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Don Henderson Song Book "A Quiet Century"

Review by Mark Gregory

Covering a span of over 30 years 100 of Don Henderson's songs and poems have just been published in a collection titled "A Quiet Century". A wonderful tribute to a great songwriter.
Just a few entries from the biographical notes tell a tale in themselves

1953 Commenced apprenticeship as Fitter and Turner

1957 Worked briefly for the Snowy Mountains Authority

1960 Writing songs and repairing musical instruments in Sydney

1964 "Ballad of Women" album recorded with funds raised from the raffle of a Henderson guitar.

1966 "One Out" album recorded by Union Records

1971 "Ton of Steel" album recorded by Union Records

1974 - 1975 Wrote rock opera, "Hero" with Craig McGregor and Poli Palmer

1979 "Flames of Discontent" album recorded for Seamen's Union of Australia

1986 "In My Time" album recorded

The songs in the collection are a reminder of the contending forces that made Australia over the post war period. Union struggles of course and the struggle against war and against the Vietnam war in particular. On the peace marches we sang "It's On", at union rallies it might be the "Basic Wage Dream."
Don had worked at a number of trades and had a genius for turning his and his friends' work experiences into song. As a skilled tradesman he had a keen understanding of the "folkways" that different kinds of work produce. Take this verse from "Thirty Ton Line":

        Purpose built tugs that like line boats attended 
        berthed bulk coal carriers in open sea
        To fulfil that function the union contended, 
        require four deckhands. The owners said three.
        Three deckhands and motorman just couldn't handle 
        sixteen inch polyprop, double dead eyes 
        When the toe-hook was blacked, the company gambled 
        on a tension winched, ten inch, calm sea compromise.

Having embarked on a career as a songwriter Don put himself though an apprenticeship of his own devising, learning from the traditions of the bush ballads, from Tex Morton and from the American balladeer Woody Guthrie. In Australia his song making encouraged others to have a go. Today, should someone feel disposed to gather the material together, a sizeable book of songs of the workplace could be published, many showing traces of Don's influence. Don's second self devised apprenticeship was musical instrument repair and guitar design and making. Again his efforts pushed others to do the same and some of finest instrument makers will acknowledge a debt to Don Henderson.
During the Vietnam war period the trade unions began to take direct action to oppose the war. One famous incident was a refusal by seamen to man the supply ships Boonaroo and Jeparit. Don wrote the song "Boonaroo" to commemorate their stand, with the chorus:

        Oh, who will man the Boonaroo? 
        Who will sail her, be the crew, 
        sailing on the Boonaroo?

Ten years later in 1978 he would write more generally of war in "Was War For Those Who Want It" which has the following verse:

        The men who build the planes and make the tanks, 
        are neutral and get payment in Swiss francs 
        While the rich on both sides prosper, the poor will kill the poor.
        Was war for those who want it, they would want an end to war.

Don says that he wrote the song after learning from a TV program that throughout the carnage of the First World War "English armament manufacturers and suppliers continued paying into Swiss bank accounts the royalties due to Krupp and other German weapons patent holders."

        Let the manufacturers man the guns they make. 
        Put the politician's own dear life at stake. 
        sabre rattlers sent to battle, generals to the fore. 
        Was war for those who want it, they would want an end to war. 

Don's versatility as a writer certainly becomes clear in this collection. A classic ghost story told in verse, "The Haunted Hill". A ballad to expose the hypocrisy of "Justice" in a notorious English rape case, "The Guardsman's Appeal". A racing yarn turned to song, "Not In The Joke". There's a wealth of wry humour in the introductions to the songs. And a transcription of Don talking about his early life to folklorist Edgar Waters. And a song about Don, "Hendo" written by Gary Shearston. And dozen's of illustrations by Jon Endean. All that and you get a cassette of Don's album "In My Time"!

I have sung Don Henderson songs in many folk clubs, on picket lines, on demonstrations and in a number of countries. I have taught some of them to singers outside Australia. One Thai enthusiast I met was so taken with "It's On" that he sat down and translated it on the spot. I expect some day to see a version of it in a collection of Thai folk songs. These songs have great staying power. A hundred of them are here together for the first time in "A Quiet Century".

Published by the Queensland Folk Federation and Sally Henderson.

        Available for $25 + $6.25 p & p from: 
        Sally Henderson 
        PO Box 5253 
        Qld 4179 


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory