Pat: Hello Judy. Firstly I want to talk to you about your early years, and then I want to address in some detail, this optimistic belief that so many activist writers like ourselves hold dear. The proposition that you can actually change the world by writing songs about it.
First things first, however. Where did you grow up?
Judy: I had an amazingly ordinary childhood, Pat. I was born and grew up in Coffs Harbour. I really only left there to go to University. All my childhood was effectively spent in what was, at the time, a little banana growing and fishing village.
Pat: What was your early experience of music?
Judy: I was born
in 1953, which means that I was 10 years old when the folk boom
hit. I think my interest in folk music and songs about issues
is a fortunate historical thing in that sense.
All I can tell you is that "Go Tell It On The Mountain " meant a lot more to a ten year-old child in Coffs Harbour than "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" J
It really was that simple. It was helped by the fact that, when I was a child, I didn't even know there was even such a thing as commercial radio. That was because in our house we were only ever tuned to the ABC...and the ABC played a lot of folk music all the time.
Pat: And, of course, living on the Northern Rivers, you would have heard a fair bit of Australian Country Music as well.
Judy: Yes, Slim Dusty, Shortie Ranger, Tex Morton and all the rest but what I remember most is the music of Peter, Paul and Mary; and I recall my sister, who was some years older than me, coming home from the first year at college with a Joan Baez record.
After that my brother gave me records by The Brothers Four and Glen Thomasetti and I just fell in love with folk music. Partially because it was so simple, and partially because it spoke about real issues. It was more than just "Oh I love you, Baby. Will you be mine?"
So my involvement with it just grew from there. The other main influence was that I had a very religious upbringing. My mother and my grandparents were regular church going people and I went to Sunday school from a very early age. The one thing that going to church teaches you about music is that there are two different kinds of songs ...songs for the conversion of the masses and songs for the sustenance of the congregation.
I took that on board at a fairly early age.
I remember somebody recently accused me of only singing to the converted. I denied it at the time but I thought, well, even if I did, it would still be a good thing to do; because our 'congregation' (the world of feminists, idealists and activists) needs as much sustenance as any other.
Pat: As someone who shared a similar Christian upbringing, Judy, I have often wondered if that is a culture which, of itself, instills in us some sort of a sense of 'higher destiny' about our role in changing the world for the better.
Judy: Yes, it
does that, even if only at an unconscious level. The idea that
we should evaluate how our society is progressing by looking not
only at our own lives, but by the lives of those around us was
instilled in to me at a very early age. I mean, the idea of being
the Good Samaritan; the one who does actually notice the plight
of the less fortunate, is pretty appealing to a child; because
I think many children do know what it's like to be marginalised
In some ways, I suppose that is a fairly elitist point of view; the idea of helping the less fortunate...
Pat: ....but the arts community is somewhat elitist almost by definition. There has always been a strand of the Arts that does seem to believe it has a brief to present its vision for a better world through its work.
Judy: I think that all artists need a certain degree of egotism. You certainly need to have a strong sense of self because it is yourself that you are trying to project to your audience, whether you're a painter or a writer.
I don't think that I ever thought that my music would change the world but I hoped I might become part of a long and honourable tradition that has tried to express what is both right and wrong with it; and which can encourage people to think about ways in which it might be changed.
Pat: Well, if activist music is not always a catalyst for change, can it be viewed as a soundtrack of the times? Can it be viewed as a sort of musical documentary of social movements? It's a vexed question for many social activists who are musicians. Does their music simply reflect the changes or does it lead them?
Judy: Both, I hope. I think the folk singer, in particular, can do both. I do think that what we do as folksingers is to record our times in song. That can be everything from political movements to personal relationships; but we do hope that those songs may also influence people and, in the long run, can become part of some socially beneficial outcomes.
Pat: Judy, have you any thoughts on why it is that only people whose political views are of the Left work in this way. There are, for example, very few people from the Right who seek to harness songwriting as a vehicle for a change.
Judy: I think that's a fascinating question, and I thought about this many times. The only answer I can come up with is that singers from the Right of politics... and I don't use the term the Right as any sort pejorative, but singers from the Right already have their attitudes expressed in mainstream popular song.
Their lyrics might not seem to be overtly political or issue based, but 'the medium is the message' and what is pop music in the main about... if it's not glamour, fashion, and consumerism and the blind acceptance of the status quo.
In the specific area of politics, the attitudes of Conservative people are already expressed through the medium of the John Lawses, the Alan Joneses and so forth. In a sense, they don't have to listen to songs about these issues because their perspective is already adequately represented in the mainstream media.
Pat: So the extension of what you are saying is that the 'folk song', as a medium for opinion, is more a 'street level' forum; much like a poster run as opposed to a television ad, and it is most effectively and often used by people who do not have the financial resources to penetrate mass media outlets.
That would of course go a long way to explaining why it is the natural tradition of the Left and would in some part explain the absence of Right Wing Folksingers.
Although I suppose there are notable exceptions, like Anita Bryant, especially in the Christian tradition.
Judy: Yes. Remember too that when this music was given a popular label in the 1960's it was called "protest music". That was because it was reactive, that is, it was reacting against what was already the expressed mainstream opinion.
Pat: Well, talking of the sixties, let's talk about some of your early influences. Who were the authors; who were the composers; and what were the pivotal experiences that lead you to take the approach you did over the subsequent 20 years.
Judy: Well that's one big question. The musical influences? Well, that's simple. They were the female folk singers such as Joan Baez, Judith Durham, Mary Ellen Travers, Tina Laughton...
Now Tina Laughton.... There is someone who was not very well known in Australia anymore. I first saw Tina Laughton on Reg Lindsays' Countryand Western Music Hour on the television. My brother brought me a record of hers; her only album. She was a great Australian folksinger; she had a beautiful voice and she was very tragically killed in a plane crash in Africa, in 1968, I believe.
She never really rode the wave of the folk boom but she, and Judith Durham taught me that Australian women could do this... and produce a particular sound of their own. I think, even for a child, it was an important realisation that this music wasn't something you only heard on the radio from America.
The other thing too was that, while Judith was singing the American repertoire, the gospel tradition and the songs of The Weavers and so on; Tina was singing the Scottish and English folk songs. That was a huge influence for me, realising that there was such a rich international tradition in folk music.
Pat: Yes, Australia's folk scene has been a peculiar mix of American influences, European and UK influences; but it also has its own national tradition and all of that has made for a very rich tapestry indeed.
In your own work there have been songs such as "From The Lambing To The Wool", "Jesse Street" and The White Bay Paper Seller" which reflect that very Australian tradition. Where did that side of your work come from?
Judy: I'm not quite sure. I think I always knew that folk music was about telling the stories of ordinary people. I did realise that there were a few separate strands. There were the political songs but there were also the ballads; some of which went back centuries. In a way it connected me with the ordinary lives of people in the past, which was something that I did find powerful. So when I began to write songs in the early 80's, I really did it because there were stories I wanted to tell about ordinary people's experience; experiences for which there were no songs.
For example, There weren't very many contemporary songs about farmers' wives. There were songs about Cockies, but not many about their wives and their experience of rural life. So I began to write songs as a sort of "fill in the gaps" affair particularly for women.
Pat: Well tell me how you came to write "From the Lambing to the Wool"
Judy: That song came from two sources. One was from Eric Bogle's song "Now I'm Easy" which tells the story of an old cocky farmer. I was listening to Eric sing that song in a pub in Sydney one night and I thought what a beautiful song it was; but I wanted what would've been his wife's story... had she not died in the second verse :):) :):) :):)
It was then that I remembered a conversation I had with the mother of a friend of mine who had lived all her life in on a property in outback New South Wales. And the song sort of grew from that.
Pat: It's interesting that you talk about seeing Tina Laughton on Reg Lindsays' Country and Western Music Hour; because so many of these rural themes that you talk about; cross heavily into country music in Australia. How do you see that the Folk music scene connects to the Country Music scene in Australia?
Judy: I think that historically they both came from the same place. You can trace much of contemporary American country music to the Appalachian folk music; at least the roots strand and Australian country music, somehow connected to that
Pat: Yes I agree with that. What we, in the country music scene in Australia, call the Northern Rivers or Heritage Strand of country music (what was originally called Hillbilly here during the Regal Zonophone days), certainly has it's origins in that sound... the Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family influences.
Judy: Yes and much of the Appalachian music that it descended from, can be traced to the Irish, Scottish and English ballads. So folk and country music have a common ancestor, if you like.
I don't think that a lot of the music itself is all that dissimilar. The main differences occur in the marketing and in the kind of audiences that they attract. But occasionally I'll meet country music fans that have accidentally come across my songs and who say "Hey, I really like this music. Where have you been? Why haven't we heard of you before?"
And that simply because the people who put labels on things ensure that my music is not marketed to country music audiences. And I'm sure that this happens to country music artists who could cross into the Folk scene as well. I know it does, because occasionally they will turn up at a Folk Festival and people will say "Wow, how come we have not heard this before?"
Pat: The interesting thing though is that these audiences do have their entrenched biases. If you were, for instance, to tell a Folk Festival crowd that they were about to hear a Country Music act many of them would be less than impressed by the prospect.
Judy: yes, I think that's right. And it's sad but we all have our preconceptions and they often restrict our possibilities. Many people often reduce country to Country and Western or just what ever is coming out of Nashville. I'm sure it's the same with folk music. Many people still think it's the 'finger in the ear, 95 verse ballads' which, of course, is part of it too, but it is just so easy to deal in stereotypes and in the end it's not very helpful.
I really do think that much of it comes down to marketing and the reason people have such a narrow view is because acoustic music of all types is not being marketed as broadly as it might be.
Pat: Yet the interesting thing is that the artist's themselves recognize that country and folk music cross over a lot in Australia. It is not at all unusual, for instance, to see people like Ted Egan or Greg Champion or John Williamson turning up at both country and folk music events.
I personally feel that it's a healthy thing. But I think it is interesting that you have identified the differences as being in the audiences, not in the music, particularly at a political level.
Judy: Yes that's possibly true. Generally Country Music audiences are thought of as being more politically conservative but then every now and then you do get someone like John Williamson writing a song like "Rip Rip Woodchip"; which fits squarely into the folk conservationist mould. And, although that song got him into a lot of trouble with the country music press, many of his allegedly conservative country music followers loved that song.
Pat: Well Judy, given your association with rural areas; given that you did grow up in what was essentially a country town and your youth was immersed in the more conservative politics of the bush, what was the pathway to activism for you? What were the triggers that led you to start writing so passionately about the issues of the left.
I mean it was the same cradle, the northern rivers of New South Wales , that produced Slim Dusty and Shorty Ranger and their writing went down a very different line.
Judy: Well I think that was partly due to the accidents of history. My late adolescence was spent in the latter part of the sixties and early 70's. And that was an extremely divisive time in Australia's political history .
It was a time when people I actually knew were being conscripted to be sent to Vietnam. And it was not lost on me that they were considered old enough to fight but not old enough to vote. So both the political issues and the music of protest became very much part of our everyday experience.
And I must say That although I grew up in a very conservative place; and in a very conservative family (my mother was a life long member of the National Party), my father did have a very clear social conscience.
On top of that I personally, had an almost "Road to Damascus" conversion to social activism. It was when I was at University. I was going out to dinner with some friends in Sydney and on the spur of the moment they said "Oh, by the way, we're going to this demo on the way to the restaurant. Do you want to come? "
I wasn't all that political but I thought "OK, well, I haven't got anything else to do. " So off I went to my first ever demonstration. I was 22 or 23 years of age... and out of the blue I got arrested.
Pat: Oh well done! What were you arrested for?
Judy: Well the thing was... I hadn't done anything! :):) but I was arrested, I later learned, for behaving in an offensive manner in a public place.
Pat: Gee I can do that just walking into a pub. Come to think of it...that's what I get paid for these days.JJJ
Judy: Yes, well, me too.... but in those days I really was a very conservative young woman. I'd just been standing there as part of this crowd and I seemed to be picked entirely at random. It really was quite an education.... because I watched as the police subsequently lied about what had happened. They lied in court; and I couldn't believe that. I thought that it was the most astounding thing I had ever experienced; but it made me realise that if the police could lie about someone like me over something that was totally unimportant, then how could anyone trust anything they said about matters which were important.
That arrest started a whole questioning process for me... about the entire body politic; about social reform; about political reform. And then, in the years that followed, we went through the dismissal of the Whitlam government, which was also a fairly turbulent time. For many of us it was hard not get involved.
Pat: Yes, I suppose if it was a time when people like yourself could turn up at, what was essentially a middle-class picnic, and find themselves arrested, issues of dissent and the right to free speech, could not be easily ignored. The heavy handed responses of the government at the time certainly served to polarise political opinion; Do you think that perhaps it was the very tide of history during those years which did not allow people to simply stand apart and be unconcerned with the flow of events?
Judy: Yes I do feel exactly that.
Pat: And how do you feel that things have changed? Do you feel that the polarisation has diminished or increased in recent years?
Judy: Well it's difficult for me to say because I'm not 23 anymore and from this vantage point it is difficult to fully understand the perspective of youth. People change as they grow older; not in their core values; but certainly in terms of what they see as appropriate action in the face of injustice. I certainly feel as strongly about the issues as I ever did. I don't think my views have mellowed over time. But I've become a little more measured about how to achieve the outcomes.
As for the general public, certain issues still seem to deeply polarise our community.
Aboriginal land rights and the stolen Generation; the issue of asylum seekers; the gap between the rich and poor ; these are all still very divisive subjects.
There is a real need for unity and I now see an important role for music in bringing people together somehow. I still believe that music, particularly, has the power to unite disparate views together and help them to feel differently about issues. It certainly has a great capacity, as does all art, to help us empathise with each other.
Pat: Judy, let's
talk a little about the process itself. If you are a writer that
needs to engage with the issues before you begin to create, what
is the process?
Judy: Well for me it can be something as banal as a line of dialogue that I hear on the radio on the way to work in the morning; it can be something that happens to me personally or sometimes it can be collaborative for me too. But the subject must engage me both intellectually and emotionally. For example, the song I am writing at the moment is evolving via a very different process. I am writing it with three 10-year-old boys in South Africa. I am doing it over the Internet. Their teacher contacted me and told me that these children had taken to my music and that there were three or four of my songs that they just loved and asked her to play all the time,
In the course of the e-mails these children wrote, they told me a great deal about what their lives were like. One of them had seen her parents murdered about four years ago. These are African kids in the 90's who don't know who Oliver Tambo or Steve Biko were. It's hard for me to believe that there are black South African kids who did not know of Oliver Tambo but, nonetheless, they still knew what they wanted to say about the world and I am trying to help them gather some of those things into a song.
As I said, the main reason I write songs is to fill in the gaps. To write about the things for which there have not been any songs written yet; and I feel my songs are not finished until I have presented them to an audience.
Pat: Judy, I so much agree with that. I've always felt that a song without an audience is an essentially sad affair; like a sunset when no one is watching. That it is somehow incomplete. Perhaps because I've always believed that art is meant to be both expressive and communicative and that one without the other doesn't quite achieve its goal.
Judy: I have had this conversation with Eric Bogle. He feels quite differently. He feels the 'great' moment is when the song is first completed; that for him, is the moment he finds most satisfying.
Other writers feel they have to perform the work on multiple occasions before they feel it's finished. I love what Joanie Mitchell said when she was asked why she became a songwriter instead of an artist. Because she has such a love of performance, she said "Well man, no one ever asked Van Gogh to paint "A Starry Night" ever again.
Pat: But I suppose
that does bring us to a rather vexed question for writers who
have written a lot of songs; songs that have been successful.
Is there not the ever present temptation to simply repeat the
Has this been a trap for you?
Judy: I think there's a lot of pressure on writers to keep coming up with similar sorts of things. People say to me, "Have you written a song about September 11th yet?" I say well, no, not particularly; but I have written songs about America and its place and its influence in the world and current events only seem to underline the truth of the songs that I previously wrote so I don't see the need to write a new song on the subject. The temptation for writers to keep on writing the same song is a very easy trap to fall into.
I think one of the greatest compliments that was ever payed to me was by someone who said at a concert that said that the songs were often so different to one another she could never tell if a song was a Judy Small song unless I sang it. I was pleased by that because I try not to fall into the complacency of writing what I am expected to write, that is, only what I think my audiences want to hear.
But I do understand the "I loved your early work syndrome' because when a songwriter first appears on the scene; that is when the work is fresh to most people. That is when it really connects. Ten years down the track, those original fans still want to capture that sense of freshness, They don't necessarily want the same music, but they want the experience that the music once gave them. That's why they buy the next CD.
They look for familiarity in your work. I think that this is the biggest challenge for any writer, to somehow provide that freshness in an ongoing way but still maintain manage enough familiarity to carry the audience with you.
Pat Drummond Reprint Courtesy Of Trad and Now
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