Story: Jimmy Little
Jimmy Little’s a Yorta Yorta man with a big, big heart. An entertainer for nearly half a century, he is also a qualified teacher and, since March 2000, has been a Literacy and Numeracy Ambassador for the Department of Education, Training & Youth Affairs (DETYA).
Jimmy was born at Cummeragunja Aboriginal Reserve near Barmah and Moama on the New South Wales side of the Murray River. As he relates in his song “Yorta Yorta Man”, this was his mother’s country. The Yorta Yorta people live on both sides of the Murray River in the Moama and Echuca districts.
“All my family were involved in music in some way,” reflects Jimmy. “You could say we all had a natural talent, but we still worked hard. Dad did seasonal work between gigs – he and my uncle used to perform in the Wallaga Lake Gumleaf Band. When all us children were ready to go to school we moved to Nowra and Dad drove a truck for eight years to support us through a good education.”
Like his father and uncle, Jimmy showed a talent for music.
“It was a cultural tradition to excel at what your parents did because they taught you to do it,” he says. “If you showed talent in other areas you could follow that as well. I did both. I couldn’t survive doing the kind of music my father did, nor the kind of music I’d performed myself when I got started. I had to diversify. So between ‘Royal Telephone’ and ‘Yorta Yorta Man’ there’s been a great leap of faith.”
Jimmy’s distinguished career couldn’t be more unlike the many flash-in-the-pan ‘careers’ that proliferate in the entertainment industry today. He enjoyed a top five hit in 1963 with “Royal Telephone”, once helped Barry Gibb get a break in the music biz, has appeared in films, onstage and on television, and is once again the toast of Australia’s music industry thanks to his current and most recent albums, Resonate and Messenger.
But of course Jimmy’s more than simply an entertainer. For five years he taught music, Aboriginal culture and philosophy to students at the Eora Centre in Redfern. And as a Literacy and Numeracy Ambassador, Jimmy is able to share his experience, leadership skills and commitment to education with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people all over Australia.
“When I was asked would I be interested, I had the time, I had the opportunity and I had the desire, so it was pleasure to say yes. In my career as an artist, I have always tried to inspire others towards their aims and objectives. If I can help them in this way, then I feel good.
“You’re only a child once,” he continues. “In your youth you have to create good memories for yourself to treasure in future years. I tell the children, literacy is a paper map that helps you read the signposts to your future; numeracy tells you how far you’ve come and how much further you have to go.”
Since June 2000, Jimmy has visited some 25 primary schools, high schools and universities. He was a guest at Vibe’s recent barbeques in Cooktown, Broome and Newcastle, and also attended the Weipa and Thursday Island Croc Eisteddfods. What he has seen firsthand is that Indigenous young people need more opportunity and encouragement than ever before.
“It’s clear that more needs to be done to improve educational opportunities for Indigenous children. If we can all work together as a team to ensure they reach their full potential at school, then we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing we helped give them the skills to enjoy a more secure future.”