The time has come that Australian Aboriginals make a mark on the world of popular music. For many years, oppression and isolation limited Aboriginals' artistic potential, but now they are overcoming these odds. The Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre and the acrylic painters from Papunya, for instance, have gained recognition in 'highbrow' white circles. No less significant are the many black voices in the medium of popular arts, specifically music. Pioneering Aboriginal reggae-rock group No Fixed Address are at present in the UK shopping for a record deal, while the Warumpi Band, a unique and terrifically exciting outfit from Papunya, have just completed a highly successful tour of the Eastern states. And now there is Roger Knox, yet all he may have in common with No Fixed Address and the Warumpis is that he too is black.
Roger Knox is a country singer from up around Tarmworth way who has just released his debut album, Give it a Go (on the Enrec label). He is currently touring Eastern Australia, and tomorrow night will appear in Sydney at the Graphic Arts Club. Knox is an amiable mountain of a man with huge, strong hands that testify to a life of work. Yet his (singing) voice is light and sweet, and on Give it a Go he renders sensitively songs that deal with peculiarly Aboriginal feelings. Knox was brought up on a mission on the Queensland border near Goondawindi, and the only music he heard was gospel singing, in church. Some Slim Dusty filtered through, but it wasn't until Knox left the mission, around 1970, "when I got to Tamworth, that's when I started to learn things," he said. “It was ’71 I saw Col Hardy perform in Tamworth. Packed hall it was, and jeez, I saw our people react to what he was doing, y'know... he made a lot of people happy, and I thought, jeez, I could do that. And it just sorta went from there.” Knox was singing and playing guitar, but shyness prevented him from doing so in public, save for charity gigs. However, when he won the Starmaker talent quest in Tamworth in 1979 there was no turning back. Country personality Bryan Young spotted Roger, and took him on the road with his travelling show. It was on tour with Young in 1982 that Knox was involved in a plane crash in South Australia, suffering burns to his hands, which forced him into temporary retirement. When he made a comeback last year he was no longer playing guitar, unable to do so, but he had assembled his own band, Euraba. Give it a Go was recorded soon after that. To the tune of a droning didgeridoo, the album opens appropriately with “Blackman's Stories:” "Blackman tell me all your stories..."
Although not himself a songwriter, on Give it a Go, as well as covering well-known white hits “If You Love Me Let Me Know” and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” Roger Knox unearths some excellent if obscure songs by Aboriginals, like “Black Tracker” (by Jimmy Little), “Our Reserves,” “Koorie Rose” and the aforementioned “Blackman's Stories.” Euraba's accompaniment is tight, versatile and evocative (with instrumentation ranging from didgeridoo to pedal steel guitar), and Knox's own performance sincere and heartfelt. "I think you just do what you feel like, what feels good," he told me. "These are songs that have been around for years. Good songs I reckon. And I just thought we could do there a bit different. Everybody seems to record the same thing. I reckon you've got to put something more into it, do something different."
Roger Knox gigs are very much in the tradition of the travelling country revue, stretching over several hours and featuring guest stars, among them Ken Copeland, complete with quiff and shades, and Sarina Andrew, black teenage songstress from Newcastle. This is something Sydney doesn't often see. Says Knox: "I believe music is a good way of making people understand one another. If I'm black, and I walk on stage, people say, Yeah, he's a blackfella, but then when we start the music we're all the same, and we can communicate."