LOVES GRAFTON: Uncle Johnny Marshall with his didge.
LOVES GRAFTON: Uncle Johnny Marshall with his didge.

Meet the Elder: Johnny Marshall

JOHNNY Marshall, a much loved Gumbaynggirr Elder, is a well-known figure around Grafton. He can be spotted in Prince St, busking with his guitar and didgeridoo. Often seen with a cheery smile and giving a friendly wave, he is always keen for a chat.

Johnny, who turned 80 in December last year, was born in Grafton to John and Elizabeth Marshall. He is a brother to the late Elsie Bancroft and Rex Marshall, both of whom were well respected and well-known elders of the local Aboriginal community.

Leaving school early Johnny secured work on a cattle station at Lionsville with his Uncle Bill Harrington. As a young man Johnny was athletic. He was a champion boxer and rugby league player and he had a go at riding the bullocks at local rodeos.

Moving to Brisbane, Johnny secured labouring jobs on construction sites and on the weekends he would play football for Brothers Rugby League Club. It was in Queensland that he met Carol, the mother of three of his five children.

In the early '70s Johnny decided to move to Sydney where he encountered several Aboriginal entertainers who convinced him to join their cultural act. So he quickly learned how to play the didgeridoo, to perform traditional Aboriginal dance and to throw a boomerang.

Although Johnny really loved his work in the bush, and his other pursuits of boxing and rugby league, he soon found that his true passion was for entertaining people. So for many years, he was a professional entertainer playing didgeridoo in a band called Pinchgut in The Rocks area of Sydney. He even had a stint as an actor making appearances in TV shows such as Skippy, Spyforce and other Australian shows of the early '70s.

Busking was another fun way for Johnny to entertain people and he could often be found at Circular Quay, in the tunnels at Central Station and later at Darling Harbour playing his didge and guitar. If there is an audience around, Johnny was, and still is keen to perform.

He would often visit schools, introducing students to Aboriginal culture through song, dance and his boomerang throwing. Many charities too, were the recipients of Johnny's donations raised from his performances.

When he was run over several years ago and suffered permanent injuries that left him unable to sing and only able to speak in a whisper, he did not let this defeat him. He decided, that although he could never sing again, he could learn to play the didgeridoo again. He therefore, spent many hours undertaking exercises to strengthen his damaged throat muscles. It took him a long time, but he was able to play again. In fact he is proud that he is able to play both the didgeridoo and the guitar at the same time.

All the years he lived away from Grafton, his love for his home town never faded. Each Jacaranda Festival would have Johnny returning to entertain the crowds and to generally take part in festivities.

About four years ago he moved back to Grafton to have the support of his family that still live here. Just before his 80th birthday he was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's, although it had been apparent for some time that he was suffering from some form of dementia. However, his diagnosis has not stopped him. He still does what he has always enjoyed doing - entertaining people.

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