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John Schumann’s ‘Ghosts and Memories’ and other melancholy realism

Some voices are like old friends, familiar at once not broken by time or distance. The singing voice that rises and falls to the ocean within is an especial welcome visitor. 

John Schumann, welcome, come in. Sing us your songs. He is here once more with his Vagabond Crew and the new CD Ghosts and Memories.

Schumann’s voice carries the wind in from the outback. It has grains of red dust and yellow earth, it’s flecked with toil, hardship, humanity and love. It’s as old as the land, with a gnarled weariness, like the weathered bark of a gum, tinged with the light of hope.  

He sings of Australia, of its past and present, its people.

Apart from two massive hits – John Schumann’s I was only 19 (A Walk in the Light Green) with Redgum and Shane Howard’s Solid Rock with Goanna, both have travelled an alternative highway to the mainstream. Their’s is the path of most resistance.

Ghosts and Memories traverses the years. It begins with Times Like These, a collaboration with a brother-in-arms, singer-songwriter Shane Howard.

In the liner notes to the song, Schumann writes: “No one believes in anything anymore. Our generation would rather consign our grandchildren to extinction than change our behaviour. Meanwhile, vast numbers of Australians sit stupefied in front of television, watching inane reality TV and cooking shows. Shane and I are just two grumpy old blokes who refuse to sit down and shut up.”

It is, for two grumpy old blokes, a bit of a rocker as it surveys the moral landscape of the land. It is, to them, a bleak horizon: “I listen for the outrage the shock horror howl/But I hardly hear a murmur or sound/In times like these . . . Do people make decisions of conscience anymore.”

Both men have worn their conscience on their sleeve and through their art throughout their careers. In the process they have created bodies of work that dig deep into what it means to be a citizen of Australia. They are musicians, entertainers, curators, historians and storytellers. 

Both have taken their concerns into other areas, too. Schumann, as an Australian Democrat candidate, ran against Alexander Downer for the seat of Mayo in the 1998 election, narrowly losing. He has also worked with Vietnam vets. Howard has worked with Indigenous communities and his local community, the latest being a battle to preserve the Belfast Coastal reserve in South West Victoria. 

Apart from two massive hits – Schumann’s I was only 19 (A Walk in the Light Green) with Redgum and Howard’s Solid Rock with Goanna, both have travelled an alternative highway to the mainstream. Their’s is the path of most resistance. It creates a different type of wealth. Such as this latest gem.

Schumann has written songs about explorer John McDouall Stuart and his epic journeys opening up the land in the 1800s with the “prism of contemporary Australian life”, as he writes. He also has been inspired by the work of author Phil Cummings. The Anzac ordeal for soldiers and family is never far away, and is told beautifully in Anzac Biscuits and On Every Anzac Day, the latter a historical correction to the absence of recognition of the role Indigenous Australians have played in Australia’s wars. 

A common thread in his work is action and consequence. Legacy. Every person, whether it’s the FIFO worker, the farmer, the soldier, the suit in the city, the politician in Canberra, leaves one. In Nobody’s Fault, a song about climate change inaction, he takes irony under his arm to deliver the message. But as he says: “The great pity is that the people who really need to listen to this, understand it and change their behaviour, won’t.”

This is his melancholy realism. 

The music sways from rock, as in the opener, to folk laced with violins, mandolin and harmonica. A departure comes in the final track, a remix of Redgum’s The Long Run. Much like Shane Howard did in reworking Solid Rock on the CD Other Side of the Rock, decades after the original, Schumann has slowed down the tempo, changed the atmospherics. Still, he sings, despite everything, “It’ll be all right in the long run.”

Redgum now seems a lifetime ago, indeed it’s more than generation ago the band was railing against Malcolm Fraser (a man who Schumann conceded a few years back he had become frighteningly aligned with on several issues, which was really Fraser’s readjustment after politics), the conservatives, corporate greed and American imperialism. 

A band mate was Hugh McDonald, who died in 2016. Schumann writes: “Hughie recorded, played and sang on a number of these songs. We all pass. The music lives on.”

And within the music, the voice lives on, a welcome, necessary visitor.

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One response to “John Schumann’s ‘Ghosts and Memories’ and other melancholy realism

  1. Thanks for the tip off Warwick. I’ll be buying it. If it’s as good as John and the Crew’s “Behind The Lines” it will be a cracker.

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