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John Schumann’s Vietnam war anthem I Was Only 19 reborn as children’s book

Song writer John Schumann. Photo: Justin McManusWords can be powerful things, with a life far beyond the life of their author.
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Iconic 1980s alternative band Redgum struck an emotive nerve with their hit song I Was Only Nineteen, a raw wound of a song about a Vietnam veteran’s readjustment to civilian life.

The words were written by Redgum lead singer John Schumann after a conversation with his Vietnam veteran brother-in-law, and 30 years later those words are in print on the pages of a moving piece of children’s literature.

Recently released, I Was Only Nineteen pairs Schumann’s words with Craig Smith’s illustrations, bookending the song lyrics with images of an old man talking to his grandson about his memories of the Vietnam war.

It is grown-ups who buy children’s books, and I can imagine many a grandparent stumping up the cash for this gorgeous publication, which caused this reader to openly weep in his office.

I worked in a record store in the late 1980s when Schumann’s first solo album, Etched in Blue, was released and as a favourite of the store’s owner I may have listened to it a few hundred times. So when my editor assigned me an interview with Schumann for his new book, it felt like I was about to catch up with an old friend, and I tell him as much.

“I get quite a lot of people walking past me in the street and smiling with that look on their face like they’re trying to work out whether we went to school together, or where else they might know me from,” he says.

Schumann has been part of Australia’s pop culture since Redgum hit the airwaves and the headlines in the late 1970s, famous for great music and political statements.

They campaigned against the damming of Tasmania’s Franklin River in the ’80s, and Schumann ran on the Democrats ticket in the 1998 election. Meanwhile, perhaps trivially but no less famously, they refused to appear on Countdown.

Schumann says life was extraordinary as a working band in the 1980s.

“Being able to pay ourselves, pay our bills, stand up for things we believed in, keep some intellectual integrity, able to do extraordinary things,” he says, “but being a pop star isn’t what people think it is.”

The INXS telemovie Never Tear Us Apart screened the week before we spoke, and Schumann muses about the downside of the lifestyle. “There are a lot of mental health challenges, being always displaced and disoriented in hotel rooms,” he says.

For Schumann, the legacy of I Was Only Nineteen is a constant source of pride. “I’ve had blokes from the SAS tell me they play I Was Only Nineteen as a sort of ritual when they pass their course,” he says, “and I had a young guy when I went to Afghanistan come up to me on the street to tell me ‘You don’t know what that song means to us, and specifically me, we all have it on our iPods, and we listen to it when we’re lining up in positions,” he said.

“That destabilised me – it’s quite extraordinary it maintained that sort of power.”

For Schumann, the story that has the most meaning after so many years is the Vietnam vet he met while shooting an in-house DVD about post-traumatic stress disorder for the army.

“This guy came back from Vietnam, and he wasn’t having a good time of it,” Schumann says.

“He would go to the doctor with symptoms, his toenails falling out, rashes, can’t sleep, and his GP would say things like his wife was probably using too much detergent or he should clean his feet better or cut back on the coffee, but which we all know now is symptomatic of PTSD.

“He heard Nineteen on the radio while driving along the Queensland back roads, and he says he pulled over and bawled his eyes out,” Schumann says.

“He says he thought ‘Those bastards are lying to me, this guy has just sung me my life’, and he realised there must be more people out there like him, and went on to seek out other vets and form a veteran support group.”

When Schumann was approached to have the song published as a children’s book, he says he was initially sceptical, but then thought some vets might want to buy it for their grandchildren.

Seeing the draft illustrations from Craig Smith, whose work has helped sell books for Emily Rodda, John Marsden and Paul Jennings, convinced him.

“I was knocked sideways – it’s almost like the song has been reborn again,” Schumann says.

At the end of the picture book, in text I found as moving as the story before it, Schumann recounts the story of the song’s birth, coming from conversations with his veteran brother-in-law Mick.

“As I say in the book, I think we all owe him for his courage for stepping outside that closed circle,” Schumann says.

“For a long time he didn’t want anybody to know it was about him – he really stayed in the background, not because he was ashamed but just self-effacing, and I respected that.

“He will admit himself he carries scars, but today he’s a fully functioning loving husband and father and grandfather, totally devoted, so while some of these psychological things are a feature of his life, in many ways he’s not a victim of the war the way other guys have been.”

Apart from adding author to his list of achievements, thanks to hip hop act The Herd’s cover of I Was Only Nineteen taking over Triple J a few years back, Schumann’s audience is both contemporary and easy listening.

These days he can still be found playing gigs with a rotating group of fellow former high-profile musicians under the moniker of John Schumann and the Vagabond Crew.

■ I Was Only Nineteen by John Schumann, illustrations by Craig Smith. A&U Children ($24.99).

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