Skip to content

From Big Things Little Things Grow Analysis Essay

This version was only meant as a demo for a documentary about Kev Carmody called Blood Brothers – From Little Things Big Things Grow (1993) but with its minimal production values and strong message, it has endured as a moving and classic version.

Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody wrote most of ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ in a few hours sitting around a campfire, under the stars, in the late 1980s. Their inspiration came from Vincent Lingiari who, in 1966, led the Wave Hill walk-off to an important sacred site nearby called Daguragu, at Wattie Creek. The strike lasted eight years and was the catalyst for the Aboriginal land rights movement.

Kelly reworked a few lines from a Bruce Springsteen song and drew influence from American protest songs by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan (Paul Kelly writes about the origins of the song in Creator’s comments). What emerged was a simple and catchy tune with lyrics that tell the story of the successful Gurindji Wave Hill Station strike and convey the theme of justice for all and the idea that from small beginnings great things can be achieved (clip one).

As Australia celebrated 200 years of white settlement in 1988, there were also demonstrations against the injustices white settlement had brought upon the Indigenous population. The time seemed right for a protest song.

Kelly released the song on the 1991 album 'Comedy’, with his band the Messengers. Carmody recorded a version with Kelly on his 1993 album 'Bloodlines’. It was also released as a CD single by Carmody and Kelly in 1993 but it failed to chart.

It wasn’t until early 2008, when a cover version by the Herd as the GetUp Mob, part of the GetUp! advocacy group, got the song into the top five on the charts.

This version was triggered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s ‘Sorry’ speech in February 2008 (see First Australians – Episode 5, Unhealthy Government Experiment, clip three), with new lyrics about saying sorry means giving respect, which is the essence of the song and what Vincent Lingiari demanded from Lord Vestey in 1966. The remix also takes samples from Prime Minister Paul Keating’s Redfern speech in 1992, where he says if we can imagine the injustice (done to the Indigenous peoples), we can also imagine justice (see Keating Speech: The Redfern Address).

Carmody and Kelly appear on this version as do other popular Australian musicians, such as Dan Sultan and Missy Higgins. The video also features well-known Indigenous sporting and cultural identities, all of which help bring home the poignant and relevant message in Carmody and Kelly’s song to a wider national audience more willing to listen.


Lingiari's legacy: from little things big things grow

By Martin Hodgson

Posted August 26, 2011 07:21:47

NB: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are warned that this article contains images of deceased people.

Gather round people let me tell you a story
An eight-year-long story of power and pride
British Lord Vestey and Vincent Lingiari
Were opposite men on opposite sides

You probably know these as the opening lyrics to the 1991 Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody song, From Little Things Big Things Grow. It is one of Australia's most important songs and most Aussies will know it - if not from its radio play or performances from Paul and Kev around the nation, then from its use by grassroots movements around Australia and in advertising campaigns.

Paul Kelly and I had gone away on a camping trip in about 91 or something and we just kind of pulled it out around the campfire. Paul had a good chord progression and I thought it would be good to tell a little story over it. So, by about two o'clock in the morning, we had a six-minute song. – Kev Carmody, 2008.

The story told by the song is one of the greatest this wide brown land has known and one that sadly too few Australian's know. It's a story that is everything we lionise in Australia; mateship, courage, the battler, a fair go, the underdog getting one over the powerful and a happy ending where the hero wins. This is the story of the Gurindji Strike! The hero; Aboriginal man Vincent Lingiari as he led the Gurindji, Ngarinman, Bilinara, Warlpiri and Mudbara peoples on a long, courageous battle for justice.

The Gurindji strikers at Wattie Creek led by Vincent Lingiari in 1967.

In the late 1800s the lands of many Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and Western Australia were being forcibly taken over (invaded) by pastoralists eager to exploit the large areas of grazing land the Indigenous peoples had called home for thousands of years. In the 1880s Gurindji land was taken and Wave Hill Cattle Station was established with huge numbers of cattle brought into the area. A police station was built and mounted constable WH Wilshire began a process of killing the Aboriginal people who dared to stand up against the invasion of their lands. In 1914 the Vestey Brothers group, a large British food production company, took over the Wave Hill Station and used Aboriginal labour to increase the size and capacity of the station. The term labour is not as we know it today, the Aboriginal people were used as slaves on the land and they only received rations for their work.

Over the next 50 years the Gurindji were treated appallingly, the women often used as sex slaves, men who would not bow to the command of the landowners beaten or killed and no wages ever provided to the workers. Throughout this period the people were often isolated from the change taking place in the rest of the nation by the geographical distance and the dictatorial manner in which the area was managed. However through meetings with visiting anthropologists, union officials and the message coming from other Indigenous people the Gurindji began formulating their plan to free themselves from Vesteys.

Lord Vestey and Vincent Lingiari, ABC interview 1972.

After World War II and the collapse of centuries of colonialism the fight for independence, civil rights and rights to traditional lands was well under way for people around the world. Gandhi in India, Mandela in South Africa, Martin Luther King in the US and many, many more took their fight for justice and equality to the streets and the courts. Many believe no such fight took place in Australia, but this is far from true. In 1965 the brilliant Aboriginal activist, sports star and public servant Dr Charles Perkins led a brave group on a bus trip around New South Wales known as "The Freedom Ride". The main focus of the ride was to protest against the discrimination Aboriginal people faced in rural and regional New South Wales, but the significance of the journey and the leadership of Perkins meant the Freedom Rides became a driving force for awareness and a campaign for Indigenous rights across Australia.

In America they had Dr King and Malcolm X, in Australia we had Dr Perkins and Vincent Lingiari (pictured).

A year later, On August 23, 1966, led by spokesman Vicent Lingiari, the workers and their families walked off Wave Hill Station and began their strike. A report by the Northern Territory government had found about Vesteys:

It was obvious that they had been… quite ruthless in denying their Aboriginal labour proper access to basic human rights." Billy Bunter Jampijinpa, who worked on Wave Hill Station – "We were treated just like dogs. We were lucky to get paid the 50 quid a month we were due, and we lived in tin humpies you had to crawl in and out on your knees. There was no running water. The food was bad – just flour, tea, sugar and bits of beef like the head or feet of a bullock. The Vesteys mob were hard men. They didn't care about blackfellas.

Vincent Lingiari, The Gurindji and other Aboriginal peoples from the area left the station and formed a new settlement at nearby Wattie Creek (Daguragu). Many believed the action by the Aboriginal people would not last and was simply an attempt to gain slightly-improved workers rights. There were many cynical attempts by Vestys, other pastoralist companies and those in government to convince the people back to work. But they wouldn't be moved and the price they sought was and would be nothing more than the rightful return of their lands. During the years of the strike, conditions were not easy for the Aboriginal people, but they did not waver. Vincent, Billy and others toured Australia with the assistance of a number of workers unions to educate the broader Australian community on the issues they faced and lobby politicians for changes that would improve the lives of all Aboriginal people. So impressed by a speech given by Vincent Lingiari was one man who had never met an Aboriginal before, he was moved to give $500 to the cause. This was a very sizeable donation at the time, that donor was a young Dr Fred Hollows.

During the period of the strike the cause of Aboriginal people was becoming, for the first time in the nation, an issue of national significance in politics. There was the 1967 referendum in which 90.77 per cent of all votes cast were in favour of the question on Aboriginal people, while the other question on the ballot raising issues on the composition of parliament was soundly defeated. Aboriginal people and many students, unions and other groups began large protests in the southern states, not only to raise awareness of the strike in the north, but on broader issues facing Aboriginal people.

Many in the political establishment would ignore or go out of their way to sabotage these efforts and heavy-handed police tactics were used. With the election of the Whitlam government, Aboriginal people for the first time had a prime minister interested in their cause and willing to make changes. There was the 1972 Woodward Royal Commission, 1973 - 74 Gove land rights case in which the Yolngu people fought the mining of their land through the courts and finally the passing of the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

But it was on August 16, 1975 when victory for the Gurindji arrived in the form of prime minister Gough Whitlam. After nearly a decade of strike action, facing down one of the world's largest landowners at the time, police brutality, government interference and the ignorance of much of the broader community on the issue… victory was won!

The rightful return of land. Vincent Lingiari and Gough Whitlam.

The government had struck a deal with Vesteys to give the Gurindji a portion of their land back and in front of a crowd at Kalkaringi then prime minister Gough Whitlam rose to speak.

On this great day, I, prime minister of Australia, speak to you on behalf of all Australian people - all those who honour and love this land we live in. For them I want to say to you: I want this to acknowledge that we Australians have still much to do to redress the injustice and oppression that has for so long been the lot of Black Australians.

Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands part of the Earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.

Now please take a few minutes to listen to the song and ponder the lessons we can learn from this tale of the Gurindji, from all Aboriginal people and from the legacy of one of our true national heroes, to both black and white, Vincent Lingiari.

LtoR - John Butler, Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly perform From Little Things Big Things Grow.

- This year celebrates the 45th anniversary of the Walk Off. For more information please visit:-

- And for an interview with Brenda Croft – a Gurindji woman and one of the organisers of the event

Martin Hodgson is a Human rights activist, senior advocate with Foreign Prisoner Support Service and a freelance writer.

This article orginally appeared on 1deadlynation.

Topics:aboriginal, indigenous-culture, history, race-relations, discrimination