John Schumann was only around 10 when he discovered the writing of Henry Lawson. He was on a family holiday at a quintessential Australian beach shack where “the garden smelt of decomposing seaweed, the kitchen linoleum was endlessly gritty with sand and every available piece of shelf space was adorned with shells and the like”.

On a bookshelf, alongside a copy of Scottish author RM Ballantyne’s The Coral Island and “a couple of Biggles yarns”, the voracious young reader spotted a collection of short stories that included Lawson’s famous tale The Drover’s Wife. For a lad who spent a lot of time in the bush and felt a strong connection to the land, it struck a chord.

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

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

Schumann, who is best known for his time with folk-rock band Redgum and especially his Vietnam veterans’ anthem “I Was Only 19”, says that first encounter sparked a life-long interest in Henry Lawson, whom he went on to study at Flinders University under literary scholar Professor Brian Matthews.

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

It was over a (very) long lunch at the House of Chow with friend David Minear that the plan was hatched for an album of songs adapted from Lawson’s poetic works. The pair initially considered drawing on the writing of both Lawson and Banjo Paterson, but decided that the former – who was deaf by the time he was 14 and later struggled with alcoholism and mental health issues – was the more interesting character.

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

At the time, Schumann hadn’t put out a new album in around 10 years and wasn’t touring, but the acclaimed release reignited his music career. In recent years he and the Vagabond Crew – whose line-up today comprises six local musicians ­– have entertained Australian forces on ADF Entertainment Tours to countries including East Timor and Afghanistan.

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

“I think there is such a thing as a unique Australian culture and a unique Australian identity, and my view is that Lawson is very much an important part of the literature aspect of our national identity and our national culture.

John Schumann. Photo: Matt Turner

“You take songs like ‘Second Class Wait Here’, that works just as hard today as it did when Lawson wrote it. ‘Faces in the Street’, another of his very famous poems, very much works today… lines like ‘They lie, the men who tell us in a loud decisive tone, that want is here a stranger, and that misery’s unknown’ – well, how many times have you heard one of our great and glorious elected leaders get up and say something similar?”

Composer Julian Ferraretto, a long-time Vagabond Crew member, has written 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 emotion inherent in each song”.

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

Schumann has performed with an orchestra previously – “usually just two or three songs, and you can guess which ones” – and says it is a special experience: “It’s kind of like strapping yourself to the front of a freight train. It’s just this immense power behind you, and an immense musical palette; clever arrangers can draw from that palette with power and subtlety and elegance and diplomacy, and Julian’s arrangements are just stunning.”

Those attending the concert, he promises, “will be in for a symphonic experience of some magnitude” ­– as will the songwriter and musician himself.

“To have written 13 songs and then to have them arranged by a talent as wildly exciting as Julian and then played by one of the very best orchestras in the country on the very day of the anniversary of Henry Lawson’s death is really quite extraordinary.”

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

Make a comment View comment guidelines

Support local arts journalism

Your support will help us continue the important work of InReview in publishing free professional journalism that celebrates, interrogates and amplifies arts and culture in South Australia.

Donate Here

. You are free to republish the text and graphics contained in this article online and in print, on the condition that you follow our republishing guidelines.

You must attribute the author and note prominently that the article was originally published by InReview.  You must also inlude a link to InReview. Please note that images are not generally included in this creative commons licence as in most cases we are not the copyright owner. However, if the image has an InReview photographer credit or is marked as “supplied”, you are free to republish it with the appropriate credits.

We recommend you set the canonical link of this content to to insure that your SEO is not penalised.

Copied to Clipboard