The first anthem of the Stolen Generations
By Dr Blake Singley
‘Tjilpi’ Bob Randall (1934-2015) was a Yankunytjatjara musician, writer and community leader. Born in 1934 on Tempe Downs Station in the Northern Territory, his mother, Tanguawa, worked on the station and his father, a European, was the manager.
When he was seven years old he was taken from his mother and transported far from his ancestral home, first to Alice Springs and then to Crocker Island in Arnhem Land. His mother, filled with grief after losing her child, died shortly after Bob was taken away.
Randall would write a moving account of his experiences in Songman: The Story of an Aboriginal Elder.
‘We Central Australian Aboriginal people refer to the time between about 1850 and the 1930s, when I was taken away, as the killing time.’
Bob Randall was one of the thousands of Aboriginal children throughout Australia that were subjected to the official government policy of forcibly separating Aboriginal children from their families and placing them in institutions or with European families. These experiences led him to write what is widely regarded as the first song to chronicle the events and impacts of the Stolen Generation.
‘Everything in that song really happened. A policeman came and got me and some others I know.’
Randall wrote 'Brown Skin Baby' in 1964. It came to him while he was flying in a plane over a remote part of the Northern Territory. He played the song around music venues and communities in Darwin and the Top End for more than half a decade. Those who heard the song instantly recognised it as a powerful and emotional response to the profound trauma of children being taken away from their mothers.
‘My mother’s spirit came and sat beside me…and she said, I got a song for you, my son’.
This live version of My Brown Skin Baby comes from the AIATSIS Audio Collection. It was most likely recorded during NAIDOC week in September, 1989.
In March 1970, the song came to widespread attention when it was played on the ABC’s documentary series ‘Chequerboard’, in an episode entitled My Brown Skin Baby, They Take’im Way. This was the first time the Australian media had brought to light the practice of taking Aboriginal children from their families.
It would first appear on record in 1977 on The First Australians: Songs by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, an album produced by the Aboriginal Artists Agency which featured both traditional and contemporary Indigenous Australian music.