A (rock 'n' roll) mother's labour of love

BY TAMARA OSICKA

NFSA sound archivist, Tamara Osicka, holding the Johnny O'Keefe scrapbooks made by his mother Thelma

Tamara Osicka and the Thelma O’Keefe scrapbooks

 NFSA title: 1293556

An archivist’s job, like many other jobs, involves a lot of mundane tasks: going to meetings, writing reports and sending emails. However, my favourite part of being an archivist is the research I get to do.

Researching the history of an object can be like digging for treasure. The process of unearthing information and piecing it together and understanding an object’s origins, its meaning or its place in history can be intensely rewarding.

Some objects contain a multitude of stories. The Johnny O’Keefe scrapbooks are such objects. Lovingly compiled by Johnny’s mother Thelma over 12 years (1954-1965), their 578 pages are a rich resource for fans and researchers alike.

Dipping into their pages, I found newspaper advertisements with Johnny modelling and promoting the latest chunky knit cardigans from Clan Murray Knitwear. There was an angry letter from Mascot Council complaining that the Dee Jay’s pianist had put his foot onto their piano during their performance. There was the Christmas card that Johnny sent to people that had showed him support in the first year of his career.

I found the newspaper articles intriguing. Through them, you could see all the highs and lows in Johnny’s career but also bigger social stories such as the emergence of the teenager and how confronting this strange new music – rock ‘n’ roll – was at the time. Was it a cause of teenage delinquency; was it the cause of violence or promiscuity in our young people?

In the newspaper clippings which Johnny’s mother pasted in the scrapbook, I found the vitriol and negativity surprising. I thought trolling was a modern phenomenon but within these clippings from the 1960s there are plenty of people writing into newspapers, things which I imagine it was hard for Johnny’s mother to read. It is interesting to see in these pages how one person can be simultaneously idolised and reviled at the same time.

To see the way journalists talked about mental illness during that period was confronting too. Johnny O’Keefe was open about his mental illness, possibly because in his life as a public figure it was impossible to hide his struggles. The mocking tones in which it was discussed, made me again think of Thelma and how it would have felt to see her son discussed in that way.

The cover of the Johnny O'Keefe scrapbook from 1954 to 1961

Johnny O'Keefe scrapbook covering 1954 - 1961.

NFSA title: 1293556

From the scrapbook, it is apparent that Thelma did not always paste the article into the scrapbook, accept what had been written and turn the page. On some pages, pasted next to these articles are the letters she received back from media organisations, in response to a letter of complaint she had sent.

I also loved the 60’s colours and design, the paraphernalia such as the handkerchief with Johnny’s face on it, the ad for a rock n roll skirt that you could buy with your favourite stars’ names emblazoned on it, the ‘Friends of Johnny O’Keefe’ fan club certificates stating ‘I am proud to be a friend of Johnny and I will always try to help him as much as I can, and try to set a good example to all teenagers’.

It has been a wonderful experience to look into the NFSA’s holdings of Johnny O’Keefe material and I am most pleased to be able to share the results of my discoveries with you!

The scrapbooks are available as part of the Johnny O’Keefe curated collection.