This is a 30-second excerpt from the beginning of 'Stranger in My Country’, written and performed by Vic Simms. Simms recorded this song from his LP 'The Loner’ during a single one-hour recording session in a mobile studio in Bathurst Gaol in 1973.
Summary by Brenda Gifford
Although the opening brass sound of Stranger in My Country is not usual for a rock-county style of music, it sets up a relaxed and upbeat tempo that belies the serious message of the song. Written in prison, Simms is singing about his own alienation as well as that of his people, and a large part of the charm and appeal of this song is that it’s such a catchy tune. This contrast, along with Vic’s smooth and clear voice and the high production values, makes the song sound as fresh today as when it was recorded. The message in the lyrics is also as relevant now as when it was first written.
Simms later went on tour with the album, including a performance at the Sydney Opera House in 1973. His roadies for the tour were the Bathurst prison wardens.
The album ‘The Loner’ by Vic Simms was recorded in one hour at Bathurst Gaol in a mobile studio provided by RCA music. Originally made as a public relations exercise for the state prisons, the album has stood up over time to become a classic album of Aboriginal protest songs.
The exceptional thing about ‘The Loner’ album was that it happened at all. It was recorded in Bathurst Gaol at a time when prisoners were protesting living conditions in the prison system, having rioted in October 1970. A black man in goal in that period faced a double danger of lack of basic human rights plus institutionalised racism. Vic Simms was midway into a seven-year sentence in Bathurst for robbery. He had traded two packets of cigarettes for an acoustic guitar, learned to play guitar chords and started to write songs about his life and the injustices he saw around him as a young Aboriginal man.
The Robin Hood Foundation, a charity group, heard Simms singing in the prison yard and took a cassette of his songs to RCA record company. The company took in a mobile studio and session musicians and recorded ten of Simms’s original songs in a single one-hour session. It was produced by Rocky Thomas, who gave it a rich, full sound to complement Simm’s voice, and the result was ‘The Loner’. Vic remembers, ‘We had an exact hour to record, because that was all the time allotted by the prison. I had to hope and pray that I’d do okay on each of the ten tracks because there’d be no second bidding. And I did. I felt that if I didn’t record that album, it would just prove that we were out of sight and out of mind. I wanted to show that musical talent could exist no matter where it was, out in the bush or behind walls.’
What Simms didn’t fully realise at the time was that the recording was used as a public relations exercise for the prison system, whose image was tarnished by the riots which occurred a few days after the recording. Vic was sent on tour around the jails, performing his songs. When he realised how he was being manipulated he refused to tour anymore. For his troubles he was transferred to Parramatta Jail and placed in an isolated sector. Nevertheless, Simms was one of the first Aboriginal musicians to record and tour in the prison system. It has since become a practice for Aboriginal musicians to give back to the community in this way. The annual NAIDOC celebrations now regularly feature broadcasts from within prisons around the country.
Released from prison in 1977, Simms revived the performing career he had begun at a young age. He’d had a big break in 1956, when the young Vic went to a rugby social in Maroubra in Sydney. Col Jacobsen (late Col Joye), his brother Kevin, and his band were playing and, during an interval, Col asked if anyone from the audience would like to come up and sing. Vic’s friends, knowing he could sing, urged him to give it a go. He performed Tutti Frutti and one other song, which so impressed Col and Kevin that they later asked to come on tour with them. During his school years, he toured regularly. He was 11 years old when he did his first paid gig at the Manly Jazzerama with Col Joye and the Joy Boys. On the bill with them was Johnny O’Keefe.
Vic went on to become a known name and regularly performed on television’s Bandstand (1958–72), In Melbourne Tonight (1957–70) and The Johnny O’Keefe Show (1961–62). He released his first single, Yo-Yo Heart, on Festival Records when he was just 15. I’m Counting Up My Love followed a year later. In his formative years Vic travelled widely throughout Australia, experiencing things his family and friends back home could only dream about. This freedom represented an escape from mission life and allowed him to see how mainstream Australia lived. Simms said of performing, ‘I consider myself to be an entertainer. I can tread the boards with any kind of music and play to any kind of audience. In the industry itself I experienced no prejudice and was totally accepted by my peers for my musical ability. I was simply “Vic Simms, Entertainer”.’
Off-stage, in some small towns, he faced racism. One time, Vic and the Col Joye entourage, including a young Peter Allen, were frolicking around in Moree’s swimming pool enjoying the sunshine when Vic was coldly informed he would have to leave. ‘The attendant said to me, “We don’t let people like you in here”. I said, “What do you mean?” and he replied, “Black people, Aboriginal people – have a look around.”’ When Col and the rest of them saw what was going on, they all collected their things and left in a show of solidarity. Vic was gutted. It affected him psychologically for a long, long time.
It was after his release from prison in 1977 that Vic entered talent quests in an effort to get his confidence back. He soon began performing at Aboriginal country music festivals, recording tracks for the well-known series ‘Koori Classics’, and even returned to the club circuit for the Johnny O’Keefe Memorial Show. In the ensuing years Vic performed frequently with established national and international artists and formed a group to tour the jails. This group included other Aboriginal performers Roger Knox, Bobby McLeod, Col and Mac Silver and sometimes Jimmy Little, and non-Indigenous member Col Hardy, to go back inside and sing for the inmates. Over a period of 12 years this group of musicians travelled from jail to jail, letting the fellas – black and white – know that someone was thinking about them. This led to a visit to Canada with Bobby and Roger in 1990, where the trio performed in numerous federal and state prisons. The majority of prisoners in Canada are Native American people. This situation mirrored Australia’s prison system in that a large majority of Australian prisons are filled by Indigenous inmates.
Vic Simms has become an Aboriginal music legend and pioneer for his people because of his music and work in the prison system. Simms continues to perform today, his career now spanning some 45 years, a long time in any industry let alone the music business. He is a statesman and Elder for La Perouse Mission and the Bidjigal people. Although 'The Loner’ is extremely hard to locate and is now considered a lost classic, Simms is still working to help his people overcome being strangers in their own country.
Notes by Brenda Gifford