Reprint: Lawson and Music by Keith Kennedy

A Shearer Violinist

It is not usual to associate Henry Lawson with the musical art, his works being more reminiscent of the cracking of stockwhips, and the creak of the mining windlass. Having Gipsy blood in his veins, however, it is not surprising to find that he was profoundly affected by melody and harmony. Exotic music of the studio did not appeal to him, nor the cheap tunes of revue and musical comedy: he preferred the old folk songs, sung and played around camp fires. In mining camps, on outback farms, and wherever pioneers and adventurers gather.

Of all musical instruments Lawson preferred the violin - his Gipsy blood would account for that, the violin being the instrument of the wanderer. I have the good fortune to be possessed of a violin that formerly belonged to one of Lawson's mates. On the back of it is inscribed "To my mate, Perce Cowan and his violin, with gratitude for light in dark hours - Henry Lawson." Cowan was a shearer, and, many years ago, he and Lawson were often together "on the wallaby." When the war broke out, Cowan enlisted, and went to the front. After the Armistice he returned, and, in Sydney, renewed his friendship with Lawson. Another returned soldier who was a close friend of both Lawson and Cowan is Douglas Grant, a highly educated Queensland aborigine. Douglas is the only one of the three now living. On being shown the violin he greeted it as an old friend, and told how he and Cowan, with the violin, used to go over to where Lawson lived in North Sydney, when Cowan would play, while Lawson sat at the table and wrote. With tears in his eyes, Douglas vividly described the little room, even going into such details as an old newspaper being spread on the table in lieu of a cloth.

Charming a Snake

Some time back In the 'nineties, Lawson wrote a short story on an incident that occurred when he and Cowan were "on the track." Although I searched through the back numbers of papers and journals in which his works were usually published, I could not find the story, but its salient points were related to me by one who had read it. As far as he could recollect, it was as follows:

Lawson and Cowan were carrying their swags out Cobar way, when, as evening came on, they met a couple of men, also on the tramp, who informed them that there was a deserted hut not far ahead, but warned them not to camp there, as a snake had made its home under the flooring. When the mates reached the hut, they agreed that it would be just the place in which to spend the night if it were not for the snake, so they decided to try and kill it. But how? The usual bush method of enticing it out by placing a saucer of milk near its home was not practicable, owing to the simple fact that they had no milk. At last Lawson had a great idea. He told Cowan to get his violin, and charm the snake out. Cowan unpacked his violin, rosined his bow, and struck up "Annie Laurie," while Lawson, armed with a stick, stood by ready to despatch the reptile if it put its head out. Whether the snake was lured out In this way my informant could not remember, but I hope some day to read the conclusion of the yarn in some old newspaper file.

The monument to Lawson in the Outer Domain is a monument also to the spirit of Australia as portrayed by literature. Unfortunately, the sister art of music has not developed in a similar national manner, unless the swagman's song, "Waltzing Matilda." could be claimed as such. Now, however, that the flood of imported sentimental songs and jazz is declining, there is a chance of something expressing the true soul of the country arising from where all such music comes - from the people of the soil and the open spaces.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 1931 

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on March 19, 2010 7:56 AM.

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