A songwriting venture between musicians and prisoners will be brought to the stage at the National Folk Festival in Canberra. The Big hART project was a transformative experience for both musicians and inmates. By Karen Middleton.

‘Songs From the Inside’

Collaborators in the Big hART songwriting project (from left) David Hyams, Harry Hookey and Lucky Oceans.
Collaborators in the Big hART songwriting project (from left) David Hyams, Harry Hookey and Lucky Oceans.

Roebourne has a reputation. The one place on the map where, mysteriously, all of Australia’s ancient Indigenous songlines converge, the Western Australian coastal town has morphed in more recent times from bustling mining hub to notorious prison hotspot.

When the gold rush faded and many of its residents moved elsewhere in the Pilbara chasing iron ore, Roebourne became notorious for clashes between its remaining mostly Aboriginal population and the mostly white local police.

But for much of the past decade, there has been a concerted effort in Roebourne to change that story. Music has been central to it.

At the National Folk Festival during the Easter weekend in Canberra, musicians who have been part of that effort will perform Songs from the Inside, featuring songs they co-wrote with the inmates of Roebourne prison and budding songwriters in other WA jails as part of what has become a national mission to bridge the gap between the life inside and the one beyond the walls.

“It’s been quite life-changing for some people that have said to me, ‘I’m really going to try to make a go of this when I get out,’ ” says David Hyams, musician, participant in the songwriting project and producer of the resulting album.

The project was one of a series of arts programs established across Australia by the Big hART arts and social justice company that began working in Roebourne in 2011, determined to change what it calls “the negative effects of the justice system on the community”.

As part of that effort, Big hART – known most recently for its acclaimed theatre performances Hipbone Sticking Out and Namatjira – engaged a group of accomplished musicians and songwriters to work with local people, especially in Roebourne prison, to produce music reflecting the community’s experience. They included Hyams, singer–songwriter John Bennett of the Kimberley community of Bidyadanga, guitarist Lucky Oceans and blues specialist Harry Hookey.

The result was Murru, an album of songs written collaboratively with inmates and others and whose title reflects the nickname of a local youth, the late John Pat.Pat was a young Indigenous man killed in a fight with WA police in Roebourne in September 1983, a month shy of his 17th birthday.

John Pat’s death was examined as part of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and for Indigenous Australians became a national symbol of unjust treatment within Australia’s justice system.

Hyams says many of the inmates had little or no songwriting experience but were keen to express themselves and learn new skills. “I think some people really have something that they want to express, to write about and get off their chest,” he says.

Hyams had worked in Indigenous communities before, running music workshops at Mantamaru in the goldfields and at Looma, south-east of Derby, on the Fitzroy River. He had also taught songwriting in prisons after a casual 2005 conversation in a Fremantle cafe led to him running a workshop at the Wooroloo Prison Farm.

A singer–songwriter and member of the band Miles to Go, Hyams had been producing instrumental works while he struggled to find his own words. “I was really quite blocked as a songwriter. I wasn’t able to write lyrics very successfully. I read books and articles on writing – about people’s methods.”

But he was encouraged to encourage others. The workshop participants had no experience at all and he urged them not to overthink it, just put something down: begin. When they responded to the advice, something clicked for him, too. “I thought: ‘It seems to be working on all of these guys so maybe I’d better try some of it myself – trying to be less [self-]critical and understanding it’s a craft,” he says. “Once I started following my own advice, it started having some amazing results for me as well.”

The prisoners’ songs that emerged from the workshop were so impressive he recorded the participants performing them, leading to more workshops and more songs.

He ran classes in WA’s Hakea and Casuarina men’s prisons and at Bandyup prison and the Boronia pre-release centre, both institutions for women. More than 50 original songs resulted.

In 2010, Hyams produced Songs from the Inside, an album of 12 tracks recorded in the prisons. That led to Big hART’s invitation.

At Roebourne Hyams and his colleagues were asked to help men and women inside and outside the prison produce songs that reflected their experiences and to highlight issues around incarceration and especially the scourge of prison deaths.

“My brief was to make an album with inmates in the jail and there was also a component in the community as well,” he says. He wrestled with how to marry the experiences of people who were locked up with people who lived their normal lives in the town.

“I wasn’t really sure how that would work. But then I realised there were so many people [in Roebourne] who had passed through the jail.”

The result was a mix of country, reggae, folk and hip-hop, with the recording featuring inmates, the four musicians and others, including Emma Donovan, Shellie Morris and Archie Roach. A concert followed in 2014 in Melbourne’s Federation Square. The musicians took one of the ex-inmates from Roebourne with them. “He’d only done one or two performances before in his life and then all of a sudden he was playing in a 15-piece band in front of 5000 people at the opening of the Melbourne [International Arts] Festival,” Hyams says.

In 2016, they took the concert back to Roebourne. Last year, Hyams returned to the prison to run another workshop. He told the participants how one of the album’s songs featured a chord progression that came from a guy who’d been sitting alone on the fringes of the original workshop, mucking around on the guitar. As he talked, one of the 2017 participants put up his hand. “Yeah,” he said. “That was me.”

The song grew from what the men dreamed of doing when their sentences were up, from drinking a cold beer, walking around in their undies and peeing in private to playing in a band and hearing “this song on the radio”. It was called “If I Ever Get Outta Here”.

“We had about four inmates and three artists,” Hyams says of how the song developed. “The artists were all writing from our imaginations and the inmates were all writing from their real experiences.”

Another song, “Burning Inside”, came directly from a workshop exercise. The participants had no idea how to start writing, so Hyams and his colleagues encouraged them to each separately come up with a random line – anything just to start the process. They would set them all together, to see if they could “drag something out of it”. A theme quickly emerged – the sense of isolation from family and friends. Together, they wrote the song on the spot.

David Hyams firmly believes anyone can do it. “There is this fear, especially among people who haven’t done much writing, that everything they do has to be clever,” he says.

He reckons even the greatest songwriters probably started by writing really bad songs: “You have to keep at it. It’s a craft and the more you do it, the better you get.”

The musicians brought together for the Roebourne project – which Big hART has now expanded into five separate arts projects there – have stayed in touch. Now they play together, a mix of the inmates’ songs and their own. “It’s a nice little joke,” Hyams says, “to say that we met in prison.”


Bennett, Hookey, Oceans and Hyams will perform Songs from the Inside, incorporating songs from the Roebourne project, along with separate performances of the work of Bennett and Hookey at the National Folk Festival during Easter at Exhibition Park in Canberra.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 24, 2018 as "Inside out".

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