By Andy Paine
August 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Terania Creek forest blockade – the birth of frontline forest activism in this country. The best way to celebrate is by locking on to a machine that’s destroying the planet for profits. But the second best way is by playing some great songs from Australia’s blockading history.
3CR recently put together a radio show celebrating the songs of the Terania blockade, and some of those same tracks were included on a rad historical compilation called Lock On! But like Australia’s frontline environmental protest history, our tradition of blockading songs is rich and varied. Here is a bit of a sample.
Terania Creek had plenty of songs sung around the campfire and on the picketlines. A more detailed collection can be found in the links above, but one of the most memorable is The Bulldozer Allstars’ Tonka Toys
The Franklin River blockade became one of the most iconic in Australian history, stopping the damming of the river and bringing footage of rugged forests and civil disobedience into loungerooms of the country on the news. Members of Goanna (playing as the Franklin Gordon River Ensemble) soundtracked the blockade with the singalong anthem Let The Franklin Flow
As forest blockades popped up all over the country, a subculture of “forest ferals” developed, roaming around the country disrupting logging and perfecting lock-on and treesit techniques. Many songs were written as in-jokes within that subculture, but the issue of logging native forests also entered the mainstream, as proved by legendary country singer John Williamson’s classic track Rip Rip Woodchip.
The North East Forest Alliance in NSW had some famous victories at Washpool and Chaelundi in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Mick Daley’s epic Ballad of Wild Cattle Creek is a less triumphant story, but a wonderful slice of the ups and downs of blockading life.
Paul Spencer is a folky in the old style – mixing humour and politics, reusing traditional tunes, and finding songwriting inspiration in everyday life. He has spent a lot of time on blockades and written a few songs that reference them in various ways. Make Some Music is a signature tune of Paul’s and a loving tribute to taking direct action. This version is recorded by Paul with the environmental a capella choir Ecopella.
Folk songs are well suited to the campfire at the forest blockade camp, but it is not the only genre able to write about the theme. Anarchist industrial band Insurge got in on the act with their tribute to the Lock On – the film clip features some rad footage from World Economic Forum protests too.
Electronic music also became strongly linked to environmental campaigns in the 90’s, partly due to the developing “bush doof” culture that took rave parties out into the forest, occasionally linking up with blockade camps. One of the most notable artists to consistently link politics and techno music was Peter Strong, who would infuse his songs with samples from protests. Plan It, recorded as Non Bossy Posse, is a great example of the style.
The Jabiluka campaign to stop a uranium mine in Kakadu national park re-energised blockading in Australia, with over 500 people arrested and an eventual victory for environmentalists and the Mirarr traditional owners. There were two compilation albums released as part of the campaign (neither are easy to find now); with bands like Midnight Oil, Regurgitator and Yothu Yindi playing on the frontlines. One song recorded for the campaign was from Painters and Dockers, with aboriginal sax player Jenny Pineapple taking the vocals to sing about Kakadu. This is a recording from an event to celebrate the 20thanniversary of the win, where Jenny dusted off the song once more.
In the early 2000’s, Ecowar were a folk-punk band led by activist James Brook. Their gigging tours took in blockades around the country, and this track Defending This Land is a good tune and an even better history reference since it begins with a list of blockade campaigns of the time.
Radical hip hop crew Combat Wombat brought a whole new element to music on the frontlines with solar powered sound systems and vege oil vans. Mixing sharp political rhymes and banging beats, they became synonymous with Australian radical political music. It all started with the band forming at the Jabiluka blockade and their first single Miraculous Activist
In some ways hardcore punk wouldn’t seem to go with forest activism – sonically the genre has more in common with chainsaws and clearfell machines than it does birdcalls and rustling leaves. But the Such Is Life punk festival for years took place at Goongerah in the heart of East Gippsland, and there were always plenty of fundraiser gigs and even albums. Punks Against The Gold Mine was a 2007 compilation raising cash and awareness for the blockade of Barrick Gold’s Lake Cowal gold mine on Wiradjuri country. From that album, here is femme crust band Scum System Kill with Water is More Precious Than Gold.
Australia’s longest running forest blockade was at Goolengook in East Gippsland, where for over five years activists braved the elements to keep a continuous presence. Eventually the site was included in the Errinundra National Park. Kate Grealy wrote this beautiful song about the forest there.
Protest songs can be a great way to inspire and educate, but also the drama and emotions of blockading life can make for fertile songwriting soil. From huddling with friends for warmth to getting that burst of adrenaline when you see headlights approaching; the most in-depth musical exploration of “locking on” is Madeline Hudson’s Monster Machine.
Folk-punk as a genre is a good match with blockading – like most forest ferals; it’s a bit rough around the edges, and mixes the sensitive and serious with the aggressive and fun. Acoustic instruments make it mobile and forest-ready too. Long-term blockade veteran Dan Easton and his band The Great Shame wrote this folk-punk forest anthem Old Growth.
It was at a “climate camp” at Helensburg just south of Sydney that The Lurkers penned their track Who’s Got a Padlock and Chain? The Metropolitan Mine where they set the song was hardly the site of repeated protests, and to be honest blockading is rarely done with a padlock and chain, but all the same the song is a banger and has become an Australian protest standard with lyrics adapted to different campaigns.
The Leard Forest campaign in North-Western NSW reflected the change in Australia’s main environmental concern from logging to climate change. For two and a half years, activists camped out attempting to stop the construction of the Maules Creek coal mine – unsuccessfully in the end but with plenty of spirit. Jonathan Moylan made national news early in the campaign with a hoax press release that sent the stock market into a spin. He also wrote the song Can’t See the Forest for the Coal, performed here by Adam Ryan.
For a few years from 2012, the campaign against Coal Seam Gas brought blockading back to where it all began in Northern NSW. Things were a bit different this time – what had once been a few “ferals” in the forest was this time a large camp on private property, with farmers and environmentalists joining forces. The region had changed too, decades of “alternative culture” in the area meant the Bentley blockade had a distinct hippy vibe. The song most associated with the campaign, Luke Vassella’s Gently Bentley, is the cheesiest song ever written about blockading in this country, but in that way it does kinda represent the blockade from which it came.
With the fortieth anniversary of Terania Creek arriving, it’s evident even from compiling this list that a lot has changed in the environmental movement in this country. It’s credit to those forest ferals and their tenacious efforts that conservation is now part of mainstream political dialogues. Climate change as an issue too has brought blockading techniques into the city as the frontline moves from logging coupes to our whole society. The movement against the Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in central Queensland has been bigger than any of the other campaigns mentioned, but maybe surprisingly it hasn’t produced any iconic songs. This track from popular rapper Allday and popstars The Veronicas (covering Joni Mitchell live on triple j) seems symbolic in a way of a transition in environmental thinking over four decades. That blockade of course is still going right now in central Queensland; and with a planet to save from a system intent on destroying it there is plenty of need for more bodies putting themselves in the way of the machines, and more songs to soundtrack the resistance.
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