Songs of influence
I Was Only 19 (A Walk in the Light Green) is one of Australia’s most iconic songs. First released in 1983, this account of a soldier’s experiences of the Vietnam War—and its traumatic aftermath—topped charts, won awards and still packs a punch some thirty years after its creation. John Schumann, songwriter from the folk-rock band Redgum, based the song on the recollections of Vietnam veteran Mick Storen. The guitar on which Schumann wrote I Was Only 19, the test pressing of the song and a 7” single are now on display in our Living Democracy gallery.
Schumann did not serve in Vietnam: conscription was abolished before his birthday ballot marble could drop. But he knew older boys who did go, and who returned home forever changed. In 1979 he learned of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia (VVAA) and their efforts to raise awareness of health issues suffered by veterans and their families. ‘The songwriter in me could well imagine returning from an unpopular war,’ he writes on his website, ‘sick and confronting a government and a society that didn’t want to know.’
Schumann researched the song’s lyrics by recording an interview with Mick Storen (the brother of the song’s ‘Denny’, who is now Schumann’s wife). After weeks of listening to the tapes, he picked up this guitar. ‘Sometimes songs take months to write’, Schumann recalls. ‘Sometimes they just tumble out. I reckon I wrote I Was Only 19 in 15 minutes… I felt as if I was little more than a conduit.’
The song’s rich visual detail and laconic delivery, expressing a man’s bewilderment, bitterness and painful regret, is often credited for changing negative attitudes towards Vietnam veterans. It gave a voice to those who had previously felt shamed or shunned because of their involvement in a war which was, in its later years, widely opposed. Anti-war protests culminated in the 1970–71 Vietnam Moratorium campaign of mass marches and demonstrations across Australia. ‘What the song did, in my view’, writes Schumann, ‘was demonstrate to Australians that you can oppose a war vigorously but still be supportive and respectful of the men and women the government sends to fight it. In this, I think, Australia has changed quite dramatically.’
Schumann donated royalties from the song to the VVAA, which in May 1983 succeeded in their quest for a Royal Commission into the effects of chemical defoliants on veterans. In 1987 a welcome home parade and concert in Sydney for veterans culminated in Schumann playing I Was Only 19. In 1992 the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial, which features an inscription of some of the song’s lyrics, was unveiled on ANZAC Parade in Canberra.
The success and longevity of I Was Only 19 demonstrates that its veracity is difficult to ignore or forget. The song appeals to people across generations: in 2005 a cover version by hip-hop collective The Herd was voted Number 18 in Triple J’s Hottest 100 of that year. But the impact of I Was Only 19 lies not only in its personal, very Australian insights into the reality of battle. Its lyrics, challenging ‘the ANZAC legends’, is a demand for honesty rather than myth. The song’s reference to these ‘legends’ also differentiates Vietnam from earlier conflicts while simultaneously acknowledging Vietnam’s conformity with an age-old universal theme: the terror and tragedy of all war. The continuing public life of Mick Storen’s private story attests to its deep emotional resonance, and to the power of song.