Sunday, June 26, 2016


In his book The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A pedestrian in Paris, John Baxter is very rude about the British travel writer Bruce Chatwin and his 1987 book called The Songlines. Chatwin, Baxter suggests, had made it all up drawing especially from one European informant, in so doing creating a new myth.

Baxter may well be right. I know of no reference to songlines before Chatwin's book, although readers may be able to correct me. Now, of course, songlines has entered the vernacular and become a potent descriptor of an aspect of traditional Aboriginal culture. To challenge the idea is to enter into that field called the history wars. That said, I wonder whether it matters.

The Aborigines had a deep knowledge of country. The ways of traversing that country had to be taught to carry from generation to generation. Further, country was associated with cultural and religious beliefs, beliefs that populated the landscape. We don't have to subscribe to the belief that every aspect of country, every individual feature, was enshrouded with myth or legend to accept that key features were.

The Aborigines were great travelers, moving by foot over long distance to visit other  places. We know this from the ethnohistorical record. It stands to reason that the stories of those visits were discussed and narrated, the route charted, the key stops identified.

The songline narrative is especially associated with the desert regions of inland Australia. Again, this makes perfect sense, for here water sources were very important, accurate routes critical. In the more fertile and populated parts of the country interaction was higher, there were many more paths. There was less need to record in minute detail, the nature of individual reactions less prominent in memory because there were just so many more of them

So I find the concept of songlines useful and important without assuming that it applied in all places in the same way. I also find interesting, if more problematic, the way the concept has come to be universally applied  I don't accept this. It doesn't seem to fit with the evidence. However, it has become part of the current narrative and for that reason has its own relevance.

No comments: