Musician Jessie Lloyd’s Mission Songs Project aims to open up a forgotten Indigenous musical history to a mainstream audience. By Karen Middleton.

Singer and song-collector Jessie Lloyd

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander musician Jessie Lloyd.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander musician Jessie Lloyd.
Credit: Mimi Tannaka

When Jessie Lloyd started gathering old settlement songs from the early 20th century and decided to call her work the Mission Songs Project, one of her mentors queried the title. She worried people would think the songs were all religious.

But Lloyd, an Indigenous musician, vowed to appropriate the word “mission” in the same way Indigenous people have reclaimed many terms associated with some dark chapters in Australia’s history.

“It’s just become part of the Aboriginal English vocabulary that it’s just generally ‘a mission’,” Lloyd says, describing the government and church-run settlements and fringe townships that were the sources of her musical quarry.

“When we have terms like ‘back on the mish’ or ‘that’s a real mission-breed way of doing things’, it’s starting to get detached from the church itself – the term ‘mish’ or missionary – and that’s really what I’m trying to do with the Mission Songs Project. I’m really trying to create a new genre, or bring out a new genre that’s separate from the church … reclaiming part of our cultural identity.”

For the past two years, the 35-year-old musician, who grew up around Queensland and New South Wales, has been collecting the disappearing English-language songs of Aboriginal musicians and poets of the past century who were living away from their traditional country – songs in the oral tradition that reveal a sometimes uncomfortable and often overlooked dimension of Australia’s story.

They are mostly simple, quaint and often profound, sometimes including those terms – such as “darkie” and “half-caste” – that make a more contemporary generation wince. The songs’ subjects range from light observations to painful laments.

The 1920s-era “Down in the Kitchen” describes the food served to the residents of the children’s dormitories on Palm Island, where its young composer, Alma Geia, lived with others who had been removed from their families – members of what’s now known as the Stolen Generations.

An innocent child’s complaint about sugarless watery tea and doughy damper has taken on a sharper edge, with the years.

Jessie Lloyd will perform her own arrangements of some of the songs at the National Folk Festival in Canberra during the Easter weekend and speak about the challenge in unearthing them.

She hopes they provide a way to understand some of the more difficult dimensions of Australia’s history.

“It’s like this country needs to have a big family meeting about what happened in the past,” she says. “…These songs are a way of opening up our history – Australian history – that the mainstream are not yet comfortable to talk about.”

It was songs including “Down in the Kitchen” from her own family that set Lloyd on her search.

Generations before Eddie Mabo’s landmark High Court case heralded the formalising of native title, Lloyd’s grandfather, Albert “Albie” Geia, wrote his own appeal for land rights in “Own Native Land”. The chorus runs:

Oh superiority
is an unknown word to me
We lived in peace together
with meek, simple and kind folks.
I never knew that I would be
one day a foreigner slave.
So I make this last plea,
please give me my own
native land.

Albie Geia grew up on Palm Island and with six other Indigenous men led a strike against the discriminatory treatment and poor housing conditions there in 1957.

“I felt like there needed to be more exploration behind these songs,” Lloyd told The Saturday Paper. She realised there must be more. “So I thought, ‘Oh well, I’d better go and look for them.’”

Lloyd’s father, Joe Geia, is a pioneer of contemporary Australian Indigenous music whose most famous song, “Yil Lull”, has been recorded by Paul Kelly, Jimmy Barnes, Tiddas and Archie Roach. But it was her cousin Jeremy Geia, now known as Murrumu, who taught her to play guitar.

When Lloyd was beginning the Mission Songs Project, she approached Roach and Melbourne University academic Marcia Langton for advice and counsel. “I knew what I wanted to do but I had no clarity on how to pull it off,” she says. Both agreed to serve as mentors and patrons.

It was Langton who raised the issue of the “mission” label. But in calling the resulting newly released album The Songs Back Home – the first of four albums Lloyd hopes to produce – Langton says she has found the right balance.

“She’s tried to remain faithful to the times,” Langton says. “She’s actually got a great sense of what history’s all about – the feeling of the times, the meaning of these songs. You could see how alarming it might be to people who haven’t thought about these songs and what they mean and represent.”

Most of what Lloyd has collected so far comes from up and down the east coast “from Torres Strait down to Bass Strait”.

She hopes to go further afield and now combines performing with collecting, taking the opportunity her shows provide to uncover new old songs. She tries not to bow to the pressure to hurry, despite the fear the old people will pass away and the songs will be lost. She says the songs “reveal themselves in their own time”.

Recently she went back to Moree, in northern NSW, where she lived for a time as a child, to play one of that town’s rediscovered songs, “Middle Camp”, for the elders. Initially, they were suspicious. “But once we started singing that ‘Middle Camp’ – oh, they were excited. The dreams came out, all the stories.”

Lloyd says some accuse the mission songs of not being genuinely Indigenous. She says the line goes: “These mob got no culture because they don’t even speak their language, they lost their culture.”

But Lloyd disagrees. “Here’s 100 years of song content to prove that we are continuing song traditions – just in English and on a Western instrument.”

Awarded the 2017 National Folk Fellowship, Lloyd developed her project in conjunction with the National Folk Festival and the National Library of Australia.

Library senior curator Robyn Holmes says that after Lloyd began gathering songs, the fellowship helped her go to Canberra and access the existing archives of folk recordings to begin identifying common threads in the songs. She could then compile them into a previously unidentified category of music – songs often not valued because their composers suffered the stigma of separation from family, or indentured labouring.

“It’s a deep project, a learning project that she can share with people to enable them to value their past,” Holmes told The Saturday Paper. “She’s giving value back to the people.”

Some of the songs have surfaced as recordings of original performances – crackly tapes, many decades old. Others have been recounted or sung to her by those who remember them. She includes a book of the chords and lyrics with her recording of the songs, encouraging people of all backgrounds to learn them.

“I say to people, ‘These songs have been around for 100 years and the only way they’re going to stay around for another hundred is if we keep singing them.’ ”

Her vision is for them to bridge the gap between black and white.

Langton believes the project is hugely important. “[Lloyd’s] rescuing history,” she said. “She’s getting people to understand that there’s a very interesting history that we need to be respectful of. And it’s not in the history books. This goes beyond the idea of oral history. This is not the kind of history that your average white historian is going to come across … This is family stuff.”

While anthropologists and historians have gathered recordings in the past, Lloyd remains surprised no other musician has done this before.

But she notes the “massive” Australian folk scene is still pretty Anglo. “It’s very much about the shearers and the Aussie battlers and the bush ballads,” she says. “And blackfellas have been next to them the whole time, teaching them to play the gumleaf and whatnot.”

Lloyd wants the collection to grow and endure.

“I really do hope in 100 years’ time, these songs are still being sung and they’re considered traditional Australian songs in the Australian songbook, alongside ‘Waltzing Matilda’.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 15, 2017 as "Mission statement".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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