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From Little Things Big Things Grow 1993

Singer-songwriter Paul Kelly writes about 'From Little Things Big Things Grow’

The excerpt below is the chapter 'Big Boss Man’ from How to Make Gravy by Paul Kelly. Published by Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Group (Australia), Camberwell, 2010 and reproduced with permission.


In 1966 a group of Gurindji stockmen, house servants and their families walked off Wave Hill, a cattle station in the Northern Territory leased by British peer Lord Vestey. Initially it appeared to be a dispute over wages and conditions – black workers at that time were paid less than white – but it soon turned into a land claim, one of the first in the country. Following on from the bark petition sent to the federal government by the Yolngu people in 1963, demanding sovereignty over their ancestral home further to the north, the strike spearheaded the land rights movement in Australia.

The stockmen, around 200-strong, based themselves at Daguragu, also known as Wattie Creek. Their main spokesperson, Vincent Lingiari, said, ‘What was before Lord Vestey born and I born? It was blackfella country.’ Over the years, Vincent and the Gurindji gradually gathered support. The novelist Frank Hardy got involved and wrote a book about their struggle called The Unlucky Australians. Vincent travelled to the southern states and drew unionists and students to his cause.

Despite bribes and threats the Gurindji stood their ground. The longer they waited, the stronger they became. What many outsiders had thought unthinkable at first came to pass almost nine years later, when the Labor government of the day agreed to give them back their land.

The Prime Minister himself, Gough Whitlam, came out to Gurindji country to officiate at the handover ceremony and said, ‘I want this to acknowledge that we Australians have still much to do to redress the injustice and oppression that has for so long been the lot of Black Australians. Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.’

I was twenty years old at that time, moving around from place to place. I may have seen the picture, now famous, of Gough pouring dirt into Vincent’s hands, or seen some film footage on the TV news, but I pretty much missed the whole affair. It wasn’t until years later that I tuned in.

Kev Carmody didn’t miss it, though. He was twenty-eight years old and it was big news in his world. Kev had grown up in a droving family. His dad was second-generation Irish Australian, his mother a Bunjalung woman, her father a traditional man from Cape York in the far north. Kev’s first language was a kind of creole. As a child he spent a lot of time in mustering and droving camps throughout the great plains of western Queensland and the Darling Downs; slept in a swag under stars that went forever. At the age of ten he went to school and learnt proper English, and as a young man he moved to the large town of Toowoomba, became a welder and played rugby union for the Queensland Country team. He found his way to university, studied politics and devoured books, started writing songs for his thesis as a form of oral history.

When I first met Kev in the late 1980s he was a full-grown bull of a man who looked like he was carved out of stone, with a thick unruly head of hair only partly tamed by a red, black and gold headband. We were on the same bill at a Rock for Land Rights concert in Sydney. His first record, 'Pillars of Society’, had just come out and he sang a song called ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’ which began with the lines:

In 1788 down Sydney Cove
The first boat-people land
Said sorry boys, our gain’s your loss
We gonna steal your land

He also sang a song called ‘Black Deaths In Custody’, and another one, ‘White Bourgeois Woman’. He played his guitar like a machine gun and howled, curled and hurled his words into the air. He meant business. After the show we kicked on here and there and ended up sitting around his kitchen table in Marrickville with Crown Lagers and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, playing songs to each other.

I soon found out, as our friendship developed, that he had a whole swag of songs written over twenty years – stories of drovers and their wives, miners, drifters, warriors, junkies and brothel madams. Stinging polemics too, that tore strips off the establishment. And hymns, paeans of praise to the land, the natural world and its wonders. One song, ‘Cannot Buy My Soul’, was politics and prayer combined. Another, ‘Eulogy For A Black Man’, was his will in musical form. The whole was stitched together with rich, poetic language: ‘Make no monuments or mortal crowns or speak my name again when you lay me down.’

Steve Connolly produced Kev’s second album, 'Eulogy’, and I played harmonica on a few tracks. Not long after that Kev and I and Declan went camping for a few days at Lake Wivenhoe, a huge dam supplying Brisbane, eighty kilometres to the east.

We walked and fished, kayaked and cooked, and played guitars around the campfire. One night we got to talking about Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji walkout. I knew more of the story by then: 1988 had just passed, the 200th anniversary of white settlement. There had been big demonstrations by Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal land councils, which traced their origins back to the Wave Hill walk-off, were active and vocal. Self-determination for Aboriginal Australia was in the air, and Prime Minister Bob Hawke had raised the possibility of a treaty between black and white Australia. Nineteen eighty-eight was also the year ‘that old man’, Vincent, died. For many people, by then, he was a hero.

I knew the broad outlines of the fabled, unfathomably long strike, and Kev had a few more details. My notebook contained a line I’d jotted down a few months before, a line I’d picked up from a Bruce Springsteen song: ‘From small things, Mama/Big things one day come.’ The song was about a former hamburger waitress who leaves her husband and two baby children to head to Florida with a real-estate man. She shoots her lover dead on the road because she ‘can’t stand the way he drives’, and winds up in jail.

I’d tightened the line up to ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ (the Boss, God love him, can be a bit prolix at times), thinking it might be the perfect title for a love song along the lines of ‘It’s Growing’ by The Temptations. But when Kev said, ‘Let’s write a song about that old man, about the strike,’ I replied straightaway, my mind fizzing, ‘I think I’ve got something to throw in the pot.’

With Kev doodling a few chords on the mandolin, me playing a capoed guitar, Declan poking the fire, and the ghosts of ‘Hattie Carroll’ and Woody Guthrie’s ‘Deportees’ hovering overhead, we conjured most of the song over a couple of hours under the bright, bright stars. We were both a little hazy about some of the facts, so when I got home I found a copy of Hardy’s book, read it, and finished off the lyrics with Kev over the phone.

The first time I sang the song in public was at a concert on Bondi Beach put on by Building Bridges, an organisation dedicated to reconciliation between Aboriginal and white Australians. I thought reconciliation was an odd choice of word – when was the original conciliation? – but they seemed like good people.

I was nervous about singing a new, long song still wet with paint. Would I remember all the words? Luckily the chords stayed the same all the way through – a circle song – so I didn’t have to worry about them. I wrote myself a cheat sheet in big block letters on a couple of pages of paper – MUSCLE, RATIONS, SWAGS, WAGES, SNOW, AIRPLANE, POLITICIANS, STARS, STRANGER – laying them on the stage at my feet, and managed to get through all the lyrics without stumbling. Someone came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I don’t know what that song was about but I really loved the imagery.’

When we recorded it Michael Barclay used an old tape box as a drum, playing it with his fingers. We invited Ernie Dingo to play didgeridoo. Ernie, actor and TV presenter, is a Yamatji man from Western Australia. He didn’t have a didge in the right key so he asked his neighbour, a seamstress, for some cardboard tubes. She had a whole stack that had held cloth, six of which he brought into the studio. None of them was exactly the right note but we found one that was close and cut it a couple of times with a Stanley knife until it matched the song key. The tube was probably a few months old. On the record it sounds thirty thousand years ancient.

Kev recorded his own version of the song and released it around the same time. Neither version ever got played on commercial radio. Neither of us made a video. In February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, not long after being elected, made an official apology from the government to Indigenous Australia for the removal of their children under policies of assimilation. Immediately afterwards, members of the hip-hop group The Herd combined the chorus of ‘Little Things’ with parts of the PM’s speech and a sixteen-year-old speech by former prime minister Paul Keating – who once called himself the Placido Domingo of Australian politics – to make a single that went to number four on the national Top Forty chart. After thirty years in show business it was the first time I’d been involved in a Top Ten single.

It’s a creaky song with a Sunday-school melody that makes me cringe sometimes. But it just keeps on going, like an old buggy bumping on down the road.

Paul Kelly Singer, Songwriter


(written with Kev Carmody)

Gather round people, I’ll tell you a story
An eight-year long story of power and pride
British Lord Vestey and Vincent Lingiari
Were opposite men on opposite sides

Vestey was fat with money and muscle
Beef was his business, broad was his door
Vincent was lean and spoke very little
He had no bank balance, hard dirt was his floor

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Gurindji were working for nothing but rations
Where once they had gathered the wealth of the land
Daily the pressure got tighter and tighter
Gurindji decided they must make a stand

They picked up their swags and started off walking
At Wattie Creek they sat themselves down
Now it don’t sound like much but it sure got tongues talking
Back at the homestead and then in the town

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Vestey man said ‘I’ll double your wages
Seven quid a week you’ll have in your hand’
Vincent said ‘Uh-uh we’re not talking about wages
We’re sitting right here ’til we get our land’
Vestey man roared and Vestey man thundered
‘You don’t stand the chance of a cinder in snow!’
Vince said ‘If we fall others are rising’

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Then Vincent Lingiari boarded an airplane
Landed in Sydney, big city of lights
And daily he went round softly speaking his story
To all kinds of men from all walks of life

And Vincent sat down with big politicians
‘This affair,’ they told him, ‘it’s a matter of state
Let us sort it out, your people are hungry’
Vincent said ‘No thanks, we know how to wait’

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Then Vincent Lingiari returned in an airplane
Back to his country once more to sit down
And he told his people ‘Let the stars keep on turning
We have friends in the south, in the cities and towns’

Eight years went by, eight long years of waiting
’Til one day a tall stranger appeared in the land
And he came with lawyers and he came with great ceremony
And through Vincent’s fingers he poured a handful of sand

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

That was the story of Vincent Lingiari
But this is the story of something much more
How power and privilege cannot move a people
Who know where they stand and stand in the law

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

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