This is a guest post by Darwin-based historian Kerry Gardiner, who has spent a large part of his life rolling down the dusty backroads of the Northern Territory’s Barkly Tablelands. 

Early one dry season morning 40 and more years ago at Anthony’s Lagoon station in the Northern Territory’s Barkly Tablelands open topped cattle trucks pulled up at the nearby Wambaya camp.

Men, women and children are herded on board and driven two hundred kilometres west to the Stuart Highway and the small town of Elliott, home of the Wambaya’s close cousins the Jingili people.

It was 1970 and in the group was a young boy from the Wambaya language group, not yet initiated, clutching the worn hand of his grandfather Abie Thomas Jangala.

Abie was a formidable warrior and cattleman who had walked cattle across the vast plains of the Barkly Tablelands to the rail-head at Dajarra south of Mount Isa in far western Queensland before the road trains put an end to cross-country droving.

The Territory has a lot of country dominated by big blue skies and perhaps none more so than Wambaya country of the eastern Barkly Tablelands centred on the Australian Agricultural Company’s huge runs at the Brunette Downs cattle station and its neighbours Anthony’s Lagoon and Alexandria Stations.

Those skies arc over vast plains covered in Mitchell grass with lagoons and intermittent streams, often fed by perpetual springs named and known only to their Wambaya traditional owners. When the first Europeans saw those vast fields of grass and water in the late 19th century they couldn’t wait to get their hands on the ‘big sky’ country. Soon cattle soon replaced the kangaroos, bustards and emus so valued by the Wambaya.

Roll forward one hundred years to the mid 1960’s. The Wambaya were deeply ensconced in the cattle industry and had lived on the fringes of the stations as seasonal stockmen and domestic workers for almost a hundred years.

Their wages and conditions were pitiful. Aboriginal stockmen on average received about $6 a week while non-Indigenous stockmen on the same properties received about $46 a week.

However in 1965 a landmark case bought by the North Australian Workers Union to the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission sought to grant Aboriginal Stockmen wage parity and to remove laws which denied them equal value for equal work.

In March 1966 the Commission handed down a decision that Aborigines should be paid equal wages. But it would be three years before they would receive those wages, in order to allow pastoralists time to prepare for the change.

By 1970 the managers of Anthony’s Lagoon decided, like many other cattle stations of the time, that if they had to pay equal wages there was no longer any place for Aboriginal workers on their properties any.

That decision saw the young boy and his grandfather make the long trip west from their ancestral country.

As skilful a cattleman as he was, Abie was better known to his Wambaya countrymen and women for another skill.

In this driest of country Abie could make it rain.

He was the holder of ancient rituals and objects – rainstones – that could produce teeming thunderstorms from those bluest of big, blue skies.

Abie only made it back to Anthony’s for short visits of a secret/sacred nature to guarantee the health of the country and the wellbeing of his Wambaya people.

He lived out his life in an old wrecked Commer van just south of Elliott in what came to be known as Anthony’s Camp.

The boy also lived at Anthony’s Camp for the next twenty years or more before moving south to Tennant Creek to pursue his chosen career as singer in a rock ‘n roll band. He stayed in Tennant until early February 2013 when he died of illness associated with a debilitating heart condition.

His name was Joe Davey and he was the lead singer, rhythm guitarist and senior songwriter with the Barkly’s – and maybe the Territory’s – hardest working band, The Tableland Drifters.

In the early 1980’s another Tableland man – Maxie Finlay – taught the Anthony’s Camp boys how to play country music, rock’n roll’s close cousin. But Joe Davey, drummer Lexie Holt and guitarist Robert Neade wanted to rock and in 1985 The Tableland Drifters were born.

Not for them the easy gigs in front of family and friends on the Elliott basketball courts. They wanted to take their songs to the world. And they did.

Joe and often Lexie wrote their songs and Robert’s country influenced ‘geetar’ poured forth notes like running water. Lexie’s backbeat seemed tuned to the noises a wobbly rear tyre on a broken-down old car makes on a lonely highway. The band set out from the Barkly tablelands – a land in the centre of everything and nothing – to get their audiences dancing. And dance they did, often till the first rays of sunrise drenched the big skies of their homelands.

For 28 years they played everywhere – and I do mean everywhere – from the Isa in Queensland to the Kimberley in western Australia. No gig was too far away, no cheque or audience was ever too small.  Give them a stage and The Tableland Drifters would play.

Few weekends went by without the Drifters packing up a couple of old utes with their gear and setting off for a gig. They’d rock up at Ali Curung, Utopia, Katherine, Borroloola, Doomadgee, Tennant, Barunga, the Alice, Darwin and all points between and beyond. For a decade and more the Isa at Rodeo time was a definite.

Paul Kelly once shared a gig and said that Joe wrote and played great songs with his rare sense of style, energy and commitment. The Drifters also supported the Territory’s favourite country singer Charlie Pride, southern cousins Coloured Stone and Joe Geia among many others.

The Drifters recorded albums for CAAMA and Kakadu Studios before helping to establish the Winanjikari Music Centre in Tennant Creek where they recorded a number of albums. Punch in a Google search for “The Tableland Drifters” and you’ll see what I mean. Their catalogue is impressive but can never really give you an idea how good their live performances were or how loved they were by their many fans old and new and far and wide.

The 1988 Barunga Festival welcomed then Prime Minister Bob Hawke and it was this festival that inspired the late Dr Yunupingu to write the iconic song ‘Treaty’. Well-meaning whitefellas from the Northern Land Council had decreed that Saturday night would that year be a dedicated “Culture Night” and the thousands of Aboriginal people there would sit around camp fires and with their elders perform ‘cultural activities’ instead of the legendary ‘bush band’ nights the early Barunga Festivals were famous for.

The Tableland Drifters were there but not with any Wambaya elders and certainly not to take part in ‘cultural activities’.

They just wanted to rock!

A friendly local missionary produced a hundred meters of extension cord from the Church and the band set up in the middle of the Barunga football oval. When the opening cords of “Lonely Road” boomed out through the camps it was quickly followed a couple of thousand young (and old) music lovers prepared to dance the night away to The Tableland Drifters and the many other bands that appeared out of the darkness to blast their own form of cultural correctness.

Joe Davey was a great Territory musician but he was much more than that. In the early 1990’s the managers of Brunette Downs wanted to remove the last vestiges of Wambaya occupation at that station by bulldozing the Wambaya’s camp and offering them a small excision 60 kilometres north at Corella Creek.

The Northern Land Council convened a meeting at Brunette to hear the views of the Wambaya about the proposed move from their ancient camp site right on the shores of the Brunette Downs lagoon. AACO had brought pressure to bear on the Wambaya and early indications were that they would agree to the move. Then a battered old ute turned up jammed with rock’n roll instruments and out tumbled Lexie and Joe with a couple of other Drifters.

Quickly sensing the mood of the meeting Joe and Lexie grabbed the microphones and delivered speeches calling for their Wambaya relatives to stay strong and refuse the Station’s offer of the move.

Joe stood up proud and strong and told the meeting, “Our old people are buried here, we’re not going to leave their bones to be picked over by dogs!

Joe’s songs covered lots of territory but on every album there are songs about the land, about being a refugee in your own country and about ‘goin’ home’.

The Tableland Drifters was a band founded in the heat of the Land Rights struggle and Joe Davey and The Tableland Drifters never forgot that.

Their last gig was the famous Woodford Festival in Queensland in January 2013 and they wowed their audience. They seemed at long last to be on the verge of the greater success Joe and the band craved and deserved.

Then the illness that had dogged Joe for the last years of his life caught up with him on February 7, 2013.

One of Joe’s finest songs ‘Rain Dancer’ tells the story of the life and death of his grandfather, Abie Thomas Jangala.

Rain Dancer, Sing me a rain

Rain Dancer, Sing me a rain

Rain Dancer, Sing me a rain

Let the rivers run again.

Next time you’re driving under the big skies of Wambaya country and a big gusty storm blows in, think of Abie Thomas Jangala and his grandson Joe Davey who told the story of his people in music.

The lonely road is callin’ me again

The lonely road is callin’ me again

To take me back to my home

The Tablelands.


Kumendje Davey, Tableland Drifter 1965-2013