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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Little, James Kunkus (1911–1972)

by Frances Peters-Little

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

James Little (centre), 14 July 1961

James Little (centre), 14 July 1961

Aboriginal Observance Day celebrations, Martin Place, Sydney. Picture by Harry Martin, Sydney Morning Herald

James Kunkus Little (1911–1972), entertainer and gum leaf band player, was born on 4 August 1911 at Wallaga Lake Aboriginal station, New South Wales south coast, second son of Yuin woman Eliza Little, née Penrith (1872–1952), and her husband John Edward Little (c. 1875–1932), who is said to have been raised by whites after being found as a baby in a hollow log at a massacre site near Charleville, Queensland. James’s siblings were Jack, Charles, and Rebecca. His Aboriginal community knew him as Kunkus. With fellow Wallaga station residents, brothers Cecil, Max, and Willy Thomas, and his older brother Jack, he was a member of the Wallaga Lake Gum Leaf Band. The band played at football dances and on the back of trucks at district shows, country halls, and sports picnics. As well as gum leaves, band members played the accordion and fiddle; performed traditional dances with sticks and spears, and other forms of dancing, such as step, tap, and burlesque; and sang and clowned. Kunkus was one of the band’s flashiest performers, jumping about and making a racket and generally doing everything he could to charm the crowd.

The Wallaga Lake Gum Leaf Band played at Cummeragunja Aboriginal station, over 416 miles (670 km) from home, in 1935. They had planned to visit only briefly but, when the time came to leave, it is rumoured that some of the young women in the station’s choir, wishing them to stay, filled their truck’s petrol tank with sugar. Most of the band stayed at Cummeragunja and some members married women from the Cummeragunja choir, including Kunkus. On 14 December 1935, at the Koondrook Baptist Church, Victoria, he married Yorta Yorta woman Frances McGee, known as Sissy (1920–1950), the youngest of thirteen children of Janet and Ernest McGee. His brother Jack formed a relationship with Lena McGee, Sissy’s sister, also a member of the Cummeragunja choir.

A performer’s life may have appeared flamboyant to outsiders, but life at Cummerangunja was characterised by extreme deprivation and cruelty. Kunkus and Sissy’s first child, James Oswald Little, known as Jimmy, was born in 1937. That year a new manager was appointed to oversee the station, A. J. McQuiggan, who had been dismissed from his previous position as superintendent of Kinchela Boys’ Home after repeated complaints about brutal beatings. A police inquiry had been held in 1935, but no charges had been laid. McQuiggan brought arrogance, threats, and violence to the station. In February 1939, with tensions soaring, the residents of Cummeragunja went on strike. They demanded that McQuiggan be replaced by a more compassionate manager. Kunkus and Sissy joined the strikers, walking off the station and crossing the Murray River to camp on the outskirts of Barmah, Victoria. The first strike lasted nine months, but it had little effect on the New South Wales government or its Aborigines Protection Board (APB).

After the second unsuccessful strike later in 1939 many people were prompted to leave the station permanently. Kunkus and his family moved briefly to Shepparton, then back to Koondrook, both in Victoria, then to Uranquity and Goulburn in New South Wales. In 1944 they moved to Kunkus’s traditional lands, Yuin Monaro country. Jack and Lena followed, after which the brothers formed a new gum leaf band. They ‘used leaves, jews-harps, harmonicas and violins to make their music and a fair razzamatazz it was, too’ (New Dawn 1971, 12).

The first place the family settled was Woorigee (Worrigee), an Aboriginal camping area near the Shoalhaven River east of Nowra. It was a place chosen by many Aboriginal families who wished to live outside the APB’s control. Woorigee was closer to town, making it easier to walk to local fruit, vegetable, and dairy farms for work. One of Kunkus’s main sources of employment was bean picking. Conducted by men, women, and children, bean picking started at dawn and finished late in the afternoon. Kunkus also worked in timber mills and dairy farms around Nerrigundah. Mostly self-sufficient, Jimmy recalled that ‘hunting rabbits … was one of our favourite pastimes’ (Little 2003). Rabbit meat ‘along with our mushrooms and all that—fresh veggies, like tomatoes and potatoes and carrots and lettuce, you name it’—meant that Kunkus and Sissy’s children ‘were healthy kids’ (Little 2003).

In 1950, while at Woorigee, Sissy cut her finger on an oyster shell, developed tetanus and passed away within a matter of days, leaving Kunkus with five school-aged children to raise: Jimmy (1937–2012), Frederick (1941–1985), Betty (1944–2011), Monica (1946–2010), and Colin (1948–2008). He arranged for his stepsister Jane Hickey (née Brierley) to look after the four younger children while he took Jimmy with him to do a bit of bean picking. On one occasion, needing to travel further afield, but not having the money for petrol, he filled the truck with another sort of fuel. The truck exploded and Kunkus was hospitalised with severe burns. Subsequently, Kunkus and Jimmy moved further south to Wallaga Lake to live with Kunkus’s mother Eliza; however, the authorities did not approve of thirteen-year-old Jimmy working and threatened to remove him and place him at Kinchela if he did not go back to school, so Kunkus placed him at St Mary’s, Moruya.

Kunkus rarely performed as a musician after contracting asthma, but, recognising Jimmy’s talents, he encouraged his son to take up singing. Travelling overnight on the back of a pea truck from Nowra to the Sydney markets in 1955, he told Jimmy ‘to appreciate an audience … [and] to be uncomplicated and simple but sincere’ (Little 2003). Jimmy had won second prize on Australia’s Amateur Hour radio talent show on radio 2GB, Sydney, in 1953, and he gained a recording contract with Regal Zonophone (later EMI Records) in 1956. One of his songs, ‘Give the Coloured Lad a Chance,’ was written by Kunkus:

Well, my name is Jimmy Little
And from Wallaga Lake I came
A lovely little spot along the coast
With mountains and the hills
Lovely lakes and rippling dells
That make the sweetest music all the day
I went to the city
Trying hard to find some work
I travelled the city night and day
I went to place to place
With starvation on my face
But the people say no coloureds they employ
I’m an honest Koori lad
And to work I’m not afraid
To please you, I’d rather sing or dance
I’d do anything you’d say
If you only name the day
If you’d only give us coloured lads a chance.

Possibly the first Aboriginal protest song to be commercially recorded and aired on Sydney radio, the song reflected Kunkus’s desire to perform rather than work in the fields or timber yards. Although Kunkus did not rise to national fame, he was often called upon to perform at important Aboriginal occasions. In 1961 he sang and played his beloved gum leaf with his fellow Yuin man Arthur McLeod, father of the singer/poet Bob McLeod, in Martin Place, Sydney, for National Aborigines Day.

Kunkus lived in Nerrigundah in a timber hut along the Tuross River in his final years. A semi-recluse stricken with asthma, he was frequently joined by his long-time partner Dora Williams. After contracting bronchitis, he was hospitalised at Bega, dying there on 28 March 1972. Predeceased by his daughter Madeline and son Ernest, and survived by three sons and two daughters, he was buried in the Anglican section of Bega cemetery. His five surviving children, having been taught by him to believe in their own musical abilities, all became recognised singers and performers. His son Jimmy, granddaughters Deborah Cheetham (opera singer) and Frances Peters-Little (singer-songwriter), and great-grandson James Henry (singer-composer) achieved national and international fame. A recording of Kunkus’s gum leaf rendition of the song ‘I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen,’ the only known recording of the Wallaga Lake Gum Leaf Band, is held at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra.

 

Frances Peters-Little is a Yuwaalaraay/Gamilaraay woman. She is the granddaughter of James Little/Kunkus.

Select Bibliography

  • Goodall, Heather. Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770–1972. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin in association with Black Books, 1996
  • Little, Jimmy. Interview by Frances Peters-Little, 2003
  • Morgan, Eileen. The Calling of the Spirits. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994
  • New Dawn. ‘Down Memory Lane.’ 20, no. 9 (December 1971): 12–13
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Ryan, Robin. ‘And We Marched to the Tune of the Gumleaf Band but to Whose Tune Did We March.’ In Popular Music: Commemoration, Commodification and Communication: Proceedings of the 2004 IAPSM Australia and New Zealand Conference, 21–39. Melbourne: International Association for the Study of Popular Music, Australia New Zealand Branch, 2004

Citation details

Frances Peters-Little, 'Little, James Kunkus (1911–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/little-james-kunkus-30060/text37300, accessed 26 July 2021.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

James Little (centre), 14 July 1961

James Little (centre), 14 July 1961

Aboriginal Observance Day celebrations, Martin Place, Sydney. Picture by Harry Martin, Sydney Morning Herald