Bruce Simpson is best known as an enthralling storyteller, sometimes using the pen name Lancewood.
But from the age of 20, he was a stockman droving across the NT Outback for nearly 20 years.
When he was about 27 years old Bruce became the boss drover. It was around this time that he was given the nickname 21 due to his boyish looks – he was often told he couldn’t drink at the pub as he looked too young.
During his droving years, Bruce spent some time on the Murranji Track, which he referred to as the “dreaded track”, often through his poems:
They stocked their stations further out and brought their bullocks back with water 50 miles apart, across the dreaded track.
Through endless scrub with packhorse plants they travelled day and night. When fever struck no mortal men could help them in their plight.
With brains awhirl, they lent upon their mates who rode beside. Who nursed them and who buried them In rough graves where they died.
Singer and former Territory Administrator Ted Egan AO knew Bruce well and pays homage to some of his favourite lines in Bruce’s poems by putting music to many of his stories.
The poem The Drover’s Life, which was originally and incorrectly credited to fellow drover and poet Wally Dowling, is recorded on Ted’s The Overlanders album and songbook as part of the Faces of Australia Series.
Ted recalls Bruce always being a stickler for using accurate Australian terminology.
“He would balk when people would use the words corral, stampede and cowboys – to him it was stockyard, rush, stockman or ringer, and he would always correct them.”
Ted and Bruce’s friendship included an adventure to America in the late 1990s.
In 1988, Hal Cannon, American songwriter and founder of the Western Folklife Center, celebrating the history and landscape of the American West, attended the opening of the Stockman’s Hall of Fame as part of the bicentennial celebrations and met Ted and Bruce.
The three of them connected immediately over words, history and the Outback, and in 1989 Ted and Bruce went to America.
“We put on a show – I sang and Bruce showed the Americans how to crack a whip. They loved our performances and Bruce valued the experience of meeting ‘real cowboys’. They even taught him how to lasso, which he thoroughly enjoyed.”
As an acclaimed story teller, Bruce was awarded many accolades, including three Australian Bush Laureate Awards in 1997, 2003 and 2010.
Ted’s personal admiration for Bruce can be seen in the yet-to-be-recorded song Old Twenty One, which makes many references to Bruce’s poems.