Environmental Science
articles by Will Kemp

Magic Mountain

Warning: this article contains names of Aboriginal people who have passed away.

Old man took me up the mountain, said ‘Son this is your life’,
Showed me all my spirit dreaming, why there’s so much strife
Healed the torment in my mind, pointed out the white man’s bull
In his old black natural way, he said “you’re half caste walking full”.
(Magic Mountain, Bobby McLeod)

Magic Mountain, by Bobby McLeod, is a country music song about the singer discovering his connection to country and culture as an Aboriginal person, and the effect that had on his life.

Bobby was born in Sydney to Aboriginal parents, and grew up travelling round New South Wales. Life was hard for Aboriginal people in those days, and there were times when there was no food. At those times, his family camped near a river or the ocean and fed themselves by hunting and fishing (Wolfe, 2008).

Bobby was active in the Aboriginal land rights movement and travelled around Australia supporting that struggle. His itinerant lifestyle and an alcohol problem landed him in jail a number of times (Wolfe, 2008). His father died during one of his periods of incarceration and Bobby was allowed day release to attend the funeral. He wrote his first song, Wayward Dreams, afterwards (Walker, 2000). Wayward Dreams talks about freedom and traditional life, colonization and dispossession, and expresses McLeod’s bitterness at what had happened to his people.

Then the white man, with his gun and education, the land they did collect.
When the black man said “you must not take” it was classed as disrespect.
And the reply was always “black man, you are standing in the way
Of a more progressive way to live in a white man sort of way.”
(Wayward Dreams, Bobby McLeod)

The fight for land rights took Bobby to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, on the lawns of parliament house in Canberra. There, he achieved notoriety by “arresting” an assistant secretary of the Department of Aboriginal affairs at gunpoint and holding him and three other public servants captive in an office. Charlie Perkins came from the Tent Embassy and convinced Bobby to give him the gun – which he then passed to the police, after removing the bullets (SMH, 1974a). Bobby was eternally grateful to Charlie Perkins for this action, as he would have received a long prison sentence if the police had found him with a loaded gun (Bobby McLeod, 1987, pers. comm.) – as it was he received a $40 fine and a good behaviour bond (SMH, 1974b).

Although it recognises the losses of colonisation, Magic Mountain shows a generally positive and optimistic outlook. This is a contrast to Bobby’s earlier confrontational and alcohol dependent way of dealing with the daily injustices he had to endure as an Aboriginal person.

That was the first time I felt the sunshine shining in my heart
Heard the dingo call, the bellbird sing, we were together from the start.
At night I saw the emu spirit up amid the stars
It’s good to feel at peace at home in the bush without them scars.
(Magic Mountain, Bobby McLeod)

He comments on the contrast between the bush and the city, between Aboriginal ways and whitefella ways:

Now I’m walking in the city where the white man made his stay.
Can’t see dingo, emu, bellbird, what a price to pay.
So much senseless self destruction filled with screaming noise
Where lots of people searching, groping, initiating aimless ploys.

Well the sun just burns their shoulders, can it get inside their brain?
Hurts to see the wantingness just driving them insane.
Too much greed and sickness, neverending uphill fight.
I’ve got to get out, get back to mountain, where I saw the new dawn light.
(Magic Mountain, Bobby McLeod)

Interestingly, Bobby’s sentiments here echo words in a report of the Select Committee on Aborigines to the Legislative Council of NSW in 1845: “…… [the Aborigines] pitied us that we troubled ourselves with so many things.” (Gammage, 2011).

The song talks about the harm that has been done to the singer – and, by extension, to his whole people – and suggests that the means of healing this harm lies in the land, and in Aboriginal people’s inherent connection to country.

It’s sad to think that I’ve lost so much, just walking in the white man’s trance.
But good to know that I can still get back to my natural tribal dance.
Teach the children, let them know the beauty of their land,
That the culture is there one time, the strength it helps them stand

Up alongside that mountain, where the sun shines in your heart.
Didjeridu, kookaburra too, yes the heartaches will depart.
Filled with spirits from the dreaming, all the things we love.
Everywhere about you Koori language, special gifts from up above.
(Magic Mountain, Bobby McLeod)

In later years, Bobby put the words “teach the children” into action and, inspired by experiences with Canadian Indigenous people, he established the Doonooch Aboriginal Healing and Cultural Centre at Wreck Bay, near Nowra. (Deadly Vibe, 2001) This centre helps young Aboriginal people connect with their culture and country.

That was the first time I felt the sunshine shining in my heart.
Heard the dingo call, the bellbird sing, we were together from the start.
At night I saw the emu spirit up amid the stars
It’s good to feel at peace at home, in the bush without them scars.
(Magic Mountain, Bobby McLeod)

The “Old man” was probably Guboo Ted Thomas, an elder from the NSW south coast, who was born in 1909 (Fox, 2002) and the mountain was probably Didthul near Ulladulla on the south coast of New South Wales (although it may have been Gulaga, near Central Tilba, in the same region ).

Bobby McLeod died in 2009.

This song’s message is about how important a connection to country – and, through country, to culture – is for Aboriginal people. It talks about how those connections can give them the strength to survive and rise above the injustices and abuses of colonization.

It is not by chance that Bobby McLeod chose to tell his story through the medium of country music. It is an important genre for Aboriginal people all round Australia, and Reeve (1985) suggests that Aboriginal people find meaning and express the nature of their identity through country music.

Aboriginal country music has a strong connection with incarceration (Reeve, 1985). In 2013, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people made up 27% of the prison population in Australia. 1.25% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were in prison. That is approximately ten times the incarceration rate of non-Indigenous Australians (ABS, 2013). Time in prison is often used to develop talent for playing music – and that music is usually country (Reeve, 1993).

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Bobby McLeod wrote his first song, Wayward Dreams, in jail (Walker, 2000). Learning to play the guitar and writing songs can help manage the pain of imprisonment and turn wasted time into something meaningful. Country music is a genre that allows Aboriginal people to express their identity and take control of their lives, against the coercive background of jail (Reeve, 1993).

There are a number of Aboriginal prison songs. Malabar Mansion, by Mac Silva, tells the story of doing time in Sydney’s Long Bay jail (Foley, 2013). Goulburn Jail, by Roger Knox, tells a similar story of being locked up in Goulburn (Walker, 2000). Jailanguru Pakarnu (Out of jail), by Warumpi Band, is a jail story in the Luritja language of the Western Desert (Gifford, 2014). Vic Simms learnt to play guitar in prison. While he was doing time in Bathurst in the 1970s he recorded an album, The Loner, in the prison dining room (Best, 2004; Walker, 2000). That album was released by RCA records. In later years, Vic went back into prisons voluntarily to play music for the inmates. The Koori Classics: Aboriginal Prison Songs compilation album was released on the Enrec label in 1988 (Walker, 2000).

Reeve (1993) says that adopting country music was a natural progression for Aboriginal people and that there is a continuum between traditional music and country music. It is, however, not entirely clear what she means by a “continuum”. Country music certainly appears to be an integral part of the lives of most Aboriginal people – it is the predominant genre played on all Aboriginal radio stations I have listened to: CAAMA Radio in Alice Springs, 4AAA in Brisbane, Larrakia Radio in Darwin, 4K1G in Townsville, Radio Redfern in Sydney, and others. There appear to be a number of reasons why this is the case.

Like traditional Aboriginal songs, country music often tells a story (Walker, 2000), and that aspect may have helped country music resonate with Aboriginal people when they first came into contact with the genre. Yorta Yorta Man by Jimmy Little is a classic example of an Aboriginal story told through the medium of country music. The singer tells of his family history and his connection with Yorta Yorta country which spans the border between New South Wales and Victoria, along the Murray River. Jimmy Little was the first commercial Aboriginal musician, releasing records as early as 1956 (Walker, 2000).

Country music, by definition, relates to rural life – and most, if not all, Aboriginal people have strong connections with the bush (Walker, 2000). Yorta Yorta Man and Magic Mountain are two examples of country music songs which speak about the singer’s connection to country, but there are many more. On a similar note to Bobby McLeod’s Magic Mountain, Harry Williams and the Country Outcasts’ song, Streets of Old Fitzroy (also later released as Streets of Tamworth by Roger Knox), laments the city lights and the desire to be back in the bush.

City lights are driving me crazy
As I walk the lonely streets of old Fitzroy
How I wish that I was back there in the Dreamtime
In the country where there’s always peace and quiet.
(Streets of old Fitzroy, Harry Williams)

Country music often conveys a certain sadness, which probably explains part of its appeal to a people who have survived centuries of atrocities and injustice (Walker, 2000). Bob Randall’s Brown Skin Baby is a good example of this – a story about an Aboriginal woman whose baby is taken away. Bob was taken away as a child himself (Walker, 2000), as was Archie Roach – whose songs Took The Children Away and Munjana are also about stolen children.

Langton (2005) suggests that modern Aboriginal art forms are a means of adapting the non-Aboriginal world to fit the Aboriginal viewpoint, to reduce the pressure to assimilate. Country music may also produce this effect in reverse – i.e., it presents the Aboriginal world view in a form which allows non-Aboriginal people to understand it. This is certainly the case with some Aboriginal music. Part of the aim of Aboriginal radio station 4AAA in Brisbane is to get their message across to non-Aboriginal people (Tiga Bayles, Station Manager, 4AAA, 1999, pers. comm.) – and they mainly use the medium of country music to achieve that purpose.

The combination of sadness, travelling, story telling, and a strong connection to the land combine to make country music a dominant influence on modern Aboriginal music. It seems to have a universal appeal to Aboriginal people all around Australia. It helps urban Aboriginal people to maintain their connection with country, and it helps people to survive injustice. Aboriginal people are not a homogeneous group – there are variations in culture, history, and outlook across Australia (Langton, 2005) – and country music seems to be a medium which unites people across all nations and clan groups. Country even unites people across racial divisions. Its strong connection to the bush must surely play a significant part in that.

However this must remain speculation for now, as there appears to have been very little research carried out in this area. The ubiquity of country music among Aboriginal people is an interesting phenomenon – although one which is probably invisible to most non-Aboriginal Australians – and it could be a fruitful subject for future research.


ABS (2013). Prisoners in Australia, 2013. Australian Bureau of Statistics web site. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4517.0main+features62013 on 25/7/14.

Best, S. (2004). Jailhouse rocker. The Age, 2/7/04. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/07/01/1088488079139.html on 29/7/14.

Deadly Vibe (2001). Every McLeod has a silver lining. Deadly Vibe, 56. Retrieved from http://www.deadlyvibe.com.au/2007/11/bobby-mcleod on 25/7/14.

Foley, G. (2013). Music, Mac and Malabar Mansion. Tracker: The Koori History Web Site. Retrieved from http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/tracker/tracker28.html on 28/7/14.

Fox, T. (2002). Guboo Ted Thomas: 1909-2002. Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2002.2, 120.

Gammage, B. (2011). The biggest estate on Earth: how Aborigines made Australia. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin.

Langton, M. (2005). Aboriginal Art and Film: The Politics of Representation. Rouge, 6.

Gifford, B. (2014). Jailanguru Pakarnu (Out From Jail) (1983). Australian Screen. Retrieved from http://aso.gov.au/titles/music/jailanguru-pakarnu/clip1 on 28/7/14.

Reeve, G. (1985). Music, life history and meaning : an essay on country music and aboriginal identity. Ph.D. thesis, Anthropology, University of Western Australia.

SMH (1974a). ‘Teach you to starve’ threat alleged: Aboriginal in court. Sydney Morning Herald, 25/7/74, p21.

SMH (1974b). $40 fine, bond over pistol in Government office. Sydney Morning Herald, 2/3/74, p1.

Walker, C. (2000). Buried Country: the story of Aboriginal country music. Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press.

Wolfe, D. (2008). Forward. In McLeod, B., Ngudjung Yugarang: ‘Mother’s Heartbeat’. Nowra, NSW: BMAC Publishing.

Music references
Knox, Roger (1998). Goulburn Jail. (Single). Enrec.

Little, Jimmy (1988). Yorta Yorta Man. (Single). Bunyip.

McLeod, Bobby (1987). Magic Mountain. Culture Up Front. Enrec.

McLeod, Bobby (1987). Wayward Dreams. Culture Up Front. Enrec.

Roach, Archie (1990). Took the children away. Charcoal Lane. Hightone.

Roach, Archie (1990) Munjana. Charcoal Lane. Hightone.

Silva, Mac (1998). Malabar Mansion. (Single). Enrec.

Simms, Vic (1973). The loner (album). RCA.

Various artists (1988). Koori Classics: Aboriginal Prison Songs (album). Enrec.

Warumpi Band (1984). Jailanguru Pakarnu. (Single). Hot.

Williams, Harry and Wilga, and The Country Outcasts (1981). Streets of Old Fitzroy. Harry and Wilga Williams and The Country Outcasts. Hadley.

Wayward Dreams
This song is available on YouTube:

Streets of Old Fitzroy

Other songs
Many of the other songs mentioned in this narrative are also available on YouTube. Unfortunately Magic Mountain is not currently there.