Julitha Walker, 1931-2009
Post originally published here.
WITH her blonde hair, fair skin and blue eyes, Julitha Walsh was an unusual person to bring Aboriginal culture to a national and world-wide audience before anyone else.
But that was what she did when she featured in one of the first broadcasts on Australian television on November 5, 1956.
The inaugural broadcast of ABC TV, then known as ABN2, was not the only first for the night. Walker, then Walsh, burst into an Aboriginal woman’s song, while clapping traditional corroboree sticks.
Some people today might be shocked by the idea of a white woman singing traditional Aboriginal songs.
However, she was not being disrespectful, rather she was trying to give an insight into a culture that the majority of her 1950s audience would have been largely ignorant of.
Julitha Joan Walker, who has died at 78, was born in Perth, the first child of G.H. Walsh, known as Billy, and his wife, Margery, and grew up on Mileura sheep station, hundreds of kilometres out of Perth. She always believed that her unusual first name meant “walkabout” in one of the local Aboriginal languages and in later years was amused by the fact that she married a man called Walker and doubled the impact.
Her upbringing on the station strongly affected her, as she fell deeply in love with the bush and the Aborigines who worked on the station.
Before the arrival of her brother Matcham, in 1937, Walsh was the only white child on the station and she and her family built a special bond with her nursemaid Bunna.
Bunna, who belonged to the Yamatji clan, taught Walsh how to find bush tucker, to track people, birds and animals, to speak the Wajarri dialect and to sing traditional Aboriginal women’s songs.
At night Bunna and her daughter, Rose, would sit with Walsh around the outdoor hot-water system. They would build up the fire to keep the water hot and sing late into the night with the warming company of the flickering flames.
Walsh’s early schooling was done at home by correspondence. When she started boarding school at Saint Hilda’s Anglican school for girls in Perth, she missed the bush so much she could not sleep for a week.
Her father Billy, who shared his love of horses with her and taught her how to ride, died suddenly when she was 17 and she helped her mother to run the sheep station for 18 months until they could find a manager to take over.
Her upbringing was not unlike many children who grew up in the outback in the 1930s and ’40s, but she was one of the first to bring her experiences to the general public.
The family moved to Sydney in the late 1940s and Walsh started working as a cadet journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.
When she was 20, she was sent back to the outback by the Australian Broadcasting Commission to record traditional Aboriginal songs.
With a large, cumbersome reel-to-reel tape recorder and three suitcases of equipment, Walsh set off on her own and once again immersed herself in the culture she knew and loved.
She spent most of her time on Noonkanbah station in the West Kimberley, and after six months returned with six corroborees and 60 songs, none of which had been heard before by white people.
After this she moved to Britain as a freelance journalist and during that time, whenever she could, she introduced Aboriginal culture to an international audience.
Walsh was a great story-teller and when she started to receive a lot of publicity for her singing, she enjoyed the chance to exaggerate her stories in interviews, which she found very funny.
One article states that she “would ride out mustering with stockmen” at the age of six.
When she returned home in the late 1950s, she had her own radio shows, many appearances on television and made her famous appearance on the opening broadcast of ABN2.
In 1968 she married David Walker, a lawyer, and went from being a single career woman and traveller to wife and mother of David’s three sons, Patrick, Toby and Hugo.
She was as passionate a home-maker as she was a career woman. She had her only child, Katherine, known as Kate, when she was in her late 30s.
Julitha Walker is survived by Matcham, stepsons Patrick and Hugo Walker, daughter Katherine and six step-grandchildren.