Don Henderson Project

Don Henderson
Craig McGregor People Politics and Pop 1968

One of the most encouraging things about the folk music revival is the way it has produced songwriters who have crystallised and expressed the moods, beliefs and attitudes of their generation. The process is more self-conscious than that which produced the Border ballads, convict songs and Negro slave chants. But the modern balladeers perform the same function of articulating what their group feels but cannot say. In the United States Bob Dylan has done this best of all. In Britain it's been Ewan MacCoil; in Australia, Don Henderson.

A solid, imposing man of twenty-nine with a bushy red beard, a carpenter's hands and a deceptively self-effacing manner, he is hardly known outside the folk world. But his songs are being sung all over Australia, have been recorded by Gary Shearston and others, and some of them may well - like one or two of Lawson's and Banjo Paterson's - become part of the folk heritage of Australia. What Don Henderson has done tells us much about the creative richness and vitality of those whom the highbrow culturists arrogantly dismiss as 'the masses'.

The most striking quality about his songs is their combination of absolute simplicity of language with a broad emotional range. That's one of the fundamental virtues of folk music, of course. Some verses of 'I Can Whisper', which he wrote after the Mount Isa strike, illustrate this:

I was born into this world like everyone
With a hungry belly to drive me on
I was born into this world with nothing else
But my own two hands to keep myself.
Listen, there's a lot I've got to say
Or I'll shout it till you hear me anyway.

If I want to eat I've got to work
But I can go hungry if I like
I'll work if that's what I want to do
But no-one else can tell me to. (Chorus)

Everyone sells something, time's my stock,
I sell hours by the clock
Time once gone won't come twice
It's my time, mister, and my price.' (Chorus)

The words lose a lot from not being sung. But even so it's obvious they have the authentic folk ring about them, an almost monumental quality. Even the repetition seems necessary, inevitable. As in traditional folk songs they are not extraneous but subtle variations on a theme.

Perhaps Don Henderson's life explains much of this. He has spent most of it wandering around Australia, drifting from one job to the next; sixty-four jobs in a year. He was trained at Melbourne Tech. as a mechanical engineer but has worked more often as a carpenter and in the last year or so has even made his own guitars. It was some records by Blind Lemon Jefferson and Josh White which first got him interested in folk music. He learnt to play guitar, and in Melbourne formed one of the country's first rhythm-and-blues groups. Then he moved to Sydney and began writing some of the topical songs, such as 'Hooker Rex' and 'It's On', which have spread right through the folk movement. Many of them express Don's own dry sense of humour, as in his 'Basic Wage Dream'.

'I dreamt we stopped at the RSL and as I walked inside
A poker machine took a look at me pay and committed suicide
I turned around behind me as I heard a man there speak:
It was Dr Coombs trying to borrow a quid to see him through the week.'

In another song Don has turned the old bush ballad 'The Overlander' into a wry attack on conscription:

'In court the Army said "This man," and pointed straight at me
" Won't fight for Queen or country, church or BHP."
The magistrate posed sagely and turned to me and said
" What if the Viet Cong attacked your mother in her bed?"
I answered "They aren't here, but if perchance they come
I'd run down to the TAB and put a spin on Mum."'

With his sure instinct for what will provide his source material, Don went to Mount Isa during the strike. Apart from the one already quoted he wrote several songs: a long talking blues in Woody Guthrie style which the miners kept him singing time and time again; a bitter political song about 'Who Put The W In The AWU?'; and a ballad, 'It's A Free World':

'They're all free in the USA, and so five judges sat
When a writer would to Cuba go and check up on the facts.
The vote was three to two against; the Press is free, but then
Where it gets its information is a different thing again.

'They're free up in Mount Isa, I know that much because
I sang a song of freedom there and the policeman said I was,
He said "every dog has his day," I said "I know that much,"
He said "You've got three minutes, son," and looked down at his watch.'

Despite his commitment to the Left, Don Henderson's songs rarely degenerate into mere propaganda. Most of them are not even protest songs, in the strict sense: they are, rather, sardonic commentaries on contemporary Australian life. He's written some love songs-of a sort. He can be as zany as Dylan, as straightforward as Pete Seeger. His songs depend more on cumulative effect than vivid imagery; they are plain song, the plain man's song. The characteristic note is one of understatement, irony, rather than declamation-as in his most recent song, written about a friend arrested near Central Railway:

'No chase and no cordon, no grave to be filled,
No hero's life draining, no martyr's blood spilled,
A song for a man whose lifetime in jail
Will be but the hour till someone brings bail.
Why do I sing? …'

Why indeed? Why does anyone? Why, down the ages, have so many conscious, creative artists turned to the idiom of the people to express their ideas and talents? The answer has something to do with the power, the directness and the richness of the common, the popular arts. Robbie Burns realised this: his poetry is so close to its folk sources it shares many of the real folk virtues. The same is true of Banjo Paterson. And Woody Guthrie. And Don Henderson.

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