Melodious tract stuck in an old groove
Richard Wagner notoriously declared that England was “the country without music”. It was our artistic fate to become its colony. Plainly, the musical portents were not good when the First Fleet arrived at Port Jackson: a volley of rifle shots and the drinking of porter, but no music, “crisned” the colony on January 26, which, ever sybaritic, we persist in celebrating as Australia Day.
However, the band of the marines did play on February 7 when governor Arthur Phillip’s commission from George III was read out in public and everyone — colonists, convicts and soldiers — was enjoined by the king “to live in amity and kindness” with the native people, with the admonition that serious penalties would be imposed on anyone who “shall wantonly destroy them or give them any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations”.
While that occasion was the first recorded public performance of European music in the Great South Land, music had (unbeknown to those colonists) been an important part of the indigenous culture, especially religious culture, for millennia. And because the king’s order was ignored, not only was great damage done by the colonists to the lives of Aborigines, but those white people remained essentially deaf to the music of the vanquished people.
It was appropriate, therefore, that when Roger Covell first published Australia’s Music in 1967, he devoted about 14 pages of a chapter (“Jindyworobakism and more”) to indigenous music. So it is regrettable that, almost 50 years later, for this new edition — which retains the original text but adds some footnotes and a reading list, together with an 18-page postscript as a lofty synopsis of intervening activity — he has not added a word to his account of indigenous music.
I concede that my knowledge of the subject is skimpy, but there has been a great deal of research in this field during the past half-century — not to mention study of the bewildering diversity of Australian languages, which have a profound nexus with that music. So, Covell’s treatment is dated. Both the music and languages are at severe risk of extinction so, quite apart from any potential enrichment of our concert music, it is surely important for all of us, as sensitive Australians, to gain an understanding of the native musical culture.
Readers would do far better to consult, for example, the relevant sections of the Currency Companion to Music and Dance in Australia (2003, edited by John Whiteoak and Scott-Maxwell).
Covell’s reprint is, to use one of his own favourite phrases, an opportunity lost (though he does mention a few relevant books in the bibliography — which seems to have had scant, if any, influence on this new book).
If his space allocation is any guide, Covell accords a rather greater importance to “folk song”: his chapter “Traditionalism” is 34 pages and by this title he means European folk song and its potential as a creative resource. Around the time of the original appearance of his book, though he seemed ambivalent about its quality, Covell had taken a serious interest in this traditional material, but that interest seems to have evaporated, otherwise he would surely have reflected on it afresh in his postscript, even if he lacked the motivation to revise or expand the original chapter.
However, if these chapters have been rele- Aline