Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

According to the aboriginals a song was both map and direction finder. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across country.

I read this book to my husband while driving back from Phoenix to San Diego on a very hot summer day. The air-conditioning of our old van gave out around Yuma, which must be the hottest place on earth, and had it not been for Bruce Chatwin’s great writing, the remaining hours would have been sheer torture. Over the years, his quotes have been a great source of inspiration.

Bruce Chatwin’s book is more than your ordinary travelogue. In The Songlines he challenges traditional boundaries between the scientific/ethnographic and creative/fictional discourses. Stories of a strange but probable group of characters from Australia’s multicultural population is interrupted by a substantial number of pages presenting the narrator’s diary entries, interviews, and citations which are quite obviously taken from the materials Chatwin himself collected when researching his treatise on nomadology.


  • Songlines are inextricably linked to the Australian indigenous concept of The Dreaming; the indigenous people of Australia believe that the world is created from the interaction of eternal patterns and forms.
  • All indigenous people of Australia know the story of the rainbow snake – this is the best known of the forms which make up The Dreaming – the legend holds that the rainbow snake left part of its spirit on earth and part of this spirit can be found in everything in the world.
  • Every Australian indigenous adult is responsible for a part of the dreaming potential and this is usually manifests itself as a songline.
  • In their most basic sense, the songlines connect good sources of water and places sacred to the indigenous people of Australia.
  • Australia is basically a complex web of these invisible songlines; some are short, others can stretch the length of the country.
  • A songline is a kind of musical map; the rhythms and cadences of the music represent the pitch of the land – it is possible also to represent lakes, stones, trees.
  • So intricate are the songline that it is possible to know – because you know its songline – a place hundreds of miles away that you’ve never been to.
  • The crucial thing is that in order for this tradition to continue the Australian indigenous people must continue to walk the land affirming the songlines and must ensure that they are sung regularly to pass them down for future generations.
  • The real threat of development – industrial, recreational and residential, puts the songlines at risk. It is at this point that Bruce Chatwin’s highly regarded work The Songlines begins.

Bruce Chatwin
Bruce Chatwin was born in 1940 in Birmingham (England). According to Chatwin it was always a place to leave and so he did. First to London where he worked for Sotheby’s, then Edinburgh to study archeology, then back to London where he worked as a journalist for the Sunday Times. As one acquaintance put it: He never knew where to be. It was always somewhere else. He died in 1989 at the age of 48.