Scientists know the world through data, but Aboriginal Australians know the world through the ancient musical tradition of songlines.
Beneath every Australian’s feet lies a hidden history. A network of ancient stories embedded in the earth — a network so vast it criss-crosses the entire continent. From red desert in the west to sunburnt savannah in the north, through rocky canyons to rainforest edging the east coast, these paths inextricably connect the land with the people who have inhabited it for 50,000 years.
Although invisible to illiterate Western eyes, these tracks across country come to life with music. To some Aboriginal people, these pathways are known as ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’, the ‘Way of the Law’ or ‘Dreaming Tracks’. But they are perhaps most widely known by the term songlines.
I first heard of songlines when I read Jay Griffiths’ Wild: An Elemental Journey, a lyrical treatise on wilderness. “I learned of songlines,” she wrote, “how people who know and love a land can hold it in mind as music.” To my mind, it sounded like this fascinating, almost romantic notion where concepts usually considered separate intertwined at a music-people-nature nexus.
And so, I embarked on a journey to learn more about songlines. What I found was this complex, nebulous way of orienting yourself in the world; a vivid expression of an earthbound philosophy.
Songlines follow the journeys taken by Ancestors in the Dreamtime, routes of creation where creator-beings’ imprints and actions formed landscape features such as rocks, hills and waterholes. Along the way, these creator-beings sang into existence everything that makes up the natural world: the birds and perenties, and the rivers and desert peas. These dreaming tracks — and all their associated knowledge — have been passed down through song-sagas, music, dance and art for many thousands of years.
Often, songlines are thought of as maps. By singing rhythms and melodies first voiced by a creator-being, an Aboriginal person can “sing up country” and navigate using natural features imbued with Dreaming.
Songlines vary from a few kilometres to many hundreds of kilometres. “There’s one song cycle that crosses Australia from the Port Augusta area and ends up in Arnhem land,” explains Professor Marcia Langton on the SBS documentary First Australians. “There are others that come from the west Australian coast all the way to central Australia, and some believe originally travelled right over into eastern Australia,” said Langton, an anthropologist from the Yiman/Bidjara nation.
For example, the Seven Sisters songline traverses the desert from central Australia to the west coast, spanning several distinct language groups. The terrestrial songline is mirrored by a songline in the stars: the seven sisters of the Pleiades constellation are chased across the night sky by the constellation we know as Orion.
Another songline begins in Arnhem Land at a place called Yirrkala. Here, the Yolngu people believe that Barnumbirr (the planet Venus) transported the first humans to Australia from the east. The song of Barnumbirr, performed in Yolngu Morning Star ceremonies, recounts her travels across the land. Within this song, the locations of important landmarks including mountains and waterholes are described. By remembering the songline, Yolngu travellers not only know the route across country, but also where to find food and water.
Similar knowledge is recorded in songlines from other parts of Australia, anthropologist Diana James, from the Australian National University, told me. “Elders I’ve worked with in the western deserts say that if you know the song, you can locate waterholes along the path taken by the creation being,” she says.
The Seven Sisters Songline project website describes songlines as “cultural webs of memory” where “links carry spiritual, economic and cultural knowledge between peoples across Australia.” According to some scholars, songlines also functioned as trade routes between disparate peoples.
Coming from a western standpoint with our written maps and compasses (and now GPS), it seems incredible that people could find their way across the land with just a song. Indeed, Aboriginal people’s ability to travel such vast distances surprised early European settlers. Where western eyes saw an inhospitable wasteland, Aboriginal eyes see an en-chanted earth alive with wisdom and music.
In this view, songlines aren’t ‘about’ the land, they are the land itself; singing a songline is equivalent to walking it. Travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who coined the English term songline to describe this ancient concept, wrote, “In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score.” I imagine it as a kind of synaesthesia, where the visual landscape is intertwined with a soundscape: see that rock, hear a melody, know the way.
But songlines are more than just oral navigation maps, bearing an intimacy with both stars and land. They also encode a raft of other knowledge including time- and calendar-keeping, the prediction of tides, historical events, and laws.
“Songlines are a library of information,” says Cornel Ozies, a member of the Djugun people and director of the short film Footprints, which was aired on SBS as part of Songlines on Screen. “They are many things: a road map, a bible, our history. The examples and stories in songlines guide the way we live and give us our unique cultural identities.”
As Ozies hints, there is something more to songlines than their functional role as tools for survival. Whereas we think of survival — access to food and water — as separate to our culture, songlines show that there is no such separation for Aboriginal people. They’re just as much about identity and belonging.
In this way, I think that songlines have taken on a broader meaning than Chatwin’s original definition, or than those practices studied by anthropologists. It’s this fuzziness that renders ‘songlines’ a contested term. Maybe it’s like one of those “untranslatable” words where there is no suitable equivalent in English. With our westernised brains wired to English, our words can only capture a shadow of its entirety. Like many concepts that stray into the abstract, songlines can mean different things to different people.
For artist and Indigenous rights advocate Elverina Johnson, of the Gungganji nation, songlines don’t necessarily have to be songs — the stories can be passed down in other forms too.
“My idea of a songline is the thread between the stories that you know that have been passed down from generation to generation. It will be about the place that you belong and all the surroundings and all the content that comes with that place. It’s our map, it’s our book, it’s our story. It’s everything,” she explains.
I visited Johnson in her hometown of Yarrabah, a community nestled in thickly-forested hills and edged by a strip of tropical beach, south of Cairns in North Queensland. This landscape, along with the plants and animals that inhabit it, is rich with stories and songs.
“We have a lot of places around here where stories have been passed down. You’re told, ‘That’s a sacred rock over there, this is what happened there, this is why it’s sacred’,” she tells me. “The DNA of who we are is in that rock, is in that story, is in that area.”
“A lot of people don’t get it,” she continues. “They say, ‘Well why are you fighting for your land? Can’t that be separate from who you are and what you do?’”
“It can’t be separate,” she says matter-of-factly, her eyes sharp. “Because the land holds all of the stories about where our people roamed or lived or practiced culture. Where they sang, where they danced, where they fished or hunted and gathered. And all of that fits in with our songlines.”
Johnson’s voice softens, loses its rhythmic intonation: “So, taking any of that away, it’s like you’re taking a link off the chain. The more you take links off, the songs get shorter and shorter. Stories start to disappear.” Her words hang heavy in the air, before her staunch defiance returns, “But we have to keep going.”
As a scientist from a western background, trained to write everything down, it can be difficult to accept the validity of knowledge that isn’t recorded in writing. We might even think of such systems as flimsy. “The challenge for people who rely on written texts is to lift their eyes from the page and attune their aural sense to other ways of knowing history,” says James.
Then I thought of how I learnt the alphabet — through that catchy Twinkle Twinkle Little Star tune. Perhaps I could think of songlines as monumental mnemonics, stretching to lengths rivalling the Iliad. Let’s not forget that these cultures have persisted for millennia in some of the harshest environments on Earth, too. Surely such an epic record of survival is proof that oral knowledge systems are just as powerful.
In a similar vein, anthropologist Catherine Ellis writes: “Music in non-literate societies often functions as a mnemonic device and in this and other ways replaces literature as the repository of important information… The scientifically trained person in Western culture often dismisses music from serious thought because it does not convey factual information. In traditional Aboriginal communities, on the other hand, song is one of the most important vehicles of communication.”
Songlines and music impart history, morality and spirituality to each individual. Forget flimsy. By linking practical information with physical and spiritual wellbeing in the emotionally powerful medium of music, songlines are strong and enduring, holistic knowledge fused into the land at a resonant frequency.
“Music is really really important because it helps us in many ways to sustain our culture, to keep our storytelling going,” says Johnson. “It helps us to continue language. It prompts our memory, it helps us to reconnect. And it helps us to stay in tune with who we are.”
While some songlines persist, others have been lost or broken up with the fate of many Aboriginal Australians at the hands of white colonialism. Some lie forgotten, scabbed over by the roads and buildings of cities. In the face of adversity and change, Aboriginal Australians are turning to new ways to preserve their heritage — and to create new songs.
“Our culture and history is an oral one and if it is not talked about it is forgotten,” explains Ozies. “In order for our culture to survive it must move from oral to documented. To record these songlines on film is a natural progression. We must use any devices at our disposal to keep our traditions alive.”
Johnson, too, looks to modern technology to pass on her songlines to younger generations. She tells me about a song written by a former Queen about a sacred medicine water site. “Before she passed away, she gave me permission to sing that song,” she says, “That’s a perfect example of hanging onto that songline. I’ve now re-recorded that song and I’ve added a prayer in there in language as well. I can give you a listen to it, if you’d like.” The song is calm and lilting and beautiful, soft acoustic guitars and mellow voices.
She then plays me another song she co-wrote with The Briscoe Sisters, about the Gungganji kings and queens of Yarrabah. It’s a head-bopping reggae tune — Johnson explains that reggae is a popular genre here in Yarrabah. “We have kids now, two or three years old, who sing this song. And they’re starting to ask questions about what it says,” she beams with pride.
While the fate of many songlines remains precarious, there are glimmers of hope. From James’ research into western desert songlines, to film projects, and Johnson’s song recordings, the land is coming alive with song and stories.
But I hope that songlines will be more than just “recorded for posterity”; more than preserved specimens in a dusty, forgotten cultural museum. These stories are infused with vast, accumulated knowledge of the people who have told them for generations — and if we lift our eyes from the page or computer screen and listen, western science can learn valuable knowledge — from ethnobotany to fire management practices.
In this age of environmental destruction, perhaps western society can also learn something of the unity with the land and sustainability practices, that are so central to Aboriginal peoples’ life-perspective.
I hope that people will continue to sing up the deserts, the savannahs, the canyons and the rainforest of Australia. And while my understanding of songlines may just scratch the surface, I’ll always remember that it’s more than just red dirt beneath my feet. It’s alive with song and stories and dreaming.
Edited by Timothy Newport and Diana Crow