Friday night tears with Redgum

John Schumann and the Vagabond Crew
John Schumann and the Vagabond Crew

Music is like a magical time machine, transporting you back to a different time and place. On Friday night, as Steven and I listened to the sounds of Redgum, by John Schumann and the Vagabond Crew, we were once again a young couple with their life ahead of them, not long married with a baby son. The music of Redgum, with John Schumann’s distinctive storytelling voice, often filled our home. Our first night out without the baby was to a Redgum concert. Redgum was an Australian folk and political group during the 1980’s. Their protest music captured the misery and pointlessness of war and made my heart ache.

I Was Only Nineteen

I Was Only Nineteen, written by John Schumann, told the story of a young man, conscripted into the Vietnam war. He returned as a battle-weary soldier having lost his mates and unable to adjust to the banality of civilian life.

And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can’t get to sleep?
And why the Channel Seven chopper chills me to my feet?
And what’s this rash that comes and goes, can you tell me what it means?
God help me, I was only nineteen.

As a younger woman, not yet a psychologist, I didn’t recognise that the lyrics described Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but I did recognise the devastation and futility of war.  I had met men destroyed by serving in Vietnam. We joined the Shoalhaven Peace Group but, sadly, we were lousy activists. I wish we’d been able to maintain the rage.

John Schumann performed  I Was Only Nineteen at the Australian Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home parade in 1987.  He wrote the song after interviewing his brother in law Mick Storen a Vietnam veteran. The proceeds for the song, a number one Australian hit, went to the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia. When John performed I Was Only Nineteen on Friday night four tattooed, brawny men took to the dance floor, arms linked, undoubtedly veterans and I could not stop the tears.

I’ve Been to Bali Too

Redgum also protested against consumerism and their music now seems prophetic I’ve been to Bali too was an exploration of the consumerist Australian tourist in Bali, maybe even more relevant now than in the 1980s. I’ve been to Bali three times and the wealth bought by rampant tourism, to which I contributed, has come at a huge environmental and cultural cost to the Balinese. I was a latecomer to environmentalism and my post Slash the Trash, written while travelling, was a recognition of the rubbish we created as tourists.

Wired home for money, short of cash
A dose of Bali belly and a tropical rash
Daddy came through – American Express
Bali t-shirts, magic mushrooms, Redgum bootlegs
I’ve been to Bali too

On Friday night, we knew at least some of the words and loudly joined the singing.  A bittersweet journey into the past, and the difference we could have made.

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