The lyrics of Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy are etched in the minds of many Australians, but they are especially relevant to those behind bars at Christmas.
The Australian songsmith’s ballad has garnered acclaim for its honest depiction of a white man lamenting a Christmas away from family. It is so popular that the date referenced in the song, December 21, is now known as Gravy Day.
In the Goldfields of Western Australia, prisoners are waking up to the truth that they will spend Christmas 2022 in prison, away from their families.
A quarter of a century after the song was recorded, a group of First Nations prisoners in Eastern Goldfields Regional Prison, near Kalgoorlie, are living their own reality of incarceration at Christmas time.
Music to rehabilitate
Musician and ABC presenter Chris Edmondson spent four days at the prison to workshop a cover of the Paul Kelly song with six First Nations prisoners.
The result was a bilingual version of the song with lyrics in English and a translation to predominantly Pitjantjatjara, a Western desert language.
The cover references a vast area of the central and western interior of Australia and is representative of many of the dialects spoken in the lands surrounding the eastern Goldfields.
The prisoners spent days rehearsing and translating the song together in a small studio inside the outback prison.
Mr Edmonson described the prisoner’s musical abilities as “naturally excellent and gifted”.
“If one person can play the guitar better than another person, then they’ll just hand them the guitar and go and pick up the bass or another instrument,” he said.
The prison’s music resources are not only a way for prisoners to refine their musical skills, but also an incentive to participate in education and rehabilitation programs.
Speaking recently to the ABC about prison artists, EGRP Education Campus manager Cassie Tasker said the arts helped to bring prisoners into the Education Centre.
“From there we can always pick up other areas they are interested in and say, ‘Hey, we noticed your reading and writing is not very strong. Why don’t you come to one of our literacy classes?'” Ms Tasker explained.
During the “Gravy Project”, six inmates were able to work on their English literacy skills while helping translate the Paul Kelly song into the Pitjantjatjara language.
His song, their stories
Most of the prisoners who took part in the project were not familiar with the song How to Make Gravy.
However, all agreed the feelings of regret and nostalgia described by Paul Kelly very much reflected parts of their own stories.
Mr Edmondson said the prisoners embraced the song immediately, explaining how they wanted to sing their apologies and send a positive message to the outside world while not being able to be with their families.
The bilingual cover was recorded live in one take in the courtyard of EGRP Education Campus to a small audience of education staff and prison guards.
Modified lyrics were not included in the recording to protect victims’ families.