The Pathfinder

John Shaw NeilsonThe Pathfinder, Darryl Emmerson’s play about John Shaw Neilson, premiered in 1986 as part of the first Melbourne Festival, and received much acclaim for ‘its skilful blend of storytelling and song’, and ‘wonderfully evocative and haunting music’.

To hear some songs from The Pathfinder, please scroll below.

It was also praised for its ‘excellent performances’ and its ‘strong and beautiful vision, not only of our forebears, but of our rich and often overlooked cultural heritage’.

The play was then broadcast by the ABC, published by Currency Press, and later enjoyed a five-month tour for the Australian Bi-centennial Authority.

Neilson, regarded as the finest lyric poet in Australian literature, was born in 1872 at Penola, South Australia, and died in Melbourne in 1942. The eldest of six children, he was of Scottish descent. His education consisted of about two and half years schooling, and he then began a life of manual labour in the bush, fencing, clearing scrub, shearing, harvesting, road-mending, fruit-picking, which lasted till he was fifty. Within ten years (1897-1907), his mother and two sisters died of typhoid and tuberculosis, and his eyesight began to fail in 1905.

He developed a style all his own because, while working at one or other of his jobs, he memorised the lines as he thought of them, repeated them to himself – thus working in a way akin to the oral folk ballad – and later wrote them down. When troubled by poor eyesight, he dictated his pieces to fellow labourers, his first audience.

Neilson’s dedication was remarkable - he produced verse of high quality for fifty years - and his craftsmanship was painstaking: ‘The Orange Tree’ took more than four years to complete.