In this part of the world, Black History Month is too often Birmingham History Month. This year especially, it’s easy to get caught up in the narrative of the street drama of 1963 and to view it as a microcosm of the struggle for civil rights everywhere.
However, if we widen the lens, we can see that institutionalized racial prejudice is not native to Jones Valley, but can be found pretty much anywhere in the world skin colors differ.
One such place is in the austere terrain of northwestern Australia, where being black means you are descended from the oldest residents of the island continent, the Aborigines. Much as happened with Native Americans, the colonization of Australia by Europeans in the 18th century brought diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis to kill off the indigenous dwellers in droves. Those who survived saw their lands taken by British settlers for ranching, and by 1933, the remaining 74,000 Australian Aborigines were segregated from the white population.
Half a world away from Birmingham, in 1962, the blacks of Australia—the Aboriginal people—won their right to vote, but the title to their tribal property was denied them by a peculiarly British legal concept called terra nullus, which in essence stipulated that these lands did not exist before British explorers discovered them.
Though Roger Knox was born into Australian apartheid, he has transcended his humble beginnings to become one of the most acclaimed country singers Down Under. He’s just released a new CD entitled Stranger in My Land, and if you’re a fan of old-school country, the sound of the honky-tonk, you’ll listen with new ears when you hear what Knox does with the genre.
So, as Darius Rucker doubtless hears constantly, why is a black man singing country music? Only because we’ve become used to pigeonholing recording artists need this question arise. In the rural South of the early 20th century, white and black musicians shared the instrumentation of their vernacular music; fiddles, banjos, guitars and the like. Folks living in the primarily agrarian South shared life experiences as well, which explained why white and black households alike played records by Jimmie Rodgers, “The Blue Yodeler,” on their Victrolas. Though black music eventually moved off in the direction of jazz, rhythm and blues and hip-hop, that didn’t stop artists such as Ray Charles, Leadbelly and Charley Pride from achieving mainstream success in country-western music.
Country music came to Australia with American servicemen during World War II, and its classic themes of drinking, loneliness and love gone wrong resonated among the Aboriginal population. Roger Knox, raised as a “bush boy” in New South Wales, grew up singing gospel songs, but loved the sound of classic country. One week in 1970, working a tobacco farm near Tamworth (its Country Music Festival, years later, would jumpstart Keith Urban’s career), the young Aborigine was talked into singing a song at a popular pub called Joe Maguire’s.
“It was the most scariest thing I had to do, is get up in front of people and sing,” Knox recalled years later for filmmaker Miriam Corowa. “It made me feel good, so I did it again the following week and I got better and got gamer and got more confident.” Confident enough, in fact, to put together a band that showcased the Tamworth festival several times. Knox’s success led to album recording, national acclaim and a grueling schedule of performances.
Given the wide-open spaces of western Australia, the band had to travel to its one-night stands on small planes. It was on one such tour in 1981 that Knox almost followed Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves into Hillbilly Heaven. On a night hop to the next gig, his overloaded plane crashed and caught fire, burning over 95 percent of his body. Even worse, the plane dispatched to rescue the victims crashed as well, and Knox wound up hospitalized for six months.
Unable to play guitar anymore, Knox was discharged with another classic country malady: an addiction to painkillers. He spent the next two years in bed, but, desperate to get well, returned to his bush country home for some homeopathic remedies. Treated by his aunt with exotic mixtures based on goanna fat and yaraa leaves, Knox kicked his habit and returned to music performance, accompanied by sons and nephews in the Euraba Band.
When Jon Langford, of the punk band the Mekons and country-flavored side project The Pine Valley Cosmonauts, heard “The Koori King of Country Music” sing in Australia some years back, he was drawn to Knox’s exotic stylings—“the sound of cultures colliding,” he termed it— and knew he wanted to record with him. The wonderful CD that resulted, Stranger in My Land, out this week, matched Knox with guest artists Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Dave Alvin and Alabama’s own Charlie Louvin, among many others, but the result is no stereotypical country album. Indeed, its eclectic and personable introduction to a hidden culture might well remind you of Buena Vista Social Club.
Steeped in the lore of the Outback, this collection of tunes conceived by Koori Country artists and folksingers alike will immerse you in the natural beauty of New South Wales, in songs such as “Home in the Valley” (“Where sun rises over the mountain/’long the ridge where the sweet wattles grow”), but it’s the polemic swathed in cool country pickin’ that may catch your ear. Knox is unafraid to take on racism in “Ticket to Nowhere” (“I’ve got a ticket to nowhere/written on my face”) or “Brisbane Blacks” (And why we fight is to be recognized/only to be felled by your blind eyes”).
Roger Knox sings with the wisdom and fatalism of one who’s come through the fire. His yearning for “Dreamtime,” the Aboriginal state of grace, echoes back to Blind Willie Johnson and King David’s lyre, reminding us that real country music can come from any country.