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The Songs of Central Australia


T.G.H. Strehlow.


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T.G.H. Strehlow. Songs of Central Australia. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1971. First and only edition. Quarto, liv + 775pp., errata slip tipped in and folding colour map of “Aboriginal Central Australia” in pocket at rear. Original blind embossed cloth boards in illustrated dust-jacket.

Very Good/Very Good. Corners sharp, some rust marks on the endpapers and teh verso of the map, coloured frontis has a water stain along top and front edges (image not affected), otherwise clean throughout. Unclipped dust-jacket showing minor edge-wear, 2cm vertical tear to top edge of jacket at rear, spine slightly sunned. Scarce.

Theodore (Ted) Strehlow (1908 – 1978) was born at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission southwest of Alice Springs on the Finke River. He grew up speaking Arrernte (Aranda), English and German and over time became a skilled linguist and anthropologist. The Songs of Central Australia is his most well-regarded work, and the National Library of Australia makes particular note of the love poems recorded in Section Three, Part Ten, as they pre-date European romantic traditions by thousands of years. Anyone familiar with Strehlow’s career will know of the controversy surrounding his role as white custodian of sacred objects. Dr John Morton’s article “The Strehlow collection of sacred objects” on the Central Land Council’s website gives a well researched and balanced account of how Strehlow came to be given such sacred trust by the Arrernte elders and his eventual failure to pass that trust on to a new generation of Aboriginal people:

The elders told him that he should look after their secret-sacred things and that, one day, he should pass on that trust. In this latter respect, Strehlow failed. Whatever had been the case between the 1930s and the 1960s, by the 1970s there were qualified Aboriginal people ready to resume ownership of the traditions of their forefathers. (Morton).

This ambitious book is divided into three sections: Part One considers the songs in regard to their metrical and rhythmic forms, Part Two examines language, verbal structure and poetic devices, and Part Three provides both lengthy translations and Freudian interpretations. Despite his documented failings, Strehlow undertook the task of writing this book in the sincere belief, “that when the strong web of future Australian verse comes to be woven, probably some of its strands will be found to be poetic threads spun on the Stone Age hair-spindles of Central Australia” (from the fly-leaf).