Don Henderson Project

The Making of a Song Writer in Melbourne, Sydney and the Bush

The following account of Don Henderson's early life is taken from interviews recorded by Edgar Waters for the National Library of Australia in 1986. The words are all Don Henderson's, but the account has been greatly condensed by cutting words, and in a very few places slightly rearranging them. [Thanks to Edgar Waters and the National Library of Australia for permission to use this material. The original interview tapes are in the National Library of Australia's Oral History and Folklore Collection nla.oh-1942-0000]

I grew up in Maidstone when it was a suburb of Melbourne, when there were still hundred acre paddocks out there. Dad was an engineer, often away on jobs out of town; he thought he should get Mum a good radio and so he did. We listened to the radio all the time and there was a lot of country music ... it was hillbilly music then and the main one was Tex Morton.

I was born in '37. In 1943, or '44 perhaps, my father took us to a buckjump show and there was Tex Morton himself. There among the sweat and the dust there was this man with the guitar singing about the life he lived, the life he lived as a showman. And I found it very believable, and I tried to pursue that line of music, and to try to get the reality of what I saw about me, the same as he was doing. But I wasn't encouraged to pursue that sort of music. I was encouraged to pursue classical music, and in 1943 I began taking violin lessons.

Our house was a hundred yards from the Ballarat road, which was a route for the bagmen, going to and from wherever they were going to and from, and they used to camp behind this boarding that was there, it used to afford relief from the wind and the rain, and they would sing and they would play the mouth organ. The first time I heard Another Fall of Rain was from those men. I didn't learn it entirely, but I couldn't listen to them very much because I had to sneak out at night to go there.

I didn't know about folk music. I knew about the Scots songs that Dad played, and I knew about the things Uncle Archie played on the accordion and the concertina, but they were just tunes to me. Tunes are just tunes to me now. It's just nice music. After I'd realised I was never going to be a good violin player, I began playing the mandolin. It's exactly the same tuning as a violin, and so I was able to play that and sing at the same time.. I went off hillbilly music because I picked up on jazz.

When I was at high school, there came onto the radio on a Sunday afternoon, the Norman Granz show, which was a syndicated show from America; it was live jazz. There was a lot of rhythm-and-blues among it too, and blues and that interested me very much.

I went to Essendon High School and then I changed to a technical school. I was apprenticed then: Henderson's Federal Spring Works, North Melbourne. That was fine, I liked that.

By then I'd bought a guitar. I bought a guitar when I was sixteen. I was buying records, and to buy the jazz records you had to go to import shops in Melbourne, and they had not only the bebop records, but they had blues records and they had American country records; hillbilly once again I suppose. I listened to these, and it was the blues players actually that I liked: Blind Lemon Jefferson, josh White... and they were playing guitar in a way I didn't understand. I began learning jazz guitar and my liking of country music just fell and fell and fell, the more I studied jazz guitar. I was a very good rhythm player. I'd played rhythm mandolin with square dance bands going back to 1953. Square dance in 1953 was very popular. They were all over the place, every church hall seemed to have one.

In 1956 I went out with some people, and rock-and-roll had started, and I had the guitar, and they asked me would I play, and I said I would but I didn't know if I could. My teacher said, "Just bluff". So I thought if you could bluff, I'll have a try, but I can tell you I didn't have to bluff, I could actually play. I played from 1956 till 1958 with that band. Rock-and-roll was really only hillbilly music with a good beat to it, so I was once more back into sort of hillbilly music. When that came to an end I wanted to do something else.

I was going to leave Henderson's Springs, and I knew that I couldn't leave by moving around the corner. I married and we moved to Sydney. I met a man and one day I happened to notice a guitar case, and said that I had a guitar too. So he showed me his and I showed him mine. I had one song that I learned from a record or from the radio, called So Long, It's Been Good To Know You. It had one good verse in it and I didn't like the rest of the verses and I wrote new verses to it. I played that to him, and he said, "Oh...Woody Guthrie song." I said I didn't even know who Woody Guthrie was. He played me these records that he had and they were sort of hillbilly, but they weren't really hillbilly. The tunes were, but the words were not all about horses and faithful dogs and unfaithful women. They were about working people and things like that.

I started writing various things probably before I went to school, certainly when I was six or seven, always in verse. We had a lot of books of verse, and the verse really appealed to me. When I was interested in jazz I tried quite a number of times to write lyrics for tunes that other people had written, but none of them had really worked, and I had written rock-and-roll songs. I didn't write too many, but I did write some. When I first heard Woody Guthrie sing Tom Joad, I realised that this man had put John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath into seven verses, and rhymed it all the way through. I could see there were endless possibilities. And then it was only a matter of looking around ... I was getting jobs where I could, and it turned out easier getting casual work as a builders labourer. I could see the problem of people forced to look for work perhaps once a week, where the job might last you five days and then you've got to go and find another one, or it might last you a month, and then you've got to go and find another one ... a continual search for work and the need for people of that particular class to be staunch by each other which I could hear being sung about in these American records. I thought that I could get some of that Australian experience into music.

I was introduced to the Royal George Hotel, where people used to sing on Saturday afternoons. They were singing songs that I'd never ever heard, you know, and folk became of importance to me and I began to understand what it meant. I found that I could take my songs and sing them there and they sort of accepted them, being interested in this folk music. I then was invited to the Sydney Bush Music Club, which I went to. I heard a lot of Australian songs, some of which were actually songs that I'd heard fragments of from the bagmen as a child. I didn't know the difference between what they called Australian folk songs and what Tex Morton was singing. I still thought that The Rain Tumbles Down in July, from Slim Dusty, was one of the best songs I'd ever heard. They didn't think so, but they liked some of the others. By that time the marriage wasn't working, so I left Sydney; just used it as a centre and just travelled, and I went back to where people were actually singing hillbilly songs as they heard them on the radio, and about subjects they accepted, like faithful dogs and lost loves and things like that. I decided that I could get up with them and sing songs about building dams and union struggle. By then I'd picked up a lot of politics. I'd been introduced to the Communist Party. I asked my Dad what communism was once and he told me it was where everybody slept with each other's wives and divided up the kids at Christmas time.

In Sydney I joined the BLF. I hadn't belonged to a union in Melbourne because I was an apprentice and wasn't required to, and then I'd gone straight into a foreman's job. I can remember one time that Dad came and told us - my brother Graham and myself - that there was quite likely to be a strike tomorrow. I said, "Well, don't worry, we'll work'. He said, "Pig's arse you'll work; no scabs work at Henderson's; you'll go out with your mates'. Dad voted Liberal, always voted Liberal. He belonged to a union, he belonged to the AEU.

In Sydney at the time that I was becoming aware of radical, left wing politics, there were communists on the job. They explained what communism was to me, and I sort of liked the idea of sharing equally, and things like that. I was knocking around with those people at the Bush Music Club, and the Communist Party, and I had these ideas about equality, and I was reading things about Russia and that, and it was something that I really couldn't embrace. I started moving more and more in my thinking to what I called the Barcaldine Line the Labor Party; not the Labor Party of Neville Wran and Bob Hawke, but the Labor Party of William Lane and Henry Lawson. I suppose a free enterprise society with a strong labour force. If it was going to be a capitalist society, that labour would be recognised as capital, that's the one expense that the boss doesn't have to pay interest on. He's got six, five days credit with every worker in the factory.

Along with this there was the very strong influence of the libertarians that I was meeting at the Royal George, in both the labour sense and the moral sense as well.

When I finished my apprenticeship in 1957 I was called up for National Service, but I was found to be physically unfit. I had already planned on three months for national service, so when I was discharged I thought I'd do something else. I was going to go to Sydney, but the lift I picked up took me to Queanbeyan, and from there I went down to the Snowy. I was able to get a start on the Snowy Mountains scheme and I spent nearly two and half months there. When I decided to go out on the road, to wander, the Snowy was a natural place to go back to. But I'd already started writing in this particular vein, writing about work and writing about Australia, using the cross between the hillbilly idiom that I'd learned young, and this American finger-picking technique that I'd picked up from listening to records. I wrote Light in Every Country Window, about the Snowy. I wrote that in 1960.

Put a Light In Every Country Window was the first of Don Henderson's songs to become widely known. He was still writing songs, trying to get the reality of what he saw about him, when he died in 1991.

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