‘We’ll always need a Freedom Ride, fear and hate will never die,’ sings Troy Cassar-Daley on ‘Freedom Ride’ (with Paul Kelly), the title track to Troy’s ninth studio outing and follow-up to The Great Country Songbook with Adam Harvey (2013). Fifty years almost to the day since the much-celebrated Freedom Ride of 1965, and with an impending referendum on constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the attendant Recognise movement fuelling discussion, it’s a striking lyric from the Grafton-raised singer-songwriter.
“When Paul [Kelly] threw that line at me, what he wanted to raise was, there’s still stuff to fix,” Troy explains. “I think it’s more of a positive – I think what it does is it throws it up in people’s faces again and says, ‘Listen, we’re always gonna need this ‘Freedom Ride’ because we still have a long way to go if we want to attain equality’. And to me, ‘equality’ has been one of those burning words I’ve had in my vocab since I was a tiny, tiny kid. If I can make a difference in this country towards equality, I’m going to keep trying to, through music.”
Modeled on the famed Freedom Rides of the US Civil Rights movement, our Freedom Ride was a watershed in Australian racial politics. On 12 February 1965, a group of 35 students of the University of Sydney and their four Aboriginal companions boarded a bus bound for regional centres across NSW. The group – collectively known as Student Action For Aborigines (SAFA) – set out to survey the living conditions of Aboriginal Australians in country NSW with regard to matters such as health, housing, and social inclusion; to draw the nation’s attention to gross shortfalls in its’ treatment of Indigenous citizens and, wherever possible, to militate for change through the principles of non-violent resistance laid down by Dr. Martin Luther King.
The Freedom Riders of 1965 were led in part by fiery spokesman and celebrated Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins, an Arrernte man and student of Sydney University. Perkins would go on to become the first Aboriginal man in Australia to graduate with a tertiary degree, emerging as one of the nation’s most outspoken and influential Aboriginal rights activists.
The situation the Freedom Riders encountered in western NSW – from Wellington to Walgett, Gulargambone to Boggabilla, Bowraville to Kempsey – was overwhelmingly dire. Aboriginal people were found to be enduring chronic unemployment, unhygienic water supplies, a prevalence of eye disease (especially among children), and de facto segregation that stilted or prevented outright Aborigines’ access to theatres, pubs, RSLs, and schools.
But it was the Freedom Riders’ clash with the township of Moree – where a ban on Aborigines entering the public swimming pool was enforced by the local Council – that most captured the nation’s attention, and arguably brokered the greatest change. Moree Council was ultimately compelled to rescind its segregationist by-law. It’s this momentous occasion that Troy and co-writer Paul Kelly celebrate in ‘Freedom Ride’.
‘On a blazing summer’s day, Charlie Perkins led the way at the public pool in Moree. Step back, said the man, you can’t get in, you’ve got the wrong coloured skin, we don’t want no trouble here, you see. Charlie says, now, that’s a shame, ’cause trouble is my middle name, and no names hurt more than sticks and stones. You can try to knock us down, try to run us out of town, but look around, you’ll see I’m not alone.’ ‘All aboard the Freedom Ride,’ fight for justice, fight for pride.’
For Troy, a Bundjalung man whose people are traditional owners of a swathe of coastal country in northern NSW and southeast Queensland, the story of the Freedom Riders has always been inspiring.
“I’d done a project as a kid, in about Year 6 at school, on the Freedom Ride,” Troy recalls. “And it became a bit of a project for me again at 44 years of age! So here I am getting Rachel Perkins – Charlie Perkins’ daughter – to send me information on things. We’re still a country that has things to face, attitudes to change. But the word ‘freedom’ still resonates.”
In 2014, Troy – whose Indigenous Music Scholarship to the CMAA’s Academy of Country Music has helped several up-and-coming Indigenous artists get a start in the industry – became Australian Hearing’s official Hearing Ambassador. Indigenous Australians are significantly and disproportionately affected by chronic hearing problems, with rates of middle ear disease prevailing in some quarters at up to 10 times the levels the World Health Organisation would classify a “major public health problem”. Even in 2015, racism is something Indigenous Australians are dealing with first hand. Troy’s own adolescent experiences of prejudice inspired Freedom Ride heartbreak song ‘Since You Left This Town’.
‘We used to meet in the main street; you were pretty, and so sweet. My skin was dark and yours white, we thought that was alright. Your daddy yelled, came on out, said, ‘I don’t want him near this house’. You packed your bags and ran away, haven’t seen you since that day.’
“I remember, as a young kid – I was about 17, I had my Ps – I had a dinner with this girl’s parents, which was one of the most uncomfortable dinners I’ve had in my life,” Troy recalls. “I was this young Indigenous kid from South Grafton who drove an old EH that, if it was a horse, you’d shoot it. And I was sitting next to a girl who had gone to a private school, she had a lovely middle class family, but it was uncomfortable for me. I just did not feel welcome there. I think I dragged upon that feeling I had sitting there to write the tune.”
The track is also worth noting for its unusually expressive – and lengthy – instrumental outro.
“At the end of the song, I’d played this guitar solo,” Troy recalls. “And I just thought, ‘you know what, I’m going to keep this in’. Because I just love playing guitar! I got a loan of a guitar from Keith Urban in Nashville and played the solo out. My engineer mate over there in America said, ‘This song’s pretty long – you might not get it on radio’. And I said, ‘I don’t make music for radio – I make music for people’. And he said, ‘Thank you – keep playing!”
Freedom Ride is a notably collaborative effort for Troy Cassar-Daley, featuring co-writes with Paul Kelly (country tearjerker ‘Tennessee Rain’, ‘Freedom Ride’), Pete Denahy (‘Something About Trains’, ‘Another Australian Day’, and ‘This Old Hat’ – which honours Troy’s Pop, a one-time fettler), Colin Buchanan (‘Take A Walk In My Country’, ‘Drive It’), and Nashville-based Kim Richey (‘This Day’), while Jimmy Barnes duets on hard-hitting rock cut and FIFO anthem ‘Two Weeks On, Two Weeks Off’. The album was recorded with a team of session players in Nashville, including, among other notables, guitarists Brent Mason (Alan Jackson, Carrie Underwood) and Biff Watson (Lady Antebellum, Kenny Rogers), drummer Eddie Bayers (Reba McEntire, Willie Nelson), and multi-instrumentalist Bruce Watkins (Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard). I ask Troy how he went about translating an album of acutely Australian storytelling for American players – many of whom had never set foot on Australian soil.
“Before we’d go down and cut a track, I’d actually stand up and let them know what the song was about,” Troy tells me. “When they went in to start hitting chords they’d know exactly what they were playing for. They got a little lesson in Australian history, and I got some of the best players in the world to play on a song I was really proud of [‘Freedom Ride’]!”
True to form for Troy, the overlapping inspirations of family and country drive the twelve tracks of Freedom Ride. Troy’s songwriting style (evident in much-loved favourites lilke ‘River Boy’ and ‘Country Is’) has always been rooted in the people and places he loves best.
‘Listen to the wind on the spinifex plain. Gentle voices will guide you. Get a little red dirt all over your feet, take a walk in my country,’ Troy paints on opener, ‘Take a Walk in My Country’. Similarly evocative, ‘Something About Trains’ (railways being another of Troy’s enduring passions) is a coming of age story that recalls Troy’s childhood infatuation with locomotives – and a girl.
‘I remember as a child, walkin’ on for miles and miles, a cowboy hat and .22, shootin’ rabbit and kangaroo. Put a penny on the track, big wheels make the coin go flat, roll away without a care, big train take me there.’
The track opens to the sounds of a passing engine and its slow-rolling trucks, before closing with a desolate fiddle effect that recalls the blast of a diesel engine. The percussion itself sounds like a rattling loco, well-worn wheels clicking and clacking at every heat-engorged weld. Honky tonk guitar rumbles, while fiddle lacquers everything with nostalgia.
The freewheeling ‘Another Australian Day’ is similarly stacked with Australiana, from a small town clock-tower to ‘…rusty rails, rusty ground, dreams lost, dreams found, big smokestacks cuttin’ across the sky’. It’s a near-exhaustive list.
Making its entrance late in the piece, atmospheric ballad ‘Black Mountain’ – with its clap-stick percussion, banjo, fiddle, and didgeridoo – is a highlight.
‘I walked on and got the feelin’ of bones buried ’neath my feet, and I cried for those forgotten, in the blackness and the sleet. Bloodwood tree, stood like an old man, bent ’round to show the way. Like a fool I didn’t listen, and I lost all hope that day. Felt the pins of rain a-fallin’, as I ran toward a cave, heard the ancient tongues a-callin’, stay away, son, stay away.’
“It’s a true story,” Troy relates, “not so much about me and the mountain, but about an uncle and auntie and two friends of theirs who went up this mountain outside of Grafton, and they got chased away. And they realised it was a taboo place to go to. Within minutes this storm head had come up behind the mountain, out of nowhere, started really building, and by the time they got nearly to the foot of the mountain they reckon the rain was stinging their arms like needles and it made them run back to the car to get the hell out of there. And they went and told their parents where they’d been, and my Nan, their mother, said to them, ‘That’s not a place you should be – don’t ever go there again!’ So I took that story and gave it another dimension – it’s a love story, with that mountain being like a woman, a spiritual woman, being the one trying to drag him into thinking he could attain real love. It’s a spiritual thing –that’s a thing that runs through this whole record for me. I go back to my roots as an indigenous Australian. And I make sure there’s bits in there that I would actually talk about to my kids.”
Freedom Ride is out on 13 March, on Liberation.