Song, Swing and The Struggle: First Australian Musicians and Political Protest Movements, 1920s-1980s

Photo: The Reflections band at Micah Beach, c 1971

From the 1920s to the 1980s, the adaption and performance of African American music genres and Native American repertoire by First Australian musicians was highly audible and highly organised. Jazz gum-leaf bands and vaudeville troupes toured around the Murray River as well as up and down the coast of NSW confronting audiences with new sounds and stories about emancipation from slavery. Yet during and after World War Two, the focus of First Australians musicians in the segregated ‘Coloured Clubs’ and the swing dance Coolbaroo Club was to use Jazz to campaign against a history of Jim Crow regimes in Australia and to promote civil rights campaigns. This approach expanded with the distribution of the Gurindji Blues, in support of the Gurindji walk-off in 1966, to define a new historicality about pastoral workers, questions of slavery and colonial capital.

This paper critically examines why musicians were present at critical junctures of history and truth-telling. Song and performance, I argue, were an expression for justice as well as the means to engage in a discourse about history, as a people engaged in The Struggle, in both their present and past lives. In the 1970s, this is seen in the context of the liberation ideology of a global Black Arts movement, expressed in the Blues of the Black Lace Band in Redfern and its commitment to communalism. The adaptation of repertoire and complex rhythms of Jimi Hendrix in Darwin will demonstrate the deliberate strategy of Elders to ignite realisation about their global situation as Indigenous people claiming land rights. By the 1980s, song poetry in language, spiced with boomerang claps, was a process of political self-recovery, to engage with future generations and how we might define history.

Kathryn Wells is currently a PhD candidate, School of History, ANU. Kathryn has published reviews in scholarly journals as well as other cited articles. Kathryn grew up in remote Western Australia and Fiji before studying history at the University of Western Australia and completing a Masters of Letters thesis at ANU in Aboriginal history. Kathryn’s research and papers were developed through her work for Aboriginal advocacy organisations, national collecting institutions and as a public historian. Her adaptive research includes curriculum for Indigenous Studies at the University of Canberra, Law Foundations curricula at the Australian Catholic University, repatriation models of Indigenous digital collections for Charles Darwin University and land claim collections repatriation for AIATSIS.

Date & time

Wed 10 May 2023, 4.15–5.30pm


RSSS Lectorial 1, Ground Floor (Level 1), RSSS Building, ANU, 146 Ellery Crescent, Acton, ACT 2601


Kathryn Wells


School of History


Filip Slaveski


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