All the great Australian songs you’ve never heard of
27th September 2023

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Singer Robyn Archer has hand-picked more than 30 songs for her show, An Australian Songbook. But don’t expect to recognise many – or probably any – of them.

There’s no Click Go the Shears or Home among the Gumtrees. And you won’t get Khe San or Flame Trees.

“The show is deliberately not Down Under or Great Southern Land. It’s more of an opportunity to say, ‘Here’s a different picture’,” says Archer, who has worn many hats over her long and distinguished career, from performer and writer to artistic director, stage director and fierce advocate for the arts in Australia.

Robyn Archer on stage during the Queensland leg of her tour.Credit: Brett Boardman

Archer’s different picture, which she has deliberately not cast as the definitive list of Australian songs, is as quirky as it is diverse.

Among the list is a lesser-known song from Yothu Yindi, a piece by Lou Bennett sung (with permission) in Language, settings of words by poets Kenneth Slessor and Michael Dransfield, and songs by Kate Miller-Heidke and the Coodabeen Champions. There are also several of Archer’s own songs, including The Backyard Abortion Waltz.

“I deliberately said I’m not going to call this The Great Australian Songbook because it’s got quite a lot of my songs and humility stopped me,” she says.

Early memories of growing up in South Australia, particularly involving her country-music-loving mother, have influenced many of her choices.

“I refer to the Pub With No Beer, which my mum sang with gusto, but I don’t sing that,” she says. “I sing a beautiful song about the river Murray called Murray Moon then I follow that with the McKean Sisters’ Gymkhana Yodel, which gives us all a chance to get out and yodel.”

Towards the end of the show Archer, who is joined on stage by piano accordionist George Butrumlis, Cameron Goodall on guitar and Enio Pozzebon on keyboards, gleefully takes the mickey out of love songs.

“I’m not much of a love song person,” she says, “But I do one of my so-called love songs called An Insect on the Windscreen of My Heart.”

More seriously, she is acutely aware the Sydney leg of her concert tour opens at Belvoir St Theatre just four days after the national referendum on the Indigenous Voice to parliament.

“In the concert, when I am paying tribute to an unbelievable list of great First Nations songwriters I ask pertinently why Archie and Ruby and Mandawuy – all younger than me – are not on the stage singing their songs in their beautiful voices. It’s because of this horrid gap, this shameful gap. Not just in life expectancy but in practically every other category.

“It’s going to be an interesting moment. We want it to be celebratory and to celebrate those songs even more.”

Regardless of the referendum result, An Australian Songbook remains a celebration of Archer’s own astonishing longevity.

“I really didn’t expect still to be on the stage performing,” she says. “If you go from my first performance in my great-grandparents’ hotel at four, it’s a career of more than 70 years. Curiously, I’m still singing a more than two-hour concert. And the audience reaction has been absolutely fantastic.

“I think one of the reasons it works for me and is so enjoyable, it’s quite revealing about my personality – it’s a bit rude and crude in places.”

Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook opens on October 18 at Belvoir St Theatre

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