Ted Egan may be known for his music, but there’s so much more to this inspiring man, as focus finds out. Ted will appear at the watermark literary muster in june.
What made you decide to take off for the Northern Territory from Melbourne when you were only 16-years-old?
My family always encouraged young people to travel. In my family boys were taught to cook, sew, wash and iron as well as doing the other ‘manly’ things like sport. We were then encouraged, with the background of a good education, to learn to look after ourselves.
During your early years in the Northern Territory, you were employed by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. What were some of the highlights of these years for you – I understand you were a patrol hunter and also involved with crocodile hunting?
When I joined Native Affairs in Darwin, I was fortunate that the legendary Bill Harney was still around. He told my superiors: “This young bloke won’t learn anything in town. Send him out bush to live among the blackfellas”. That happened, and suddenly the young smart-arse from Melbourne found that he knew very little about life in Australia – the real Australia. I lived in the bush with tribal First Australians, and they were kind and patient with me. We had a lot of laughs, mainly concerning my incompetence.
Were there ever any times during these years when you felt your life was in danger – or that made you wonder just what on earth you’d gotten yourself into?
Crocodile hunting was dangerous, but I was always working with experts. I don’t condone mindless crocodile hunting, but in those days it was the best opportunity for Aboriginal people to make big money out of the sale of skins. At no time did we hunt to try to eliminate the species, for there are strong totemic connections by all Aboriginal people to all creatures in nature.
How did you find the whole experience of teaching in schools while you were working in the bush?
Teaching was the most exhausting job I ever had. It was a great challenge, and I enjoyed every minute of it. The principles of one-teacher schools work well in Aboriginal society, for it is important that older family members help to inspire and motivate younger members. We must have the support of the entire family, so that means ensuring that the adults have literacy and numeracy and hopefully a love of education. In Australia, with Aboriginal education we too often try to ignore the parents, with fatal results.
At what stage did you become aware of the problems associated with the Australian Government’s handling of Aboriginal affairs?
In 1969 I transferred from NT Administration to the new Council for Aboriginal Affairs, as I realised that my NTA bosses were trying to use me to sell out the Aboriginal people, via my position of trust.
How and why did you decide to try to assist with making this knowledge public?
I wrote my song Gurindji Blues. I took part in land rights demonstrations. My old bosses were furious and wanted to have me sacked from the Public Service.
How did you feel about being awarded an Order of Australia for services to the Aboriginal people in 1993?
I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt honoured. On the other hand, my connections had become something of an embarrassment, as people (the media) were expecting me to present ‘the Aboriginal Perspective’. I was not an Aboriginal, so I eventually resigned from my job, in the hope that First Australians themselves might be recognised as the ones best able to articulate their wishes.
You use your songs to communicate your beliefs and knowledge about the Australian outback and Aborigines – the ‘First Australians’ – to the wider public. How did you first become involved with songwriting and singing?
I was from a poor but honest family. We had little money but knew thousands of songs, and I was reared to love singing. Still do. I had started to write my own songs and found songwriting a powerful challenge to present a precise story in hopefully an entertaining way. Subtle is best.
Why is a beer carton your instrument of choice … is it a deliberate choice, given the problems you’ve seen in the Northern Territory associated with alcohol abuse?
The Fosterphone is only a gimmick. It is a very effective percussion instrument when I rub, scratch and tickle it. But it is only a cardboard box. I am a finger-tapper and can’t play conventional instruments, but I can sing in tune and get by OK. Many of my songs are about beer drinking – something I love doing. But my songs are about convivial drinking, not mindless suicidal drinking. I have very strong opinions about alcohol, but prohibition is not on my agenda.
You’ve recorded over 28 albums now. Which was personally your favourite – and why?
Thirty albums now. The ANZACS is my best, for I knew I had a responsibility to my mother, who abhorred war yet was full of praise of the heroism of her three brothers who served in World War One. I recommend to all people my Song for Grace (my mother) on that album. It is word for word her attitude to war, and many people consider it the best anti-war song they know.
From 2003 – 2007 you were Administrator (Governor) in the Northern Territory. What was the most important issue of concern you identified while you were in this role?
Nerys, my wife, and I were privileged to live at Government House, Darwin, for four years. We gave this demanding job our best, and it was rewarding to cover the extensive duties.
It was remarkable to see how many good people there are in society, and we at all times sought to recognise achievers at Government House – no matter what their background. As such, we had wonderful contacts with quiet, heroic, beautiful members of society. Yes, the world is full of crime and thuggery, but there are some great things happening among the real people.
From your viewpoint, has very much changed in terms of First Australians’ problems in the Northern Territory since you completed your term of office?
Quality of life for First Australians in the Northern Territory has diminished appallingly in the last 30 years. There is too much game playing among the many organisations that derive power from the demise of confused, illiterate, unemployable Aboriginals, enticed to town, but despised when they get there. The bureaucrats are happy to maintain the misery, for thereby they retain control, power and inordinate salaries. The blackfellas get on the grog and we wonder why?
You’ve written many books, including A Drop of Rough Ted and Sit Down Up North and also appeared on popular television programs. What made you decide to branch out onto these platforms as well as singing – was it to reach a larger, or different audience?
I have always believed in everything I do and there is a necessary commercial edge to me. I have an indulgent lifestyle and I constantly say to myself: “This is what you deserve” when a book or a CD or a performance earns me enough money to maintain that mode of living.
What do you see as the biggest problems facing outback Australia today – and what would you like to see the Australian public and / or government do to resolve the issues?
(l) A justifiable population (2) National and sensible control over mineral and forestry exploitation (3) Imaginative, to a national plan, conservation and distribution of water (4) Take Aboriginal Affairs back to the reality achieved in the land rights determinations, i.e. meaningful conservation and development of the tribal lands by the traditional owners, on their terms.
You’re one of the guests at the Watermark Literary Muster in June. The purpose of the Muster is to promote ‘the backyard’. Just how important do you believe it is to promote our own patch of ground – and to try to solve the problems we all may be experiencing in it?
‘The backyard’ can have so many different meanings. It is essentially the base, the place where ethics, manners, lifestyle and traditions are established, perpetuated and maintained. It is the place where there is time to talk things through and to use that desirable talent, encouraged in me by Grace, my mother, to ‘be a good listener’.
The backyard is an intrinsic component of ‘the great Australian dream’, and as such that theme will engender and inspire a wide range of tangential thought at the Watermark Literary Muster. Bring it on.
Thank you Ted.
For more info on the Watermark Literary Muster and its program of events, visit: www.watermarkliterarysociety.asn.au