When I first met him, John Schumann was a diffident
young bloke saddling up for first year English and Philosophy at
Flinders University. The timetable lottery landed him in my tutorial
class in English and we immediately struck chords and occasionally
sparks in each other. A great friendship developed which, in the
years that followed, grew beyond the classroom walls and gradually
encompassed not just footy and fishing and lots of other blokey
talk, but also the great issues of those turbulent times.
Speaking of turbulent times, John's meeting and the
subsequent growth of a close and enduring friendship with the brilliant,
radical Professor of Philosophy at Flinders University, Brian Medlin,
was crucial to his later career. It was through Medlin's course,
Politics and Art, that John Schumann developed his satirical/political
stance towards Australian culture. And, when he joined my Australian
Literature classes, I guess he picked up some of the substance and
lineaments of that culture in our very enjoyable and memorable jousts
across the local literary terrain.
Henry Lawson's 'mateship', Joseph Furphy's 'offensively
Australian' bias, the romance of the Nineties, the Kelly outbreak,
and so on were all on our agenda and some of them reappeared later
on and one way and another in his songs. Not to mention the large
amount of time we devoted in those balmy days to practical studies:
yarning, telling and making up jokes, relaying and inventing anecdotes
and drinking beer.
The tough arguments in Politics and Art, the heady
dramas of Australian Literature and the general give-and-take with
his mates and teachers would become the very essence of his songwriting.
But before that, they were already shaping Schumann's marvellously
saturnine wit, his satirist's eye for the quirks, injustices and
madnesses of the world he lived in, his great regard for personal
integrity and loyalty.
In those days, many students found their voice. Poets
were everywhere; most students had a guitar though not all that
many could actually play it; fiction writers flowered in the rapidly
appearing and disappearing 'little magazines'. Rebellion, self-expression,
individualism were in the air. John Schumann was easily one of the
most gifted and thoughtful of the creative generation that was emerging
from the universities in the 70s. And so, when he was ready, the
songs started to come.
Some of the great nights I remember were at the Bridgewater
pub where the early Redgum played to packed, carousing and very
noisy audiences. This was where "Beaumont Rag", "Servin'
USA" and other legendary Redgum songs all hit the summer night
air of the Adelaide hills like a call to revolution.
As Redgum's wise-cracking, natural leader, Schumann
was a magnetic personalitylready a fine performer and, above all,
making a virtue of his Aussie accent and the aggressively Australian
lyrics, he was part of that artistic wave which finally allowed
us at last to see our own landscapes in film ('Picnic at Hanging
Rock'), hear it on the stage (David Williamson's Vietnam play, 'Jugglers
Three') and savour it in Redgum's songs like The Long Run",
"Last Frontier" and "Stewie".
Many Australian popular artists have followed in Schumann's footsteps
to honour and salute their indigenous accent and their history and
legends rather than cringe from them.
That was more than a decade ago. Beyond Redgum, Schumann
has gone on as a solo artist to show that all the talents and attributes
of Redgum's free-and-easy leader have translated into the older,
mature performer who not only continues to make the pace in music
and lyrics but has become a consummate performer across the board.
The one-liners squeezed between the music of the Redgum days have
become a stand up act of yarns, anecdotes, ironies and song - a
performance of immense attractiveness, innovation and charm. But
also, and as ever, laced with corrosive satire, social criticism
and political allusion.
Schumann has been honoured in the conventional ways
by winning most of the available glittering prizes of the Australian
Music industry - two Golden Guitar Awards, a Pater Award, a Mo Award,
two APRA Awards and many gold and platinum disks. But less conventionally
and in some ways more importantly and impressively, many of Schumann's
songs have passed into the culture and become part of an authentically
Australian fabric: many people know and refer to them without necessarily
knowing about their Redgum provenance or about Schumann himself.
"It'll be alright in the long run" is one
of my favourite Redgum lines, which cabbies all over the country
were feeding back to me at the time with multicultural approval.
And then, of course, there is "I was only 19", which occupies
a place in the Australian psyche alongside 'Waltzing Matilda' and
other iconic rallying cries. Little wonder that "I was only
19" helped bring about a Royal Commission and a re-think of
Australians' attitudes towards their Vietnam veterans.
John Schumann is a one-off - the artist/intellectual
with the unerring popular touch and a campfire voice. He belongs
to an Australian tradition of yarn spinners and songmakers, but
to the familiar Australian and treasured front bar 'wisdom' and
the paddock fence stoicism he adds a depth of feeling and an acuity
of perception that go beyond the bounds of 'folk' and 'popular'
and are the attributes of the true creative artist.
At any time it would be important to recognise and
preserve John Schumann's work and to salute his inimitable contribution
to Australian music and popular culture. But it is especially important
in these troubled times when so much that is genuinely Australian
is threatened by cultural imperialism and the blandness of unexamined
globalism. In such an atmosphere we must guard our national treasures
and John Schumann is one of them.
Professor Brian Matthews