2 Aug 2006, Comments Off on What I’m reading: Broken Song

What I’m reading: Broken Song

Author: Helen

In 1977, I visited my parents in Canberra for a visit. At the time, my Dad was working at the RSSS and their house was a waystation for interesting people from all over. That time, I walked in to meet a tired-looking, late middle-aged couple sitting on the living room couch with a little boy of about four bouncing off the walls. They were Ted Strehlow, his wife Kathleen and their son Karl.
Picture from http://www.abbeys.com.au
At that time I hadn’t heard of Ted and his immense importance to Aboriginal ethnography, as well as the tragic arc of his life story. None of us would have known the awful, final turn his life was about to take. I wasn’t aware that these were the last two years of an eccentric, contrary, but fascinating life. The two of them looked dumpy, grey and beaten down (as Ted, by that time, pretty much was.) I was intrigued by the awfulness of their late-parenthood childrearing style– at the time, Ted was 70. “Oh, he’ll only eat chocolate,” said Kathleen airily, breaking off another row for the already hyperactive kid. A lot of people assume that people with superior intelligence are always better parents. These two would have qualified for a visit from Supernanny.

Broken Song: T.G.H.Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession, by Barry Hill, is the latest biography of TGH Strehlow. It took me months, literally, to read this 750-page tome, not because I’m reading blogs all the bloody time, noooooo!…, rather because it’s a hardback which wasn’t mine and had to be Kept Nice, so I haven’t been taking it on the train. And public transport is my prime dead-tree reading time. Down with hardbacks.

Ted Strehlow was fluent in Aranda (Arrernte) from babyhood. Born and brought up in Hermannsburg Mission, he lived and worked with the Arrernte people for most of his life, both as an anthropologist and as a patrol officer. He developed an idea of himself as the custodian of a dying culture, as well as a fully initiated Ingkata (elder). Whether or not he truly was is disputed.
Picture from http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/sunmorn/stories/s1014640.htm
While Strehlow was still still a young man, many Arrernte elders handed their sacred Tjurunga and other religious objects to him, and he interpreted this action to mean that he and no other was the final custodian. Because he viewed Tjurunga as belonging to the individual and not the tribe, he treated them as property and as completely alienable– thus setting himself up for conflict when the Land Rights movement gathered strength in the 70s and 80s and the Strehlows refused to give the objects back.

Strehlow’s greatest achievement was recording and explaining Arrernte legends, myths and songs, and particularly his book Songs of Central Australia, rather than as a mere curator of sacred objects.

The book is so filled with drama and poetry, and in such an rich visual and cultural setting, I couldn’t help thinking someone should be writing an opera about this man’s life. The tension of his upbringing, between Lutheran Christianity and Aboriginal culture (which would continue all his life). The Twins dreaming story, which he took as his own, and the psychological implications of that. The journey to Horseshoe Bend and the death of his father there. His experiences in the desert– for instance, his dramatic waking nightmare about a herd of bulls, his journeys (with his first wife) by camel. His frienships with Aboriginal people and his defence of Aborigines from abusive graziers and outback workers when he was a patrol officer. His mistreatment as a descendant of Germans, and a German speaker, in World War II. His escalating, paranoia-fuelled war with academia.

When I wonder why filmmakers and composers haven’t been all over the enormous lode of this man’s life, I think perhaps it’s because it’s over-rich in stories, metaphors and dramas – where would you start? and what would you leave out? Anyway, I hope it happens in my lifetime.

A cantata has been written and performed based on Journey to Horseshoe Bend. But there’s much more to Strehlow’s life than is contained in that story, dramatic though it is. Strehlow was a perfect tragic hero, or anti-hero, for modern Australia. He started out full of promise, and then destroyed himself with his own hubris in the best dramatic tradition. He saw himself as the only repository of Central Australian culture, the only living link to something that was essentially gone, and perhaps the last Ingkata. There’s Nemesis, too, of course, arriving not only in the shape of the Aboriginal land rights movement – they wanted their sacred objects, and their own stories, back – but his own tunnel vision and refusal to comply with what others saw as normal scholarly standards. He believed he had more right than the aboriginals themselves to the Tjurunga and other precious objects in his care.

In his last years, he became increasingly bitter and emotionally stunted. Reiterating his private ownership of his collection, he threatened to sell it. In 1978, a year after I met him, he engineered his own downfall when he lent a group of photographs of secred/sacred ceremonies to the German magazine Stern. For this he earned $6,000. However, Stern passed the images on to People magazine. It was a major scandal. The traditional owners of the objects and ceremonies were outraged. His life’s work was tainted, and whatever trust and kinship the Arrernte people felt for him was destroyed. He died soon afterwards.

Coda: The Land Councils are still trying to get the secret/sacred objects returned to them. And in 1992 and 1999 a portion of them were “rescued” when Kathy and young Carl, as inheritors of the collection, tried to sell some of it overseas.

Comments (0)

  • TimT says:

    I did some work with ‘Songs of Central Australia’ at Uni. It’s a little known masterpiece. From what I can recall, Strehlow seemed to see it as a kind of indigenous ‘Kalevala’, placing himself in the position of a Jacob Grimm or Elias Lonrott, compiling the songs for posterity, and making continual references to Norse myth, etc.

    It was fascinating but at the same time more than a little offputting – dealing with it was like trying to read your way through an encyclopaedia.

    Isn’t Barry Hill the poetry editor of the Australian? He’d bring an interesting perspective, I guess; but it would be interesting to see a musicians perspective. There are a few researchers out there with the expertise …

  • Pavlov's Cat says:

    Helen, Barry Hill is a very old friend of mine; would you mind if I sent him the link to this post?

  • Helen says:

    PC, if you don’t think he’ll want to have my guts for garters!

    It’s actually a great read, but I just never got great chunks of time to attack it- had to read it bit by bit.

  • Pavlov's Cat says:

    But you haven’t said anything bad, except for the perfectly true stuff about big heavy books. (I went to the Melbourne launch of the paperback edition of David Marr’s bio of Patrick White, and in his speech Marr told a story about a letter he’d had from a woman who said ‘Thank God it’s coming out in paperback — I was reading the hardback in bed, and I fell asleep and dropped it and broke my nose.’

    I think Hill would be pleased that his book was a major reading experience for somebody who gave it such close attention. And I know he’d be interested in your own personal meeting with the Strehlows, particularly that priceless vignette about the chocolate!

  • Helen says:

    Righto then PC, go for it!

    Tim, the biog has motivated me to have a look at Songs for myself. I notice it’s in the Baillieu library, so I might go and have a gander sometime when work and life in general are not too crazy.

  • Helen says:

    Tim (again), but it would be interesting to see a musicians perspective. the book mentions an ethnomusicologist called Catherine Ellis who had a centre at Adelaide University in the 70s. He was incensed by her, and
    disagreed completely with her methods and interpretations. “Strehlow responded as if she had stepped in to castrate the sacred words of the men, the poems that were at the centre of his poem. Ellis was not so unkind to Strehlow”.

  • TimT says:

    That’s hilarious! I remember reading some of Catherine Ellis’s work and enjoying it.

    Strehlow, I seem to recall, does talk a great deal about circumcision ceremonies and their relation to various bloody Aboriginal myths. I had recourse to Strehlow at one point when I was doing an Aboriginal music subject and was doing some research on some circumcision ceremony songs. Maybe castration/circumcision was, um, a sore point with him. Actually, I’m almost certain it would have been – didn’t he skip a lot of the harsh initiation ceremonies that were expected of young Arrernte men?

    I originally had Strehlow recommended to me by Allan Marett, a very knowledgeable musicologist who specialised in indigenous Australian music.

  • Pavlov's Cat says:

    Cath Ellis taught me a term of ethnomusicology — Aborginal music, again — at Adelaide U in the 1970s. She was great.

  • Helen says:

    What courses were you both doing, Tim & PC?

  • TimT says:

    It was during an introduction to Australian Aboriginal music, offered as part of the undergraduate courses at Sydney Uni. I took it as part of my BA – it was a double major in music and English lit. The Uni had several good musicologists, and also offered an interesting introduction to Indonesian music, taught by a funky American lecturer whose name escapes me.

  • Pavlov's Cat says:

    Mine was Music 1 (having already serially bailed out of French, Classics and Philosophy, in a deathless quest to pick up a necessary extra 1st yr subject I could both do well in and put up with) as part of a BA. It was a bit of a dog’s breakfast — I remember it including the developmental history of the symphony, the technique for analysing a fugue (I invented a new method: turn it upside down), the relationship between music and its nonmusical contexts, and in particular having to write a 10,000 word essay on medieval church music (my choice of topic). The only really coherent topic was the Cath Ellis one.

  • Suse says:

    Fascinating tale. I too hope it comes to the notice of a filmmaker somewhere.

    (And I too am always surprised when the most intelligent people have the most godawful children. MY children are perfect of course so I wonder what that says about me …)

    Enjoying your blog.

  • Helen says:

    Turn that fugue upside down, Kimmoi…

  • weathergirl says:

    I’m ashamed to say I have only read extracts of this book, which by all accounts is wondrous and wonderful. I heard Barry Hill speak about it and he was superb. (I also heard the book was an epic editing job!)

  • Spartacus says:

    The philistine Ocker flippancy (“just gotta be light-heated, darls”, as it says in the Daily Express) of these blog comments on Strehlow and “big thick books” is par for the lamentable course. A branch office mentality in a branch office country. As Bruce Elder says in Blood on the Wattle, a Butlin´s holiday camp.

    How about getting “pedantic” (shock! horror! Germanic! European!) and actually discussing what Strehlow was getting at?

  • Helen says:

    Good job you don’t live here any more, doesn’t it!

    I thought I had done a reasonable job of discussing what Strehlow was getting at, given the limitations of a blog post. If you paid me to do a journal review or article, then we’d be talking – but I’m under no obligation to treat it like a university essay.

    I think you’ve wandered into the wrong blog – if you want to read academic blogs, there are a plethora of them out there for you to choose from.

  • Helen says:

    Oops, I mean isn’t it. Proofreader wanted.

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