Shane Howard: Singing the Environment

As early as the 1970s, singer-songwriter Shane Howard championed the rights of Australia’s indigenous people and their country. In the hit song Solid Rock (Sacred Ground), Howard and his band Goanna helped create a new awareness of the natural beauty, culture and spirit of Australia. In an exclusive interview with Gaia Discovery, Howard tells Mallika Naguran about what he thinks are the big environmental issues that need attention – and how we can help make them right.

At the Tamar Valley Folk Festival 2017, Shane Howard wowed the audience with songs from Deeper South album, and Solid Rock. Photo by Mallika Naguran.

At the Tamar Valley Folk Festival 2017, Shane Howard wowed the audience with songs from Deeper South album, and Solid Rock. Photo by Mallika Naguran.

Launceston, 10 February 2017. It is one thing to know of Shane Howard - an icon in the Australian Hall of Folk Fame - and it’s another to get to know him.

Shane Howard has played with Neil Young, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Carole King, Archie Roach and Bob Dylan. He has produced albums for other artists including Mary Black, who popularised his ‘Flesh and Blood’, and has co-written songs with Carole King.

In the mid-1980s, Goanna’s ‘Let the Franklin Flow’ flagged the potential damming of a wild river in the west coast of Tasmania, and took it mainstream. Such was its influence that the Franklin dam never happened. In one of his latest songs, ‘Rusted World’, Howard sings of a world that is falling into ruin; one where “the carbon situation” hastens that fall. After 40 years, Howard is still urgently calling on his listeners to take care of their world.

At the Tamar Valley Folk Festival 2017 in George Town, a sleepy coastal town in the north of Tasmania, the Shane Howard Trio treated the audience to a mesmerising hour-long performance at the George Town Memorial Hall. After the last song was sung, the applause had finally died down and the concert was over, still in awe, I went up to the stage while he was on his knees pulling out amplifier cords, and asked if I could speak to him, even perhaps do an interview. He smiled and said yes. 

I had no idea what to expect.

If you were to ask me what I thought about his concert, I would just say that he had me at the first strum. Howard on his guitar, backed by John Hudson (guitar, mandolin and dobro) and Ewen Baker (mandolin and fiddle) sang and played songs that tugged at the heartstrings. When he sang the beautiful ‘Hymn to Love’ inspired by the writings of St Paul in a deep throaty folksy voice, he moved all of us deeply. Something inside us all melted. Two grown-up men on either side of me cried.

At the Tamar Valley Folk Festival, Howard performed songs from his latest and 13th album, Deeper South. Each track was delivered with precision yet at a tempo that resembled a stroll by the river - no rush, no fuss. You get the feeling that you have to take time to tell a good story. And storytelling through lyrics is just what Howard is good at. 

The river is a theme that appears strongly in Howard’s songs, beyond symbolism. I learnt just how important the river – and the environment – was to this poet-songwriter-philosopher-musician, as we spoke after the last cord was coiled and put away. 

The Shane Howard Trio with Ewen Baker (left), Shane Howard in the middle and John Hudson to his right. Photo by Teresa O'Brien.

The Shane Howard Trio with Ewen Baker (left), Shane Howard in the middle and John Hudson to his right. Photo by Teresa O'Brien.

Economy and the Environment

Our conversation began on the topic of the environment. I asked Howard what he thought about people’s lack of care and impetus, especially when much is known about just how fragile nature has become due to excessive human’s interference.

“Native people understand implicitly (about protecting the environment) – it’s a sacred code,” said Howard. “The temptation of greed gives us the blinkers to avoid the hard realities. But I am constantly astounded by the fact that we know we are at, you know, one minute to midnight with this stuff, and people who have access to great power still have the capacity to turn a blind eye and go ‘there’s good money to be made here and so let’s keeping pushing the boundary’.”

“If you think of your children, and grandchildren, and great grandchildren, you’re basically racking up a debt, a great environmental debt that has to be paid off, and make it harder and harder for them.” 

As well as the environment, Howard is widely respected for his prolific songwriting and for his involvement in the cause of the injustices suffered by Aboriginals in Australia since the colonisation of Australia in 1788.  When asked if he thinks about environmental issues a lot, he said, “I do. You know what Bob Dylan says ‘money doesn’t talk, it screams’; if you think about it in a macro sense, it brings you back to look harder into the philosophy of capitalism which has dominated our era, most of all my life, post First World War, post Second World War.”

Howard spoke of how the economy has changed due to the influence of society and its hunger for progress through industrialism, taking after “… American capitalism and American confidence that has dominated and kind of infiltrated the world”. 

In the 60s, Australia was one of the most egalitarian societies in the world, Howard said. He said that around the time of the First World War, an argument went for and against conscription here in Australia. “To the capitalist, conscription seemed to be a dirty word then. It is easy to forget that the early part of the 20th century was driven by socialism. That gave us the pillars of our economic system, gave us the pillars of a welfare system, gave us the pillars of institutions that have served us really well,” he noted. 

But according to Howard, we are not like that any more. Capitalism is a given. Nonetheless, he said he’d like to think that the current generation is showing increasing outrage against that now, and maybe the election of Donald Trump was the last gasp of that kind of thinking, and its negative influence on the environment.. 

“Maybe the world will return to some kind of strange industrialist-capitalist model, but it certainly won’t serve the global environment very well if we go back down that path.”

Carbon and Climate Change

Climate change isn’t a popular subject among most musicians, but Howard sings it loud. He sang it in ‘Rusted World’ and in ‘Light of Day’ pointed out that we should heed the warning signs of pollution, atmospheric change, and more.

the carbon situation is right out of the blue

the whole wide world is rusted

right before your eyes

the whole show’s disappearing

as the waters rise

all the spin doctors they’re working overtime

trying to convince us everything will be fine.

the carbon situation is worse than before

all the climate deniers

around the revolving door… rusted!”

- ‘Everything is Rusted’, Shane Howard

So how has he come to feel so deeply about the environment, and what does he think of climate change? “I’m not really an ideologue,” he said. “I am more of a pragmatist. I grew up and lived most of my life in the country. I’ve been to most parts of the world for my music, but I am a regionalist at heart as well.” 

Howard grew up in a little town in Southwest Victoria where “… there was a Nestle factory, and my dad worked there for the most part of his life. I saw that factory grow in my lifetime and its output and its waste used to go straight into the Murri River that ran past my house.”

Howard described how he saw it accumulate and become more and more toxic until the fish turned upside down. “So in my own little world, I saw at a very young age the consequence of not managing effluent and toxicity – we couldn’t fish there anymore.” 

In the 1960s, Howard saw that proper regulation and systems put in place to manage the effluent made the river is healthy again – but only after a local outcry. Lessons were learnt the hard way.

“In the 90s, we were aware of the ozone layer because of propellants that we use and we changed our behaviour, and now the ozone layer is closing. Climate change is so hard for our heads to get around in a way and requires a change in behaviour that seems to be too much of a leap for mainstream society to make.”

He points out that there are technologies available to help make that behavioural change, such as Tesla cars, battery technology and more. “We have all the capacities to transform us overnight, and we do have renewable technologies to help us change our behaviour. But there are powerful forces at the top end of the economic tree that want to hold on to old technologies like oil and coal.”

Surely culture plays a part too, I suggest. Doesn’t society tend to cling on to cultural habits, for instance coal communities cling on to dirty fuel because that’s how it has always been done, instead of switching to solar powered panels for energy? “That’s true,” said Howard, “but that’s where the role of governance comes in to make sure that those people at the bottom end of the economic system, who are the working people, have the transition capacity to move to another industry. Too often the governments leave such people stranded in the transition and they become very angry,” he pointed out.

He give the example of America at the moment as being in “… a situation of transition economies and bad governance.” 

“It is not rocket science really to bring people with you. Convert Detroit into an electric car manufacture instead of an internal combustion manufacturer. There is always friction in the time of change. There is always a rub. But we have to go there or face pretty dire consequences,” he said.

The River of Life

Shane Howard grew up within 100 metres of a river.  “The river is absolutely central to my thinking and we weren’t far from the sea, so we could see the whole interaction between the river and the estuaries and the ocean…  it is dynamic, it floods, it comes from somewhere and it goes to somewhere. There is an eternal cycle of evaporation and generation of water.”

I hear the sound of distant thunder

watch rivers roll down to the sea

each new day brings brand new wonder

and a hunger just to be

- ‘Till the Rivers All Run Dry’, Shane Howard

The river, estuary, sea and oceans have a hold on Shane Howard. Photo by Ferne Millen.

The river, estuary, sea and oceans have a hold on Shane Howard. Photo by Ferne Millen.

I ask if  Howard’s love for rivers influence him to write and sing the famous ‘Let the Franklin Flow’? He said it did. “I suppose yeah. Lake Pedder was dammed in 1972 and I was young then, at school.” It was a few years later when looking at the photos of beautiful rivers and lakes including a lake system with its own beach, he started thinking how could people destroy something so beautiful?

“And a lot of people felt the same way,” he continued. “Then when the Franklin River was facing being dammed and we saw the district lake photos by Peter Dombrovskis, there was a great sense of ‘this can’t happen again’.”

Howard said that was possibly the moment triggered the environmentalism movement in Australia. “It started with bush walkers, naturalist societies, bird people and all of those sort of, which probably harks back to German naturalist reality. And that’s when the environmental movement began, and those forces worked around the world.” 

Did the song popularise the movement? “We had commercial success with Solid Rock with Goanna and it was the year of mainstream radio and media, so we were able to do that, yeah. Because of that [the message] got out there very, very quickly,” said Howard.

Music critics and political observers have said, in looking back to that time, that Goanna’s ‘Let the Franklin Flow’ became a protest anthem against the damming of the river. I ask Howard if his song actually made the difference? Did it help reverse the damming agreement? “I don’t want to over-talk it,” he smiled. “I think it helped keep the issue alive when it started to fade from the media and certainly with our generation at that time – we were young then. It helped to bolster the issue and keep the conversation going.”

When quizzed about being proud of his contribution to the Franklin protest movement through the song, he agreed he is, despite reports of being physically threatened if he went on to perform the song at a concert.  

“I am, yeah. I am happy that some people liked it. It is still there and history has vindicated that choice: you’re never sure at the time. It was hard as it divided families here in Tasmania. Was it going to take jobs away and rob income? They are things to think about. Coming from the working class background, I think very carefully on the impacts of the little people, the employees. But [the] township is thriving because of that.”

Irish Awakening

Howard said his sense of justice began way back when he was just a kid. “I gave a speech on the environment in school, with some help from my mother and father. It wasn’t a kosher subject at that time,” he added. “Even as a young kid we knew we were second class kids, and that sharpened my judgement about justice issues. Then Bob Dylan crashed into our world – I was only 10 then - all those things were powerful to me,” said Howard, who admires Dylan highly.

Being an Irish in Australia, a descendant of The Great Hunger immigrants of the 1850s, Howard and his family experienced discrimination and couldn’t help feeling second-class citizens. This, he said, led to something of an awakening. “As I was growing up, I realised that we were our own racial society.  Once you know, you can’t unknow. But you can turn away, and explore, and say something.”

Howard, by addressing the environment through his lyrics, has moved more people than can be imagined. The hit ‘Solid Rock’ from the Spirit of Place album (1982) ignited a new awareness for the rights of the Aboriginal people in Australia. Several decades later, Solid Rock – incidentally the first commercial song to feature a didgeridu – is still an iconic Australian song.

A keen observer of nature, Howard said he draws strength and wisdom from it too. “Growing up by the river had a powerful influence on me as well as seeing the micro-organisms and beetles growing in them being destroyed [by pollution]. Watching all of that I subliminally learnt that you have take good care of the river as it can be destroyed, but it can be restored as well.”

Howard met a scientist at Alice Springs who spoke of how time eventually would deal with invasive species that threaten our well-being and way of life. “He said time sorts everything out,” said Howard. “But I think there are other issues where time can’t sort out – like climate change – where you have to push. On a bad day I would like to start a climate change resistance army,” he joked.

But Howard is serious when he says climate change is not to be trifled with. He sees the impact on the coastal dunes where he lives in Southwest Victoria.  “A little more dune disappears every year, it’s constant. If a glacier in the Antarctica melts, we will be seeing major change.”

look around us now, look at all we’ve done

poisoning the rivers, darkening the sun

poison in the sea, the very air we breathe

nowhere safe to run, there’s nowhere left to hide

warning bells keep ringing

last chance for a new beginning

how long, how long, does this go on

until the light of day

we’re livin’ in a world where greed is king

easy to forget the fundamental things

warning bells keep ringing

last chance for a new beginning

- ‘In the Light of Day’, Shane Howard

“So we can’t just let time sort it out. Otherwise it will be a hundred thousand years or more, before that all heals, if not more. Who knows?”

I am glad Shane Howard took time to talk about nature and the environment to Gaia Discovery. I am sure our readers will appreciate his views as they do his songs.