out that the logical extension would be that every journalist in Australia would be forbidden from writing about an indigenous person’s life without their copy-approval.
For Guilliatt this:
Sounds like a recipe for group-think. There isn’t a writer in Australia who’s done more than Clinton to celebrate indigenous musicians and share their stories. He’s trodden that tricky ground of being a whitefella writing about black lives with care and genuine passion. Yet now on the basis of a handful of factual errors in Deadly Woman Blues, he’s being vilified by some of the very people whose work he’s tried to honour. This could probably have been resolved without a book-burning if the few people who were hostile to the book hadn’t been so keen to vent their self-righteous fury on social media rather than engage in a dialogue.
I was at the book-launch in Sydney when Clinton kept his cool while [he was subjected] to 20 minutes of abuse. Anyone who knows him would recognise the absurdity of the accusations (“misogynist”, “white colonialist” etc) … Who else was ever going to attempt a book like Deadly Woman Blues, let alone carry it off? It’s all pretty sad, but Clinton at least has been honest about his mistakes and dignified in his response, unlike the Facebook lynch-mob baying for his blood.
There are no winners in any of this—a group of women are (rightfully it seems) aggrieved by Walker’s (admitted) failures in research and diligence, a respected author has suffered a terrible fall from grace and none of us (well, most of us) will get to read what is/was without doubt a valuable contribution to our shared musical history.
For mine the singular failing lies with the publishing house NewSouth and with plummeting standards in Australian publishing. Most, if not all, of the perceived failings in Walker’s research methodology should have been picked up by a perceptive editor. That this didn’t happen is as much a reflection on editorial standards in Australian publishing as it is upon the author. And the knee-jerk and all-too-soon reaction to pulp the book, “never to be republished”? Hopefully that decision will be reviewed and commonsense will prevail.
Perhaps those that feel aggrieved will have the good grace to reach out to Clinton Walker and work with him to ensure that the second edition of Deadly Woman Blues will correct his mistakes and give us all a better book that no-one else but Clinton Walker could write.