Last weekend, Arthur and I went down to Geelong to see a John Williamson concert. A mate of ours is a big fan of Aussie country music (and I’m a bit of a closet fan mysefl!) so we went with him. For the most part, I tried to enjoy rather than analyse the experience, but I did have one or two slip ups! In particular, I started thinking about the portrayal of women in Williamson’s songs.
Femininity and Australian culture have a difficult relationship. Our national myths are of convicts, bushrangers and diggers at Gallipoli – all masculine images! Time spent with your mates is a national virtue and women just get in the way of that. There’s only one thing women can offer that men can’t: sex. Oh, and maybe a good feed. But either way, they’re confined to the kitchen and to the bedroom.
There were a few moments like that in the concert. At one point, Williamson instructed just the men to sing, encouraging them to do it loud and make their ladies proud of them; the following chorus, the women were told it was their turn – time to turn the men on.
On the other hand, there were a few super positive moments as well: Cydi about a daughter who’s her father’s ‘right hand man’; the self-assured young woman who graciously asks out the timid and clueless narrator of Boogie with me Baby; or the reference to your mate in True Blue being a ‘she’.
But mostly, Williamson’s depiction of women still falls into two stereotypical categories: the lonely woman battling against life in the Australian bush (think Cootamundra Wattle); or the city girl a bloke fell in love with (A Bushman can’t Survive; The Big Red). There’s little here to overturn the stereotype that the bush is men’s domain and the city is women’s.
However, behind all these songs is a struggle. No matter how different women are to him, he can’t imagine life without his woman. He doesn’t want to. That’s how you get a situation where there’s a bushman in the city: he’s trying to please his lady. It’s why women end up in the harsh conditions of the bush: he needs her there and he recognises the strength it takes on her part. (The reality may be different of course: Williamson admits that his marriage of 35 years ended because he didn’t spend enough time with his wife.) For Williamson, woman is central to a man’s emotional life. There’s no better companion, no one he would rather share life with. Whether in the bush or in the country, life only works if it’s in a team with her. It’s astonishing how much of Williamson’s music is love songs.
Women in Williamson’s music are not invisible or an added extra or a luxury. They’re certainly not just there for food, sex and a comfortable home. They don’t ‘get in the way’: they’re the partner for the journey. Williamson sings in ‘Rescue Me’ that without his woman, he’s a cork bobbing aimlessly down a stream or a feather blown in circles by the wind. Where Australian mythology sidelines women, for Williamson, they’re essential to life. However traditional some of his examples are, this is a welcome contribution to the depiction of gender in the Australian consciousness.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.