Replica of Mawson's Hut, Hobart, showing the phonograph and records

‘The Music of Mawson’s Men’ blends live music, recitation, primary source readings, archival and recreated audio and projected visuals (including the famous Frank Hurley photographs of the expedition). The result is an entertaining and informative one-hour stage presentation that also includes audience participation.

The program invites audiences into Mawson’s Hut in the ‘home of the blizzard’ to take part in an authentic recreation of the music that sustained the men through three long years. Mawson’s epic story of tragedy and survival is told through the original music made in the windiest place on earth, and one of the coldest.

The performers make use of the same instruments used in the hut, including organ, concertina, harmonica, tin whistle, autoharp and whatever make-do percussion might be available, just as it was as the men battled isolation, emotional deprivation and madness in the frozen waste of Antarctica.

The Australian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-1914 carried out pioneering scientific and technological research and established Australia’s claim to over 40% of the last continent. Mawson was, and is, a national and international hero. Without the astounding commitment and sacrifices of his men these achievements would have been impossible. Their music and related activities were almost all the social life possible in their cramped wooden hut.

‘The Music of Mawson’s Men’ premiered on 15 April 2017 as part of the National Library of Australia program at the National Folk Festival, Canberra. The cast was Don Brian (voice and tin whistle), Baz Cooper (voice and keyboards), Pat Cranney (voice), Denis McKay (voice and autoharp), Jason Roweth (voice and kazoo), Graham Seal (voice and harmonica), Rob Willis (voice and concertina), Christina Mimmocchi (voice). Technical and logistical support: Olya Willis, Shelly Grant and Maureen Seal.

‘The Music of Mawson’s Men’ was researched, conceived and written by Rob Willis and Graham Seal. Rob is a leading oral historian who has worked extensively with the National Library of Australia. Graham is a historian and Professor of Folklore at Curtin University. Rob and Graham are both experienced musicians. This folk documentary is part of an ongoing project to retrieve and recreate Australian traditional heritage under the banner ‘Veranda Music’. Rob and Graham’s various contributions to Australian culture and heritage through fieldwork, research, writing and performance have been recognised by the Order of Australia.

How We Found the Music of Mawson’s Men

We were doing some ‘Verandah Music’ performances at the Cygnet Folk Festival in January 2016. Sightseeing on Hobart’s waterfront we went into the marvellous replica of the huts that housed Douglas Mawson’s Australian Antarctic Expedition of 1911 to 1914. Inside, we were intrigued to find not only the pedal organ that Mawson took to Antarctica but also an array of archival documents detailing the many musical moments that helped the men of the expedition stay sane in the windiest - and one of the coldest - places on earth.

Here was a unique case of the kind of home-made, or ‘verandah’, music that we collect, research and play. It is very rare for detailed descriptions of music-making to turn up in historical documents, especially before the era of widespread sound recording. What might it have sounded like? How did it interact with the constrained lives they necessarily led in the cramped huts, especially after the deaths of Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz and the unbelievable epic of Mawson’s survival trek?

Fascinated, we researched this ‘ghost music’ further and developed the idea for what became ‘The Music of Mawson’s Men.’ We read diaries, letters, lists and memoirs to find out what instruments they had and what was played on them, as well as the songs they sang. Some were ‘proper’ instruments, others were improvised for the group music and singing sessions vital to sustaining their mental and emotional resilience. They also had a phonograph and a collection of early sound recordings to help mask the whine of the constantly blowing winds.

We were able to build up an unusually comprehensive historical soundscape, underpinned by archival and recreated sound bites and the evocative photographs of Frank Hurley, the official expedition photographer, as well as images made by other members of the group. We wove these together into a one-hour script that tells the epic story of the momentous expedition through the music, song and verse of Douglas Mawson’s brave men. The material includes hymns, Victorian parlour ballads, drinking songs, shanties, popular songs of the era and improvised parodies of all kinds. Together they provide a gripping insight into the social, psychological and emotional aspects of survival in the most extreme circumstances.

The presentation encourages joining in many of the songs and enjoying their sometimes desperate humour. Through these expressions, along with some verse, toasts and even a recipe or two, we take our audiences into the tiny wooden huts that sheltered Mawson and his men in the ‘home of the blizzard’.

Raising one of the foreyards by use of the capstan on the foredeck. Shantyman sitting atop the capstan with accordion providing the work rhythm for the sailors.
Source: Photograph by Frank Hurley. Australian Antarctic Division, © Commonwealth of Australia.