Growing up, Jessie Lloyd had heard her family speak about life on Aboriginal missions, and knew some of the songs that were sung during this period. This piqued a curiosity that led to Jessie travelling across Australia, discovering a wealth of untold stories and music.
‘I felt this was an area that nobody had been interested in… traditional songs sung in language seemed to overshadow the folk songs in English they were singing.’
A vocalist, guitarist, bassist and ukulele player, music was always around Jessie. Her father, Joe Geia, is a pioneer of contemporary Aboriginal music and her grandfather Albie Geia was the conductor of the Palm Island Brass Band.
During the missions era (1901-1967), Aboriginal peoples suffered institutionalised oppression and disadvantage - they weren’t even allowed to sing traditional Aboriginal songs. Permitted, however, were Mission Songs: sometimes church hymns, but also new songs written about life on the missions.
Her desire to learn more about mission songs and natural affinity of music saw her found the Mission Songs Project in 2015. Searches of archival documents in libraries proved to be fruitless, so Jessie travelled across Australia to reach out to families and communities, and the songs and histories were shared.
‘My own family musical history gave me a sense of what might be out there, and when I heard family members talk about things, old songs… I thought the same must apply to other families and other communities.’
By the end of this outreach and research, Jessie had a collection of music, and she began collaborating with other artists. The Mission Project has toured locally and internationally, sharing these sacred stories with an array of different communities. ‘Internationally, people don’t know the background or context of Australia and Aboriginal people: “Are they the people still living in the bush, with spears?” They don’t realise they could be the family next door.”
For the Radio reimagined program, listeners can hear a carefully curated selection of mission songs that have a personal significance to Jessie and her family. But the songs also hold meaning more broadly – she’s received feedback from older white Australians who have a close connection to the Mission Songs stories.
‘I might be talking about a country town, and they were born down the road, and remember growing up with kids in the missions. But they didn’t know what happened to those kids after school – where did they go? Where did they live?’
The results of Jessie’s project are rich, beautiful songs – but also previously untold stories of struggle, hope and resilience.