Australian Screen

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Jimmy Little’s Gentle Journey (2006)

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Original classification rating: G. This clip chosen to be G

Clip description

Historical footage of Jimmy Little. Jimmy’s daughter Frances Peters-Little talks about her father, and how their shared passion for music ensured a great family bond. Russell Taylor talks about Jimmy Little overcoming stereotypes.

Curator’s notes

Jimmy Little’s style of softly softly came under scrutiny during the heyday of ’70s Indigenous politics. Despite that, Little never changed his style to suit the political voice of the day, instead maintaining his stance and withstanding the political pressure from outside forces.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows a collage of black-and-white and colour footage from the 1960s along with contemporary interviews with Australian singer Jimmy Little (1937–), a Yorta Yorta man, speaking about his pride in being an Indigenous Australian and about how he has dealt with ignorance and discrimination. Russell Taylor, AIATSIS Principal, and Little’s daughter, Frances Peters-Little, describe Little’s influence on the way Indigenous people were regarded in the 1960s and the way they regarded themselves. The clip concludes with a scene of Little singing in a 1962 documentary.

Educational value points

  • The clip is from the documentary Jimmy Little’s Gentle Journey, and this title, together with the sequences of 1960s footage seen in the clip and Little’s own commentary, offer a vivid insight into his philosophy of preferring to 'walk softly, softly, and speak softly, softly’ (http://www.usyd.edu.au) and into his personal discipline of 'persistence, patience and politeness’ (http://www.abc.net.au).
  • Little describes himself as a 'slow-burn sort of guy’ (http://www.smh.com.au) and the clip’s early footage reveals his belief in the value of ignoring ignorance and discrimination, promoting reconciliation and taking a long view of achieving justice for Indigenous Australians. Little continues to believe that his fame as an entertainer and role model allows him to provide a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
  • In the late 1970s and 80s militant Aboriginal activists criticised Little’s ‘gentle’ approach to the prevalent discriminatory policies and attitudes and his lack of political radicalism. Arguably, Little’s commitment to Indigenous rights, which could be based on his strong Christian faith, is long standing and deeply held. He remains convinced that a moderate approach is more likely to succeed, commenting that ‘being too radical puts you in a place where you can’t renegotiate’ (http://www.smh.com.au).
  • The clip emphasises Little’s role in changing the perceptions about Indigenous people in Australia at a time when racist stereotypes were rarely challenged. Little became a nationally recognised figure in the media, topping the music charts in 1963 with the gospel hit 'Royal telephone’ and appearing regularly on television. In 1964 the Australian national magazine Everybody’s named him Australian Pop Star of the Year.
  • Little has toured almost constantly since 1957 and, as his daughter Frances Peters-Little comments in the clip, he was probably the first Indigenous person many non-Indigenous Australians saw, while his performances at clubs that prohibited the entry of Indigenous people succeeded in challenging their black bans. Little’s own commentary on this is that 'people couldn’t be bothered with racism when they wanted a star performer in their midst’.
  • Little’s role in raising the profile of Indigenous people has been widely recognised. In 1989 he was named Aboriginal Australian of the Year. In 1994 his name was entered into the prestigious Tamworth Roll of Renown. In 2004 he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia. Following a kidney transplant in 2003, Little established the Jimmy Little Foundation to focus on improving kidney health and early childhood health, especially in remote Aboriginal communities.
  • Although the clip typifies many features of the biographical documentary, including the use of archival footage and interviews with family members, other techniques used by author and director Sean Kennedy combine to create the impression of an autobiographical documentary. These features include the absence of a narrator and the overlaying of Little’s own commentary over footage and words from the past.
  • Jimmy Little’s Gentle Journey had a seven-year journey from its concept to its premiere screening as a 1-hour documentary on 23 October 2003 in Sydney. Initial funding had been made conditional on the film being shot and pre-sold in a half-hour version, and the crew itself had to raise the money to shoot the remainder of the documentary, seeking funds wherever they could, including holding a fundraising event at the Paddington RSL Club.

This clip starts approximately 26 minutes into the documentary.

Black-and-white footage shows Jimmy Little singing on his television show in 1963. Jimmy takes us back to Yorta Yorta country, the banks of the Murray River and Cummeragunja in NSW where he was born beneath a tree.
Jimmy Little (sings) You ask how much I need you. Must I explain?
Narrator Jimmy Little in 1963. Aboriginals weren’t on the census back then, weren’t welcome in many hotels, clubs and restaurants, got thrown out of public swimming pools. But Jimmy Little rose above racism.
Jimmy Little (sings) I’ll tell you true. Until the 12th of never, I’ll still love you.
Russell Taylor, AIATSIS principal Given the times and the political environment, the cultural environment, of this country at that time, the barriers must have been almost impassable, and yet Jimmy Little managed to break those barriers.

Scene changes to present-day vision of Little walking down to a bank of water in Cummeragunja N.S.W, Yorta Yorta Country and exploring around the area.
Jimmy Little I was born on Cummeragunja Mission on 1 March 1937, the eldest of seven children, under a tree on the banks of the Murray. I don’t remember any real dramas of growing up in Cummeragunja.

As Little’s narration continues, we see black and white footage of a group of Aboriginal children playing in water and archival photographs of the mission, focusing on a close-up of Little’s mother, as well as a different picture of Little’s father.
There was schooling and there was Sunday School. Looking back on the living conditions and opportunities for growth, we were definitely a way short of what it should have been. My mum sang. She had a beautiful voice. Sang, and she yodelled. I vividly remember her standing with a beautiful gown, performing and being loved for her performance. And, uh, Dad was this compere-comedian who seemed to be running the show. He had this great personality that seemed to steal every performance. Singer, organiser, musician. It’s no wonder that myself and my brothers have this love for music. Mum and Dad were – were a great team for the Little family.

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  • The National Film and Sound Archive’s permission must be sought to amend any information in the materials, unless otherwise stated in notices throughout the Site.

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