• Harold Blair gives an interview and sings The English Rose for Movietone. (Getty Images )
ANALYSIS: From the Sugar Mill to the Sydney Opera House, tenor singer Harold Blair's inspiring story goes beyond musical legacy.
By
Karen Wyld

25 Mar 2019 - 4:28 PM  UPDATED 25 Mar 2019 - 11:18 PM

Before television, the radio had a central place in most Australian households. In 1945, many families gathered around a radio, waiting for the popular national program Australia’s Amateur Hour to start.

One particular night in March, amongst the line-up of contestants participating in the popular talent show, a young tractor driver from Fairymead Sugar Mill stunned listeners with his tenor voice. With the switch-board quickly lighting up, his performance attracted record votes. At that moment, in that Brisbane studio, Harold Blair’s music career kicked off.

Harold Blair, 21-years-old, was working as a tractor driver in Blackstone, near Ipswich in Queensland. Five years earlier, due to wartime labour regulations, he’d been sent from Purga Mission to work in the cane fields near Childers.

Harold lived in the era when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lives were controlled by government legislation.

He was born in 1924 at Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve, near Murgon in Queensland. His mother, Esther Quinn, was relocated to Purga Mission when Harold was six-months-old. Mother and child were permitted to stay together for two years, before 16-year-old Esther was sent away to work as a domestic servant. Harold remained on Purga under the custody of the Salvation Army, until he was sixteen, receiving just enough education to prepare him for a life of labouring.

During his time working on the cane fields, Harold gained attention from his co-workers for his unique voice. He began singing at local concerts and later, applied for a spot on host Dick Fair's national radio talent show. It was a pathway to a successful career in music.

Unfortunately, however, it was a pathway with many barriers along the road, due to widespread discrimination and racism for Aboriginal people. But Harold soon gathered supporters, including trade unionists, academics and musicians that formed a trust to sponsor and support him.

After applications to two conservatoriums were rejected due to having a limited education, Harold was finally accepted into the Melbourne (now Melba Memorial Conservatorium of Music) Conservatorium of Music. In 1949, Harold graduated with a diploma with honours in music. Later, he obtained a diploma in teaching. 

It was at the Conservatorium that Harold met Dorothy Eden, a fellow Conservatory student. Being an 'interracial' couple, Harold and Anglo-Australian Dorothy’s decision to marry in 1949 was met with disapproval. The public backlash was so significant, it caused police enough concern that they provided a presence to maintain order at the church during the wedding.

Shortly after marrying, Harold was encouraged by Todd Duncan, an African American baritone, to study music in America. The tenor was accepted into the prestigious Julliard School in New York. After singing in a Harlem church, Harold became involved with the community.

He was exposed to, and learned about, the African-American movement to advance human rights and reflected on lack of progress back in his home country for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This interest in rights and activism was to become a central part of his life.

Harold was a successful musician, performing in many concerts nationally, as well as touring Europe and the US. He performed in the first opera staged in the newly completed Sydney Opera House in 1973. Despite these achievements, his music career was interrupted many times. In order to support his wife, son and daughter, Harold worked in retail, small business and teaching music.

He also supported a number of community groups and Aboriginal rights movements, including being a member of the Aborigines’ Welfare Board in Victoria in the late 1950s and being involved in the Aborigines Advancement League, Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and Commonwealth Aboriginal Arts Board. 

After organising for a team of marching girls, from Cherbourg Reserve, to travel to Melbourne to perform at the 1962 Moomba festival, Harold started the Aboriginal Children’s Project.

With a long list of social justice commitments, Harold subsequently ran it for politics. While his Labor candidacy in the seat of Mentone at the 1964 Victorian elections was unsuccessful, decades later, the electorate of Blair in Queensland was named in his honour.

For services to arts and community, Harold was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1976. He died suddenly, four months later, at the age of 51. A public figure with a long list of achievements, many people felt the loss of Harold Blair. Especially his wife Dorothy, son Warren and daughter Nerida.

Despite producing only one album (Australia Aboriginal Songs, 1956), Harold Blair's voice made him a household name. Older radio listeners, even those who aren’t interested in classical music, would probably still recall hearing Harold sing Maranoa Lullaby.

Today, there are still very few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander are classical singers and to address this under-representation, the Melba Opera Trust established the Harold Blair Opera Scholarship in 2012.

Related Reading
A short, black history of Indigenous opera singers
From the cane fields of Queensland to New York’s Juilliard School of Music, Indigenous opera singers have been blowing us away with their phenomenal talent since the 1940s. NITV takes a look at just three of our talented performers and their backstories.

There have been many occasions honouring Harold Blair, including being posthumously induction to the Live Performance Australia Hall of Fame. In 2015, Dorothy Blair watched the unveiling of a memorial plaque in Blackstone (Ipswich), at the site where Harold once worked as a tractor driver.

Each year, there are fewer people who can remember the moment that the surprising sound of a rich, clear tenor voice was heard on their radios. However, perhaps the biggest legacy of Harold’s is beyond his music. He inspired people to break whatever barriers stand in the way of their dreams.

 

Documentary 'Harold', tells the story of opera singer Harold Blair, one of Australia's forgotten heroes. Watch Harold on SBS On Demand