Power of Artivism

Last year just before Australian singer/songwriter Shane Howard released his new album “Deeper South” I had the privilege to talk with him for a few hours. This year Australian Quarterly published my piece in their April 2016 Issue.

Artists, whether they be musicians, painters, dancers, sculptors or writers, have incredible potential to catalyze social change through the way they use their art.

I’ve long been drawn to the story of Shane Howard’s life, first as creator-singer of the band, Goanna, and later as a solo musician, Shane Howard continues to use his lyric power to reconnect Australians to spirit of place.

This spirit takes the form of connection to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ dreaming and creation stories and identity, and to the communal power of standing ground for what’s worth fighting for.


Shane Howard – Spirit of Place

[symple_testimonial by=”Shane Howard” fade_in=”false”]I woke up in the Dreaming. I realised there was a powerful intelligence at work — a great sense of understanding in the land and landscape. And the cosmology, spirituality and the cultural depth of Aboriginal society really woke up there as well.[/symple_testimonial]


Many things can be said of Shane Howard — that he’s an Australian musician, he’s a poet laureate of the people and he’s an artist activist who fuelled our consciousness of what it means to be Australian. As  the founder, in the 1970s, of the band, Goanna, Howard’s lyrics drew on his own journey into the interior — of himself, and of Aboriginal Australia. In so doing, Howard held up to us that cultural mirror of identity, land and dispossession, and then he used his music to engage us in a national conversation about those issues that continues to this day.

Shane Howard was born in Dennington, Victoria in 1955. As he recalls: ‘Where I grew up in south west Victoria, it’s Gunditjmara country and on the border between Gunditjmara and Girai Wurrung country. So Aboriginal people were a fact of life for us growing up but it was a very dispossessed reality. … My early secondary schooling goes something like “Aboriginal people lived here and then the first fleet came — colonial settlement — and it was all quite peaceful”. That was the popular narrative in terms of the history that we were taught. … [However,] what I saw around me was drunkenness, I saw Aboriginal people completely pushed to the fringes of society, discriminated against, the butt of jokes, you know, racism. Not in my own family but certainly in the wider world. …

‘My Dad had a very keen sense of justice … [and] Mum was a musician. She played music, she played piano and we sang as a family. … She instilled in us a love of music and, I suppose, the power of music too. …

‘There’s one … very beautiful moment for me that fed into my songwriting and a kind of “fire in the head” moment. … When I was only about 10 … [I heard] The Times They Are a-Changin’ by Bob Dylan.

‘We’d grown up with a lot of folk music around us … but Dylan brought something new to that whole genre. … He was speaking about contemporary issues, and I guess that was the great awakening. …

‘Song is one of the oldest and most transportable and transmissible forms of memory … and I still see myself as part of a troubadour tradition — and the balladeer, the storyteller. We were the media once and we would travel from place to place and take the stories of one place to another. And I still think that’s an important role of the songwriter and the singer to the communication of ideas. …’

Standing on Sacred Ground

When he was 19, Howard went hitchhiking across the country, and he recalls his own social awakening from these trips:

‘I felt a keen sense to write about my Australian experience. … I did lots of journeys. … It’s amazing how far 32 dollars and a guitar can get you. And of course, as I went further north, I met more and more Aboriginal people. … So my experience deepened, and I began to hear the stories of dispossession, of colonisation, of stolen generations, and of course, the questions became more amplified and the racism became far more conspicuous. …

‘The band [Goanna] had started by then. It was very, very early days, but I got very sick and very run down and I had to take a break, so I ended up going to Uluru by train and by bus. It was pretty basic in those days.

‘The first night I set up my tent and set up camp. The next morning I went to the store … and said to the people, “I’d like to pay my respects to the local people, and how would I do that?” And they pointed me in the direction of a house. …

‘And I went over to that house and knocked at the gate. An Aboriginal guy came to the gate and [said], “What do you want?” and I said, “I’ve just come to pay my respects”.

‘In the end, they let me in and … there was an old Aboriginal man sitting there, whom I learnt, very much later, of course, was a very senior custodian for that country, with his wives and children and extended family all sitting around a small fire. I went over to where he was and felt the gravity of that moment. … And he said, “What do you want?” And I said, “I just want to pay my respects and walk the country. I don’t want to go anywhere I’m not supposed to go or go to any places I’m not supposed to be”. And he was lovely; he said, “No, you’re right, you’re right … most of the places where you’re not supposed to go are marked and just respect that”.

‘Over the next few days, … as people went past my camp, they would wave, and … I felt like a welcome visitor and not an intruder. … [One day,] there was a little sign on the toilet block that a white woman, a non-indigenous woman, was putting up. It just said, “Inma, other side of the rock at sunset.” And I said, “What’s an Inma?” And she said, “Ah, a Corroboree dance, you know, songs.” … So I walked to the other side of the rock. It’s a long way, 9 kilometres. When I got there, there was a group of people set up, sun going down, darkness fell, … the dancers came into the firelight, the body paints made them look like spirit figures — in the firelight, against their dark skin.  

‘And at the moment the women began singing and chanting, the full moon rose over the back of Uluru, and I describe that experience as my “wake up” moment. I woke up in the Dreaming. I realised there was a powerful intelligence at work — a great sense of understanding in the land and landscape. And the cosmology, spirituality and the cultural depth of Aboriginal society really woke up there as well. …

‘What I didn’t realise until years later was that … [these people] were coming back to reclaim their connection with Uluru after their own disconnection and removal. … And that dance, that Inma that night was a very important moment for them as well, and so it was those experiences that really coalesced in the first two verses of “Solid Rock”.

‘It was an experience to … go to sleep out on the ground, under the stars, like you were on a floating platform in space with a circle of Aboriginal people all speaking across the camp to each other in their language until the voices died down to a murmur and everyone goes to sleep under a full moon. …

‘I remember the very first night writing, “Out here nothing changes, not in a hurry anyway”. And that song then grew out of that experience, and then the last verse grew out of going back to Alice Springs after that experience and seeing — being confronted, after that very gentle experience, with the harsh reality of racism, colonisation, defamation, drunkenness, violence, dispossession. …

‘I saw something profoundly beautiful, and then I came back into the Western world out of that experience and saw something really ugly and I wondered who was civilised. And some things are so compelling that you can’t turn away. …

‘We’ve grown up with images of the Civil Rights Movement in America, and with all the imagery of Martin Luther King … and Bob Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” and those very powerful songs and all the great black artists as well, [like] Sam Cooke. … All of a sudden, it’s real to me in my own country and I felt embarrassed and ashamed of the country I was living in, and I suppose when you see something so wrong you either turn away or [you act]. …

‘I got deeply radicalised by the experience and I couldn’t shut up about it, but most people just glazed over. … But of course, bearing in mind during the seventies there’d been …  great Aboriginal activists at work: Gary Foley, Charlie Perkins, Cheryl Buchanan, these people I came to know later, who were rattling the can. …

‘[And me,] I’m a young bloke starting out in a band, with a young family … all I could do was write a song. I didn’t know at that time how persuasive that might become.’   

That Spirit Following You

In 1982, Howard’s band, Goanna, released its debut album, Spirit of Place, featuring the rock anthem ‘Solid Rock’. Spirit of Place was an album that ignited the social conscience of a new generation, fuelled in particular by the raw power of the lyrics of ‘Solid Rock’, the album’s distinctive didgeridoo feature (played by Billy Inda) and the use of traditional clapping sticks.

‘I felt strongly that a band called Goanna … had a really strong sense of trying to articulate an Australian sound because, at that time, … Australians … weren’t writing about Australian subject matter seriously.

‘And I was influenced by people like Henry Lawson and John Shaw Neilson … and Professor Manning Clark … . He was the one who … used the phrase “spirit of place”. … He was saying that the land, the landscape, the colour of the sky, all this will inevitably determine who will become an Australian in our evolution as a national identity. And so, … who better to go with as a guide into that understanding as a young evolving nation than the First Peoples who have been here for thirty, forty, fifty, sixty thousand years and have an intimate knowledge of the country, the land and landscape.

‘So, Manning Clark was very, very influential … and we approached him about writing the liner notes for the album, thinking he’d say no, but he actually agreed to do that. It was an unusual thing to have an emeritus professor of Australian history write out the liner notes for a pop album.’

The success of ‘Solid Rock’ gave Howard a platform for a wider public conversation about race and justice.

‘[The song] threw me headfirst into mainstream Australia and … popular culture at the same time as it threw me headfirst deeper into Aboriginal culture, and those two things were quite oppositional in many ways. …

‘An old Aboriginal fella said to me many years later after the song was released, “Ah, Shane, you’ve been going to that country, to Uluru, and that spirit been followin’ you around”. … Some things come from you and some things come through you, but I think in many ways that was a song that came through me. … It still continues to do that and it calls me powerfully every time I sing it, to really give your spirit. …

‘Once “Solid Rock” [came out] … there [were] Aboriginal people coming to every gig, coming to check out these white fellas. … People were telling me stories of the “Stolen Generations”. ……

‘Archie Roach was one of those kids, the great Aboriginal singer songwriter, who was taken away from the family and community … 20 kilometres away from where I was living. And of course, Archie and I became great friends over the years, and he and I are the same age and we often ruminated that if … he’d not been taken away, we may have been great friends [earlier]. We would have grown up together in the same town. A lot got broken.’

Something Worth Fighting For

‘[In 1972,] Lake Pedder was dammed in Tasmania for hydroelectricity. … I remember when first I saw the photos of Olegas Truchanas, his photos of Lake Pedder. It was enough to make you weep for the loss of what can only be described as the “goddess’s bath”, one of the natural wonders of the world. I think that’s true for a lot of my generation, that we felt a deep sense that there should be no such loss like that again.

‘So then to go to the Franklin River, at the invitation of Bob Brown … and to be there with hundreds and hundreds of young people my own age who gave up their own time … to be there in very harsh conditions in the middle of the bush … all these people, with this great energy and exuberance and dedication to what they were doing, that was inspiring to me. … I had a week to write that song [“Let the Franklin Flow”] before we performed it live at “Stop the Drop” concert in front of 70,000 people in Melbourne. We had the ear of the media at the time because we were coming off the back of the success of “Solid Rock”. So we had the opportunity to get that song out there and on to the airwaves … before the … federal election. …

‘Peter Dombrovskis’ photo [of “Rock Island Bend” became] the front cover of the single, and … there were … full-page ads in newspapers all around the country that said, “Would you vote for a government that would destroy this?” That was an amazing campaign; it was the first for the Greens in Australia, and it was really the awakening of the environmental movement in Australia.’

The song, ‘Let the Franklin Flow’, became an anthem for those working to save the Franklin and, ultimately, a victory song when the river was saved.

Later, it also led Shane Howard to spend more time working with young people and fuelling their social conscience.

‘I’ve done work with a lot of kids in schools … and I say to them, “Today we’ll learn a song in an Australian language”. And they look at you strangely because they think they’re speaking an Australian language, but of course, they are not. And we teach them “Solid Rock” in Pitjantjatjara. …

‘I’d love to think that we would adopt an indigenous language as a … national language, so that we have a way of speaking [to] each other as a nation that is not just English. … It goes right back to what Manning Clark said about spirit of place, that, inevitably, the country, the land, the light will determine who we become as Australian people, and we already have a beautiful model here before us in terms of the First Nations people, so why not follow that lead?’


Last year, Howard released his 13th solo album, ‘Deeper South’, which is drawn from 5 years of songwriting.

‘This is an album of deep material … I deal with the sea and there’s a lot of references to the ocean. I’ve lived in a lot of places … most of my life has taken place around the sea, and ironically, I’m best known for a song about the desert.

‘We’re at the edge of the world here and anywhere south of here, [like Antarctica] … its wild country.’

Wildness in all its dimensions has had a defining influence on Howard, and so have other artists. ‘I’m so drawn to the old masters like the Joni Mitchells, the Van Morrisons, the Leonard Cohens, the Bob Dylans. These artists who have lived an artistic life, and continue to do so, they’ve inspired me since my childhood and they continue to speak to me about living an artistic life and staying true to the past. Making art that is useful and not just entertainment. …

‘I think we lost something in the last 30 years. We were on the path to somewhere and we lost that. … Modernity came on us very shortly after our establishment as a nation, and by that I mean “as a colonial nation”, so we didn’t have time in isolation to develop a really strong cultural identity. So we have to work really hard if we’re not to just be swept up into the powerful forces of an American cultural imperialism. …

‘[However,] there is something in us as humans that is about the joy we derive from doing good for the other. There’s something hardwired in us about being decent and doing the right thing.

‘I have to believe we’ll get it together despite [laughter] everything and deal with these big issues like climate change and the ongoing issue of injustice, and we will, despite everything we do [laughter] to damn ourselves, we will find the pathway to decency. And you know, there is more good in the world than there is the opposite and we’ll find a path forward. But our art is playing a central role in prompting our conscience.’

In this respect, Shane Howard seems attuned to another of his muses, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who said, ‘In the final analysis, the questions of why bad things happen to good people transmutes itself into some very different questions, no longer asking why something has happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it happened.’

As de Chardin encapsulates, ‘Love is … the affinity which links and draws together the elements of the world. … Love, in fact, is the expression and the agent of universal synthesis’ and ‘The day will come when, after harnessing the ether the winds, the  tides, and gravitation, we shall harness … the energies of love. And on that day, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.’

Shane Howard’s music has about it the qualities of infinite space, energy, timelessness — and definitely fire — that also seem to infuse his journey and his social activism. His hopefulness, social witness, attunement to the land, and to the universal, mythological and cosmological is, in itself, a love story.

[symple_box color=”white” fade_in=”false” float=”center” text_align=”left” width=””]Shane Howard is one Australia’s most influential writers and singers. He was the founding member of the iconic Australian band, Goanna, whose first album, Spirit of Place, went to the top of the charts in its first week and was released in 35 territories worldwide. The first single from the album, ‘Solid Rock’, challenged colonization and injustice experienced by Aboriginal people. With Archie Roach, Howard won a 2015 APRA Screen Music Award for ‘A Secret River’. In 2000, Howard was awarded a fellowship by the Music Fund of the Australia Council for his contributions to Australian musical life.[/symple_box]

Australian Quarterly April 2016 p26

Jane Sloane