Don Henderson Project
Don Henderson ... The Boy from Moonee Ponds
Australian Tradition, September, 1970
These are my songs I have seen a few things and met a few people. I have tried to tell others about these things and these people because they are my life, and no one wants their life to go for nothing. - Don Henderson
Moonee Ponds is probably one of Australia's most famous suburbs, because that's where Edna Everage comes from. So does Don Henderson, and that's about all they have in common, because he's not a suburban person.
Don describes himself variously as a guitar maker and a song writer. Neither is an accurate description. You might describe him better as a full-time individualist, a craftsman, an all-Australian casual bloke," a cynic and a romanticist. And, of course, a militant anti-establishment man.
His are not songs so much as poems with a tune thrown in, and they are a delight of offbeat social and personal comment, militant trade union politics, and warmly sentimental pieces about life, love and responsibility.
His quiet, almost self effacing manner, is deceptive really, and equally deceptive is the way he abuses people. It's not fair really because if you do, he suddenly turns tolerant and makes you feel as if you've got a nasty unloving nature. And you realise then it's types he's attacking, not individual people ... sanctimonious, small minded, pretentious types; miserable bosses and war mongering governments, and men who allow themselves to be used for war and profit. Yet confronted with one of these types in person, he'd sit down with a flagon, talk, sing, show off a bit, ask questions listen, and try to get through.
I was impressed with the Spartan simplicity of the Henderson menage. In the spacious front room of the once gracious, but now run down King's Cross terrace house, there was a work bench, a couple of chairs, a box or two, a bed and a wardrobe. The bench, neatly designed to fit in the back of a panel van was the only furniture he'd take with him when he went. It was designed to fit in with a rambling life. Add a pencil drawing of Tom O'Flynn, a leather apron, and some carpenter's tools to the few clothes hanging in the wardrobe, and one had seen his worldly goods.
I was impressed too, with the simplicity of his diet. Right now, he explained, as he tipped the flagon, I'm living on 10 quid a week; eight for grog and two for food. I think that's reasonable, don't you? And so persuasive is his logic that I found myself in agreement, before I did a double somersault and landed back on my feet shrieking, 'You're kidding! Two quid!" But he wasn't, and for a two quid a week householder he turned on a terrific meal of Mexican beans. I think he strained the budget a bit for my benefit when he added an omelette, but a respectable upper middle class upbringing dies hard, and that, despite the fact that people will keep likening him to Woody Guthrie, is one of the strands that goes to make up the "Boy from Moonee Ponds."
Maybe you have to have experienced a plentiful supply of worldly goods before you can discover the hollowness of a life devoted to accumulating "things," but this is something Don has found out early, and he's never been willing to lumber himself with things that tie him down That goes for people too, and it took a long while for him to quit rambling and decide to accumulate ties like a wife, home and family, but when he finally did, he rapidly became a devoted, if unconventional, family man.
A long, fairly lean, man with a red beard, casually dressed, his appearance is very much part of his personality and his self image. The only time I've ever got under his skin in a friendship devoted to saying fairly outrageous things just as they come to mind was, when going over baby Jeannie Henderson, a delightful red haired scrap of humanity, I enthused "Now, how did you get to be so beautiful? I mean your daddy's such a homely fellow!" I couldn't have done better if I'd jabbed the boy from Moonee Ponds with a long, sharp hat pin. He jumped 10 miles in the air, and came down snarling home truths about me.
Some of his best, songs, celebrate his love affairs and his life too, is wrapped very much around the bottle of wine that he celebrates so well in song.
He doesn't go to work the way ordinary blokes do either, because he couldn't bear a permanent and limiting nine to five job, though his hands will curl lovingly around a piece of machinery with that instinctive sympathy and knowledge that he's inherited from an ancestral line of Scottish engineers. His family name is an honoured one in Australian engineering, and a set of carriage springs made by his great-grandfather are a prized exhibit at the Maldon (Victoria) Folk Museum.
Some of his best songs like M.W.S. & D.B. (I bet that's the only song ever named after a sewerage authority) have been written about the work situation and some of his best mates are blokes like Geoff Wills, who are deeply committed to the militant working class struggle. Don and Geoff went to Mt. Isa together during the big strike, and got run out of town together after they'd sung to the strikers, and good songs have come out of this experience, too.
But despite all his devotion to ideals and causes he's very much of an individualist, not in any way to be contained in one circle, or in one set of ideas. In the same way he reaches out beyond the bounds of conventionally accepted behaviour, and of any one social group, to embrace all viable ways of expressing himself. Communicating with other human beings is the most important thing in his life and so his conversation embraces the whole range of the English language, just as his behaviour ranges through the spectrum from conventional to completely unconventional. He's an anarchist, but a kindly and mild sort of anarchist. Knowing his expressed views on class and private property I used to worry that he'd be likely to whip photographs off the wall, shove stray spare tyres up his jumper, and generally live off the land, as well as using four letter words in front of elderly maiden ladies, but found that he is a severe critic of what he considers un-mate like behaviour.