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Neil Murray’s life and work will remain relevant while ever Australians ask the question – what in truth does it mean to call Australia home?
Neil Murray was the whitefella in the Warumpi Band, the first Aboriginal band to sing rock’n’roll in an Aboriginal language. The photographs of their tours through northern Australia in the 1980s open your eyes to another Australia, one in which Aboriginal people are confident and full of laughter and there’s this young red-haired whitefella from western Victoria in the middle of them, partying on.
His life since that time has not been easy. Pieces have been cut out of him like pieces of bark were cut out of big gums in this country for thousands of years. That accounts for a song like Circumstances, explaining to a daughter why he can’t be with her. But his art covers a broad trajectory. Good Light in Broome is a good-time song for dancing to; In My Heart is a red, red rose of a love song; This Good Earth is a simple hymn to the land; Sing Your Destiny has the energy of a big black Northern Australian sky about to deliver lightning and torrents of rain; Melbourne Town is a song for everyone who’s gone home from the footy after a loss when they needed a win because of the other stuff going on in their lives.
Neil Murray’s great songs combine hard-edged thought and fine expressions of feeling and emotion. An example of this is High on the Hill. It takes a really good artist to look mortality in the eye and not be sentimental or harsh. This song asks the big question – what’s the point to existence? - pauses, almost stops, then the rhythm and melody kick back in and move the singer on like a stick in an old river moving to the sea. There’s an existential element to Neil Murray’s art. It’s present again in Lights of Hay. Once more, he’s driving alone through the Australian landscape. He can see the lights of the New South Wales country town of Hay, that’s what keeps him going. In the song you hear the hushed whisper of the night battling with the traveller’s inner concerns and discontent. “It’s hard to see, just where the road is leading me”.
In Myall Creek - a song about a commemoration held in 2000 at the site of the 1838 massacre of Aboriginal people that was attended by “a descendant of the murderers, a descendant of the slain” – the artist shows himself to be the equal of the high task he sets himself. In Tom Wills Would, he describes the pivotal figure in the creation of Australian football and his “cranky ways”. “If I'm shunned and ignored by the mighty who preside/I'll not curry for their favour I'll not bootlick at their side”. Sounds a bit like Neil Murray to me.
It’s over 30 years since Neil packed his ute and drove north from Lake Bolac in western Victoria on his quest to engage more deeply with this ancient land. Where My People Go is a song from a much more recent time. He’s back in the place of his birth, Tjapwurrung country, walking the land the Aboriginal way. He’s like a bush creature with human intelligence, feeling humility and joy at the connection he has with the place. Ever so gently, he sums it up this way: “Just a dot on a great trackless plain, thinking I was home”.
Neil Murray’s life and work will remain relevant while ever Australians ask the question – what in truth does it mean to call Australia home? Few have lived those questions as largely as Neil Murray has. I believe his work will outlive him, in part because he will leave more than one entrance to his legacy. Whether Australians recognize it or not, his semi-biographical account of his Warumpi band years, “Sing for Me Countryman”, is an Australian classic. His collection of poetry - with the highly appropriate title “One Man Tribe” - contains poems that are as straight as spears, others as delicate as feathers. He has written a series of great songs and, along the way, he also wrote My Island Home, an Australian anthem.
1. Long Grass Band
2. Over the Moon
3. Good Light in Broome
4. Tjapwurrung Country
5. You'll Have To Follow
6. Burrumbeep Hill
7. Burning Land
8. Lights of Hay
9. Eddie Mabo
10. Native Born
11. I Can Go On
12. My Island Home (Live)
13. Big Truck
14. These Hands
16. Sing the Song (Live)
1. Calm & Crystal Clear
2. Where My People Go
3. Broken Song
4. Bulukbara Man
5. In My Heart
6. Myall Creek
7. Melbourne Town
8. Sing Your Destiny
10. Tom Wills Would
11. This Good Earth
13. Far Away
14. High On A Hill
15. Meet Me In Bedourie
16. Anywhere Tonight
Neil Murray Tour Dates
13 Oct Montes Cafe – Gap Road, Alice Springs NT
21 Oct Clarendon Hotel - Katoomba, NSW
22 Oct Empire Hotel, Annandale, NSW
28 to 30 Oct Maldon Folk Festival, Victoria
19 Nov Bella Union Bar, Carlton, Victoria
3 Dec Union Hotel, Brunswick, Melbourne