Student’s Lesson

Songs about Social Change

One of the most significant events in Australian history has been the recognition of Aboriginal land rights. What began as a strike about wages and living conditions (Aboriginals were paid less than white men doing the same work) soon spread to address the more fundamental issue about a claim by Aboriginals for their traditional lands.

There are four student activities on this page.

Student activity 1: Analyse

Read and view the following representations of this incident

  1. A web page containing a fact sheet about the Wave Hill walk-off from the National Archives
  2. A Short film from Screen Australia’s National Treasures series
  3. The Youtube clip of Gough Whitlam giving leasehold title to Vincent Lingiari, representative of the Gurindgi people

In small groups, take one of these texts and analyse its rhetorical qualities, considering

  • who has created the text for what purpose(s) and for which audience(s)
  • how it has been structured to achieve its purpose and engage the audience and
  • its use of language.

Share your findings with the class.

Student activity 2:

Ballads have been an important form of cultural expression since the convict era. In modern times they have been seen as the poetry of the people through their connections with folk songs. They usually involve a story and have clear rhythm and rhyme scheme.

In small groups, prepare and present a readers’ theatre[1] rendition of one of the ballads below. Make sure that you cover both ballads across the class.

The Gurindji Blues

From Little Things Big Things Grow

Poor bugger me, Gurindji
My name is Vincent Lingiari, came from Daruragu, Wattie Creek station.
Me bin sit down this country
Long time before the Lord Vestey
Allabout land belongin’ to we
Oh poor bugger me, Gurindji.
Poor bugger blackfeller; Gurindji
Long time work no wages, we,
Work for the good old Lord Vestey
Little bit flour; sugar and tea
For the Gurindji, from Lord Vestey
Oh poor bugger me.
Poor bugger me, Gurindji,
Man called Vincent Lingiari
Talk long allabout Gurindji
‘Daguragu place for we,
Home for we, Gurindji:
But poor bugger blackfeller, Gurindji
Government boss him talk long we
‘We’ll build you house with electricity
But at Wave Hill, for can’t you see
Wattie Creek belong to Lord Vestey’
Oh poor bugger me.

Poor bugger me, Gurindji
Up come Mr: Frank Hardy
ABSCHOL too and talk long we
Givit hand long Gurindji
Buildim house and plantim tree
Longa Wattie Creek for Gurindji
But poor bugger blackfeller Gurindji
Government Law him talk long we
‘Can’t givit land long blackfeller, see
Only spoilim Gurindji’
Oh poor bugger me.

Poor bugger me, Gurindji
Peter Nixon talk long we:
‘Buy you own land, Gurindji
Buyim back from the Lord Vestey’
Oh poor bugger me, Gurindji.
Poor bugger blackfeller Gurindji
Suppose we buyim back country
What you reckon proper fee?
Might be flour, sugar and tea
From the Gurindji to Lord Vestey?
Oh poor bugger me.

Oh ngaiyu luyurr ngura-u
Sorry my country, Gurindji.

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 “Uhuh we’re not talking about wages
We’re sitting right here till 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 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

These songs are both ballads about the same event and yet their effect is quite different. Analyse the contrasts in these songs considering

  • their approach to telling the story
  • the treatment or meaning of ‘place’
  • their choice of language and syntax
  • the effect of the rhyme
  • their tone.

Now listen to

  • the Gurindji Blues
    Written in 1969 by Ted Egan and recorded then by Galarrwuy Yunupingu, this recording of the song sold 20,000 copies and it financed the tent embassy in Canberra for its first six months.
  • From Little Things Big Things Grow, first played in 1991.

Ballads traditionally use tunes reminiscent of folk melodies.

  • How are audiences (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) positioned to be accepting of the message of these songs? Consider the balladic form, their tune and point of view.

[1] MyRead website:

Student activity 3: Class Parliament

The issue: which is the more effective as a protest song?

  • Students who think that The Gurindgi Blues is the more effective protest, move to the right side of the room and those preferring From Little Things Big Things Grow moving move to the left.
  • Take turns (alternating the right side and the left) to present a point to support your case. Any class member can make a point as long as he or she stands to make it and each point is backed up by evidence from the text. Try to convince as many people as you can to “cross the floor” through the strength of your argument.
  • At the end of the discussion cast another vote.

Watch the advertisement for Industry Superfunds

Note: Superannuation is the money you put away during your working life to ensure you have enough for your years of retirement. Your employer is obliged to pay an amount of money, broadly based on your salary to supplement these savings if you retire over a certain age.

Class discussion:

  • Why do you think Paul Kelly’s song was chosen as the signature tune for this group of companies?
  • How does the advertisement keep to and/or work against the original intention of the song?
  • To what extent does changing the purpose and context of art damage its message?

Student activity 4: creating

Your class is producing one episode of a television series called “Behind the Scene” in which iconic images from Australian history are fleshed out with the actions and motivations of people associated with the event.

Your group will choose one of the following

  • Gough Whitlam
  • Vincent Lingiari
  • Lord Vestey
  • workers from the Gurindji
  • the photographer of this image, Mervyn Bishop.

Use the information you have gained from the texts above, develop a photomatic presentation (a series of stills presented in sequence with a voice over) to show how your section of the program could be shot and edited together.

Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of Vincent Lingiari

Returning traditional lands to the Gurindgi people in August 1975, Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of Vincent Lingiari. Photo credit