The Songs Back Home: The Mission Songs Project

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Artist/s: Jessie Lloyd, Monica Weightman, Leah Flanagan, Karrina Nolan, Jessica Hitchcock, Iain Grandage, Ed Bates, Rob Mahoney. Bonus Tracks by: Archie Roach, Lillian Geia, Lynelda Tippo, Alma Geia
Category: Indigenous Australian
Label: The Aviary Recording Studio, Melbourne, MSP002, 2017
www.missionssongsproject.com and www.jessielloyd.com
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“This album defies categorisation in an exciting and innovative way. It captures and revives older songs created between 1900 – 1999 by Indigenous Australian mission communities.”

Simultaneously, the aim of the album and related Mission Songs Project is to actively sustain these extremely important musical contributions. Hence, the CD comes with a booklet of lyrics and guitar chords to facilitate the learning of songs on the album and stimulate performance. The album is therefore both historical as well as contemporary and most certainly post-contact.

The Mission Songs Project, led by Jessie Lloyd and supported by a raft of eminent scholars, musicians and funders alike, successfully unearthed secular mission songs which were, and sometimes still are, sung after church on Indigenous missions. It explores the day-to-day life on these missions, including complex issues such as Indigenous mission identities alongside more universal human experiences such as love and loss. It unabashedly presents songs with titles such as Outcast Half-Caste (track 2, by Micko Donovan and Mary Deroux). The term half-caste in today’s context might be considered extremely derogatory, but historically was used regularly to describe people of mixed heritage. The songs also present oral histories of individuals, including narratives about the inferior nutrition served on missions. Track 4, Down in the Kitchen (composed by Alma Geia) for example, recalls the watery tea, lack of meat and doughy damper which were mission staples at the time.

The songs are also filled with optimism, and speak of survival and good humour in times of great distress. Track 7, Middle Camp by Eric Craigie, for example, protests against the closing of an Indigenous camp, Middle Camp, near Moree in New South Wales. The lyrics however, are a testament to the composer’s strength of personality. The words state that the singer will build a middle of their own, defying law-makers by pitching their tent to ‘avoid the rent’, seeking to re-build what was lost when the camp was closed and the community moved.

This contrasting material, with its mix of optimism, happiness, humour alongside sorrow and hardship, characterises the main artist Jessie Lloyd’s wish to promote conciliation through music. As Jessie Lloyd describes it: ‘This whole country should come together and have a big family meeting’ to discuss and talk about the past, sing about it and build bridges in a way that only music is able to do: in an educational way which seeks to promote understanding, empathy and musicality without white-washing history.

The Artist/s and the Music

Mission Songs performers

Jessie Lloyd is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander musician, originally from the tropics in Northern Queensland. She grew up in both Queensland and New South Wales and is a vocalist, guitarist, bassist and plays the ukulele as well. Her formal qualifications she obtained at Abmusic in Perth, WA in 2002. As well as being an extremely gifted stage performer, Jessie composes and produces her own material as a creative entrepreneur. Her work on the Mission Songs Project has received support from a variety of sources, including two fellowship grants: one Creative Fellowship (State Library of Victoria, 2016) and a Folk Fellowship (National Library Australia, 2017).

The Songs Back Home album also features several other talented Indigenous musicians, some of whom feature on specific tracks (5, 6 and 10 for example).

The music is simple, with easy-on-the ear diatonic harmonies, sung and played beautifully by the various musicians on the album.

The Country, the People, the Language

The songs on the album come from the Torres Strait down to the Bass Strait, having connections with places such as Palm Island, the Torres Strait, Framlingham mission in southwest Victoria, Tasmania, Moree in New South Wales, and Darwin. They were composed by respected Indigenous community elders and song men and women. In some cases, the composer remains unknown, such as for track 6 Old Cape Barren.

The songs are predominantly in the English language. This is quite deliberate. Jessie Lloyd feels that Indigenous English-language songs have been unnecessarily overlooked because it was felt that the singers and composers did not have ‘a culture’ because they lacked a language of their own. This Jessie feels, is a failure to acknowledge that Indigenous mission communities over time developed their own distinct cultures and identities which are equally valuable.

This is not to say that all mission culture and English-language materials have remained undocumented. Christian practices and mission histories are increasingly being captured by scholars, the media and through the arts. English-language songs by Indigenous performers have been written about by for example Breen (1989), Walker (2000) and Dunbar-Hall and Gibson (2004). Some of these written texts about music include brief references to missions and music-making on these. None however, have provided an in-depth study of mission music across a variety of communities. Neither has anyone approached this type of enquiry using musical performance and practice research methods, although Swijghuisen Reigersberg used choral facilitation to explore Christian musical traditions in Northern Queensland (2009, 2010). The combination of subject matter and method of enquiry is therefore what makes Lloyd’s Mission Songs Project so unique.

Practice as Research

Although Jessie Lloyd herself identifies as a performer rather than a researcher, her performance-based approach creates new knowledge and hence can also be called research. Jessie’s musicality and performance allow her to engage with other Indigenous communities. Through shared musical performance and talking, new songs are discovered, memories are shared and musical materials put into context. Music is related back to individual singers, families and ultimately community histories. The performance approach can be classified as an Indigenous research methodology too, as it involves oral histories and is reciprocal and community-centred in nature.

Jessie is also keen to share her work with interested audiences and performers. She actively engages with the media offering numerous radio interviews, public performances and workshops across Australia. This has helped raise awareness about a difficult part of Australia’s history that not everyone is ready to talk about yet. Jessie’s Mission Songs Project is therefore impactful in its ability to teach a diverse audience new, musical ways of approaching Australian history that may allow them to explore this shared history with an appreciation of its emotional complexity and sensitivity.

Conclusions

Jessie Lloyd is not yet finished though and has hinted she is planning a total of three or four albums, one including gospel songs. This is an exciting prospect, because it takes forward one of Lloyd’s main points, which is that mission histories, and by extension Indigenous Christianity, should be valued on their own terms. They are not simply aberrations of Indigenous culture. Many Indigenous communities have been Christian for several generations now and enjoy performing Country Gospel and Christian hymnody, sometimes composing their own songs using Christian lyrics. This being the case, it would seem inappropriate to not accord these practices value, even if historically Christianity was imposed on Indigenous mission communities. Indigenous survival, agency and the power to adapt and adopt have meant that gospel and hymn genres have been embraced. It is about time we had a musical family meeting about that too. I can think of no better way than another musical album from the Mission Songs Project to start the next conversation.

Read an autobiographical article by Jessie Lloyd here: http://musictrust.com.au/loudmouth/inside-the-musician-jessie-lloyd-on-a-mission/

Bibliography

Breen, Marcus, ed. (1989). Our Place, Our Music. Canberra, Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies.

Dunbar-Hall, Peter, Gibson, Chris (2004). Deadly Sounds and Deadly Places: Contemporary Aboriginal Music in Australia. Sydney, University of New South Wales Press.

Swijghuisen Reigersberg, M. E. (2009). Choral singing and the construction of Australian Aboriginal Identities: an applied ethnomusicological study in Hopevale, Northern Queensland, Australia. School of Arts, Music Department. London, University of Surrey, Roehampton University. PhD Ethnomusicology.

Swijghuisen Reigersberg, Muriel E. (2010). Applied Ethnomusicology, Music Therapy and Ethnographically Informed Choral Education: The Merging of Disciplines during a Case Study in Hopevale, Northern Queensland. Applied Ethnomusicology: Historical and Contemporary Approaches. Klisala Harrison, Mackinlay. Elizabeth, Pettan, Svanibor. Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing: 51-74.

Walker, Clinton (2000). Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music. Annadale, Pluto Press.

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