10 May 2023

“How many songs do you hear about Weipa?”: The Cape York trek that inspired a bush classic

| Samuel Davis
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PERCHED on a log with guitar in hand, John Williamson pictures himself crooning to an intimate audience circled around a campfire.

The fire crackles as the billowing smoke disappears into the Cape York sky and the bush balladeer takes yet another request.

Give me a home among the gum trees …

In his mind’s eye, this is where one of Australia’s greatest singer-songwriters sees himself.

Serenading ringers and rouseabouts at roadhouses and stations for a feed and place to rest.

“A bit like the old farts at caravan parks who care for the garden in exchange for accommodation,” he adds dryly.

“Maybe I’d play little pubs here and there. Just pull a guitar out and do it.”

Then, suddenly the dream is over.

“Of course, I’d have to bring a sound bloke and some gear with me,” Williamson adds.

“You’ve got to do it properly otherwise everyone will just think I’ve lost it.”

Not bloody likely.

It’s been two decades since the singer-songwriter released his 15th studio album Gunyah, filled with tropical treasures about life in Cape York.

Songs like Frangipani Bay, Cape York Peninsula,Sing You the Outback and more celebrate the region’s pioneers and incomparable beauty.

During his time on the wireless, former ABC Far North broadcaster Richard Dinnen would regularly pepper his program with songs from the folk artist – even before the release of Gunyah.

“It was just a delight to play songs like Papa Whisky November on the radio,” the longtime presenter says.

“I mean, how many songs do you hear about Weipa?

“I might have been told I overplayed a few of his tracks once or twice.

“But hearing your place get a mention on the radio, especially if you’re a small place, is special.

“That’s always a thrill for little towns.”

Just above the Archer where the wild scrub cattle roam

There’s a little wisp of smoke in the air

In 2012, while playing at the Exchange Hotel in Coen, Williamson recalls hearing a scratchy voice whisper a request in his ear.

“Eh, can you play Granny’s Little Gunyah?” the voice asked.

“An old fella requested it,” Williamson recalls.

The album track tells the tale of the late Dawn Jackson and her corrugated iron house at Wolverton Station.

“I was so stoked that someone wanted to hear me play it that I took a photo of him,” he says.

“He was a lovely old bloke sitting there with a beer.”

The romance of living off the land carries through in each verse, Williamson says.

“The thing about that song is it was all real,” he adds.

“The Jacksons didn’t wear shoes. They had a dirt floor with no lino.

“There’s nothing like the truth for a good song.

“They’re the songs that work because it rings right through the heart.”

These days, Williamson says long tours taking in remote communities aren’t very practical.

“I’m getting to the age where I’d like to prepare for retirement,” the 76-year-old says.

“I grow tomatoes and they turn ripe while I’m away.

“You can’t have a dog or a chook yard when you’re always travelling, either.”

Festival appearances make more sense now, he says.

Still, the people and region that inspired some of his greatest lyrics stay with him.

“I often throw Papa Whisky and Cape York Peninsula into my sets because they’re singalongs,” he says.

“Especially in Queensland. It works well at open air events.

“But it was all from personal experience. I had wanted to do a proper Cape camping trip and had never really been there by road.

“There was just so much to write about.”

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