The last venue they played before leaving for India to perform at the Jodhpur RIFF was a church built by convicts in Australia; the St Thomas’ Anglican church in Port Macquarie. Like the choice of venue, Melbourne-based folk trio Bush Gothic deals with darker histories and lesser told tales from down under in its music.
Performing at the Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur on October 27, their retelling of tales of criminals, rebels and hopeful migrants to Australia captivated the audience. Some of us were hearing these stories for the first time, and singer and fiddler Jenny M. Thomas's sweet melancholic voice and wailing violin, accompanied by the deep, woody pluck of the double bass and the harmonies of her band, helped build the emotional context.
Many ruthless and violent streaks colour Australia's settlement past. But heartening empathy and an enabling effeminacy—that perhaps comes from Jenny, who's one of the first women to interpret some of these boyish, "daggy" drinking songs—characterise Bush Gothic's music. 'Botany Bay', a song about the site to which many criminals from England were sent back in the day, becomes a ballad of sadness, longing and caution. Female Transport sings of the woman convict's settlement experience. In it, a woman called Sarah Collins is convicted in England and sent to Australia—'Van Diemen's land' (Tasmania)—for fourteen years. And there's a sketch of the legendary Aussie rebel Ned Kelly too, reworked so as to serenade his story to the audience.
In an after-show conversation, Jenny, Dan Witton (double bass and backing vocals) and Chris Lewis (percussion and keyboard) tell us more about these stories and their story as a band.
When did you get interested in telling these stories through music?
Dan: Jenny started it (all laugh)
Jenny: I spent a lot of time in the world music scene. I studied Carnatic south Indian music…love doing that. But I never heard the Australian songs done. So I thought it’s a shame and began to put the music together.
Q. When did you start playing them?
I was initially too scared to play the music in Australia. But I had a show in Germany where I was supposed to be doing a Carnatic set (laughs). I told them I’d be doing a couple of songs of my own. And when I did that, there were a few people in the audience from Australia who came up to me and one of them was crying.
Chris: You see these songs are usually considered to be rough, simple songs, very daggy, you would say in Australia.
Dan: Ya, daggy is a good term to describe them, it means unimpressive
Jenny: Yes, these you’d listen to while growing up on stage as very ‘boys’ songs
Dan: Drinking songs…very blokey
Jenny: Essentially, it was a bit of a feminist idea too as no women would sing these songs on stage. So when I saw that it effected those Australians overseas, I thought, you know…it’s working.
So you had to try it a little far from home first...
Jenny: I did. I was very worried (laughs) I didn’t think anyone would listen
Dan: Earlier there were all these English songs ending with “And then they went of to Australia (sings).” And then we go “and they arrived in Australia and this happened and that,” and, you know, they’re interested too in listening to the other side's story, as are people elsewhere. It’s great to come to India and do this because there’s a post-colonial experience here too. So there’s a framework that exists where we can sing about these experiences and be understood.
One of your songs was about Ned Kelley, the 19th century Australian outlaw.
Jenny: It’s very divisive still in Victoria. To some he’s a hero and to some a criminal. The reason that his story has taken hold so much is because there are a lot of things about him: he was very eloquent and would write letters regularly in the papers. Then there’s the visual element—he had an armour made of iron for himself from top to bottom
Like a knight almost...
Jenny and Dan: Yes
Jenny: There are a lot of songs written about him and many take him as an anti-government symbol. The idea that just because the government makes the rules doesn’t mean it’s already fair. That’s rings through the convict narrative. In older Australia, the governors could make up their own rules, often ridiculous, since it was so far from England.
Dan: It’s also one of those stories told by early mass media too. The film The Story of the Kelly Gang (the world’s first full-length narrative film; 1906) is one of the old classics.