Thirty years on, what should we make of Bruce Chatwin’s song to the songlines? “Epic of Gilgamesh” is Google’s answer to “what is the oldest known literature”. The Songlines. by Bruce Chatwin. pages, paperback, Penguin, The Songlines is a beautiful meditation on the importance of travel to knowledge and . The publication of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines in transformed English travel writing; it made it cool. For the previous half century, travel.

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The Songlines is a beautiful meditation on the importance of travel to knowledge and culture.

The focus of the book is on the culture of the native Australians, and the essential relationship of ecology to culture. Praise for The Songlines “[Chatwin’s] bravest work yet. No one will put it down unmoved. He then goes on to describe the sufferings of a bird, penned up at the season of its migration, which would flail its wings and bloody its breast against the bars of its cage.

All of them were Moors except for myself and a person covered in a sack. The sack moved, and the drawn and beautiful head of a young Wolof peered out. His skin and hair were coated with white chhatwin, like the bloom on purple grapes.

He was frightened and very upset. I was turned back at the frontier. I make bureaux-plats Louis Quinze and Louis Seize. Chwtwin Abidjan he had learned to inlay veneer at a furniture factory that catered to the taste of the new, black, francophile bourgeoisie. Although he had no passport, he had in his bag a book on French eighteenth-century furniture.

His heroes were Cressent and Reisener. He had hoped, if possible, to apprentice himself to a Parisian ‘master’, assuming that such a person existed.


She had never had a training in linguistics. Yet her work on the dictionary had given her an interest in the myth of Babel.

Why, when Aboriginal life had been so uniform, had there been languages in Australia? Could you really explain this in terms of tribalism or isolation? She was beginning to wonder whether language itself might not relate to the distribution of the human species over the songline.

A man raised in one part of the desert would know its flora and fauna backwards. He knew which plant attracted game.

The Songlines

He knew his water. He knew where there were tubers underground.

In other world, by naming all the ‘things’ in his territory, he could always count on survival. The child at its mother’s breast, will toy with the ‘thing’, talk to it, test its teeth on it, learn its name, repeat its name–and finally chuck it aside. Yet even a superficial reader can get a glimpse of a moral universe–as moral as the New Songilnes which the structures of kinship reach out to all living men, to all his fellow creatures, and to the rivers, the rocks and the trees. What we had witnessed, he said, was not of course the real Lizard song, but sonylines ‘false front’, or sketch performed for strangers.

The real song would have named each waterhole the Lizard Man drank from, each tree he cut a spear from, each cave he slept in, covering the whole long distance of the way. The distance from here to Port Augusta, as the crow flew, was roughly 1, miles, about twice songlinss distance–so we calculated–from Troy to Ithaca. We tried to imagine an Odyssey with a verse for every twist and turn of the hero’s ten-year voyage.


The mystery was how a man of Tribe A, living up one end of a Songline, could hear a few bars sung by Tribe Q and, without knowing a word of Q’s language, would know exactly what land was being sung. Suppose we got him to sing his verses into a tape-recorder and then played the tape to Alan in Kaititj country? The chances were he’d recognize the melody at once–just as we would the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata–but the meaning of the worlds would escape him.

All the same, he’d listen very attentively to the melodic structure. He’d perhaps even ask us to replay a few bars. Then, suddenly, he’d find himself in sync and be able to sing his own worlds over the nonsense. So, if the Lizard Man were dragging his heels across the saltpans of Lake Eyre, you could expect a succession of long flats, like Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’.

The Songlines – Wikipedia

If he were skipping up and down the MacDonnell escarpments, you’d have a series of arpeggios and glissandos, like Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsodies’. Once phrase would say, ‘salt-pan’; another ‘creek-bed’, ‘spinifex, sandhill, mulga scrub, rockface and so forth. An chatwn songman, by listening to their order of succession, would count how many times his hero crossed a river, or scaled a ridge–and be able to calculate where, and how far along a songline he was.

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin pages, paperback, Penguin, The Songlines is a beautiful meditation on the importance of travel to knowledge and culture.