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Travels with Djaambi


We were on the road again drivin’ up a gentle, non-descript valley. There were wide green fields gradually sloping up for a few hundred yards either side, a few scrubby, old trees and a big blue sky. Nothing outstanding or breathtaking. No great tourist vistas here. You can see mile after mile of this sort of country driving around Victoria. The land has an eerie, empty feel to it, like its stripped bare of life and you really have to use your imagination to try to picture what the same country would have looked like two or three hundred years ago….more trees, grasses and shrubs….a variety of animals, more water…either streams or swamps…and of course, people.

Djaambi was at the wheel, in control as usual, and musing about the way it would have been… “yeah, it would’ve been a warm day and we’d be walking up this valley, you and me…the kids would be runnin’ round a bit, and we’d be looking for a little gully to camp the night in, probably up that side of the hill” he pointed up to the left, where there was a little nook with a few trees sticking out of it… the wind ‘d be blowing a bit, so we’d want to protect ourselves from it” he continued.. “and we’d have a good supply of tucker and some of those possum skin cloaks to keep us warm…”he chuckled. “Yeah that’d be a good place to camp.”

I felt a rush of emotion well up inside of me, don’t know why. It just always happened when Djaambi talked like this. I often asked myself ,was it just some sense of romantic nostalgia creeping over me? Some kind of useless longing for a world that didn’t exist anymore? A ‘boys own adventure’ or a melancholic yearning for some deeper connection to this place called Australia? I don’t know. Here I was, open and interested, and things were about to get real. The past colliding with the present, the romantic notions clashing with the cold hard facts and the middle class melancholy becoming a river of tears.

We were on our way to Her Majesty’s Barwon Prison…and as we turned the corner you could see the big grey concrete walls sticking up like a sore thumb, out on the plains beneath the mighty You Yangs,…about 30miles west of Melbourne and about 10 miles north east of Geelong…Wauthwurrung country.

“Where are all the aborigines anyway? You never see ‘em anywhere round here?”
I’ve heard it asked many a time, sittin’ round in Melbourne town sippin’ Italian coffee.

Now I know where to go if you want to see the pride of the black nations.…I know where to go if you wanna to check out strong, young black men…..if you wanna sit and talk about the legacy of a couple of hundred years of “civilization”.
I know where to go if you want to hear a whole lot about the trouble and strife…if you want to sit and learn about car stealing, mental illness, drugs, alcohol, social dislocation, violence, racism, murder, thievery, loneliness, family abuse, poverty, broken lives and lost traditions. I know where to go.

I also know where to go if you need a real good laugh or hear some remarkable poetry. Or if you’d like to sit round singin’ and playing heartfelt music , hear stories of courage, struggle, and humanity as well as a few hard-to-believe fishing yarns. The only thing missing would be a campfire and a slab of beer….and freedom.

I know where you can get all this and more…down the road at H. M. Barwon Prison. Just follow the signs. And if you’re travelling around the country, or you live a long way away, the good news is that its easy to find a prison near you, in your particular area …there’s heaps of them scattered round the country just full of young black men and women.

So we were going into Barwon Prison to put on a show…It wasn’t our show we were doing , but the koorie inmates’. Our job was to help them get their poetry, songs and stories out and rehearsed up a bit so that they could present a show for family, friends ,fellow prisoners and officials. In one way it wasn’t that hard a job because there was so much material just sitting there ready to go. Most of the boys had a song ,a poem or a story tucked away inside them…displaying once again that ,in this country, indigenous creative abilities with word and song was something natural, a fire constantly burning and crackling away into the night, never the same, never going out.

A big part of Djaambi’s job was to make the boys feel comfortable and get it out of them. Shyness is also one of the great Australian national traits.

Djaambi had been doing this kind of work for years. He was born to it. There were several of his countrymen inside and he went about his work with his customary optimism. His constant joking and cheekiness to guards and inmates alike hid a whole lot of hurt, hardship and hopelessness…Djaambi was tribal Chief, priest, comedian, social worker, artist, brother, friend and politician, all rolled into one…and he worked tirelessly…

As for me, I was ,as usual, scared and unsure. I’d been in prisons before quite a few times, always “just visiting” and there’s always been some kind of romanticised connection between country music and prison.

I remember going to Beechworth jail in the ‘70’s to entertain the inmates and one thing that has stayed with me all these years was a young lifer singing James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”…it was the most haunting and poignant version of the song I’ve ever heard…rough, gentle and real…that guy owned the song….

”I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain..
I’ve seen lonely days that I thought would never end…
I’ve had times when I could not find a friend…
but I always thought that I’d see you one more time again…”

His words echoed through the old bluestone building and chilled us middle class city kids to the bone. We scurried home to our comfortable student lives in the suburbs …..I often wonder what happened to that fella.

Another time, I found myself in the Berrimah prison in Darwin. I was touring the Northern Territory with The Dancehall Racketeers, a country swing, rocking roots music band about 20 years ahead of its time, and we were invited to put on a concert for the inmates. We dined at the warden’s table and then played to about 200 prisoners. They were all young, all black…and I mean young…18,19…teenagers! I remember asking some prison official as to why there were so many young aboriginal men in custody …he just laughed and mumbled something about “rites of passage” which left me bewildered.

As students of American musical culture ,we had all read about black prison gangs, sadistic ,racist wardens, the birth of blues and gospel music. We were pretty well- versed in the poetry and imagery of the African American blackman’s blues. We prided ourselves on our knowledge of the roots of American music and it definitely helped us play the music well. We knew a lot about the Deep South, but here we were being confronted by the Deep North. This was a whole world we didn’t know anything about and it was here in Australia. How did all this fit into our copy-cat cultural identity?

We sang our country blues, our rockabilly and western swing and the inmates sat enthralled. The music weaved its magic and we offered them something that they had never heard before. That was our gift. No half-baked versions of Folsom Prison Blues in this concert. A complete hush fell over the hall as we offered up the old country gospel song “The Lost Highway”, an old song written by country troubadour Leon Payne and recorded by the great Hank Williams. It’s become pretty well known in recent years . I remember singing harmony with Rick , telling the tale of lost innocence . A chill running up my spine as I looked into the eyes of hundred young black warriors.

‘Like a rolling stone ,all alone and lost
For the price of sin I have paid the cost
As I walk by ,all the people say
He paid the cost on the lost highway

I was just a lad , nearly 22
Neither good nor bad , just a kid like you
But now I’m lost ,and I curse the day
I started rolling down that lost highway

Just a deck of cards and a jug of wine
And a woman’s love makes a life like mine
But now I’m lost, too late to pray
I started rollin’ down that lost highway

Now boys don’t start your rambling round
On this road of sin or you’re sorrow-bound
Take my advice or you’ll curse the day
You started rolling down that Lost Highway

Like many Southern country ballads there is a strong mixture of guilt, the promise of redemption and romantic fatalism in this song. It tells a dark story….The Americans have been very good at mythologizing their past, their landscape, their criminals, their heroes, their losers, and lost souls. Everything about themselves. Most importantly, they’ve been very good at selling the package to every body else in the world.

Australians know all this stuff from television, books, records, movies. But most of the time they don’t want to know what’s goin’ on in their own place. The American history and popular culture, entertaining and inspiring as it is, can act as a great diversion, an opiate.

Here’s another sad prison ballad from Hank Williams, which I recorded many years ago in Melbourne….

I heard that lo-wo-wo-onesome whistle blow.

I was ridin’ No. 9
Headin’ south from Caroline
I heard that lo-wo-wo-onesome whistle blow

Got in trouble, had to roam
Left my gal and left my home
I heard that lo-wo-wo-onesome whistle blow

Just a kid actin smart
I went and broke my darlin’s heart
I guess I was too young to know

They took me off the Georgia Main
Locked me to that ball and chain
I heard that lo-wo-wo-onesome whistle blow

All alone I bear the shame
I’m a number not a name
I heard that lo-wo-wo-onesome whistle blow

All I do is sit and cry
When the evenin’ train goes by
I heard that lo-wo-wo-onesome whistle blow

I’ll be locked here in this cell
Till my body’s just a shell
And my hair is whiter than snow

I’ll never see that gal of mine
I’m in Georgia doin’ time
I heard that lo-wo-wo-onesome whistle blow
You can hear the trains rolling across the Barwon plain from the prison. It’s the busy Geelong route. There’s no steam whistles anymore of course, but at night, as you lay locked in your cell, you’d be able to hear those trains roll on by, a constant reminder of the world outside. The world that you cannot be a part of.

So we put on a theatrical performance with the koorie inmates and it was good. It was called “Blackfellas Way’’. It was April 2005 and after a few sessions of confidence building, a lot of joking around, collecting material and organising the practicalities of putting on a show, we were ready. There were poems, monologues, songs and short dramatic pieces all telling the inmates’ stories. It was a great success. Everyone enjoyed it ,families, inmates, social workers, musicians. We had a barbie, hung out, chatted and jammed up some music. It was a great day and raised everyone’s spirits, but at the end I was so glad I could walk out of there and try to forget the troubles and strife.

I loaded up my instruments in the old green Peugeot, started her up .I wanted to get out of the place real quick. I headed off back across the plains towards the suburbs of Melbourne. I took a leftie and drove right along the base of the You Yangs. I wanted to get up close to the big ,rocky hills. Like a hurt kid I thought that in some way the hills would tell me everything was ok in the world. There was a strange feeling of being comforted in the shadow of those big ,old rocks and a few tears rolled down my cheeks as I drove along glancing back now and then towards the Bay.

I found my way home along the back roads slowly. I didn’t feel like zooming down that busy, speeding freeway. I was thinking about all the stuff I’d seen that day-the boys, their broken lives, the prison, the poems, the history, the clash of cultures, the land, the system. I decided to have a stop at the place they call the Little River and collect my racing thoughts. There’s a small country church and an adjoining park down there by a deep bend in the river. You barely notice it from your car, but if you stop and rest you find a very nice little place for sitting and thinking. I wandered by the still half-dead water in the cool evening just thinkin’, remembering and wondering. There was a nice breeze blowing down from the You Yangs and a train rumbled across the flats with a load of workers from the city, all reading papers and falling asleep in their suits. This place would have been a great camp site-fresh water, shelter, some fresh tucker from a day’s hunting in the hills over there. Just a good place to rest. I looked across at the church and thought how curious it was that churches were often built quite deliberately on these old sites. Yes it was a spiritual place.

I walked along looking down at the dirt ,looking for a sign maybe, just lookin’. The more I looked ,the more I could see down there in the dirt. A few flints here, some broken rocks there, a scattering of stone chips ,a few more flakes there. I could almost hear the sweet chatter of families in the evening. Kids playin’ and gossiping and laughter and maybe a few little songs. Food cookin’, fires cracklin’ away as the moon rose in the East. All along the half-dead river I wandered trying to get my head right. The shattered rocks and remnants just lyin’ all around there in the dusty, lonely dirt. Yeah, this ‘d be a good place to camp.


Back in Barwon Prison
Think about what I’ve been missin
Smokin’ ,drinkin’ fishin’
Out at Framlingham Mission

Now I’m stuck inside
Surrounded by bars, cages and walls
Thinking bout the times
That we shared.

I see you on the visits
And we’ve been talkin’ on the phone
How I long for the day
When I can come back home

Come back home to the one I’ve been missin’
Come back home to the lips I’ll be kissin’
But I’m here stuck inside
HM Barwon Prison

When I’m locked away
Trapped in my prison cell
I think to myself
‘what the hell am I doin’ here’
So far away from you my dear
I want to be back home
By your side
Come back home to the one I’ve been missin’
Come back home to the lips I’ll be kissin’
But I’m stuck here inside H.M. Barwon Prison
But I’m stuck here inside H.M.Barwon Prison



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