Don Henderson Project
From Where Have All The Surfboards Come?
Don Henderson Australian Tradition June 1968
A little while ago a lot of people got the idea that they wanted to write songs. Why not? Now they don't want to write songs: they want to lower Holdens and make surf-boards. Once more, why not? It is no good saying: "Where have all the songs gone?" One might as well enquire: "From where have all the surf-boards come?" "And the hot Holdens?" They were the fad writers and like the fads they have now gone.
Who is writing songs then?
At some time of life, usually late adolescence, most people write something. It is the need to once more, probably for the last time, express ourselves as free, forceful, young things before being dragged over the twenty-first parallel into the territory of the tied, tagged and tired oldies'. This writing usually takes the form of whatever is currently new and avant-garde. Of late is has been songs. Soon it will be something else.
Two other sorts of people write songs. In some ways they are similar.
One, those who, often at an early age, make their minds up that they will be writers. Earn their bread writing, be it journalism, poetry, songs, plays or novels. Either starve following their choice or make it big by picking a mover. Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton. The professional writers. It has been the singers' good fortune that the time was ripe for those people to turn to songwriting.
Related; for he, too, has always written and will always write, is the man who wrote "Born on a table top in Joe's cafe/ Biggest brothel in the U.S.A." "It's lovely and clean/ My little latrine." "The working class can kiss my arse/ I've got the boss's job at last." He has always been around. The singing milkman, the yodelling bricklayer, the bard of Buladelah. The folk revival contemporary song boom didn't make him. It did though, in part, give back to him that which the slop-song promoters had all but completely taken away. It gave back his language. He swept it to his bosom like a parent does the long-lost son. He wrote, when he wanted to, sang when he wanted to, and when he didn't want to, still delivered milk, laid bricks and dug up the road.
Rightly or wrongly, I see myself as fitting somewhere between these last two categories. Neither pro nor singing milkman, at the same time being something of both. My style, whilst being in part dictated by my background (musical and otherwise) is largely a conscious development of held beliefs and reasoned preferences.
It might be said that I am a protest song writer. I would argue this. To my mind the protest song writer doesn't exist. For a brief period, artificially propped up by mass media's distribution machine, he existed as a curiosity, but that period is past. The protest song cannot exist with any validity except within the general framework of music a society has constructed for itself. The Irish sing their rebel songs along with their drinking songs. The American unionists had love songs that lived side by side with the organising songs. The same applied to industrialised England and convict Australia. A folk music exists with protest songs a part of it.
The protest songs I write are to me just a part of my music. I sing them at home as well as at concerts. Some of them I wrote because the idea was funny, to make people laugh. Are they protest songs or humorous songs? Some of them I wrote to tell a story. Are they protest songs or narrative songs?
To define a protest song is not easy when that song is viewed as being part of a broad social music structure. Possibly one definition might be, that a protest song is one that criticises something with a view to destroying that thing, or advocates an idea, with a view to seeing that idea implemented.
To take this as being so, that the protest song has a message to deliver, it might be said that the message is the important thing and that this message must be passed on to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Get out the roneo machine.
Is it important to get that song out? I don't believe it is. Firstly, for the reason that a protest song, being the work of one man who is at the time shat off with something, occupied with rhymes, and listening to his guitar pounding away, stands a good chance of being little more than a piece of badly reasoned personal emotionalism that will not contribute much, if anything, to the intellectual awareness or overall understanding of anyone who hears it; particularly if jammed between cornflake ads on swinging aware folk protest radio. Secondly, I feel that a writer's social conscience should extend to caring about the quality of the culture he is contributing to. This might sound a bit lofty, but I say it in the belief that every thought held and expressed in words contributes something to the overall culture of a society. It can contribute positively or negatively in that it can add or detract from that culture. One way or the other, it will do something. Just how much it contributes in either direction depends on how much it is pushed and how closely that personally expressed thought is related to the generally held ideas of the society. A song should be allowed to grow within the close environment of its creator, from which it will either emerge or be submerged, depending on the validity of its statement and the value it has as a song.
I like singing new songs to small audiences, remembering that if fifty people don't like a song, there is a fifty to one chance that the idea is not getting over; rather than that they are not getting it. If an idea doesn't get across to fifty people at the Sydney Folk Club there is no way it will get across to a thousand people at a concert, or ten thousand on radio.
Truly, I like singing to people who want to hear me; it makes everything just so much easier. Apart from that, if an audience is alien it doesn't hear anyway. It just tunes out. Singing to them is wasted time. Perhaps this can be interpreted as preaching to the converted. I am not sure if it can or can't, because I am not sure that I understand the phrase.
Who are these converted? What are they converted to? Who are you? Who am I? Do these converted know that? Does anyone have nothing to say to Hiroshima day's three thousand doctors, cartoonists, lawyers, journalists, clergymen, communists, ALP unionists, Liberal Reform industrialists, Bankstown matrons and King's Cross junkies? Sweetheart, if you've got nothing to say to them, you've got nothing to say to anyone.