Burden Park, Heatherton Road , Springvale, Melbourne
Sunday , 4th May 2008-05-08
Last Sunday afternoon I found myself playing my hybrid style of Cajun music to an enthusiastic crowd at an outer-suburban park in Melbourne. The audience was a cross-section of people from the area:. Aussie families of all races and creeds, kids, retired people. There were about 250 in the audience and the event had been organized by the City of Greater Dandenong as a community concert in the park. It was billed as “an afternoon of great Cajun ,Blues-iana and Swing music.”
I had a six piece band with Denis on drums, Sharkey on percussion, Andy on double bass, Steve on accordion and rub-board, Rick on steel guitar and harmonica and myself on fiddle, guitar and vocals. I led them through a repertoire of Cajun two-steps, waltzes, blues, original fiddle tunes, country and some swing –influenced boogie woogie.
I could see the audience really listening and enjoying the music. A few brave ones danced in a classic swing/jive style but most just sat and took it in. I could tell it was something a bit different for these people , but everyone was curious and seemed ready to hear the music. They were thoroughly enjoying it.
This was no hip inner-city bar with its audience of alternative music enthusiasts, record collectors and bohemian cognoscenti. This was no Montmarte of the 1890s, no Greenwich Village of the 1960s, no Lafayette, Louisiana, not even Carlton of the 1970s. It was just boring old Springvale with its endless maze of tree-lined bitumen courts, closes and streets. It’s fifties and sixties –styled brick veneers all in rows. Its bowls club, RSL ,and its shopping centre all surrounded by vast bitumen intersections and studded with Kentucky Fried, Maccas, Red Roosters and petrol stations. It was right out in the heartland of the great Australian suburban sprawl with its sameness and peculiar linear -patterned monotony. A cultural desert. An outer- suburban place where outer -suburban type of people lived and worked and did outer-suburban types of things. Nothing happened out here.
As I stood there on stage playing my pentatonics and looking out at the wide eyes and the smiling faces I felt that something good was going on-people were getting it. There was something happening on this cool May afternoon in the Burden Park.
It has taken perhaps 30 years or so for this kind of event to become possible in Australia .Usually a City Council would hire some commercially successful rock band or faded television personality- anyone who was considered to be well-known, but this time they were presenting a bunch of modest show-business anti-heroes who specialized in an obscure, ‘homey’ style of music :-Andy Baylor’s Cajun Combo.
How did this come about?
Its true, I did happen to know someone working in the council, but the decision to present my band would not have got up and running unless there had been a general feeling amongst the Council that the music would suit the occasion and work..
‘Roots music’ has these days become a stylistic term that is recognized and accepted as a legitimate form of entertainment which incorporates community-based , multi-cultural and family-based events, all at a reasonable cost. It is low volume, accessible, fun, dance-able, and not a bombastic performance –based affair. The technical requirements are minimal and it does not have the anti-social, rebellious image of rock music which has persisted and been deliberately fostered by a desperate music industry…the old “sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll” cliché.
For me, it has been a long road to get to this place and, upon reflection, I can see a logical development of ideas which has taken the music out into the suburbs of Melbourne and beyond. It reads something like this:-
In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a cultural revolution in the West largely fuelled by social change in the U.S.A. Music was a central force. I was caught up in this in the Melbourne inner –city music scene of the 1970s,and an interest in folk and historical music ie music from the past, was kindled. I started learning and playing styles of music which were imported from the U.S.A including blues, country, jazz, and Cajun. and embarked upon a career in playing these styles.
In learning these styles I can see now that there was a strong connection to theories of “social realism” and notions of “people’s music” which stood in direct contrast to the over-blown show-business, overt commercialism and shallowness of content of much mainstream rock music of the time
The idea of myself and others was to present folk/roots styles as an alternative to mainstream rock music and offer the Australian public a taste of more “homegrown”, natural, and community-based styles of music. We were interested in presenting what we , as musicians , considered to be a deeper and more meaningful experience of musical culture. We took our cue from the regionally-based styles of American folk and blues music including the living traditions of the Cajun music of Louisiana and Tex –Mex music of the Texan borderlands .There was also great interest in Jamaican dance styles such as ska, rock-steady, as well as rhythm’n’blues, gospel, rockabilly, jazz and to a lesser extent African and Pacific Island styles. It wasn’t just the music that turned us on ,it was the whole package. The music was part of a cultural life that included food, language, dancing, community, colorful dress-styles and entire ways of life. There was no age barriers such as had been set up in rock music and there was fantastic melodic and rhythmic music which had deep roots in Africa but was constantly new and ever-changing.
Over time, the problems inherent in such an approach became apparent to me. I became aware of questions of authenticity, personal expression, sense of identity and place and tried to find my own voice.
How could you play music from other traditions, make meaning of it for yourself and relate this to other people in Australia?
Not only were these questions of artistic integrity something to think about , but there were also questions of practicality i.e. How does one support oneself playing this music? How does one get recognition, build an audience and a working –life?
In setting yourself up in a position which was alternative to the mainstream rock industry , you automatically cut yourself out of the money, the fashion, the gigs and the race for success. You were somehow seen by some as a threat to Oz rock, pop, punk and the rock styles imported from Britain. Or you were just put in the too-hard-basket and ignored. How to make it work in Australia became a whole new enterprise.
As the 1980s and 1990s progressed the ambiguity and paradoxes of modern cultural life became more apparent . Mainstream music on the one hand became more diversified and, on the other, more homogenized. It’s not hard to see that rock/pop music had to try to re-invent itself in any way possible in order to keep having hits. Everything changed so rapidly and in the process of keeping up with the demands of fashion and economy, rock music lay waste to virtually all its earliest influences-blues, country, folk, funk. and jazz . All popular music became subservient to the dominant commercial rock music ethos. All styles combined with rock, often, but not always, losing their power and identity-country- rock, jazz- rock, folk- rock, Irish -trad rock, blues- rock. etc.
Lately , we have seen some changes in this established pattern of popular music.
In the last decade it has become fashionable (and hence good business) to be interested in the ‘roots of rock’. ‘Roots music’ has become a whole new genre and I myself have become known as “Melbourne’s roots music virtuoso”. I find myself cast as an authority in ‘roots’ music , which is great in some ways , but can also be seen as a classification which still keeps me apart from the mainstream rock music industry.
I have actively been an agent for cross-cultural musical appreciation and have seen how styles such as Cajun music, Western Swing and Blues can be enjoyed by Australian audiences in many such situations.
Over the years I have honed my presentation skills to a point where I can present un-commercial, lesser-known styles of music to people in a way which can reach them. This has, in part, been helped by the fact that the various American -based “roots” styles that I play have recently become more acceptable and known through mainstream mass media.
Cajun music is only very rarely heard on Australian radio or television, but many folk and “ethnic” styles do get heard in films and on specialist radio programs. They are now more accepted. The people just seem ready to enjoy the music. They are open and interested. Maybe they are bored by the endless procession of commercial music. Styles such as blues, swing and rockabilly have seen a resurgence in the Australian music scene and country and 50’s rock’n’roll have always been popular in the outer-suburban belts of Melbourne. They are ,after all, the ‘working man’s music’.
So, here I was playing Cajun-styled music out amongst the red cream-bricked suburban streets and the big old gum trees of the Burden Park .As the sausages sizzled and the triangle played its happy beat the people smiled and listened. As the fiddle droned and the accordion squeezed out a Creole-styled blues, the people understood and forgot about their troubles for a while. As the steel guitar echoed the old country sounds of days gone by, the people clapped and nodded their approval. And all the while the big old double bass just chugged away like a heartbeat. I felt that something was happening out here in the sticks- something good.