Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Johnson, Jack (Moolbong) (1868–1943)

by Tamsin Donaldson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Jack (Moolbong) Johnson (c.1868-1943), Aboriginal 'clever man' and song-maker, was born about 1868 and was a Kaliyarrkiyalung—a Wiradjuri man 'from the Lachlan River' in western New South Wales. Jack was removed from his family and sent to Moolbong and was also named after that pastoral station in the Willandra region. He became a skilled stockman, but was lamed by a fall from a horse. Living among and respected by the Ngiyampaa people whose country was to the north of Willandra Creek, he was nicknamed Kiitya. In 1926 the Aborigines Protection Board assembled the Ngiyampaa at Carowra Tank Aboriginal Station, near Ivanhoe, before moving them in 1933 to a new station at Menindee. Moolbong spoke Ngiyampaa (the Wangaaypuwan variety) and Paakantji, as well as Wiradjuri. He spent his last years in Wiradjuri territory, based with his son's family at 'the Bend', the 'mission' near Condobolin.

When the anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt visited Menindee in September-October 1943, Fred Biggs and Jack King spoke of the late Moolbong as one of the wirringan or 'clever' men. These individuals, 'of remarkable character and personality', possessed and controlled the secret knowledge of their people and also practised medicine. Among other 'magical powers', they were believed to be able to read minds, to determine the cause of a person's death and to make rain. They were 'of immense social significance, the psychological health of the group depending on faith in their powers'. Ronald Berndt mistakenly assumed that Biggs, King and other Ngiyampaa were Wiradjuri, like Moolbong. From those he interviewed, Berndt learned that Moolbong was the last man 'who could have brought about a revival of the old ''laws"'. He had died on 24 June 1943 at the mission, Condobolin, survived by his son John and daughter Leila. His wife Mary had predeceased him. He was buried with Catholic rites in Condobolin cemetery.

Stories of Moolbong's power still circulate. He 'was greatly feared by the Wembawemba [whose country traversed the Murray River south-east of Swan Hill] as he was reputed to have ''sung" his brother-in-law, Ned Briley, a Wembawemba man'. Moolbong and Biggs were the most prolific song-makers among the 'Carowra Tank mob' when some of the last songs 'in language' were composed. Their words were often chastening. 'You might do something wrong, they'd make a song out of you straight away!' There are stories of Moolbong curing snake-bite and making rain, disappearing without warning and appearing in other forms. His enduring memorial is the handful of witty and allusive songs in his own language, tape-recorded by later singers and held by the sound archives of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. In one song, Moolbong teased a White weather forecaster for his ineptitude and offered help; in another, his best known, he encouraged recruits departing for service in World War I 'to tear the Germans to pieces', while he limped behind.

Select Bibliography

  • A. P. Elkin, Aboriginal Men of High Degree (Syd, 1946)
  • L. Barwick et al (eds), The Essence of Singing and the Substance of Song (Syd, 1995)
  • T. Donaldson, 'Kids that got lost' in J. C. Kassler and J. Stubington (eds), Problems and Solutions (Syd, 1984)
  • L. A. Hercus, Wembawemba Dictionary (Canb, 1992)
  • E. Morgan, The Calling of the Spirits (Canb, 1994), pp 78-79
  • Oceania, 17, no 4, 1947-48, p 327
  • private information.

Citation details

Tamsin Donaldson, 'Johnson, Jack (Moolbong) (1868–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johnson-jack-moolbong-10631/text18891, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 1 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Kiitya
Birth

1868

Death

24 June 1943
Condobolin, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation