The song about a teen soldier, still striking a chord after 40 years

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John Schumann’s I Was Only 19 is one of Australia’s most significant songs about war, documenting the anguish, the horror, and its haunting aftermath. It also underlines the absurdity of fate: “Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon/God help me, he was going home in June.”

Released by Redgum in 1983, the song tells the story of a young man’s experience of the Vietnam War in 1969, based on a series of interviews Schumann conducted with his brother-in-law who served there.

Augie March will play ‘I Was Only 19’ at the AFL’s Anzac Day match on Tuesday.Credit: Simon Schluter

Now the song is set to find a new audience when it is played by Augie March at the AFL’s Anzac Day match at the MCG on Tuesday between Essendon and Collingwood.

That the lyrics are based on lived experience is key to its success, says the former Redgum frontman, who wrote the song in about 15 minutes in the backyard of a share house in Carlton.

As for its longevity, Schumann says it treats veterans with respect and was adopted by them as “their song”. It speaks to them, he says, and the ideas resonate for anyone who served, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or the earlier conflicts.

Redgum singer-songwriter John Schumann.Credit: Tony Vass

The best-selling track, released when Culture Club, Michael Jackson and The Police dominated the charts, has been immortalised in APRA’s 25 All-Time Greatest Australian Songs, along wwith Eric Bogle’s classic anti-war song And The Band Played ….

Sydney hip-hop band The Herd covered I Was Only 19 for Triple J in 2005, reaching number 18 on the Hottest 100 countdown. The song choice was simple for MC Shannon Kennedy, who goes by stage name Ozi Batla. “Every time I heard the song it left me with a sense of sympathy and empathy for the soldiers, but still drove home the futility of war,” he told this masthead.

Schumann says the song tapped into something in the national psyche. “I think there was a lingering national guilt or discomfort about the way that we had treated our Vietnam veterans during the war and certainly when they came home. The Anzac tradition has always been respect them, welcome them home,” he says. “The general punter is respectful, understands what it is to wear our uniform overseas. But there was a subconscious national guilt and worry that we hadn’t done the right thing by these guys.”

Over the years, Schumann has done five armed forces entertainment tours, two to Afghanistan, as well as to Tanzania, the Solomon Islands and East Timor. More recently, he has written an album based on Henry Lawson poems.

The Australian War Memorial in Canberra mounted an exhibition about the song, which includes interviews with Mick Storen, Schumann’s brother-in-law, and explains various references in the song.

Augie March lead singer Glenn Richards was 10 when the track was released in 1983. “This song came out of the blue and hit me… for a while, it seemed like it was everywhere,” he said.

“For a song of this nature to break through and be a hit song was extraordinary. I have strong emotional memories of that tune.

“When you think of war songs, you think about Hollywood movies where songs are chucked in for the soundtrack – Paint It Black and that sort of thing – it’s more of a vibe than anything. Actual war songs, I think this one is more impactful by a long margin, in my lifetime at least.”

Richards recently released a cover of the song to help raise funds for the Anzac Day Appeal. Having gotten “inside it a bit”, he equates it to the great war poems. “It speaks in the same way as a Sassoon or a Wilfred Owen poem, not just the experience of the horror but the after-effects and the haunting,” he says. “The song itself – the melody and the delivery does the very same thing; it’s an extremely haunting tune.”

With a nephew who has just joined the army and a grandfather who served all his life, Richards is keen to ensure Australia looks after its service people.

“There’s more emphasis on psychological stress in sportspeople than on soldiers, it’s terrible,” he says. “I think we are just a weird country with priorities.”

John Schumann’s The Redgum Years is at Memo Music Hall on May 12, his Henry Lawson show is at Memo Music Hall on May 13.

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