Blues Portrait – A Profile of the Australian Blues Scene by Pauline Bailey Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4
“Blues Portrait” provides a snapshot of the contemporary Australian blues scene. 172 musicians across four volumes share their thoughts and insights about their musical journeys and describe, in their own words, how they discovered the blues and what it means to them. The books explore how they have each shaped the broad, rich and diverse blues scene we have in Australia.
About Blues Portrait
In November 2019 I self-published my first book, Blues Portrait. This was followed by Volumes 2 and 3 which were released simultaneously in November 2021. The most recent instalment, Volume 4, was published in 2023. I have always had a passion for Australian music – blues music in particular, and I’ve always believed that Australian blues has been overlooked in the musical landscape. When I started looking for books on the subject, I was surprised to discover that no one had properly documented this genre, so in 2017 I decided to track down some of this country’s blues legends. I was curious about their experiences and stories, and I thought other people might be interested in hearing them as well. I began with some friends and artists that I knew, and started the process of interviewing, transcribing, writing and building a profile of each artist on my list. Once I started interviewing people it quickly became evident that the blues scene was far more diversified and expansive than I had anticipated. The initial interviews were only the tip of the iceberg – each person took me down a different road, and I discovered many more people keen to tell their stories.
The end result is a collection of 172 people spread across four books, illustrating this country’s broad and impressive blues culture. Because the books also discuss how blues has affected and influenced other musical styles, I’ve included people who aren’t technically “blues” – individuals with a variety of backgrounds, influences, and inspirations, but who all have one thing in common: the desire to make music. I’m extremely grateful to every one of these incredible musicians for generously sharing their time, stories, and perspectives on what it means to be a musician.
“Blues Portrait is an incredible book which documents the Australian blues music scene and it’s amazing musicians.” – Peter D. Harper
“Pauline Bailey’s “Blues Portrait” book series has every artist telling their story in their own words. The insights, philosophies, outlooks and tales make for a great read. Her choices for inclusion are interesting and diverse, the variety gives the book a wonderfully rich texture, and her interviewing style obviously made every one of them feel relaxed enough to open up.” – Craig B.
“If you collect music biographies (or just want a good read) you need this book. It fills a big void in any collection because there are so few books about blues musicians – especially Australian ones. Even if you’re not a blues fan (God forbid!), the book is full of great down-to-earth chats with the likes of Kevin Borich, Bob Spencer, Phil Para and Kerri Simpson, to name but a few.” – Sharon B.
“I learnt so much and filled in a lot of gaps that I didn’t even know were gaps in this wonderful music scene we have here. So grateful to have this book.” – Grant
“Can certainly recommend this book to any music enthusiast, no matter what their preferred genre is – the blues is where it all began for the music of today.” – Lee
“An unparalleled reference on blues music in Australia. Part 4 of this excellent series of books about the Australian blues scene does not disappoint and goes a huge way to furthering the knowledge base of this widely variable genre of music and those who keep it alive for now, and for future generations. Pauline Bailey has taken on this monumental task with gusto, and along the way has created an unparalleled reference of those who eat, breathe, live and play the blues.” – Andrew F.
Reviews and Interviews:
Review by Des Cowley – Rhythms Magazine Nov/Dec 2022
Like many, I came to blues music via a circuitous route. If you’d quizzed me about Willie Dixon’s classic ‘Spoonful’, I’d have cited Cream. Robert Johnson’s ‘Love in Vain’? Easy, Rolling Stones. It was Canned Heat who first introduced me to John Lee Hooker via Hooker ‘n’ Heat. I recall Hooker’s voice and guitar on that record was so alien, I didn’t know what to make of it. But I t proved enough to whet my appetite, and, like others before me, I set off in search of the roots of this music.
Writer and visual artist Pauline Bailey confesses she loved music from an early age, her eclectic tastes eventually running to the raw sound of slide guitar and harmonica. Not unlike my own experience, she first encountered blues via local acts like Billy Thorpe and Lobby Loyde, or by listening to records by the Stones or Johnny Winter. Later, the more authentic blues of Chris Wilson and Southern Lightning motivated her to embark upon her own journey of discovery, diving deep into the blues catalogue.
Bailey’s first venture into writing and publishing came about when she collaborated on musician Kim Volkman’s autobiography The Devil Won’t Take Charity (2017). The positive experience led her to conceive of an ambitious project to document Australian blues music, resulting in the present series of volumes. The significance of her work can’t be overestimated, given the overall paucity of books on the subject.
All up, bailey’s Blues Portrait runs to a whopping 1000 pages, comprising first-hand accounts by some 130 musicians, most running to around 5-10 pages, along with photographs and brief career overviews. Bailey has cast her net widely, embracing those who play blues, as well as those inspired or influenced by blues music. While its focus is on Australian musicians, it does spotlight the occasional overseas act, such as Chuck Leavell or Nikki “D” Brown, who have toured here. A select checklist of names featured in the first volume provides a snapshot of coverage: Ian Collard, Dave Hole, Kevin Borich, Fiona Boyes, Phil Manning, Lloyd Spiegel, Geoff Achison, Ross Wilson, Jeff Lang, Matt Taylor, Kerri Simpson, Ash Grunwald, Shane O’Mara Chris Wilson.
Bailey’s modus operandi for the first volume was to carry out face-to-face interviews, starting off with a prescribed set of questions, but allowing the conversation to roam, the equivalent of a fireside chat. These were then transcribed and edited before being provided to interviewees for final edits and approval. The strength of this approach is that the end result reflects the musician’s own stories, told in their own words. It is a testament to Bailey’s project that only two of some hundred-and-sixty musicians she approached declined to be involved.
The onset of the pandemic, and subsequent lockdowns in 2020-2021, necessitated a shift in approach, and interviews for the second and third volumes were largely conducted by phone. One unexpected outcome is that these volumes broach the impacts of COVID upon local musicians. For many, the experience of gigs drying up, or enforces personal isolation, was a negative one; for others, such as Joe Camilleri, it “allowed time to stop and do something that I’ve always loved”, in this case, playing the saxophone.
With their density and heft, Bailey’s books are best considered reference works, to be dipped into, or taken down from the shelf as need arises. While her later volumes include a roster of significant names – Tim Rogers, Kerryn Tolhurst, Jeannie Lewis, Margret RoadKnight, Jim Conway, Kim Salmon, Russell Morris, Steve Tallis – they equally include many lesser-known figures, testifying to her depth of coverage. As Jeff Lang notes in his introduction to the third volume, the book embraces “many younger performers who are each in their own way taking the music forward into the future”.
Can we expect a further volume in the series? According to Bailey: “I still have a lot of artists I’d like to interview, including Buddy Knox and CW Stoneking, but I haven’t been able to connect with them yet, unfortunately… I’m currently working on Volume 4… stay tuned!” In the interim, post-lockdowns, she’s returned to her favourite Melbourne haunts: “The Catfish, The Rainbow, Way Out West, Memo, The Corner, The Forum, Lyrebird, George Lane, and the long0running Sunday Cherry Blues at the Cherry Bar.” In a nutshell, like any inveterate music lover, she concedes she’ll go anywhere to see a blues band.
To label these volumes a labour of love doesn’t do the project justice. Bailey has devoted several years of her life to documenting several generations of Australian blues and blues-related musicians, filling a much-needed gap in the record. The fact that Australian blues music developed decades after its U.S. counterpart means that, within these pages, Bailey has been able to capture the voices of Australian pioneers of this music. In ten or twenty years, many of these voices will be silenced, ensuring her work is crucial to our understanding of the development of blues music in this country. Within a local context – and I know this sounds like a stretch – it’s analogous to an American counterpart talking down the words of Charley Patten, Robert Johnson, Son House, Lead Belly, or M Rainey. Kerri Simpson goes so far as to refer to her as an “Alan Lomax type figure”. Blues historians will undoubtably owe Bailey a debt of gratitude.
More reviews and interviews:
Love That Album podcast with Maurice Bursztynski, 25/9/23
Full range of books below:
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© Pauline Bailey