The Songs Back Home Mission Songs Project Mission Songs Project Indigenous performer and composer Jessie Lloyd has spent the past decade uncovering songs from 20th-century Aboriginal missions and settlements, and in the process laid out a slice of Australia barely known outside the troubled geography of those places. The missions — products of church and state — were sites of both misery and joy, and each is expressed in this music.
Lloyd’s curiosity was piqued when she heard family members singing The Irex, a lament named after the boat that transported people to Palm Island, the indigenous prison community from where her own lineage in part derives (her father is the legendary musician Joe Geia, composer of unofficial Aboriginal anthem Yil Lull).
Lloyd’s interest grew once she realised there must be other families with similar songs of life growing up on the missions, and that much of this music was connected: as people travelled from place to place, they took the tunes and stories with them. “There’s a church influence too,” she says. “Back in the day people didn’t have much access to music, but on Sundays everyone was singing, so that would have been a pretty important and exciting time, not necessarily to go to church or for religious reasons, but because they all got to sing and hear music. That’s where a lot of the kids with the missionaries and the nuns, that’s where they introduced them to instruments, and learned how to play, learned how to sing.”
Anthropologist Marcia Langton, who was an adviser on the project, writes in the liner notes that its songs “are records of our history” and calls Lloyd’s research “a profoundly important contribution to our nation and music”.
That makes it sound deadly serious, which it is, but it’s also profoundly moving. Each song is recorded in a single take around a single microphone, a deliberate decision Lloyd says was prompted by wanting “to create the sound of blackfellas in the backyard having a jam, that feeling of how we all would’ve come together, someone would just chuck a harmony in there, just pick up a guitar, so it just really created a nice warmth like people have just walked in and they’re just singing for you”.
Archie Roach is a collaborator and contributes a song, Hopkins River, from the Framlingham mission in Victoria from where he was stolen as a boy, the circumstance that led years later to his classic Took the Children Away.
Albie Geia’s Own Native Land, the extraordinary Outcast Half-Caste (“I’m just an outcast and a half-caste in this town / there’s a tribe that doesn’t want me and the white man turns me down”) by Micko Donovan and Mary Deroux, Eric Craigie’s protest song of dispossession, Middle Camp, the Torres Strait Kriol-language Surrare, the traditional Maori farewell Now is the Hour; these also stand out, but really, the entire collection is sublime.