Olive & Eva were pioneers of the Australian record industry who released just four songs on two discs for the Prestophone label in 1955/56: Old Rugged Hills, Rhythm of Corroboree, When My Homeland Is Calling, and Maranoa Moon. They were the first commercially available records by an aboriginal Australian act and represent the headwater for a rich river of indigenous artists who have followed them. The background to these recordings frame a compelling vignette certainly worthy of wider circulation.
An aspect that fascinates me is that none of the four songs were written by either Olive or Eva. Nor were they cover versions of the pop hits of the day. Rather, they were composed by Grace O’Clerkin, a talented singer, guitarist and poet. Mrs Conn, as she was known by many in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, felt an affinity with the aboriginal communities around Redfern and La Perouse. Coalescing through music and a shared love of the Australian bush, the three enjoyed a friendship that nurtured their individual talents and made history in the process.
To learn more I spoke to Eva’s younger sister Maisie Cavanagh. I later made contact with Val Weston who told me a great deal about the life of her grandmother Grace O’Clerkin. The two conversations helped illuminate the lives of their respective family members and provide a deeper sense of their relationship.
“Eva was interested in the guitar but you know she never really played an instrument. But of course it wasn’t even just Eva singing at the time, it was Eva and her brothers.”Maisie Cavanagh
Eva Bell (later Eva Mumbler) was born in Orange in 1938, the third of six children. Her family lived at Erambie Mission just outside Cowra in New South Wales. They loved playing music.
Maisie Cavanagh: “I guess , when you’re living in situations like living on a reserve on a mission, and you’re isolated from being able to get involved in other things that you might want to be getting involved in, you know people become very creative in terms of playing violins and guitars and so my grandfather used to play concerts. They’d organise dances and he’d play the piano accordion and somebody else would play the guitar and my uncle used to play the gum leaf and so they had their own little orchestra. My mother grew up with that.”
“There was always the radio of course, back then we always had music. We always bought records, so there was always that. We’d have people come and we’d have sing songs on a Sunday. You know, we’d sit around and have sing songs, and have yarns and things like that. That was a real common thing with aboriginal people. If it wasn’t at our place this Sunday then it would be at someone else’s place.”
Eva was eight when the family moved to Sydney.
Maisie Cavanagh: “My dad never lived on a reserve, so he didn’t’ take lightly to living at Erambie and he wanted to get his family to Sydney for all the sorts of reasons that many families moved to Sydney – employment, better education, better housing.”
“Coming to Sydney, we moved to Redfern. Redfern was not like it is today. There was only a very small number of families, I would say about five, and people would come and stay with their extended families until they got their own accommodation. I never met anyone who had private accommodation in country towns like Cowra for example. They either lived on the reserve or camped out in the bush. They found it very difficult to go through real estate and get accommodation.”
“Eva was interested in the guitar but you know she never really played an instrument. But of course it wasn’t even just Eva singing at the time, it was Eva and her brothers.”
“Gordon, my second eldest brother, if you closed your eyes and he sang, you would think that it was Tony Bennett. He sounded so much like Tony Bennett. And of course the eldest brother Ted, he had a beautiful voice. I remember as a young child hearing him sing as a soprano . He just had a beautiful voice. Even after his voice broke he was still a very good singer.”
“Olive’s family were very musical, they were some of the best musicians that I have ever heard in my life.”Maisie Cavanagh
Two years her senior, Eva’s cousin Olive McGuiness also grew up on Erambie Mission and loved music.
Maisie Cavanagh: “Olive’s family were very musical, they were some of the best musicians that I have ever heard in my life. There was another family called the Williams’, she was related to them and we were related to them also, but she was closely related to them, and they were very, very good musicians. In fact, when Charlie Perkins first came to Sydney he set up an organisation called the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs and he had the family play at their gatherings.”
In the early 1950s, as a young teen, Olive left Erambie and moved to Sydney.
Maisie Cavanagh: “A lot of young aboriginal women back then would come to Sydney to get employment in private housing. You know they’d become housemaids in private housing. Live in help. She came to Sydney and stayed with us until she found employment.”
Singing In Harmony
I remember my mum saying oh we need to get ready early or we won’t get in the door, cause it would be packed out.Maisie Cavanagh
Sunday evening gatherings, known as sing-songs, were an important and popular aspect of the social life in the city.
Maisie Cavanagh: “[The sing-songs] might be in Redfern or they might be in Alexandria, it might be in Newtown. You’d know through the grapevine that they’re having a sing-song over in Newtown on Saturday or Sunday night. I remember my mum saying oh we need to get ready early or we won’t get in the door, cause it would be packed out.
“I think it was just one night at a sing song at home they asked Olive and Eva to sing a song together. (It was) some pop song they sang together. Everyone realised they both sound really good. When you named a song they would work out how to best sing it for their ranges. They had this real sixth sense when it came to each other’s singing ability”
“It was about that time when Olive was staying with us and they’d been singing on a couple of occasions, mainly at our place, and then Mr & Mrs Conn came one night and heard them.”
“She could play just about any stringed instrument. Banjo, mandolin, violin, she even had a go at the zither once.”Val Weston
Grace O’Clerkin was born in 1901 and grew up in Queensland. She moved from Townsville to Sydney in around 1947 and set up home in Union St, Erskineville.
Maisie Cavanagh: “O’Clerkin was her last name but all the aboriginal people used to call her Mrs Conn. Her husband was a broad Irishman and his name was Cornelius O’Clerkin, so it was his nickname they used to call her by – Mr & Mrs Conn.”
Val Weston: “Her house was like an old shop. It wasn’t a shop anymore you know but she lived in it. She could play just about any stringed instrument. Banjo, mandolin, violin, she even had a go at the zither once. I think she could play a little bit on the piano as well. Very talented she was. But the Hawaiian guitar, yeah, that was her specialty.”
In her younger years Grace had been inspired to write away for a Hawaiian guitar and sheet music after hearing her boss playing Hawaiian records in the workplace.
Val Weston: “She played it with picks and a steel. The first time I saw it, it was, just a dark reddish colour, and then in the 40s she sent the body away. Somebody was going to cover it with ah, well she called it nickel plate. When she got it back it just looked like a silver guitar. It was great. And I have it here and it’s still got a little dint in the back of it, I don’t know where she bumped it on something. So when she lived out at Yarra Bay, which is now called Phillip Bay, of a Sunday you know she would walk down to La Perouse and sit up on the grassy bank near the beach and play music and she would end up with a big crowd around her.”
Grace O’Clerkin wasn’t just interested in playing other people’s songs on the guitar either, she was always working on lyrics and melodies of her own.
Val Weston: “She’d sit most of the day writing. All she did was write. Lyrics, poetry or she’d be ruling up music sheets or something. In later years she wrote all her own music, even lined it up you know, she had a special pen with so many points on it that she could just rule the lines for the music to go on. Yes she did a lot of music writing, manuscripts and that.”
“It was hard in those days to get any Australian music out there because, well the only ones they were interested in was hillbilly stuff. But she didn’t write that. They were Australian Bush Ballads, I think that was what she called them. Some were funny and some were nice, I loved them all ”
Mrs O’Clerkin’s songs also made a big impression on Maisie and her friends and family.
Maisie Cavanagh: “Her music and her lyrics were incredible. She had this all steel guitar that she played on her lap and it sounded like an electric. And she was good. She was very good. I’d say that she was the best female guitarist I’ve heard in my life. She was just incredible. And the music that she wrote, a lot of it was uncanny because she was writing about aboriginal things, so she really had a feel for aboriginal people.”
The O’Clerkins quickly became friends with their neighbours and before long they were an integral part of the suburban social music scene.
Val Weston: “Every Sunday night we used to go across the road to an aboriginal lady and play music at her place. But the crowd became so big that we had to take it back to Grandmas place because she had a bigger room. And every Sunday night we’d have music. The whole street used to go there practically and listen.”
Maisie Cavanagh: “When we had sing-songs at home in Alexandria, the non-aboriginal people who lived next door and across the road, they’d come over, or they’d be hanging over their fence. I think that these sings-songs in these people’s houses really started with Mrs O’Clerkin, because I could imagine that aboriginal people would have wanted to do that but been in fear of getting into trouble if you had a sing-song. But because she was having one in her house, then my mum and dad said we should have one in our place too. But they were the ones that really started it.”
A teenage Jimmy Little and his brother Freddy were among those known to attend.
Over time O’Clerkin began sharing the songs she had been writing with a few of the regular singers who had been drawn to the gatherings.
Val Weston: “She had a couple of young aborigine boys who used to sing her songs. She used to take them around to different places and they’d perform. She had another boy, Eva’s brother, he had a beautiful voice as a child. He was about 12 I think. This was Teddy. Teddy Bell his name was. Oh yeah. Boy soprano he was.”
Ted Bell was one of the first singers to perform Grace O’Clerkin’s songs. Though never recorded, he sang Old Rugged Hills at local events well before Olive & Eva.
Val Weston: “She was all for the aboriginal people. She had a very soft spot in her heart for them. Always tried to advance them. But in those days of course no one was really interested in aborigines performing, and that was a shame.”
Moving to La Perouse
“They were like celebrities amongst aboriginal people. Oh Eva and Olive are here, it’s going to be a good night now.”Maisie Cavanagh
In the mid 1950s the O’Clerkins moved to the coastal suburb of La Perouse where they soon made new connections with the local aboriginal community, particularly through music.
Maisie Cavanagh: “When she moved to La Perouse she would have her sing-songs there. The aboriginal people of La Perouse would all be there. We’d catch the tram and go out there, and not only us but others would catch a tram and go out there. She had this little place right on the side of Yarra Bay on the side of this little hill. You’d have to sit out in the yard because you couldn’t get in the door. It was a real gathering. It was a time when people would really come together and they were mainly aboriginal people.”
It was during this period that Olive & Eva decided to pay a visit to Grace. The duo had been practising harmonies for their own version of the Hank Williams song Your Cheatin’ Heart. Maisie joined them on the trip.
Maisie Cavanagh: “It was so good we all applauded. Then she took them under her wing and they were singing her songs. It was great. Eva and Olive they just came out to visit her one Sunday. Cause we lived out near the beach. And I think I was about 10 or 11 then. And I think Eva was 17. They sang a song for her and she loved it. Then they started singing her stuff when she taught them.”
As they practised and perfected new material their confidence grew and the O’Clerkins began looking for opportunities to play in front of new audiences.
Maisie Cavanagh: “It might have been a dance, a non-aboriginal dance. They were mostly non-aboriginal functions. I use to see the singer Harold Blaire and also Jimmy Little a couple of times at different functions.
Once their talents had been given wider exposure they quickly developed a following.
Maisie Cavanagh: “They were like celebrities amongst aboriginal people. Oh Eva & Olive are here, it’s going to be a good night now.”
The youth oriented newspaper Challenge announced a talent quest to be held across September and October 1954. Accompanied by Grace, Eva sang at the Randwick heat in September. Exactly which songs they played is unknown, but the performance was described in the Tribune newspaper as “moving”.
Australia’s Amateur Hour
“The night that they sang on the Amateur Hour, I think everybody in our street had their radio tuned in.”Maisie Cavanagh
A pioneering radio talent show which had begun in 1940, Australia’s Amateur Hour was syndicated across the country via 55 radio stations covering both the cities and rural areas. Hosted initially by Harry Dearth and then later Dick Fair, it consistently drew huge weekly audiences, becoming a pop-culture phenomenon. In 1955 the top prize was £1000.
Olive and Eva entered. No doubt encouraged by their families, increasingly popular performances at local events and talent quests, not to mention Grace and Cornelius O’Clerkin.
To win they’d need to impress listeners across Australia. Each heat and semi-final was decided by a combination of judges opinions and the number of popular votes chalked up via phone or mail in the weeks after each episode. Before their appearance Olive and Eva were justifiably nervous.
Maisie Cavanagh: “I remember Eva saying, when she heard this opera singer, her and Ollie were saying, oh my god we haven’t got a chance”
Though there is no first-hand record of their appearance on the show, there appears to be a strong chance that the song they sang that night was one of the four tunes they would shortly record for Prestophone. Whatever they performed it clearly went over well with those who heard it.
Maisie Cavanagh: “They won the Amateur Hour that night! It certainly wasn’t my little sock full of pennies that won it. I remember I’d saved tuppence or thrippence or something like that, that you had to put into the phone box. Course the phone box was on the next corner, you had to run around the block to go to the phone box. You had to call the station and tell them what number you were voting for. We just made so many phone calls that night.”
As a result, Olive and Eva were announced as finalists to appear at the Sydney Town Hall on Thursday 1st December 1955.
Performing alongside Olive & Eva were piano duettists Anne & Phillip Bracanin, soprano Margaret Goldstone, pianist Alexander Boettcher, piano accordionist Vina Loscar, vocal group The Four Brothers (Mick Beasley, Tiki Ticehurst, Ken Lloyd, & Tommy Whelan), banjoist Bruce Robinson, folk singer Fred Berry, tenor Greg Dempsey, and the Provost Brothers (Barry & Bruce).
Unfortunately I’ve never been able to ascertain who ultimately won the contest that year, though I have spoken to a few who were there. Ken Lloyd of The Four Brothers confirmed it wasn’t them. He thought it might have been Margaret Goldstone. I also spoke to Phillip Bracanin who confirmed that he and his sister hadn’t taken the prize. He suggested it might have been Alexander Boettcher. It’s possible we will never know. What is important for this story however is that the momentum Olive and Eva gained throughout the competition resulted in their recording session.
Recording With Prestophone
“I don’t know how she did it but you know she put in all the extra bits as she went along with the song. She didn’t need accompaniment.”Val Weston
Reginald (Rex) Shaw ran Prestophone Records from Pitt Street in Sydney. By the mid 50s the label had released discs by an array of popular local acts including bandleader Frank Coughlan.
Maisie Cavanagh: “My mother and Olive and Eva went into Sydney and we met a guy there and his name was Shaw. He wanted them to do some practice to see how they’d go. They only sang with Mrs Conn playing the guitar at that time. He wanted to see if they could sing with a quartet. Something other than the guitar.”
Their debut single Old Rugged Hills / Rhythm of Corroboree was released on Prestophone in 1955. The addition of a quartet was likely driven by a desire to broaden their commercial viability, however it meant that Grace O’Clerkin did not get to feature on the recordings.
Val Weston: When they made those recordings as I said they didn’t want her to play the guitar they had to use an orchestra. I don’t know if you heard of the song Rhythm of Corroboree, it was very powerful the way she played it. But on the record when they used the orchestra it just lacked something. It didn’t have any life in it. And I was a bit disappointed in that. And I think she was too. It was always nicer with the guitar. ‘Cause I supposed she wrote them for the guitar. And she played her own accompaniment on the guitar, I don’t know how she did it but you know she put in all the extra bits as she went along with the song. She didn’t need accompaniment.”
Despite any disappointment that may have been felt, as soon as the disc became available it was a hit with the local aboriginal community in Sydney.
Maisie Cavanagh: “They came home and it was really exciting. People came, like our family, our neighbours came in to hear it and put it on the radiogram. Awww it was, you know, we couldn’t believe it, we use to play them until we couldn’t play them anymore. You’d have to go get another needle, buy another needle. Yeah no, everyone was playing them. There weren’t that many but they were handed around to other people because there was that excitement. Because it was never heard of. Here was two people that you knew, that lived next door to you or you are related to them, and here they were on this contraption. There was certainly that awareness that fancy that, you know here is Ollie and Eva, they made a record.”
Sadly, it seems that most of the copies that sold were snapped up by family and friends and then worn out through repeated plays on their home stereos. Few copies appear to have ever made their way to radio stations where they might have got a vital play or two that could have opened up further opportunities.
Maisie Cavanagh: “I haven’t heard anybody who has ever heard their record being played on radio. After the Amateur Hour, and after the record, I think they went for a little while and then I think they started getting ready to settle down and get married. I think for Olive, well she’d been down in Sydney for a while, I think she just wanted to go back home, she was homesick.”
In 1956 Olive and Eva released their 2nd and final record through Prestophone: Maranoa Moon / When My Homeland Is Calling. Despite gorgeous harmonies, and more evocative songwriting from Grace O’Clerkin, the tracks failed to gain the wider public’s attention. It seems the pair stopped performing together regularly not long afterwards.
Keen to start a family, Olive moved back to Cowra.
However, Eva stayed in Sydney and continued performing publicly for more than a decade. She was one of two winners, along with mezzo-soprano Lorna Beulah, in the 1962 NADOC week Music Quest.
Eva could often be found singing at shows with the likes of Jimmy Little or the Silver Lining Band and was a regular entrant (and winner) of the many talent shows run by inner city pubs during the early 1960s. Eva didn’t stop performing until the birth of her third child at the end of that decade. One of her children was named Cornelius in honour of Grace O’Clerkin’s husband.
Val Weston: “In later years, when Eva got married she started giving guitar and ukulele lessons to some of the local kids and they were quite good too. Not singing but playing the instruments. Which is something I could never do. I just could never pick it up.”
Beyond that the musical careers of Olive and Eva took a backseat, though whenever they found themselves in each other’s company at a family gathering they would sing together. Many Wiradjuri people of New South Wales still fondly remember them and their beautiful harmonies at get togethers.
Old Rugged Hills
Old Rugged Hills (lyrics by Grace O’Clerkin)
“Blue grey majestic, eternal they stand
Guarding the shores of my native land
Shelt’ring the valleys where blue waters run
In adoration, kissed by the sun
Old rugged hills of Australia”
Grace O’Clerkin continued to write songs and poetry until her death in 1964 at the age of 63.
Val Weston: “She had a very big funeral. The Premier of New South Wales sent a telegram of condolence. She had a lot to do with the aboriginal movement and she knew a lot of….she knew a lot of celebrities.”
“I remember when she got a Christmas card from Smokey Dawson. Lionel Long – he was a singer/actor. He wrote her a letter once. Jimmy Little visited once. But yeah, she did know a few celebrities. I think she knew Harold Blair. He was an aboriginal tenor singer.”
Following Olive and Eva’s recordings others, including Jimmy Little, began to perform O’Clerkin’s songs.
Val Weston: “I was really surprised to see Jimmy Little sing her songs on TV. Not many were interested in Australian music in those days. She tried so hard, you know going to all these record companies. But of course it was hard then. Nobody wanted to hear Australian stuff.”
When Eva sang in front of 3000 people in Sydney’s Martin Place to mark National Aborigines Day in 1962, one of the songs she chose was Old Rugged Hills.
Maisie Cavanagh: “It’s a very powerful song. It talks about you belonging, not just as an aboriginal person, but as an Australian. And it came long before I Still Call Australia Home. It’s pitched that way. This is the land that you belong to.”
“You see aboriginal people have been conditioned to believe that we don’t have anything of value or beauty and non-aboriginal people have been conditioned to think that way about us, and we’ve been conditioned to think that way about ourselves. And so this person comes along and she writes these songs that have us thinking about ourselves and putting it in a way (or expressing it) how we feel. We have the emotion but we can’t express it about where we belong and what we belong to. I think that Mrs Conn’s music does that very effectively.”
After many years searching I finally found a copy of Old Rugged Hills / Rhythm of Corroboree for myself. A photo of it appeared in my Facebook feed one day and a conversation with a collector in Sydney followed. He told me he was happy to see it going to an appreciative home. It now sits on a shelf alongside other groundbreaking records by indigenous Australian acts of that era including Georgia Lee, Vic Sabrino, Harold Blair, and Vicky Simms. There is a space reserved for Maranoa Moon / When My Homeland Is Calling.
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The podcast produced on Olive and Eva which features part of my interview with Maisie Cavanagh is below.