Singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Bruce Hearn is a former student activist and union rep and now a Senior Lecturer in Industrial Relations who loves music with roots. Bruce came to prominence as a musician in the early ‘80s as a singer/song writer for iconic Melbourne ska band, Strange Tenants, but his musical roots run as deep and as wide as his social awareness and activism. A fan of folk music since his parents took him to see Pete Seeger play in 1968, and more recently the leader of Australian Blues Music Awards-nominated finalist for best album and band, Hurricane Hearn, Bruce is an unsung roots renaissance man whose musical palate had always looked beyond the sounds of early ‘60s Jamaica and early ‘80s London.
Bruce returned to his first musical love – folk – in recent years with his acclaimed Woody Guthrie tribute show, which resulted in the release last year of the double album Live at the Athenaeum: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie, featuring guest appearances from a host of local folk and roots greats including Eric Bogle, Margret RoadKnight, Jan ‘Yarn’ Wositzky, Kavisha Mazzella, Mic Conway, Kerri Simpson as well as the thirty-strong Victorian Trade Union Choir.
He follows the Guthrie collection up next month with the release of his first solo album – also a double. The Word Is The Music The People Are The Song presents ten Hearn originals – demonstrating the depth of his and his brother Ian’s, song-writing prowess – alongside ten interpretations of folk classics. The originals, which include a new arrangement of the old Strange Tenants classic Gray Skies Over Collingwood (which was also covered by Weddings Parties Anything), are rich and varied in their flavour, but all have an authenticity and emotional depth – and an awareness of the wider world – that is not so often heard in today’s often more self-obsessed ‘folk’ scene. The ten old favourites are songs which most influenced Bruce growing up in the 1960s and 70s and which still resonate with him today. Bruce doesn’t simply cover, but rather interprets these songs, previously recorded by his musical heroes, including Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Christy Moore, Tom Paxton, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Peter La Farge.
Born in the once-working class Melbourne inner city suburb of Collingwood, Bruce Hearn first hit Australian media outlets in 1976, when, as one of a small group of student radicals at Monash University, he was party to the “kidnapping” of then-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser during a demonstration. (Wonderfully, Bruce and his comrades were invited to dine with Fraser in 2010, after the former LNP Prime Minister had disowned the party he once lead. At the time his musical career amounted to playing the beloved folk songs of his youth at protests, but in 1981 he was corralled by younger brother Ian to help form Strange Tenants, who followed the lead of UK acts like The Selector, The Specials and Madness – and of course originals like Desmond Dekker and Prince Buster – and pioneered the ska revival in Australia.
Strange Tenants went on to record 8 studio albums and one double live album. They toured with the likes of U2, The Style Council, UB40 and even with reggae legend Jimmy Cliff on a tour of the UK in 2014 ; a tour which also saw them perform at the famed Jamaican-themed Notting Hill Festival. Their album Take One Step, released in 1983, featured the hit single Grey Skies Over Collingwood (later covered by Weddings Parties Anything) and sold around twenty thousand copies – at the time the most ever sold by an unsigned independent band. In between 1981 and 1986 they performed over twelve hundred gigs, making them one of the most prolific and successful live bands of the ‘80s. Their legion of loyal fans, known as the Tenants Army, continue to flock to their occasional performances to this day, and their legacy has recently been acknowledged with the release of a 2018 book Strange Tenants: The Godfathers of Australian Ska and a 2019 documentary film Strange Tenants: Ska’d For Life, which has been receiving terrific reviews at film festivals around the world.
Strange Tenants were noted for their commitment to social justice messages through their songs, and after the band initially ended Bruce decided to put that commitment into practice. Having previously been a union organiser with the Building Workers Industrial Union (now the CFMEU), Bruce undertook further studies, and with degrees in economics, politics, law, and industrial relations, he earned his PhD and became Dr. Bruce Hearn Mackinnon, Senior lecturer, author and recognised expert on employer de-unionisation strategies. He has published widely, particularly in the Journal of Industrial Relations. Bruce also has an interest in Indigenous affairs, and has written an important book on his experiences working with Aboriginal footballers from the Warlpiri community of Yuendumu.
In recent years, in addition to his University work and writing, Bruce has also performed and recorded as Hurricane Hearn, playing a mix of original and classic blues, seeing him support Louisiana Excello Records legend Lazy Lester in Barcelona in 2010, and more recently US blues legends Canned Heat in Australia.
Double Album, BRUCE HEARN THE WORD IS THE MUSIC THE PEOPLE ARE THE SONG is out on 2LP, 2CD and digitally, February 26.