The Gurindji Strike - From Little Things Big Things Grow

Kev Carmody, John Butler and Paul Kelly perform 'From Little Things Big Things Grow' - Melbourne 2006

lyrics

Gather round people ill tell you a story
An eight year long story of power and pride
British Lord Vestey and Vincent Lingiari
Were opposite men on opposite sides

Vestey was fat with money and muscle
Beef was his business, broad was his door
Vincent was lean and spoke very little
He had no bank balance, hard dirt was his floor

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Gurindji were working for nothing but rations
Where once they had gathered the wealth of the land
Daily the pressure got tighter and tighter
Gurindju decided they must make a stand

They picked up their swags and started off walking
At Wattie Creek they sat themselves down
Now it don't sound like much but it sure got tongues talking
Back at the homestead and then in the town

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Vestey man said I'll double your wages
Seven quid a week you'll have in your hand
Vincent said uhuh we're not talking about wages
We're sitting right here till we get our land
Vestey man roared and Vestey man thundered
You don't stand the chance of a cinder in snow
Vince said if we fall others are rising

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Then Vincent Lingiari boarded an aeroplane
Landed in Sydney, big city of lights
And daily he went round softly speaking his story
To all kinds of men from all walks of life

And Vincent sat down with big politicians
This affair they told him is a matter of state
Let us sort it out, your people are hungry
Vincent said no thanks, we know how to wait

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Then Vincent Lingiari returned in an aeroplane
Back to his country once more to sit down
And he told his people let the stars keep on turning
We have friends in the south, in the cities and towns

Eight years went by, eight long years of waiting
Till one day a tall stranger appeared in the land
And he came with lawyers and he came with great ceremony
And through Vincent's fingers poured a handful of sand

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

That was the story of Vincent Lingiari
But this is the story of something much more
How power and privilege can not move a people
Who know where they stand and stand in the law

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Kev Carmody, Paul Kelly, Clare Bowditch, Missy Higgins, and Dan Sultan perform 'From Little Things Big Things Grow' - Sydney 2009

ABC GNT Broadcast 6.30pm on 05/07/2004

The Transcript

Songwriters Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody tell the story behind their song "From Little Things Big Things Grow".

In the 1960s, Aboriginal stockmen went on strike at the NT Wave Hill station. Led by Gurindji man Vincent Lingiari, they walked off the job and set up a camp at a place called Wattie Creek. The dispute over wages and conditions turned into a demand for land rights. It dragged on for years before eventually being resolved by the Whitlam government.

GEORGE NEGUS: Well, speaking as land rights as we were, it was in the Territory, several hundred k's south of here at Wave Hill cattle station, that Australia's first great land rights battle was fought. And here are songwriters Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody with their rendition of what is a quite remarkable chapter in Australian Indigenous history.

PAUL KELLY, SONGWRITER: (Sings) Gather round people
I'll tell you a story...

Kev Carmody and I wrote a song called 'From Little Things Big Things Grow' in the late '80s. It's one of many stories of Aboriginal Australia and we've both been singing it ever since.

(Sings) From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow...

REPORTER: The saga began in 1966. Gurindji stockmen who'd been paid in salt, beef, bread and tobacco, and six dollars a week if they were lucky, went on strike. They walked off Wave Hill station and camped in the dry bed of the Victoria River.

KEV CARMODY, SONGWRITER: (Sings) They picked up their swags
Started off walking
At Wattie Creek they sat themselves down
Now, it don't sound like much
But it sure got tongues talking
Back at the homestead...

My family were drovers, stockmen and... I remember Mum saying, you know, like, "Those...that mob up at Wattie Creek have just walked off Lord Vestey's station. It was on the ABC news." And I went, "What?! Holy mackerel." You know?

REPORTER: Spurred on by white and black civil rights workers, including several communists, the Aboriginal wages strike became a national issue. But the Gurindjis wanted more - the land that was taken from their forefathers and which they'd worked for the whites with little in return. They were led by Vincent Lingiari.

MAN (ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE): Would you be prepared to fight for this land?

VINCENT LINGIARI (ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE): Oh, yeah. You have to do the same thing we done before, before I born.

KEV CARMODY: It really galvanised people's sense of decency, you know. And Frank Hardy, the writer, put a...you know, a tremendous amount of his time and effort into Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji struggle.

FRANK HARDY, WRITER AND LAND RIGHTS ACTIVIST: He said, "Oh, no. We want that Vestey mob to go away from here. To go away from here and never come back. Go where they came from. This been Gurindji country. All this is Gurindji country." And that's how it started. And that's what led to Mabo, 'cause once they started, they wouldn't go back.

VINCENT LINGIARI (ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE): They said, "Hey! You're stealing another man's country." And I said, "Well, what was before Lord Vestey born and I born? It was blackfella country."

REPORTER: This was the statement which crystalised the whole story of the Gurindji struggle for land rights. Now the Gurindjis had fenced off some of their own land and they were willing to fight even Lord Vestey - the British beef baron who owned 20,000 square miles of the Northern Territory.

LORD VESTEY, CATTLE STATION OWNER (ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE): We must remember that we are only the tenants of the land and the Government own the land. It's government... it's Commonwealth land.

REPORTER: The Government, on the other hand, said land rights claims were out of the question. Vesteys had the lease until the year 2004.

KEV CARMODY: (Sings) Well, Vestey man said,
"I'll double your wages
"Seven quid a week now you'll have in your hand"
Vincent said, "Uh-uh,
"We're not talking about wages
"We're sitting right here till we get our land"
Vestey man roared...

PAUL KELLY: Vincent Lingiari, to me, is one of Australia's heroes. And the Gurindji people, they just pretty much stuck to their guns and stuck to their principles and eventually the wheel turned around.

REPORTER: When the 1970s rolled in, anyone who doubted the determination of the Gurindjis to hold out for their land, must have been starting to think twice. And it was clear that if Labor wasn't going to change the situation, nothing would.

PAUL KELLY: (Sings) Eight years went by
Eight long years of waiting
Till one day a tall stranger appeared in the land
His name was Whitlam and he came with great ceremony
And through Vincent's fingers he poured a handful of sand
From little things...

KEV CARMODY: The Whitlam Government started to, like, negotiate with Vesteys to get a portion of the Gurindji land back for them. The conclusion was, in 1975 it was symbolically handed back. You'll notice Gough pulls the old man's hand up because he can't see too well. The old man...he doesn't smile when Gough lifts his hand up. As soon as that sand hits his hand, you can see he grinned. "Got 'em!" (Laughs) "I got it." There's a painting done by Peter Hudson. It's Vincent Lingiari, it's Frank Hardy at a typewriter, and it's me standing there with no shirt on, and Paul Kelly. You know, the painting does depict the people that have told this story. And it's about a remarkable struggle led by a remarkable man.

(Sings) From little things big things grow.

GEORGE NEGUS: From little things big things grow. Indeed. I wonder what old Vincent would think if he knew that the land rights battle is still far from over.