BMA’s John Harvey goes deep with John Schumann, discussing Indigenous Australians in war, social justice, and that big campfire in the sky.
JOHN SCHUMANN (lead singer-songwriter of Redgum, and more recently of The Vagabond Crew) and Shane Howard (ditto, Goanna) have been writing, performing, and touring together, fronting a six-piece outfit the Red Rockin’ Dirt Band, which is set to delight audiences at this year’s NATIONAL FOLK FESTIVAL.
BMA caught John Schumann as he set off on his daily bike ride and managed to keep up with him for a while through the miracle of mobile telephony.
BMA: How did you and Shane Howard come to begin writing together?
Shane and I have been threatening to do some performances together for more than 10 years now. In May 2017, the planets aligned, and we did our first concert in Adelaide. I moved into Shane’s house down on the south coast of Victoria for a couple of days to hang out and plan.
I had the makings of a new tune and a song title, so, one night, in his living room over a bottle of red, we knocked out the first iteration of Times Like These. We didn’t get to finish it then and there but we had a vigorous contest of ideas over the phone and via e-mail. Shane has a home recording facility, so he knocked it into shape, and we finished it at Mixmaster’s Studios in the Adelaide Hills. That was our first joint composition; I’d be surprised if there aren’t more down the line.
It really was a robust exchange. We have enough respect for each other to be able to write well together, but we are both pretty opinionated, and have different styles. Shane can string together what would ordinarily be seen as clichés in such a beautiful way — at once familiar and accessible but poetic and compelling and elegant. I wish I could do that, but I can’t. It’s Shane’s gift.
BMA: How did you first meet?
I knew of Shane’s work with Goanna, of course, and even prior to meeting him I had a fair bit of respect for him and his capacity to knock out a song. Goanna and Redgum were on the bill of the Stop the Drop concert at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in 1983 with INXS and Midnight Oil. The first time I met Shane, he appeared in my dressing room with his guitar and a lyric sheet and invited me to sing on his song Let the Franklin Flow. Redgum had done a couple of fundraisers for the Franklin campaign by then, so, of course, we were very supportive. Five minutes later, with no rehearsal and the lyrics on a piece of paper pinned to the monitor wedge, we all went on stage to perform it live and be filmed for the video clip.
In 2005, I invited Shane to sing with me on a couple of songs on my album Lawson, along with a number of other musician mates, including Russell Morris, Mike Rudd, The Dingoes, and Rob Hirst.
In 2014, the then Chief of Army, Lieutenant-General David Morrison, commissioned me to write a song to highlight the significant contribution of indigenous Australians in Australian armed conflicts. Once I had written the song On Every Anzac Day and David had approved it, I invited Shane to perform on it in recognition of his decades of work with indigenous Australia.
Over the years we’ve become good mates. I think we both sense that we are two raggedy poets, kindred spirits in many ways. When you look at our work, you’ll see that there’s a fair commitment to justice, humanity, tolerance, and compassion. We also have pretty distinct voices — though, interestingly enough, they blend together quite well.
Shane and I will have these long rambling conversations for an hour or more until, exhausted by laughing or inspired by each other’s observations, we decide we have to hang up and go do some work so that we can actually eat.
We have our own lives, our own careers, and we do our own things, but it’s an interesting partnership when we come together; it’s a rather engaging, stimulating, funny partnership at this time of our lives. I don’t know, but it might not have worked earlier on.
BMA: What sparked your December tour together?
As I said, we’d been threatening to do some live shows together for many years, so the original one in Adelaide was, if you like,
a market tester, a proof of concept. It worked really well; the audience response was great. We had a great band behind us who understood our songs, and we got to trade verses on each other’s songs. There were actually moments on stage when we thought we’d died and gone to heaven. I love singing the opening verse of Solid Rock, for instance — and I love the way Shane interprets I Was Only 19. By the reactions we get, it’s clear that people who are familiar with our catalogues are quite entranced to hear how each of us interprets the other’s words.
BMA: How challenging was it to write On Every Anzac Day?
It was an amazing experience — and I’ll be forever grateful to David Morrison for pushing me down that particular track. In truth, it took a fair amount of time and research to get my head around what had actually gone on. Indigenous Australians have been involved in every one of our wars from the Boer War to Afghanistan and Iraq today. Sadly, there’s little recognition of that.
I was pretty appalled at what I found. An absolute heartbreak.
These indigenous blokes had worked hard to get accepted into
the Army, and, by all accounts, they acquitted themselves very well. Not unreasonably, when they returned to Australia they expected to be honoured and respected for their service, and to be welcomed into mainstream Australian society.
Well, they weren’t. In fact, quite a number of them came back to find the country that they had been living on had been taken from their families in their absence, divided up and given to their white comrades as soldier–settler blocks.
Can you imagine that? And of course — as I wrote in the song — they weren’t even allowed to join the RSL. It was absolutely disgraceful from whichever point of the compass you looked at it. I’d already agreed with Lieutenant-General David Morrison that I was going to write it as I found: there was not going be any “glossing over” unpalatable historical truths.
David, bless him, told me to go for it. He said, “We have to look all of it in the eye”. He was far more concerned about ensuring that the indigenous contribution was remembered during the Centenary than he was about how bad that might make white Australia look.
BMA: How did the process of writing Every Anzac Day differ from that of writing uncommissioned songs?
Creating something according to a commission is a big responsibility, because somebody’s invested a lot of faith in you and you don’t want to give something that’s not up to the mark. My reputation is on the line.
But I have an approach to songwriting that has always stood me in good stead, especially when I’m up against it with a commission.
I won’t share all the secrets with you, but here’s a hint: you will find that I’m a stickler for the detail. I’m aware I’m not the only songwriter who does this, but when I have a commission and I don’t know where to start, I always remember the university academic who once said when introducing my lecture to his class: “Listen to this man’s songs. It’s the detail that sets them apart and it’s the detail that validates the meaning”.
BMA: Your personal concern for the environment and for social justice obviously goes back a long way. What memories do you have of how those concerns arose?
My passion for what is right is a very significant part of who I am; it’s something I’m proud of too, but I don’t want to beat my own drum about this too loudly. I’m not the only one.
I went to school at St. Theresa’s Primary School at Colonel Light Gardens, in Adelaide, and across the road was a migrant camp with “reffos” from World War II: hundreds of these families, living in Nissan huts. The Dominican nuns opened their school to the kids, and I think it was the first time I came face to face with poverty. These refugee kids looked strange, didn’t speak English very well, and were all wearing second-hand clothing. Almost all the other kids who were already at the school wouldn’t play with them.
I did; I was the kid who befriended the kids no one else would play with. It just seemed the right thing to do. I think it was more empathy than sympathy.
I was educated by the Dominicans up till my matriculation year. The Dominicans were very much like the Jesuits — their approach to the Catholic faith was an intellectual one — and underpinned very much by a sense of having to do the right thing by everything and everybody. There was an understanding that this approach would create a much better world for everybody.
As I moved into young adulthood and looked beyond the trappings of Christianity and Catholicism, I came to understand that the planet we live on is a tremendously beautiful and fragile thing. It’s a gift, and it’s a very graceless thing to be given a gift and then to trash it. But that’s what we are doing to our planet. And it really offends my spirit.
Scouts, too, taught me to see things differently. That training is very much a part of who I am and how I do things. As a young kid, I spent my leisure time out in the bush, orienteering and pioneering and practising bushcraft. We were taught from the get-go to use minimal resources, to leave nothing behind, to build a small fire in a trench and bury it afterward, and to take your rubbish with you. I was taught to leave the place at least as good as I found it, preferably better.
So, in the context of that sense of the planet as a gift and the rigorous training I got in Scouts, when you open up the big lens on the picture, you see how our generation has consumed more resources than all previous generations put together: greed and avarice as though there’s no tomorrow. You wonder what sort of world we will leave our children. It’s almost beyond redemption, and this knowledge depletes my spirit.
I know it sounds hopelessly dumb, but in many ways, I feel like a Jedi Knight: I really feel these disturbances in the “Force”.
BMA: What do you find heartening?
There is a lot about life that I find very heartening. Sometimes, in mankind’s darkest hours, the goodness and the virtue shine through, and you think to yourself, “You know, maybe humans aren’t such a bad mob after all”. Look at the goodness, and the decency and the tolerance and the compassion, that have flowed out of people following the Christchurch massacre.
Sometimes things can be a bit disheartening on a personal level. I’ve never worried too much about commercial success and widespread public adoration. I leave that to people who write trivial songs about things that are utterly inconsequential in the grander scheme.
But then, out of the blue I’ll get a couple of e-mails from people who have taken the trouble to track me down and to thank me for the songs that I’ve written, telling me that they use them to teach their children. I’ll get approached in an airport or on the street somewhere by someone I’ve never seen before. I’ll be thanked so warmly and genuinely for having written I Was Only 19, for instance. I’ve said this a million times, but no amount of money and fame comes close to that as a payback.
I know the same sorts of things happen to Shane. We’ll just look at each other and agree that, well, we’re not rich, that’s for sure, and we’re both going to have to work until we die, but that’s okay. We don’t know what else we’d do, anyway.
BMA: So what is it that keeps you going?
The essential goodness and decency of people keeps me going — but there’s anger, too. I mean, thinking about Nauru and Manus.
And Don Dale [Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory]: in what universe do three grown men throw a 13-year-old kid across a room?
Shane and I number among the Australians who are very committed to the shift to renewables, but our hearts bleed for the ordinary men and women for whom coal-mining has been their families’ livelihood for generations.
But the unpalatable fact is that coal was then, and renewables are now and into the future. And the mindless defence of the coal industry mounted by these idiots in Parliament is all about greed and vested interests. If we can hold in our hand a mobile phone with hundreds of times the computing power they used to put man on the moon, somebody needs to tell me why we can’t transition the lives of the people who mine coal. I get so angry: it’s all about greed. There are jobs in renewables, but nobody wants to talk about those.
It also makes me so angry when I think of kids in the Third World — actually, even in indigenous communities here in our country — going to bed sick and hungry. It doesn’t have to be like that. It makes me incandescently angry when we send soldiers off to places like Afghanistan and Iraq: they come home with heads full of barbed wire, but we are too concerned with the budget and the bottom line to really do what needs to be done for these people and their families.
I think that’s why Shane and I gravitate towards each other as musicians and songwriters. We’re not going to “go quietly into that good night”. We’re just not.
Shane was telling me, one time, about camping out in the donga with an old blackfella who pointed up at the night-time sky and told him that all the stars were the campfires of those people who had gone before. I found that very beautiful; very heartening and immensely consoling. I like to think that when it’s my turn to go, I’ll get to sit around a campfire in the sky.
John Schumann and Shane Howard will join the 180+ acts as part of this year’s National Folk Festival. For the full line-up and tickets, head to folkfestival. org.au .
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