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Henderson, Donald James (Don) (1937–1991)

by Ian Dearden

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Donald James Kerr Henderson (1937-1991), folk-singer, composer, poet, and musical-instrument maker, was born on 17 January 1937 in Melbourne, son of Harold Richard Henderson, spring maker, and his wife Lillian Beatrice, née Saunders. Don grew up in a wealthy family in the semi-rural suburbs of Maidstone and Moonee Ponds, and was educated at Essendon High School and The Melbourne Technical College. He completed an apprenticeship as a fitter and turner in the family business, Henderson’s Federal Spring Works Ltd, in 1957. Henderson learnt violin and mandolin before picking up a guitar at sixteen. He initially studied jazz guitar, and played rhythm mandolin and guitar for square dances before joining a rock and roll band, The Thunderbirds, in 1956. After being called up for national service in 1957, for which he was found physically unfit, he worked briefly for the Snowy Mountains Authority. This experience produced one of his best-known songs, the Woody Guthrie-inspired ‘Put a Light in Every Country Window.’

In 1958 Henderson married a musician, Marian Grossman. He moved to Sydney where, at the Royal George Hotel Saturday afternoon singing sessions and the Sydney Bush Music Club, he encountered songs that he had first heard as fragments from swagmen who tramped past, and camped near, his childhood home. His interest in folk and bush music blossomed and he soon became well known as a singer and songwriter in Sydney’s folk clubs and other venues. His marriage did not survive the move, however. Using Sydney as a base, he started travelling and working at a variety of jobs around Australia. He had a range of skills, including carpentry, and, importantly, he started repairing and making guitars, banjos, and dulcimers.

On a trip to Brisbane in 1961, Henderson met Geoffrey and Nancy Wills, founding members of the Brisbane Union Singers.  Although never a member of any political party, Henderson had joined the Builders Labourers Federation when he first arrived in Sydney and he spent his lifetime committed to the cause and struggles of working men and women. He and Geoffrey Wills travelled to Mount Isa, Queensland, during the strike of 1965 at the request of the local Trades and Labour Council; there Henderson wrote, and together they performed, a number of songs including ‘Isa,’ ‘Who Put the W in AWU,’ and ‘Talking Mt Isa,’ before being run out of town by the police.

The first recording of Henderson’s singing was an album, The Ballad of Women, a record he made in 1964 with the Brisbane Union Singers that featured his songs ‘Talking Carpenter,’ ‘The Happy Song,’ and ‘Wittenoom Gorge.’ The album Basic Wage Dream (1964), released by the Australian Council of Salaried and Professional Associations featured his songs ‘The Basic Wage Dream’ and ‘Talking Basic Wage,’ and formed part of the 1964 basic wage campaign. In 1966 Henderson and the Brisbane Union Singers released One Out, featuring thirteen of his songs including ‘Hooker Rex,’ the anti-war song, ‘Boonaroo,’ and ‘Peace Is Union Business.’ On 28 April 1967 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, Henderson married Sally Watson, an English-born nurse.

In 1970 Henderson released a songbook, I Can Sing, which contained twenty-seven songs and a poem. In the introduction he wrote, ‘I have seen a few things and met a few people . . . they are my life, and no man wants his life to go for nothing.' His album Ton of Steel (containing thirteen original songs), released in 1971, featured ‘The Westgate Bridge Disaster,’ written by Henderson at union request as a memorial to the thirty-five men who died when the bridge collapsed during construction.

Henderson moved with his family to England in 1971, living in London and in Sussex where he wrote, performed, and continued to make and repair guitars. Together with Craig McGregor and John (‘Poli’) Palmer, he co-wrote songs for the rock opera Hero, which was performed by the Australian Opera in Sydney in 1976—extracts of two of the songs were included in the compilation The Songs of Don Henderson, released posthumously in 2009. The Hendersons returned to Australia in 1979 and after a brief stay in Melbourne they moved to Brisbane, where Don became actively involved in the Queensland Folk Federation. He continued to organise folk concerts and perform at clubs, including the 291 Folk Club, and he contributed to the 1979 album Flames of Discontent. In 1986 he released In My Time, containing songs he had written between 1961 and 1979.  Henderson’s music is difficult to categorise; many considered him to be an Australian Woody Guthrie. In his own words he was ‘a rake and a rambling man and an anarchist’ (Lowenstein 1992, 21).

Survived by his wife and two children, Henderson died of hypercalcaemia and lung carcinoma at Wesley Private Hospital, Auchenflower, Brisbane, on 20 August 1991 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Tradition (Box Hill). ‘Don Henderson–Not Just a Coffee Shop Protester.’ July 1965, 21
  • Henderson, Don. I Can Sing. North Sydney: Horwitz Publications, 1970
  • Henderson, Don. A Quiet Century: 100 Songs and Poems. Nambour: Queensland Folk Federation, 1994
  • Lowenstein, Wendy. ‘It’s My Time Mister, And My Price.’ Overland, no. 129 (1992): 19-22
  • McGregor, Adrian. ‘Don’s Songs of Struggle.’ National Times (Sydney), 9-15 March 1980, 51
  • McGregor, Craig. People, Politics and Pop. Sydney: Ure Smith, 1968.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ian Dearden, 'Henderson, Donald James (Don) (1937–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/henderson-donald-james-don-15169/text26357, accessed 20 September 2017.

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