Tuesday 28 August 2012


 Today’s post is a treat for me, John is one of my favourite songwriters. If you do not know his work then you are also in for a treat. There is passion, humour and most of all humanity in his writing. His belief in the essential dignity of humankind shines through, as does his anger at injustice. The easiest description I can give to John’s music is consciousness music- a term coined amongst reggae artists to describe those who sing of injustice. It’s a good phrase and it describes John’s work.

I didn’t coin the title of today’s post, I stole it from John’s website (http://www.schumann.com.au/john/john.html). Those of us who do not live in Australia may not be familiar with John’s work , it is our loss. In his homeland John’s lyrics are on the school curriculum, a tribute to the fact he has always worked towards authentically describing what it is to be Australian.

In 1982 I was given a bootleg cassette from Bali, it contained half of a live album by a band called Redgum. The first song was called I Was Only 19, a walk in the light green, it blew me away. I have never heard a song that so described the Vietnam experience. The song haunted me for years, I pestered Australians I met for tapes of Redgum and with the advent of the internet slowly collected every cd I could get (at the time the whole of the Redgum catalogue was out of print and apart from two best of releases is still unavailable).

Before I go any further here’s the spoken intro from the live album recording:
It’s a song about two mates of mine who went to Vietnam and came back Agent Orange victims...the tile a walk in the light green stems from the fact that when the Australian soldiers in Vietnam were given their missions they looked at the areas they’d be working in on the map and if it was dark green on the map then there was cause for some consolation as dark green meant thick jungle, lots of cover and there were no mines. If they were working in areas that were light green on the map that meant light jungle, not much cover and heaps of mines. This is a song for Mick and Frankie...

John was by no means a one trick pony, Redgum produced many fine songs and I am fighting the urge to list them all as I write. John released two solo albums after leaving Redgum and they are now available on his website.
In 2004 John released Lawson a celebration of the poet Henry Lawson, it is such a good album, the recording is warm and it seems like John and The Vagabond Crew are there singing in the room. I think I wore out my copy through repeated playing. 

Anyway, enough preamble let’s hear the man himself.

It’s rumoured that your band Redgum submitted a song instead of an essay when you were students (I heard this from James Fagin just before he played your song Peter The Cabby)?

When Brian Medlin, convenor of the Politics and Art course in 1975, suggested that some people might like to co-operate on a music project, three people raised their hands - Michael Atkinson, Verity Truman and me.

We performed the songs to the class and met such a strong and positive reaction that we decided to accept some of the invitations that followed to play at various gatherings.

At a function held by the Progressive Art Movement, Chris Timms, a former student of Flinders University Philosophy, offered his services as a violinist. A friend from university, Steve Brown, suggested the name Redgum and for want of anything better we adopted it.

Redgum started on the South Australian campus circuit. The strikingly original material and the uncompromising delivery won us a small but very supportive following. A campus tour of Melbourne was organised and during that hectic week, the ABC recorded some of our songs. Community radio 3CR taped the band and played the songs regularly to a responsive listenership.

The band returned to Melbourne several times during 1976 and 1977, sometimes sponsored by 3CR, sometimes by progressive groups, to play concerts, rallies, benifits and the odd pub. We quickly established a sizeable and quite general audience.
Back in Adelaide, we performed "live to air" for 5UV, the radio station attached to the University of Adelaide. At folk concerts, union nights, rallies and benefits, Redgum would appear sporadically in Adelaide until our self-produced show 'One more boring Thursday night in Adelaide' established us outside of campuses. This show was part of the Festival of Arts Focus program in 1978 and was listed by The National Times as an attraction not to be missed.

It was shortly after this, and numerous enquiries in Adelaide and Melbourne as to the availability of tapes, that 3CR asked Redgum's permission to run off tapes for the people who had asked for them. On hearing that there were two hundred people listed as wanting copies we decided to make an album.
The sales of the album "If You Don't Fight, You Lose" surprised everyone concerned. It became Larrikin Records' best seller and received airplay on most on the non-commercial stations around the country.

On the strength of the album, Redgum ventured to Sydney and Newcastle. We  played a number of shows for the Amalgamated Metal Workers and Shipwrights Union, a concert at the Balmain Town Hall and a couple of folk clubs.
It is interesting to note that all this time, Michael, Chris, Verity and I all held full time jobs in Adelaide. Michael was teaching part time and studying, Verity had disappeared into the bowels of the Public Service,

Chris was Academic assistant at the South Australian School of Art and I was an English and Drama teacher at Marion High School. Trips interstate were made on weekends and in school holidays. This madness persisted until December 1980.
The bands trip to Melbourne in 1980 saw Dave Flett playing bass and Gordon Mclean drummin. In Adelaide, Chris Boath played bass and Geoff Gifford played drums.

During the middle of 1980 Redgum began work on 'Virgin Ground', our second album. It was released late in 1980 and, like its predecessor, it met strong critical acclaim.

Michael, Chris, Verity, Chris Gunn and I made a number of important decisions regarding the bands future in 1981. We decided to give up full time employment in favor of Redgum. Tom Stehlik, an Adelaide drummer was recruited and with Dave Flett Redgum passed the sixth month mark as a professional band.
The band's third album, 'Brown Rice and Kerosene', introduced the single '100 Year On/ Nuclear Cop'. The Redgum Songbook 'Stubborn Words, Flagrant Vices' was also published in 1981.

In May 1982, long-serving member Chris Timms left the band to be replaced by Hugh McDonald (violin, guitar, vocals). The 12-inch EP 'Cut to the Quick' was released in September 1982 and contained four tracks.

By 1983 we were one of the biggest crowd-pulling bands on the Australian scene. The live album 'Caught in the Act' produced the classic song 'I was only Nineteen (A Walk in the Light Green) which reached #1 and stayed in the top 40 for four months.

Caught In the Act was produced by former folk musician Trevor Lucas (author of Poor Ned). By 1984, the Redgum line-up comprised Truman, Atkinson, McDonald, Stephen Cooney (bass,didgeridoo, mandolin, banjo), Michael Spicer (piano), Brian Czempinski (drums) and me.

Our fifth album, Frontline, was released in August 1984. A compilation album 'Everythings Legal Anything Goes' was released in November 1984.

We toured the UK and Europe in the latter half of 1985 and released a compilation album in a number of territories. The band was well received on the festival circuit and earned itself a strong and loyal following in London during its time there.

In May 1986, I surprised fans by leaving the band. I signed with CBS as a solo artist and I recorded the album 'Etched in Blue' at the Music Farm in Byron Bay in 1987. My touring band included Mal Logan, Louis McManus, David Dharamaesena, Mark Peters and a trio of backing vocalists Deborah Paul, Melinda Pike and Nicky Schultz.

In 1989 I produced a childrens' record, 'Looby Loo', for CBS. In September 1992 I recorded the single 'Eyes on fire' on the Sony label. This was the first of two singles released from the 1993 album 'True Believers'.

How did you start writing?

I started writing for the Politics and Art assignment. To that time I’d never written a song. Politics and Art examined the nature of the relationship between art and politics. The central tenet of the course was that, unless specifically created to do otherwise, art in all its forms serves the interests of the dominant social and economic class - either by commission or omission. The course allowed students to present work for assessment that was either theoretical and/or practical. Practical work involved the creation of artistic products in any medium by an individual or group. These works were assessed and criticised by the class.

What comes first the lyric or the tune?

How do I start writing? With an idea, a drum feel, a hook line, some peace and quiet and a 44 gallon drum of coffee. Sometimes the lyric comes first, sometimes the tune but generally I start with a few words, a few chords and I just tease what I have out from both ends until it’s long enough for a song.

Who are your influences?

Musical influences  were what I was listening to when I was a kid - Neil Young, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne. Nowadays, I listen to anything and everything and my inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere

What would you say to someone starting out?

What advice would I give to someone starting out? Just start. Don’t listen to what anyone else says about your work and for God’s sake, don’t listen to or read what dipshit music journalists think. If they could do it they’d be doing it, not writing about other people. 

What’s in the pipeline?

The pipeline? My band the Vagabond Crew – look us up on Facebook and Youtube – have another album to make and some gigs in the pipeline. We toured Afghanistan in Sept/Oct 2011 to play for the Australian Forces there. We played similarly in East Timor in 2009.

Will a complete set of Redgum cds ever be released?

A Redgum complete set? It would be good and I get asked all the time – but the question is more properly addressed to Sony-BMG Australia. They have our catalogue.

If you were a colour what colour would you be?

I would be blue – like the sky … Or red, like the South Australian desert.

Thanks John. 

As the man says check him out on YouTube, it's well worth it.


  1. Great interview.

    Will check out YouTube!

  2. I grew up listening to Redgum. Some of their songs are just so poignant, and even some of the post John Schumann works are worth a listen too.

    I love Where Ya Gonna Run To? and The Long Run. I also love Drover's Dog but without a basic understanding of 1970s/1980's Australian politics it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

    1. Hi Kylie, that is a danger with all political songs. they have a currency but few outlive their times. I agree with what you say. I have been a fan since the 80's and living in the UK I had to research some of the politics.
      Yes Redgum sans John are still good. John's solo albums are excellent. Thanks for your comments.