How might Australian history be characterised in song? Described as 150 years of alternative Australian voices, Robyn Archer’s An Australian Songbook is a very personal song selection that convincingly shows how song is the lifeblood of a healthy society, and a mirror to it. Her presentation also has the effect of re-examining Australian history.
Archer has an abiding concern with the connection between the arts and politics, and her alternative history is irreverent and disarmingly honest. Dressed in conservative black and looking as much like a professor at a lectern as a singer at a music stand, she detailed each song’s historical context so that the songs exemplify her lesson. She opened with her own song ‘I Am Not Nor Will I Ever Be’, which names Crocodile Dundee, Bazza McKenzie, and Germaine Greer as those with whom she should not be compared. She wrote it while in the United Kingdom at the time of Australia’s bicentenary, and in presenting it here, she summarises British perceptions of Australia’s culture, establishes her own vantage point, and links Australia’s bicentennial celebrations with the impact of British colonisation on Australia’s First Nations. She continued with a song about Macassan trade with the peoples of Arnhem land to prove that Australia was known not to be the terra nullius it was claimed to be.