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Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines

Bruce Chatwin, Songlines From Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines:

In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score. There was hardly a rock or creek in the country that could not or had not been sung. One should perhaps visualise the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every “episode” was readable in terms of geology.

The songs, Chatwin writes, describe “an interlocking network of ‘lines’ or ‘ways through’.” It was necessary to remember these lines, because straying from them could mean death. And because most of the Australian Outback “was arid scrub or desert where rainfall was always patchy and where one year of plenty might be followed by seven years of lean,” people had to move about and rely on exchange with neighbors. “Every tribe – like it or not – had to cultivate relations with its neighbour.” One of the people Chatwin met, Dan Flynn, says that “there were formal rules for exchanging commodities, and formal routes along which to trade.” Chatwin writes:

What the whites used to call the “Walkabout” was, in practice, a kind of bush-telegraph-cum-stock-exchange, spreading messages between peoples who never saw each other, who might be unaware of the other’s existence.

Dan Flynn says in the book that “The trade route is the Songline. Because songs, not things, are the principal medium of exchange. Trading in ‘things’ is the secondary consequence of trading in song.” This is fascinating but difficult to grasp. The verses of the songs are inherited and each represents “a stretch of country over which the song passed. A man’s verses were his title deeds to territory.” But this doesn’t imply that he understands the words of the entire song. A song could describe a line across the entire continent, thousands of kilometers long, and its verses could be in dozens of different languages.

“Our people”, Flynn said, “say they recognise a song by its ‘taste’ or ‘smell’ ... by which, of course, they mean the ‘tune’. The tune always stays the same, from the opening bars to the finale.”

Chatwin asks Flynn if “a young man on Walkabout could sing his way across Australia providing he could hum the right tune,” and he confirms this with a story about a man who walked across the continent a hundred years ago to find himself a wife.

It seems that children are taught their songs at a young age by their mothers – as I understand it in the form of stories and with the help of sketches in the sand. There’s a point where a man is said to have acquired “ritual knowledge,” the result of the process of “extending his song-map [...] widening his options, exploring the world through song.” There are initiation rites, but as far as I can recall Chatwin doesn’t mention songs in connection with these. But to me it doesn’t seem to be merely songs, they are songs with stories, and with accompanying dances. For instance, clans would gather at “ceremonial centers” along the lines, to “swap songs [and] dances [...] and grant each other ‘rights of way’.”

Chatwin tells of a performance of a song he witnessed, “a song of how the [Lizard Ancestor] and his lovely young wife had walked from northern Australia to the Southern Sea, and how a southerner had seduced the wife and sent him home with a substitute.” He describes how the man becomes the lizard, “puffed his neck into goitres of rage, and at last, when it was time for him to die, he writhed and wriggled, his movements growing fainter and fainter like the Dying Swan’s.”

Later, Chatwin realizes that “the melodic contour of the song [seemed to describe] the nature of the land over which the song passes.” He continues:

So, if the Lizard Man were dragging his heels across the saltpans of Lake Eyre, you could expect a succession of long flats, like Chopin’s “Funeral March”. If he were skipping up and down the MacDonnell escarpments, you’d have a series of arpeggios and glissandos, like Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsodies”.

In other words, Chatwin writes, “An expert song-man, by listening to [the] order of succession [of phrases], would count how many times his hero crossed a river, or scaled a ridge – and be able to calculate where, and how far along, a Songline he was.” Arkady Volchok, his guide, explains that the song-man would “hear a few bars and say, ‘This is Middle Bore’ or ‘That is Oodnadatta’ – where the Ancestor did X or Y or Z.”

To me it seems that the melody, the story, and the dance, together reinforce the memory of the terrain. The cultures of these clans seem to be full with things that reinforce. In a way they seem to be all about remembering the songlines. And it’s no wonder when forgetting them might be fatal.

This is a very fascinating book, and it was particularly interesting to read after Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (see my previous post about this). I can think of several bloggers who would enjoy this book.

Update: Be sure to read what Anne Galloway wrote about this book.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on May 31, 2004. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.

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