They may be just a couple of grumpy old men who won’t shut up but John Schumann and Shane Howard have given us another iconic song to pull out of the drawer whenever our leaders lose the plot and compass, as they seem to have done now.
Times Like These, from John Schumann and the Vagabond Crew’s new album Ghosts and Memories, is a signature tune that captures the public’s current exasperation with our politicians and policies, particularly in Canberra, where they will perform on 10 November at the Southern Cross Club in Woden.
“Some of the people who conduct our affairs on our behalf you wouldn’t feed ’em, seriously,” Schumann opines across the ether from his hometown of Adelaide.
He and Howard had been threatening to do something for a while and the song had an easy birth over a bottle of red around the fireplace last year.
“It was actually fun,” says Schumann. “Because Shane and I have mutual regard for each other and each other’s works and it was easy to do. We didn’t really argue much about it at all. We just threw lines and images at each other. We were both on the same wavelength.
“It was like f…! has it come to this that after all these years, all the battles and struggles we thought we’d won, all the progress that we thought we’d made in the 80s when we were young and fiery and fervent and full of political and moral rectitude and we’re having to do it all over again?”
Obviously, there is still a fire burning in both of them. As you’d expect from the former Redgum frontman who gave us I Was Only 19, and Howard from Goanna who gave us Solid Rock, both songs that changed the national consciousness about Vietnam veterans and Indigenous people respectively.
Schumann, now 65, has never stopped writing and performing but has another life in strategic communications and of course there was his stint in politics with the Democrats and the oh-so-close run at Alexander Downer and the Bunyip aristocracy in Mayo, which is now in Independent Rebekha Sharkie’s hands, something she has acknowledged Schumann for.
Looking back, Schumann is glad he didn’t win Mayo. If anything he is better suited to being the nation’s conscience, like the prophet who wanders out of the desert every so often, takes a look around and reminds us to wake up before it’s too late.
It’s an image he is not uncomfortable with.
“I will never be one of those songwriters who sings about dancing, love and string carroway seeds around the canyons of my mind, just not interested,” he says.
“I’ve always thought that if you have the gift of music and lyricism, and I think I have a modest gift … there are obligations to make some sort of contribution to the improvement of the human condition. If you have the sight then you’ve got to use the sight to benefit others.”
And coming from South Australia, the desert is close, especially on Ghosts and Memories which, besides tackling war, politics, climate change and the drought, includes a fine suite of songs on oft-forgotten explorer John McDouall Stuart, the first white man to cross the continent from south to north and make it back again alive.
Originally commissioned by the SA Primary Schools Music Festival, they proved a hit with the kids and eventually too good to ignore. But as usual, they have ongoing meaning for contemporary Australians.
“There are lessons from his life’s work that we can take, they all seem to have tentacles that reach into today. Fade Away is very much timely because of the drought and it seems like every
generation we learn the fact that we live on a very dry arid continent,” he says.
A favourite for Schumann is Remember Me, which is ”very much about saying to people as you drive through this place up the fully bitumenised Stuart Highway in an air-conditioned 4WD, just look out the window and imagine what it would have been like to be the first whitefella out here with a bunch of horses and camels and having to ask the blackfellas where you can get a drink.”
More keenly aware of his mortality since the death in 2016 of longtime musical collaborator Hugh McDonald, who plays on this album, Schumann wants to leave a legacy, a contribution to the body of Australian literature in some small way.
“Things like the Stuart songs and I Was Only 19 and the Henry Lawson album, they’re all me saying ‘hey guys when we work out where we’re going it’s always a really good thing to look over your shoulder at where we’ve come from’,” he says.
“I’m very grateful that I was blessed to write I Was Only 19. It did make a very significant difference. It helped bring our Vietnam veterans home and give them a place back in society but I think we also learned from 19 that you’ve got to respect the men and women that our governments send to fight these ridiculous wars even if we disagree with the wars themselves,” he says.
It has certainly endeared him to the veteran community and Schumann has done five forces entertainment tours.
On Every Anzac Day, a song that was hard to write but about which he is extremely proud, tells the story of the forgotten Indigenous veterans involved in all of Australia’s battles.
It was commissioned by former chief-of-army and Redgum tragic, Lieutenant General David Morrison, who was concerned that Australia’s black diggers would be overlooked in the Anzac Centenary, that it was going to be a ‘self-congratulatory whitefella gabfest’, in Schumann’s words.
“Like for Stuart, I had to go and learn some stuff. It was quite a moving exercise,” he recalls of the 10 solid days of hard graft it took to complete.
With the Centenary finale almost upon us with next week’s Remembrance Day, Schumann, like many, has mixed feelings – keen to remember and honour the fallen but lamenting the fact that war is still seen as a way for nations to resolve their differences.
“I’m moved quite emotionally at my age standing in a country town next to a memorial with the names of soldiers from the district killed and I look at it and I think how would I feel if I was their dad and they went away and didn’t come home,” he says.
“And it speaks very well of us as a nation that we actually do remember, the whole thing about lest we forget, as a nation we don’t forget and that’s great. It’s a credit to us as a nation that we don’t take those sacrifices for granted.
“On the other hand – war. Really guys, how long enough out of the cave is it that we can’t solve our differences without blowing each other up?”
So I ask him: does he think it will really be all right in the long run? Because the new version of the Redgum classic, Long Run, on Ghosts and Memories is slower, perhaps less confident and in need of affirmation.
“Good question. I think so,” Schumann says. “Because I have great faith in the Australian people as a mob. Ultimately we are pretty decent and pretty compassionate as a mob. There are times when I despair and then I look at the way the Australian population as an organism behaves and responds to things and I think yeah that’s my mob, that’s my country.”
He believes that the way people responded to 19 was instructive.
“We said we haven’t given those blokes a fair go and we went about as a collective bringing them back into the fold, understanding the heartache, putting pressure on our government that they were looked after, not nearly as well as they should have been, and I’d say the same thing about veterans now – back from the ‘sandpit’ there’s a lot of young blokes wandering around with a head full of barbed wire, wondering what happened.”
Beyond being a collection of heartfelt, poetic messages, Ghost and Memories is rooted in the land, with Schumann’s lyrics expressing a deep affinity and affection for country. It’s also a musical delight, with some of the nation’s best musicians producing some epic sounds in a distinctly Australian blend of folk, rock and blues.
I can’t wait for Schumann to stick his head up for another look around.
John Schumann and the Vagabond Crew play the Southern Cross Club, Woden, on Saturday, 10 November at 8 pm.