By Mark Gregory
"You can talk a lot and the words are soon forgotten; perhaps you can write, that might last a bit longer; but to sing about it is to create a lasting means of communication and Don did that ... His songs will become part of the history of the songs of Australia" — Senator George Georges.
Covering a span of 30 years, 100 of Don Henderson's songs and poems have just been published in a collection titled A Quiet Century, a wonderful tribute to a great songwriter.
When I wanted to play five-string banjo in my teens, it was to Hendo I went for the instrument and for my first lesson. I still have the instrument he built when I managed to smash that first one, and the revolutionary neck he designed is as straight today as it was some 30 years ago. That banjo rang out recently at a union-organised barbecue to oust Barry Morris from his Blue Mountains seat, and among the songs we sang were a Hendo song or two.
The songs in the collection are a reminder of the contending forces that made Australia over the postwar period; union struggles and the struggle against war and against the Vietnam War in particular. On the peace marches we sang "It's On", at union rallies it might be the "Basic Wage Dream."
Don had worked at a number of trades and had a genius for turning his and his friends' work experiences into song. As a skilled tradesman, he had a keen understanding of the "folkways" that different kinds of work produce. Take this verse from "Thirty Ton Line":
Purpose built tugs that like line boats attended
berthed bulk coal carriers in open sea
To fulfil that function the union contended,
required four deckhands. The owners said three.
Three deckhands and motorman just couldn't handle
sixteen inch polyprop, double dead eyes
When the toe-hook was blacked, the company gambled
on a tension winched, ten inch, calm sea compromise.
He put himself though an apprenticeship of his own devising, learning from the traditions of the bush ballads, from Tex Morton and from the US balladeer Woody Guthrie. In Australia his song making encouraged others to have a go.
Today, should someone feel disposed to gather the material together, a sizeable book of songs of the workplace could be published, many showing traces of Don's influence. Don's second self-devised apprenticeship was musical instrument repair and guitar design and making. Again his efforts pushed others to do the same, and some of finest instrument makers acknowledge a debt to Don Henderson.
During the Vietnam War period the trade unions began to take direct action to oppose the war. One famous incident was a refusal by seamen to man the supply ships Boonaroo and Jeparit. Don wrote the song "Boonaroo" to commemorate their stand.
Ten years later, in 1978, he would write more generally of war in "Was War For Those Who Want It", which has the following verse:
The men who build the planes
and make the tanks,
are neutral and get payment
in Swiss francs
While the rich on both sides prosper,
the poor will kill the poor.
Was war for those who want it,
they would want an end to war.
Don's versatility as a writer certainly becomes clear in this collection. A classic ghost story told in verse is "The Haunted Hill". "The Guardsman's Appeal" is a ballad to expose the hypocrisy of British law in a notorious rape case. A racing yarn is turned to song, "Not in the Joke". There's a wealth of wry humour in the introductions to the songs, and a transcription of Don talking about his early life to Edgar Waters.
It also includes a song about Don, "Hendo", written by Gary Shearston, and dozens of illustrations by Jon Endean. All that and you get a cassette of Don's album In My Time!
I have sung Don Henderson songs in many folk clubs, on picket lines, on demonstrations and in a number of countries. I have taught some of them to singers outside Australia. One Thai enthusiast I met was so taken with "It's On" that he sat down and translated it on the spot. I expect some day to see a version of it in a collection of Thai folk songs. These songs, as George Georges suggests, have great staying power. A hundred of them are here together for the first time.
Available for $25 plus $6.50 postage and packing from: Sally Henderson c/- Aebis Publishing PO Box 531 Fortitude Valley Qld 4006. The Quiet Century will be launched by the Left Arts Group at 229 Whites Road, Lota, on Sunday, March 12 at 2pm.