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Blair, Harold (1924–1976)

by Alan T. Duncan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Harold Blair (1924-1976), by unknown photographer

Harold Blair (1924-1976), by unknown photographer

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L25999

Harold Blair (1924-1976), singer and Aboriginal activist, was born probably on 13 September 1924 at Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve, near Murgon, Queensland, son of Esther Quinn. She gave him the surname Blair in gratitude to the family who had 'adopted' her. Six months after his birth, he and his teenage mother were transferred to the Purga Mission near Ipswich; when Harold was aged 2, Esther was sent away to take a post as a domestic servant. Harold remained at Purga under the care of the Salvation Army mission staff until he was almost 16: he worked on the dairy farm and received a limited education, designed to enable him to gain employment as a farm labourer. He entertained visitors by mimicking Richard Crooks and John McCormack whose records he frequently played on an old, wind-up gramophone.

Under the wartime manpower regulations, Blair was dispatched in 1942 to the canefields in the Childers area where his robust physique and affable personality made him a popular worker. He sang on the canefields and in local concerts. When Marjorie Lawrence visited Brisbane on a concert tour in 1944, Blair was granted an audition and encouraged to take his singing more seriously. In March 1945 he sang on radio in 'Australia's Amateur Hour' and gained a record number of votes. With the help of friends, he sought enrolment at the conservatorium in Sydney and at the university conservatorium in Melbourne, but was rejected because of his limited education. Finally accepted by the Melbourne (Melba) Conservatorium of Music, Albert Street, East Melbourne, Blair worked hard to improve his education, learn foreign languages and master the fundamentals of music. In 1949 he gained a diploma of music.

On 30 July 1949 Blair married a fellow student Dorothy Gladys Eden at Camberwell with the forms of the Churches of Christ. Because she was White, their union provoked racist comment. Encouraged by Todd Duncan, the Black American baritone, Blair left for the United States of America to study singing; they could not afford a fare for Dorothy. In New York he took part-time work as assistant-choirmaster and also cleaned offices to earn an income. The Australian Society of New York organized a benefit concert at which he performed on 18 March 1951 in the New York Town Hall.

That year Blair appeared as a guest artist for the Australian Broadcasting Commission's jubilee tour of Australia. He was well received by his audiences, but reviewers were frequently critical. Winter chills and the strain of constant performance had wrought havoc with his vocal chords. Some listeners wondered whether his studies in the United States of America had spoiled his tenor voice: Margaret Sutherland said that he 'went away singing like John McCormack', but returned 'without a middle register'.

Reluctant to be again separated from his young wife, Blair decided to continue part-time study in Melbourne and accepted a job in a large department store. In 1956 he began teaching part-time at the Albert Street conservatorium (renamed the Melba Memorial Conservatorium). He spent 1959 in Europe, singing and attending Moral Rearmament conferences. Back in Melbourne, he became the proprietor of a service station in 1962 and later of a milk bar, and then worked briefly as the superintendent of an Aboriginal mission station in South Australia. In 1967 he was appointed music teacher in the Victorian Education Department; his work with the choirs at Sunshine and Ringwood technical schools received acclaim. Meanwhile, he continued to sing. Praised in 1962 for his lead in a popular burlesque of Uncle Tom's Cabin in Melbourne and as Mundit in the Aboriginal opera, Dalgerie, at the Sydney Opera House in 1973, he made numerous concert appearances.

Interested in politics as a vehicle by which to foster the cause of Aborigines, in 1964 Blair had stood unsuccessfully as Labor candidate for the Victorian Legislative Assembly seat of Mentone. His interests increasingly centred on Aboriginal advancement. Following a visit by a team of marching girls from the Cherbourg reserve to Melbourne's 1962 Moomba festival, he had begun the Aboriginal Children's Holiday Project, which was to provide vacations in Melbourne for three thousand children from Queensland mission stations. Expanding interstate, its outstanding achievement was largely due to Blair's drive and enthusiasm. The Miss Junior Victoria quest, initiated by the scheme, gave financial assistance to many Aboriginal projects, including the Institute for Aboriginal Development at Alice Springs, Northern Territory.

A member (1957-59) of the Aborigines' Welfare Board in Victoria, Blair also became involved in the Aborigines Advancement League, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, and the Commonwealth Aboriginal Arts Board. In January 1976 he was appointed A.O. He died of myocardial infarction on 21 May 1976 in East Melbourne and was cremated. His wife, daughter and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • 100 Famous Australian Lives (Syd, 1969)
  • K. Harrison, Dark Man, White World (Melb, 1975)
  • Aborigines' Friends Assn, Annual Report
  • People (Sydney), 4 July 1951
  • Bulletin, 3 July 1965
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 22 May 1976
  • Canberra Times, 22 May 1976
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 May, 19 June 1976
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Alan T. Duncan, 'Blair, Harold (1924–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blair-harold-9520/text16761, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 28 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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