John Williamson's music is as iconic to Australia as the wildlife, the outback and the farmers he sings about.
John Williamson's music is as iconic to Australia as the wildlife, the outback and the farmers he sings about.

He’s true blue but green at heart

IT IS hard even for the man behind some of Australia's most iconic songs to write something happy or uplifting in the face of Australia's bushfire disaster.

Instead, as John Williamson prepares for his Winding Back tour, he has penned a letter to the Prime Minister calling for a national day of mourning.

"I'm devastated for the people who have lost everything, but I'm even more devastated that we have lost about 30 per cent of our koalas and other wildlife … I think that's worthy of a day of mourning," the long-time conservationist said.

"What would Africa be without its elephants, its lions and giraffes? …. Our wildlife is what makes Australia Australia."

More than a billion creatures are believed to have been killed in the bushfires and scientists have warned entire species may be lost.

As part of the big Australia Day Live concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Opera House forecourt, John planned to dedicate True Blue to the firefighters and people who have lost lives, loved ones and property, and Old Man Emu to the wildlife lost.

Following on from the Tamworth Country Music Festival, it's a big start to a packed calendar year of touring that will take him from one end of the country to the other.

 

Celebrating 50 years since the release of Old Man Emu, John Williamson has decided it's a good time to start winding back his performing schedule.
Celebrating 50 years since the release of Old Man Emu, John Williamson has decided it's a good time to start winding back his performing schedule.

 

Touring

Turning 75 and celebrating 50 years since Old Man Emu brought him to prominence, John said he was not retiring but his Winding Back tour would be a final big year on the road.

"I'm not ready to retire … I'll do that if I start forgetting the words on stage … but right now I think I'm performing better than I ever have," he said.

He still plans to play festivals but is ready to take a step back from the constant touring which has seen him visit venues like Tweed Heads' Twin Towns almost annually for decades.

With more than 500 songs to his name, a two-hour playlist isn't easy to choose but John said there were some songs, like Cootamundra Wattle, that audiences wouldn't let him leave the stage without singing.

"I will be polishing up some of the old songs, and there will be some surprises," he said.

While the creator of some of the country's unofficial anthems is still writing, for example about the spectre of a bushfire approaching and the Christchurch massacre, he said more sadness was not what audiences needed at the moment.

That's not to say he doesn't have people crying to True Blue and Three Sons, but he said it was a case of balancing the tears and laughter, both of which were an expression of relief for people.

"Music is always good because it's such a positive, uplifting thing," he said.

Despite admitting it was hard to write a happy song at the moment, John said there were positive signs in global recognition at last of climate change as a reality and some of the world's biggest companies turning away from using fossil fuels.

But he said this was one situation where the old Aussie adage of "she'll be right" simply wasn't enough.

 

Conservationist John Williamson at his home in 2014 as he started work on his design for Sunshine, a Hello Koalas Sculpture for Port Macquarie's trail.
Conservationist John Williamson at his home in 2014 as he started work on his design for Sunshine, a Hello Koalas Sculpture for Port Macquarie's trail.

 

Themes that Endure

John said writing about the ordinary and "telling it like it is" was what connected with audiences and made his music so enduring.

"When you're writing about the bush, a lot of those things don't change that much - with farming there's always battlers, there's always highs and lows - the enduring character of Australia is the battler," John said.

"And it's pretty obvious I don't back off from being honest about Australian life."

The words of Rip Rip Woodchip are as relevant today as they were when the song was released in 1989:

"What am I gonna do - what about the future?

Gotta draw the line without delay

Why shouldn't I get emotional - the bush is sacred

Ancient life will fade away".

His attitudes have not mellowed with age.

In 2017, he wrote Pigs on the River to voice his concerns about the toll of illegal irrigation in the Murray-Darling, while Love is the Word dealt with the same-sex marriage debate and the rise of nationalism.

"It just seems the world has gone a bit crazy, and the only thing that's going to make a difference is caring for one another," he said at the time.

True Blue

While using Sydney as a base, John said he constantly dreamt of getting back to his Queensland hinterland home at Springbrook, where he ultimately wants his ashes to be scattered.

"I sit and watch the sun go down there every night I'm there and I pinch myself … I'm in paradise," he said.

He is looking forward to spending more time there, eating the plants he grows before the birds and bats get to them, making his chilli oil (which is "to die for"), perhaps some art, and planting as many koala-friendly trees as he can.

His interest in koalas, which saw him quietly donate $2000 to the Koala Hospital Port Macquarie when the bushfire crisis began in November, is nothing new.

In 1986 he donated $300,000 in royalties from Goodbye Blinky Bill and audience collections to the hospital, which opened a John Williamson wing and made him a patron.

It's just one of his "True Blue Causes", which also include Variety - the Children's Charity, Life Education, Bush Heritage Australia, Wildlife Warriors, WIRES, Protect Our Coral Sea, Save the Bilby, and Landcare, while last December's Hay Mate fundraiser with John Farnham raised $4.3 million for farmers.

It is arguably because John Williamson is himself "true blue" that his songs have so accurately captured Australia and its people.

The Winding Back tour includes Twin Towns on March 6 and 7, Wyong on March 19, Port Macquarie on September 4, Toowoomba on October 17 and Caloundra on October 25.

For the full list of concerts go to https://johnwilliamson.com.au/tour/ .


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