There is an umbilical cord, as transparent as it may seem, between the United States and Australia. You have to be an idiot not to see it. As different as our countries are, we hold ideals in common, or at least like to think we do. The histories parallel one another—wild frontiers, opportunities for all, equality (through a smokescreen carefully applied by politicians and bureaucrats)…My father, who was in WWII, often said that he was damn glad the Australians were one our side because in a fight, they were fearless. They were also, on the whole, honest—or meant to be. Rose-colored glasses? Maybe. But I cannot help but feel that the Aussies are brothers under the skin and that Canadians are just Americans lucky enough to live beyond our political boundaries.
So when Bill Jackson come along with a song about a Confederate warship, I blink at what should have seemed natural. Leave it to an Aussie to school pompous Americans about their own history. While Texans attempt to rewrite history to their liking and fundamentalist conservatives spew their own brand of what they think is reality, Bill Jackson and Ross Jackson dig into a history which would serve well as a Hollywood screenplay—the role of Australia in our own Civil War. Small though it may have been, it points to a fact completely ignored by U.S. historians—the role of Confederates who operated outside of the realm of The South. In this case, it involved the CSS Shenandoah—a pirate ship, if you will—dedicated to the Confederate cause.
The Confederates acquired the ship through nefarious means and immediately put it to work chipping away at Union shipping. Eventually, they worked their way to the Pacific where they concentrated on capturing or destroying whaling ships, a huge source of revenue for the Union. During the Shenandoah's run, they ended up dropping anchor at Melbourne for repairs. While anchored, the Confederates allegedly attempted to recruit Australians for the cause. Scratch 'allegedly.' They ended up recruiting 42 Aussies and when they headed back to the seas, captured an additional 25 whaling ships before turning their ship over to the British.
Fascinating? It sure as hell was to me. The Confederacy's attempts to stab Uncle Sam in the bank book have largely been disregarded by our historians and the fact that it happened as far away as the far Pacific makes it a story worthy of a movie. So when ol' mates Bill and Ross uncovered the story, what were they to do? Can't ignore a story that good. So they wrote a song.
And a fine song it is. About one Billy Kenyon who signed up as a privateer fighting for The Deep South. About going to sea for a cause not really his own. About real history. The great thing about music is that you hear what you hear when it comes to music. While historians are busy spouting perception as fact, musicians cut through the chaff. Let me ask you this—would anyone in the States care about the Edmund Fitzgerald if not for Gordon Lightfoot? Maybe now that the History and Discovery Channels live, but not back then. Reason enough to embrace Bill Jackson and Ross Jackson and the CSS Shenandoah. If you want to know more, here are a couple of links:
As I said in my review of Bill Jackson's Steel + Bone album (here), the guy writes and sings like he's from The States and it doesn't hurt that he has a dobro player (Peter Fidler) who has a touch worthy of a Randy Kohrs or a Pat Wictor. The songs are solid folk with that Americana bent and while the subjects might be Australian, the music is as American as it gets. Honeymoon Gully is a Hatfield/McCoy feud lament which follows two love-struck teens who leave their respective families to give their love a chance in the wild—it happens, of course, in Australia. Jackson pays tribute to his father, who Jackson says loved to drink, gamble and spin a yarn, in "Hard and Free." And the theme of heartache and lost love of This Heartache could have been straight out of old-time Nashville.
Although recorded recently in Nashville, this is one of those projects which could have been recorded there at any time. Jackson and Fidler were touring this last February and put together this session at the drop of a hat. They recruited David Olney cohort Jack Irwin to record, gathered sidemen Sergio Webb, Dan Seymour and Joe Giotta and here you have it. Recorded live almost on a whim. Five songs from the Deep, Deep South—Australia—recorded in the Deep South. Well, the South, anyway.
Word has it that Jackson and Fidler are angling for another American tour. No doubt, Nashville will be an anchor if that tour happens. With luck, they will cover the States as best they can in the time allotted. I would suggest scanning club dates starting next Spring to see if they might be scheduled at a venue in your neck of the woods. They are definitely worth seeing and hearing and it's always a hoot to hear Aussies talk instead of sing. They have one of the coolest accents in the world.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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