Login
Forgot password

Discover Stories

“From Little Things Big Things Grow”: The Story Behind the Song

The well-known song by Australian artists, Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody, tells the uplifting story of the Gurindji people's struggle for equality and land rights in the 1960’s and 70’s.

"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 2 o'clock in the morning, we had a six-minute song."

—Kev Carmody, 2008

Kev Carmody. Image ©2011 Lisa Hannus

The Wave Hill Walk Off

Wave Hill Station was established on the Gurindji lands by British pastoralists in the 1880’s. Mounted police assisted in settling the lands by killing any Indigenous people who dared to resist the invasion of their home. 

In 1914, the station was bought by a large British food production company, the Vestey Brothers, who used unpaid Indigenous labour to increase the station’s size and capacity. The working conditions for the Indigenous labourers were extremely poor; they rarely received wages, were beaten or even killed for defying the landowners, and the women were often used as sex slaves. The geographic isolation of the station allowed this treatment to continue for the next 50 years, despite changes taking place in the rest of the nation. 

However, over the years, visiting anthropologists and union officials, along with news of Indigenous activism in other parts of Australia, gradually inspired the Gurindji people to stand up to the Vesteys. 

On the 23rd of August 1966, the Wave Hill workers and their families, lead by Gurundji spokesman, Vincent Lingiari, walked off the Station and began their strike. Many believed the Gurindji strikers would be easily satisfied by improved working conditions, but the Gurundji people were seeking the rightful return of their traditional lands from the Vesteys. 

Gurindji workers at Wave Hill.

The 200 protestors established a settlement at Wattie Creek (Daguragu), and continued their strike for eight years. During this time, Vincent Lingiari toured Australia with the assistance of several workers’ unions to raise awareness of the issues faced by his people, and to lobby politicians for recognition of Indigenous rights. 

In 1975, the Whitlam government finally negotiated a deal with the Vesteys to return part of their traditional lands to the Gurindji people. On the 16th August 1975, Prime Minister Whitlam presented the deeds to Vincent Lingiari, and poured sand into his hands to symbolise the return of the country.

Gurindji workers at Wave Hill.

The Gurindji campaign was an important influence on the passing of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) 1976.

Today, Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s song is known across the nation, although fewer people know the story of the Gurindji strikers it tells of. 

 

Watch Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody perform From Little Things Big Things Grow

More information about the Wave Hill walk off


Lyrics

Gather round people I'll tell you a story
An eight year long story of power and pride
'Bout British Lord Vestey and Vincent Lingiarri
They were opposite men on opposite sides

Vestey was fat with money and muscle
Beef was his business, broad was his door
Vincent was lean and spoke very little
He had no bank balance, hard dirt was his floor

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Gurindji were working for nothing but rations
Where once they had gathered the wealth of the land
Daily the oppression got tighter and tighter
Gurindji decided they must make a stand

They picked up their swags and started off walking
At Wattie Creek they sat themselves down
Now it don't sound like much but it sure got tongues talking
Back at the homestead and then in the town

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Vestey man said I'll double your wages
Seven quid a week you'll have in your hand
Vincent said uhuh we're not talking about wages
We're sitting right here till we get our land

Vestey man roared and Vestey man thundered
You don't stand the chance of a cinder in snow
Vince said if we fall others are rising

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Then Vincent Lingiarri boarded an aeroplane
Landed in Sydney, big city of lights
And daily he went round softly speaking his story
To all kinds of men from all walks of life

And Vincent sat down with big politicians
This affair they told him is a matter of state
Let us sort it out, your people are hungry
Vincent said no thanks, we know how to wait

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Then Vincent Lingiarri returned in an aeroplane
Back to his country once more to sit down
And he told his people let the stars keep on turning
We have friends in the south, in the cities and towns

Eight years went by, eight long years of waiting
Till one day a tall stranger appeared in the land
And he came with lawyers and he came with great ceremony
And through Vincent's fingers poured a handful of sand

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

That was the story of Vincent Lingiarri
But this is the story of something much more
How power and privilege can not move a people
Who know where they stand and stand in the law

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

 

Copyright: Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody


Stop & Think... Have you ever felt that something simply had to change?

  • Imagine living your whole life in an isolated situation in which you were unjustly treated. Now imagine outsiders arriving and telling you to stand up for yourself. What mix of feelings and reactions might that cause in you? How might other members of your community react?
  • Imagine campaigning for justice for eight years! What kind of obstacles do you think the protestors would have had to overcome to continue their campaign and achieve their goals?


Whilst many Australians are familiar with Martin Luther King Jr and the African-American civil rights movement, the history of the Indigenous Australian civil rights movements and its heroes like Vincent Lingiari is still largely unknown in our country. The strength of this important movement in our national history and its champions is a rich part of our country’s history and character, and one worth celebrating as a nation.


Want to know more?

Watch Sharing Our Story Episode 3 to find out more about the era of Self-Determination.

To watch the full Sharing Our Story series, click here.

 


References:

Hodgson, M. 2011, Lingiari's legacy: from little things big things grow, ABC

Images:

  1. Group of men in front of Gurindji sign: "Gurindji Strikers", ©Brian Manning

  2. Kev Carmody, ©Lisa Hannus 2011

  3. Gurindji workers at Wave Hill (1): ©ABC

  4. Gurindji workers at Wave Hill (2): ©ABC

Sign up now
Tell your friends

Related

Mabo: The Beginning of Native Title

Mabo: The Beginning of Native Title

Era 5: Recognition

Era 5: Recognition

Era 4: Self-Determination

Era 4: Self-Determination