Jessica Mauboy is part of a musical tradition stretching back to the 19th century. (Supplied: SBS)
When Indigenous jazz and blues singer Georgia Lee approached the microphone to sing Strange Fruit at the Sydney Town Hall in 1948, she was uncharacteristically nervous.
The song, about the lynchings of black men in the American Deep South, was first performed in public by Billie Holiday in New York’s Greenwich Village nine years earlier.
Lee’s rendition may be the first public performance in Australia of Strange Fruit — which is regarded as a classic protest song of the American civil rights movement even though it was composed by Jewish American poet Abel Meeropol, under the pseudonym Lewis Allan.
The veiled metaphor in the title becomes utterly clear by the third line:
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze…
It was a worldwide hit — but in Sydney in 1948 the song was deeply controversial.
Georgia Lee may have been the first person in Australia to perform the song Strange Fruit. (Getty Images: Terry Fincher)
Three weeks after Lee’s performance, radio station 2GB withdrew the song from a scheduled broadcast. The station’s general manager said the decision was made “purely as a matter of good taste”.
According to a story published in The Sun newspaper, Lee crossed her fingers as she hissed the lines of the song in her deep blues voice.
“I sang Strange Fruit because it conveys the terrible suffering of coloured people in America. I feel everybody should realise the horrors of lynching,” she told a reporter after the concert.
If a song can be said to have a life, then Strange Fruit has an impressive biography.
But the ‘life’ of Ngarra Burra Ferra, heard on the soundtrack to the film The Sapphires, is in some ways even more compelling.
‘Brethren from a far distant tribe’
According to Gabriel Solis, a professor of music and African American studies at the University of Illinois, the story goes at least as far back as 1887.
In that year the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African American university choir, travelled to the Maloga mission on the Murray River near Moama on the NSW-Victoria border.
“The Fisk Jubilee Singers were a choir from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee — one of the newly formed black colleges and universities established to educate freed slaves,” Professor Solis says.
“They got their start in the 1870s, so shortly after Emancipation in 1864.”
He says the group toured the United States and then Europe to raise funds for the university, and went on a world tour in the 1880s.
“They ended up in Australia and spent six years based here,” Professor Solis says.
“While they were here, they were mostly based in Sydney, but they travelled all around.
“You can find records of them performing. They were huge.”
Professor Solis says it’s unclear exactly how the visit to Maloga came about, but it is possible that they were invited to the mission by a resident, Aboriginal rights activist William Cooper, and the mission’s teacher Thomas Shadrach James.
“They got to Maloga and they sang and they enjoyed a day with the folks on the mission. They seemed to have connected substantially,” Professor Solis says.
“They performed mostly spirituals … that was really when spirituals became a very popular entertainment.”
The world-famous Fisk Jubilee Singers visited the Maloga mission in 1887. (Supplied: Fisk University)
Frederick J. Loudin was the group’s choirmaster at the time — and their first African American manager.
“He wrote extensively [about] the importance of having a black-led, black-managed, black business,” Professor Solis says.
By the end of the century the Fisk Jubilee Singers were world-famous — and had been presented to Queen Victoria — so it’s not surprising their visit to Maloga was reported in the newspapers.
In the Mount Alexander Mail, Loudin is quoted as saying:
“I shall never forget the effect of our singing there. The Aborigines were at first very shy of us, but when they heard us sing, they went into a state I can only describe as one of almost ecstatic delight.
“The music of the plantations stirred their souls as no other music could have done, and they seemed to recognise us as brethren from a far distant tribe.
“They followed our carriages for miles along the road, and waved adieus from fences, trees, and rising grounds in a way which showed that were we ever able to return there we would be welcomed with a welcome white men seldom receive.”
Before they left Maloga, the singers did something which seems slight but which had long-term impact on the musical tradition of the Yorta Yorta people who were living at Maloga in the late 19th century.
They left a bundle of songbooks, with the lyrics and sheet music of their spirituals — songs like Swing Low Sweet Chariot and the lesser-known Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army, which describes the biblical story of the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
According the Book of Exodus, it was during their flight from Egypt that God parted the seas so his chosen people could escape.
The pharaoh’s armies drowned.
A song about deliverance and hope
The Cummeragunja strike is is memorialised in the opera Pecan Summer, written and composed by Deborah Cheetham (left). (Supplied: Jorje de Araujo)
This song originated during slavery, a time when it would have had profound meaning.
Based on the Song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15, Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army is a song about deliverance and hope.
According to Tony Briggs, the actor and playwright who wrote The Sapphires, it was his great-grandmother Nannie Theresa Clements who translated the English version of Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army into the Yorta Yorta language.
So between 1887, when the songbooks were given to the faithful at Maloga, and 1937, when the song was performed in Yorta Yorta at the centenary of Melbourne, Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army becomes Ngarra Burra Ferra — or Burra Ferra for short.
When Briggs wrote the musical that inspired the film, he included a note to that the song was offered as a tribute to “its keeper” — his grandmother Geraldine Briggs, a senior Yorta Yorta elder.
In English and in Yorta Yorta, the song had a political context.
Just before the visit of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the residents of Maloga petitioned the NSW Governor Lord Carrington, who was visiting Moama.
They presented their case that a grant of land to be made to every family from the mission.
Many of the families, including those of William Cooper and Thomas Shadrach James, eventually moved to nearby Cummeragunja, where it was hoped they might enjoy greater freedom and more independence from the authorities, who exercised minute control over their lives.
What grew at Cummeragunja was a musical tradition that includes The Sapphires, Jimmy Little and his niece soprano Deborah Cheetham, as well as singer-songwriters Lou Bennett and Benny Walker and hip hop artist Briggs.
The meaning of Ngarra Burra Ferra deepened in 1939, when the residents of Cummeragunja walked off the station over poor living conditions and mistreatment at the hands of the manager and the Aborigines’ Protection Board.
It was the first mass strike by Aboriginal people, and is memorialised in the opera Pecan Summer, written and composed by Deborah Cheetham, whose family walked off Cummeragunja in 1939.
One of the youngest members of the family was two-year-old James, who went on to become the singer Jimmy Little.
Hip-hop, reggae prevalent across the country
Danzel Baker, a.k.a. Baker Boy, is a rapper and dancer from Milingimbi in north-eastern Arnhem Land. (Supplied: Baker Boy)
It’s possible to track the cultural effect of one song, but the story of the wider impact of black American music is harder to delineate.
According to musicologist Dr Clint Bracknell from Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music, the uptake of reggae and hip hop exemplifies this cross-cultural trend in Aboriginal music-making.
“That influence [of hip hop on Aboriginal performers] is far more prevalent now that it ever was and stretches across the whole country,” he said.
“Before hip hop, the first-hand influence of African American music seems to have mainly been an east coast phenomenon.”
He says it’s not just black music from America that resonates here.
“Reggae is a whole other story too — I would argue that Bob Marley has had just as much influence on Aboriginal performers as any African American artist.”
Regardless, it’s a compelling field of inquiry for Professor Solis, who encountered a much deeper story than he anticipated when he set out to record the oral histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander musicians.
“It surprised me but also it doesn’t surprise me,” he said.
“I think if you look at the story of the crucible of race in America, music is always central to it. It is always a key part of that story.”
He says he expected the story to be about the “circulation of commodities” — recordings, sheet music and books — but it wasn’t.
Professor Solis says at the heart of it, it’s about the power of song.
“This is a story about people, and it’s about people moving around the world,” he said.
“Music a token for us to interact with each other.
“Singing together and dancing together is powerful.”