Celebrating the life and words of Henry Lawson


John Schumann was only 10 years old when he discovered the writing of Henry Lawson. He was on a family holiday in a quintessential Australian beach shack where “the garden smelled of rotting seaweed, the kitchen linoleum was endlessly gritty with sand and every available piece of shelf was adorned with seashells and the like” .

On a shelf, next to a copy of Scottish author RM Ballantyne’s coral island and “some sons of Biggles”, the ravenous young reader spotted a collection of short stories that included Lawson’s famous tale The Herdsman’s Wife. For a boy who spent a lot of time in the bush and felt a strong connection to the land, this struck a chord.

“I knew exactly the kind of country he was describing,” he says. Review. “It was exactly the Australia I knew and felt; I can’t really describe it more succinctly than that.

A studio portrait of Henry Lawson, circa 1915. Photo courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

Schumann, who is best known for his time with the folk-rock group Redgum and in particular his Vietnam veterans anthem “I Was Only 19,” says that first meeting sparked a lifelong interest in Henry Lawson, qu He then studied at Flinders University under literature professor Brian Matthews.

“He [Lawson] has always been a key writer for me. I guess the best analogy I can use is that he was the literary equivalent of those early Australian painters who finally got the right light.

It was during a (very) long lunch at the House of Chow with his friend David Minear that the project of an album of songs adapted from the poetic works of Lawson was born. The couple initially considered drawing inspiration from the writing of Lawson and Banjo Paterson, but decided that the former – who was deaf at the age of 14 and later battled alcoholism and drugs mental health issues – was the most interesting character.

The album, simply titled Lawson and released by Minear’s Bombora label in 2005, featured 13 poems set to music by Schumann. It was recorded with a group of musicians dubbed the Vagabond Crew, named after a line from the poem “Knocking Around” and including the likes of Rob Hirst, Shane Howard and Russell Morris.

At the time, Schumann had not released a new album for around 10 years and was not on tour, but the acclaimed release revived his music career. For the past few years, he and the Vagabond Crew – whose line-up today includes six local musicians – have entertained Australian forces on ADF entertainment tours to countries including East Timor and Afghanistan.

Now, as he prepares to take the stage with the Vagabond Crew and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra to perform Henry Lawson: A Life in Words and Music on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the poet, Schumann says he believes Lawson remains relevant in our current times.

“I think there is a unique Australian culture and a unique Australian identity, and I think Lawson is a very important part of the literary aspect of our national identity and our national culture.

John Schumann. Photo: Matt Turner

“You take songs like ‘Second Class Wait Here’, which are going as strong today as they were when Lawson wrote it. “Faces in the Street”, another of his very famous poems, works a lot today… lines like “They lie, the men who tell us in a loud and decisive tone, that need is here a stranger, and that misery is unknown” – well, how many times have you heard one of our great and glorious elected leaders stand up and say something like that? »

Composer Julian Ferraretto, a longtime member of the Vagabond Crew, wrote the orchestral arrangements of Schumann’s original songs for the concert with the ASO on September 2, and says these will “add breadth and depth to the landscape, the characters and the inherent emotion”. in every song.

The performance will be directed by Luke Dollman and narrated by actor Richard Roxburgh, using an evocative script Schumann wrote with Professor Matthews, an authority on Lawson’s life and work. This will set the stage for the music, giving audiences insight into Lawson’s life and what was going on in Australia when he wrote the poems.

Schumann has played with an orchestra before – “usually only two or three songs, and you can guess which ones” – and says it’s a special experience: “It’s a bit like strapping yourself to the front of a freight train. It’s just this immense power behind you, and a huge musical palette; clever arrangers can tap into this palette with power, subtlety, elegance and diplomacy, and Julian’s arrangements are simply breathtaking.

Those who attend the concert, he promises, “will have a symphonic experience of some magnitude” – just like the songwriter and musician himself.

“To have 13 songs written, then arranged by such an exciting talent as Julian, then performed by one of the finest orchestras in the country on the very day of the anniversary of Henry Lawson’s death, is truly extraordinary. “

Henry Lawson: A Life in Words and Music will be performed by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra with John Schumann and the Vagabond Crew at the Festival Theater on September 2.

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