The Wilcannia Mob reflect on the impact of ‘Down River’, 15 years on
They were five cute Indigenous kids from a town we’d never heard of.
Their song about a river, a bridge and putting fresh bream in the fridge was a window into life growing up in a remote, western NSW town.
It’s been 15 years since The Wilcannia Mob released ‘Down River’, played the mainstage of Homebake and snagged number 51 in 2002’s Hottest 100.
But even though The Wilcannia Mob was a short moment in Australian music history, it’s impact on the band members is ongoing.
Lendal King was only eight, and the youngest Mob member.
“We bought shirts for him, they’d go down to his ankles,” says Morgan Lewis – aka Morganics – the MC and producer who recorded ‘Down River’.
Lendal believes ‘Down River’ resonated with a broad audience because it was a genuine expression of Barkandji culture.
“They loved it, the way we sung and brought out our culture and emotions. What our ancestors did,” he says. “We just sung what we got taught; we’re the river people, we live on the river.”
While the band members went their separate ways, Lendal maintains a desire to make music. That includes encouraging the next generation of Wilcannia kids to write and record songs.
“If they keep going, and adding to what we did, they could turn out a number one hit.”
Recently he helped facilitate a new song and hopes to set up a recording studio in Wilcannia.
Even Keith Dutton admits his voice sounds weird.
“I don’t know, it just came out of me. It didn’t sound right”, he laughs.
We’re happy to confirm that the memorable squeak of the kid who ‘walked on stilts to beat the beat’ remains just as squeaky.
Traveling to Sydney for Homebake is his fondest memory of the Wilcannia Mob journey.
“It was shock. Pretty shame when you first walk out there. Very nervous. I just went out there and did the best I could. The crowd went off,” he recalls.
Even though it’s been a long time since he’s jumped off the bridge into the Darling River, he’ll always be the first to have written a song about it.
“When we were young there was not much to do here, so we made a song,” he says. “Now all the young fellas are doing it. That’s pretty good if it stops them doing crime or smoking drugs.”
Colin ‘Colroy’ Johnson
Colin ‘Colroy’ Johnson wanted to be an actor, like Jackie Chan, and remembers being amazed when he heard the finished version of the song.
“That can’t be me, that’s not me!” he remembers thinking. “I didn’t believe it until I heard it a few times. I had to sit down. It sounded mad.”
After triple j began to play the song it didn’t take long for tourists to start telling him he was famous.
In an ironic twist though, Wilcannia was one of the small pockets in Australia that didn’t receive triple j’s signal.
“I didn’t know triple j was the biggest radio station in Australia,” he says.
“It meant a lot to the whole community. Back in the day there were young people doing bad stuff. We thought, ‘no, let’s make a change in our lives. Maybe we can set an example for Wilcannia and lead them in the right path?’”.
And they did. Community members both younger and older still look up to the group and what they achieved.
Fifteen years later Colroy remains hopeful the band will one day do another track.
“When we come across each other we ask, are we going to make a comeback or what?
“It was something positive in my life. I wish I could have it again, just to have that second chance”.
Despite success, Buddy Blair explains all members stayed grounded because of Wilcannia. They could never forget where they came from, because that’s what the song is about.
He often reflects on the self-assurance the ‘Down River’ experience gave him.
“Opportunities like that that don’t often come through, it’s good to jump on them straight away,” he says.
The Homebake peak has also had a lasting effect on him.
“We didn’t think we’d have the confidence to do something like that,” he says.
“We were all shy and laughing around on a track and next thing you know we’re taken halfway across the country.”
He feels ‘Down River’ helped start a small hip hop community in remote Australia.
“There’s a lot more brothers that are getting recognition. It’s the maddest feeling ever, it builds you up”.
He’s even collaborated on a few tracks with a fellow rapper from South Australia.
“Can’t be living off the old ‘Down River’ forever,” he laughs.
At 14 years of age Wally Ebsworth was the oldest of the group.
“Wally was very proud. He loved his league, Parramatta was his team,” Morganics says.
Wally is currently based in Dubbo and Western Sydney, and while he didn’t have much to tell us about the experience, Shopfront Theatre’s former artistic director Melinda Collie-Holmes is in touch with him often.
“Wally was always the shyest of the group, definitely a man who picks his moments,” she said.
“He’s shown interest in getting back in touch with Morganics and getting back into making music,” she says.
It was near impossible for the group to stay together long term, because The Wilcannia Mob were never really a band to being with.
The track came from a Shopfront Theatre project that pulled in artists like Morganics and Wire MC to facilitate kids holiday activities like writing songs, dance, and telling stories.
Its audience was never expected to be the world.
“As soon as I post-produced it, the first thing you do is send it back to the community – because that’s who it’s for,” says Morganics.
He still remembers the response he got when he told a Wilcannia community member it was on triple j.
“He said ‘OK that’s good for them, but we know that song, that’s our song’.
“They’d already claimed it as their own. They didn’t need the validation of triple j to know that it was a great song.
“That’s a great life lesson in a way. Sure, you can be famous in the city but if it’s not approved and people aren’t proud of it in your home town, it doesn’t mean anything.”
The Wilcannia Mob story is part of The Real Thing’s Positively Wilcannia series. Hear more by subscribing to the podcast.