Robert Willis (b. 1944) grew up in Forbes, New South Wales, where he has lived most of his life. He has worked in the sales and electronics trade and for many years owned and managed an electrical appliances business. He became interested in folk music in 1975 when he was involved in a production of the musical Reedy River. He formed a band called Blackridge (the original name of Forbes) to perform Australian folk songs. A self-taught musician, Willis played the button accordion, guitar, mouth organ, tin whistle, banjo, concertina and also sang. He realised that there were still many traditional performers in the Forbes area and started to record their music and stories in the late 1970s.
In 1983 Willis met John Meredith and accompanied him on several field trips until Meredith retired in 1994. Willis then began to travel further afield, leaving a manager to run his business. He gradually withdrew completely from the day-to-day running of the business and devoted more time to recording and interviewing in country towns and cities throughout Australia. He has always been supported by his family, particularly his wife Olya, a teacher in Forbes. She has compiled the summaries of his interviews and where possible accompanied him as the sound technician on field trips. She has also taken many of the photographs that are part of the collection. Willis has also been accompanied on his travels by John Harpley, a fellow musician and folklorist.
Willis edited, with Graham Seal, Verandah Music: Roots of Australian Tradition (2003).
The earliest recordings made by Willis were acquired by the Library from John Meredith. In 1993 the Library began receiving tapes from Willis himself and has continued to do so every year up to the present. Throughout this period, the Library has given him financial assistance and some general guidance, but Willis has identified the individuals and groups to be recorded and organised all his field trips.
The Rob Willis Collection is one of the largest oral history collections in Australia. He has recorded over 900 individuals in all states of Australia, as well as folk groups, singing groups, bands and choirs. To date, the collection totals 856 hours of playing time.
The primary focus of the collection is traditional music and at least half the recordings contain songs, recitations and instrumental music. While a large proportion consists of folk songs of the Australian bush, many forms of music are represented: country and western music, jazz, rock music, dance music, traditional Italian, Greek and German music, Swiss yodelling, gospel songs and patriotic songs.
In most of the recordings the singers and performers also talk about their lives and the background to the music. The other recordings consist entirely of life stories and recollections of life and work in particular towns, districts and industries. The range of occupations represented is extraordinarily wide. Among those interviewed are shearers, railway workers, engineers, farmers, actors, miners, conservationists, teachers, radio producers, technicians, drovers, bush nurses, bullock drivers, sleeper cutters, saw millers and lighthouse keepers. There are a significant number of interviews with migrants and refugees. The subject matter of the interviews is equally broad, including children’s folklore and games, vaudeville theatre, circus life, market stalls, whaling, family industries, the Cowra prisoner of war camp, the Lithgow small arms factory, World War II and the Vietnam War.
One group of interviews (TRC 4687), recorded in 2001–02, deals with the experiences of children who were brought to Australia from the United Kingdom by Dr Barnado’s Homes, the Fairbridge Society and other child migration schemes in the first half of the twentieth century.
The Bringing Them Home oral history project (TRC 5000) includes 26 interviews recorded by Willis.
The Rob Willis Collection is held in the Oral History Collection at a number of locations: TRC 2590, 2608, 3388, 4572, 4687, 4778, 5120, 5373 and 5484. All the recordings have been individually catalogued. Willis has also supplied documentation of most of his recordings, including detailed summaries of the contents of interviews, photographs and biographical information, which is also housed in the Oral History Collection.