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The romance of the song



‘They tell me you know something about Henry Lawson’. The speaker was perhaps six feet tall, a ‘Collingwood six footer’ according to the vernacular of those times, handsome, tousle-haired, unsmiling but with a pleasantly ironic way to him. He was standing just outside the open doorway to my office in Flinders University’s School of Language and Literature, as it was then known.

Street art of Henry Lawson (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

He didn’t realize it but he was in fact my very first visitor: I had been appointed as a lecturer in the English Department at the end of the previous year but a bout of appendicitis evolving into peritonitis meant that I didn’t arrive, so we were meeting in the first days of the new academic year.

My door was open because I’d resolved, in my ‘new boy’ innocence, to be as available to students as possible. And, yes, I was familiar with Lawson’s stories — I had recently published a study of them called The Receding Wave — but I was far too diffident to make any serious claim, let alone an expansive one, so in answer to the young man’s implied question (what, if anything, did I know about Henry Lawson?) I said guardedly, ‘Well, I know a bit about him’. I didn’t reveal, not then anyway, that The Receding Wave was to my surprise controversial, having been vigorously — and in at least one case scathingly — attacked by various established anti-academic Lawsonians and that one of the chief objections was my connection to a university English department.

He came in, sat down, had a mug of the execrable coffee that I brought from the Common Room and we talked about Henry Lawson. He was well read in the field, having encountered Lawson not only in a small way at school but especially at home where his mother had given him an anthology of Australian stories, and he’d come across ‘The Drover’s Wife’. We hit it off: he was pleasant, engaging and witty and we resolved to continue our talk in the near future.

This young bloke was also taking Philosophy 1 as part of his first year and I discovered that he had submitted the head of the Philosophy discipline, Professor Brian Medlin, to a similarly exacting visit during which he offered to prove to Medlin the existence of God from First Principles, an intriguing proposition for Medlin who was a well-known atheist and a debater of murderously forensic precision. Yet, like me, Medlin found the young man excellent company, intelligent and brilliantly witty. He was also a talented musician and formed a band as part of a Philosophy project. When they lined up a few gigs, they needed a name and Medlin suggested Redgum, ‘the best and noblest’ of all Australian trees. The rest turned out to be history…

All that was many years ago. The young student was, of course, John Schumann. Our friendship grew beyond the student/teacher relationship as Schumann’s determination to sing, read and write in the cause of his own country’s literature, history and cultural traditions led him to set many Lawson poems to music and enlist me to help choose some of them and to collaborate in writing material in which to present that Lawsonian musical world.


'After a string of splendid encores and despite the crowd’s entreaties for more, The Vagabond Crew and their charismatic leader left the stage "to have a few beers" only to be forced to return, stubbies and all, to play some more...'


Recently, after about a month’s collaboration during which we rewrote, discarded, re-invented, and experimented to produce a set of introductory stories, notes and anecdotes, Schumann and his band, The Vagabond Crew, put on a stunning performance at Adelaide’s famous modern music venue, the Governor Hindmarsh Hotel — the ‘Gov’ as it’s affectionately known — obeying all the virus rules and restrictions in front of a hugely appreciative ‘capacity’ crowd.

During his characteristically relaxed and amiable introduction to the performance, Schumann recounted the history of his Henry Lawson interests and connections, introduced The Vagabond Crew and, assuming briefly his satiric, acerbic mien, lamented the way so much Australian lore and literature was neglected or overwhelmed by commercial — and often American — agency, or simply by the kind of misapprehension that led a member of a past audience to insist that Lawson’s best poem was ‘The Man From Snowy River’.

Whatever the expectations, the Gov audience was soon into its stride as songs ranged from the challenging drumbeat of ‘Faces in the Street’ and the passionate protest of ‘Second Class Wait Here’ to the intensely moving delicacy of ‘The Glass on the Bar’ and the sombre mysterious tones of ‘The Low Lighthouse’.

After a string of splendid encores and despite the crowd’s entreaties for more, The Vagabond Crew and their charismatic leader left the stage ‘to have a few beers’ only to be forced to return, stubbies and all, to play some more: a final burst which included some old Redgum favourites like ‘In The Long Run’, was rounded off amidst awed silence by John Schumann’s ‘I Was Only Nineteen’ followed by a prolonged standing ovation.

Sometime in the next months, now that such visits have become possible again, John Schumann will ride his motorbike up to our Fleurieu Peninsula eyrie and — as he usually styles it — ‘take some strong drink’ by way of revisiting the celebration and maybe thinking about the next one…



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Image credit: Street art of Henry Lawson (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Henry Lawson, John Schumann, Redgum, live music, The Vagabond Crew



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Existing comments

Only Nineteen - the greatest anti-war song ever and there are folk in New York and in Dublin who won't have forgotten the person who told them about it - and forced them to learn it by heart.

Frank O'Shea | 06 October 2020  

Splendid piece, Brian. You've still got it. As ever, Ed

Edmund Campion | 06 October 2020  

Thanks again Brian for a stimulating reflection. I have a similar story about the impact of "The Drover's Wife" (and the painting) on a European student trying to understand just how and why Australia is 'different.'

Gerard Rummery | 06 October 2020  

Sometimes I wish I had missed out on some of my Irish traits, particularly the one that always brings a tear or two when I hear or am reminded of "I was only Nineteen".

john frawley | 07 October 2020  

“And the sunlight streamed in and a light like a star,seemed to glow in the depth of the glass on the bar” wrote Henry while reminiscing about an old mate in his poem “The Glass on the Bar”. Brian , in your own special style you have warmed us with memories of our much loved Henry Lawson, John Schumann and Red Gum, the Collingwood six footer , the Gov hotel and much more. Absolute gold. Thanks.

Celia | 07 October 2020  

Fascinating stuff, Brian. You sound the sort of tertiary teacher our universities need today. I'm glad you weren't 'unavailable' to the young John Schumann.

Edward Fido | 08 October 2020  

Henry Lawson = Australia's Homer.

AO | 08 October 2020  

Great nostalgia Brian. Henry Lawson wrote of life in a simpler time when man's struggle was one of survival. Poems of rescue like Trooper Campbell and love without the golden glove, like the Drover's wife. He breathes life into the danger, the mud and the dust. My favorite Redgum song was the Beaumont rag with the poignant image of the barrister whose rich Dad bought him a law degree. The exhortation to vote for Malcolm Fraser. How he drove his car in circles to knock the strikers off their bikes. Vietnam and the class struggle were cornerstones of their sardonic lyrics. Thank you again Brian for reminding us of this Australian folklore and their great authors.

Francis Armstrong | 08 October 2020  

Thankyou for sharing- love this story!

Liz nelson | 12 October 2020  

Ditto, john frawley - and I'd say the same of some of the Scot, Eric Bogle's, classics which bring, at least, a lump to the throat

John RD | 16 October 2020  

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