Gazing down the Songlines

For some this might be a confusing headline, given that my home is in Australia and for many Australians a Songline has a vital cultural meaning; one which I still find mind blowing and hard to relate to, despite reading Bruce Chatwin’s book of the same name, so seemingly foreign it is to any practice of my culture. It refers to an Indigenous Australian cultural belief and practice that appears to go back almost as far as the first foot steps on Australian soil, whenever that may have been, of singing one’s way across vast tracts of land, often populated by people with different language, tracking a route by means of the signposts imbedded in the song. Please excuse my extraordinarily simplistic precis of such an important aspect of Indigenous cultural history, I mean no disrespect.

For westerners the history of song as a cultural artifact is in many ways more complicated because it has no contemporary grounding or record in oral history, since our cultural development has been, in many ways, much more random, bastardised and deviated and remains so.

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I’ve just been showing at an exhibition in Sydney, as part of the Head-On Photography Festival, with the theme: Images Inspired by Song Lyrics. As part of the Ludlites collective our simple rule is that all images are produced on chemical based media and shot with any camera that has either a plastic lens or no lens at all (eg Pinhole). The show inspired some beautiful images; a great concept and a dream brief until you start to get your head into it. Any song worthy of having an image dedicated to it is going to be the product of its own, often intense, creative process. For all the stories around “we recorded it in twenty minutes, it just fell out...” there will be many more that tell of the weeks or months of gestation of the ideas behind words and music. Maybe there aren’t that many that can match the legend of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah which is reputed to have had as many as 80 verses in one incarnation, but nevertheless the creation of a resonant song is rarely a walk in the park. Neither is the creation of an image that pays homage to that song.

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Recently I accidentally tripped over Bob Dylan’s With God on Our Side during a journey down memory lane and since this unplanned reunion I’ve become somewhat obsessed with thoughts inspired by the intensity of Dylan’s lyrics in this song. Of course anyone with even as little as a passing interest in songwriters of that era will agree that Dylan’s output during the first four or five years of his recording career was astonishing and inspiring, transforming the culture of song writing like no one before or since. You’d need to be deaf or stupid to argue against his influence.

Even though this song drones on for seven long minutes in its original form, the lyrics, based simply on the observation of how Christian doctrine, in its many forms, has been used to justify many of the most atrocious crimes against humanity over the last two millennia, are hypnotic and compelling. Like many great songs it becomes almost a chant and compelling by consequence.

I hope this analogy doesn’t seem too much of a stretch but strangely this song connects in my mind with the concept of Songlines. Although it doesn’t lead us across a physical landscape, it does lead us across a historic landscape into the present day of the early sixties and the chanting, repetitive, tantalisingly slow character of the song gives it a resonance way above that of just any old song. It’s an anthem and no wonder, when you hear it as the live recording from 1964 at New York’s Philharmonic Hall, with the sadly over zealous accompaniment of Joan Baez, the audience’s genuinely rapturous applause is so long and loud you’re not sure it will ever stop.

Certainly, Dylan was not the embodiment of the Peace/Protest movement but he was the most audible song writer in that field for a while and, with no disrespect intended to others of that era, he created visions of the atrocious precipice that confronted the world at that time that were so vivid it could be argued his contribution was significant enough and sufficiently confronting that it helped change the course set by the madmen at the helm.

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 So where has this rant led? I suppose it’s just putting focus on one example of the power and passion of songwriters and how we should acknowledge and respect their influence, while trying to avoid the trap set by iTunes and the cult of Cowell that seems intent on driving the world further into a modern reincarnation of Tin Pan Alley with even less intellect or respect for history, whereby songs act more like candy, a short sugar hit, rather than genuine stimulus for our heads and hearts. 

Yup I know I sound like some old fart craving a return to the good old times. Not so, believe me. I’m the first to acknowledge new artists in every area of creativity and celebrate the fact that the digital age has opened many more doors than its closed. I love the fact that in this world where globalisation has superficially scythed local culture it’s real effect has been to strengthen the resolve of many to nurture and cherish the ground that’s under attack. As an optimist I firmly hold that cultural activity is an essential part of the human condition and is part of our immutable DNA. One look at the show at Bondi Pavillion is proof of that. This simple visual celebration of song is a timely reminder of how much we value our troubadours. Last Saturday there were over a hundred people visiting this show, proof not only of how alive contemporary culture is in little old Sydney Town but also, more importantly to my mind, how fascinated we are by the combined crafts of song and image making.

So, almost full circle, let’s just meditate for a moment on the prescience of Mr. Dylan when he penned these verses in With God on Our Side ( just replace Russians with Koreans, Iranians, Afgans or the ‘enemy’ of the day):

......So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God’s on our side

He’ll stop the next war


I’ve learned to hate Russians
All through my whole life
If another war starts
It’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side......