11 Apr 2018

The last swagman?

When I was in Port Douglas, Far North Queensland, last November I spotted this character reciting bush poetry in the market. At the time I had my doubts as to whether he really was a genuine swagman. Wikipedia defines a swagman as a transient labourer who travelled by foot from farm to farm carrying his belongings in a swag (bedroll). The term originated in Australia in the 19th-century and was later used in New Zealand.
An article in last weekend's Sydney paper confirms that he really is the genuine article.Read on-extract from Sydney Morning Herald to which I do have a digital subscription.

 Meet Campbell, a ‘living walking storybook’, and the embodiment of bush ballads and poems. Words  by Justin McManus.

‘I’m living and breathing the words; Lawson’s words, Paterson’s words . . .’ Campbell

The old year went, and the new returned and so had Campbell the swaggie. It was one year before in a chance encounter that I had made the swagman’s acquaintance.

Through various friends, and via the bush telegraph, as the swaggie has no phone, we had arranged to meet by the Java Cafe in Yackandandah, a small town in north-east Victoria.

The swaggie had come around to favour the folk with his poems and country ballads – his last festival in the highlands of the south before heading back north, to warmer lands.

‘‘ I’ll take you out the back roads of Yack,” he said after a coffee and scone, ‘‘ And you can see the life of a swagman up close, and how he came to be.’’

So as the sun set on a dusty old track, out back of Yack, the raggedy old sundowner shared his story. ‘‘ Initially I was captivated by Australian bush music after seeing the Aussie bush band the Bushwackers perform in New Zealand in the early ‘70s.’’

Campbell is a Maori who became strangely fascinated by Australian folklore and cultural heritage. “I fell for the cultural history of this country , and the characters the Bushwackers sang about: The shearers, drovers and the swagman. I wanted to immerse myself in that heritage, so I just followed in the spirit of Waltzing Matilda.

‘‘ One of my favourite Australian poems and songs is ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s classic, Waltzing Matilda. It should be the national anthem you know, the other song has no relevance . It drew me to the swaggie’s life, got me tramping the back roads and stock routes of Australia waltzing my Matilda, living life on the hoof and I’ve been doing it for 40 years.’’

Campbell came to Australia in 1975 and worked as a storeman in Sydney, then Melbourne, for Coleman foods. ‘‘ But I was retrenched, and then I ran into the Bushwackers at a gig in Ferntree Gully in ‘79, and I just started following them around Victoria to bush dances,’’ he says.

‘‘ The swagman grew out of this experience, hoofing around with them, on the back roads of Victoria. I was in my early 20s and was discovering the stories of the landscape, the people, and coming to love the country. There’s something in me that makes me want to spread my wings and breathe the fresh air.’’

Much has been written about swagmen and their traits and ideals. The popular Australian ethos grew out of the ways of the swagman, and the miners of the Eureka stockade, the shearers and the strikes of the 1890s, and the Diggers of the great wars. Ideals of anti-establishment , a fair go and mateship became central values to the Australian character.

Henry Lawson writes in The Romance of the Swag, ‘‘ The Australian swag was born of Australia and no other land— of the Great Lone Land of magnificent distances and bright heat; the land of Self-reliance , and Never-give-in , and Help-your-mate .’’

Campbell suggests that some of these noble traits have been lost in recent times. ‘‘ Attitudes have changed and I’m still living the old ways. I’ve always been closer to the dreamtime than the computer age. The storytelling is being lost and people are becoming more selfobsessed ; they’re not interested in the true stories of the country.

“After Victoria, I tramped up to Longreach, to a drovers’ reunion, and it was the poetry around the campfires that really got me hooked.

‘‘ So I continued to travel and learn the poetry; out the Diamantina River and Coppers Creek in far west Queensland, learning the swaggie game; Paterson’s country out Winton way, and around Dagworth station, where Waltzing Matilda was written.

‘‘ Getting dusty, thirsty and covered in flies , walking about 15 to 20 kilometres a day, sleeping in creek beds or under a bridge, making billy tea and cooking up the damper.’’

After sunset we head back into town. Campbell’s camping down at a friend’s house tonight. He says he mostly gets put up by friends whereever he goes these days, but still enjoys a night camped out under the stars sometimes.

I suggest a quick beer at the Star Hotel in Yack. His eyes light up. ‘‘ Sounds good! The AFL kicks off tonight and I love a beer and watching the game.’’

He’s a big AFL fan, Collingwood supporter would you believe; just when I’m getting to like him. He philosophises that Australia has the Diggers and AFL, and that Waltzing Matilda sits fair in the middle, as the bond that ties it all together.

Over a beer at the bar, people from all over swing by to greet the swaggie , as you would an old mate. They aren’t surprised to see him, they see him everywhere, but their delight is obvious and heart felt.

I ask him about home, if he has one, and in a prompt and selfsatisfied reply he says, ‘‘ I’m home here. Yackandandah is home right now, Australia is my home, home is wherever I am at that moment.’’

As I discover later, he does have a caravan at a place called Cameron’s Pocket in Queensland, where he stores what he refers to as his bookwork . It’s his collection of diaries, or more accurately, his observations, musings, and poetry, as there are no dates to his prose. Time and dates seem to be a largely irrelevant concept in Campbell’s life, save for making it to the next festival.

He visits the caravan once a year, drops off the latest instalment of bookwork, dusts the place down and is back out.

Over the weekend, I am told many stories of his uncanny ability to almost teleport between festivals and around the country. Good friend Chris Smith relates one such occasion as we all sit on the verandah of the festival green room. ‘‘ We left Mount Beauty on a Monday morning and drove to Wintermoon Festival near Mackay, and he beat us there! We didn’t stop, we drove straight through and still he was there before us; he’s got wings,’’ he says.

‘‘ He’s unique, he’s a walking storybook , and a living walking storybook, he’s quoting life and his experience.’’

Campbell chips in, “I’m living and breathing the words; Lawson’s words, Paterson’s words, keeping them alive.’’

Chris finishes : ‘‘ He’s not just quoting Henry Lawson or Paterson, he’s been to where they wrote and lived the poems. He’s lived Waltzing Matilda.’’

Copyright © 2018 The Sydney Morning Herald

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