Review of ‘The Forest Prayed’ CD in Trad&Now (Issue 136) – by Chris Spencer

30 March, 2020

Trad&Now Issue 136 CoverOn this album, Maggie Somerville has set 16 poems, written by Dame Mary Gilmore, to music.
While I was aware of Gilmore, being pictured on our $10 note, I wasn’t fully educated about her work and influence on the literary scene.
After doing some research about Gilmore, I discovered that she is regarded as an Australian patriot, feminist, social crusader and folklorist.
Other things I learned were that she and Henry Lawson may have considered marriage, she went to Paraguay with William Lane’s new settlers, and her best work is considered among the best written by any Australian poet.
Readers are encouraged to do some of their own research.
I found her entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography very illuminating.
I wonder how Somerville made her selection of poems considering the large volume of work created by Gilmore.
In this review, I will concentrate on the music rather than the lyrics of Gilmore’s poems.
Somerville has selected a range of themes that concerned Gilmore, as well as poems are written from different eras.
The earliest was written in 1916, the latest in 1947.
The themes include drought, poor treatment of migrants, aborigines, war, fellow poets (Lawson and Shaw Neilson), and the role of women.
Maggie has assembled a marvellous array of musicians to help her bring the poems to life.
If I have one criticism, it is that some songs are similar in tempo.
However, the arrangements with the use of a variety of instruments assist in giving each song a different sound.
Another aspect I enjoyed was the range of instruments used in the recording: tin whistle, banjo, mandolin, violin, viola, ukulele, cello, harmonica, didgeridoo, concertina, harp and keyboards.
These were played by Somerville herself, Catherine Leslie, Sam Lemann, Jenny Rowlands, Rob Fairbairn, Ray Simpson, Helmut Lopaczuk and David Billings.
Here are some observations of several tracks I made while listening to the album several times.
“I Heard a Thrush in a Tree Today” has a tweeting thrush intro, delicate violin accompaniment, and an all too brief all male chorus.
“The Forest Prayed” is piano based with a ‘solo’ on the saw by Ray Simpson!
The saw makes another appearance on “Truganini”.
Whistling accompanies the jaunty “The Whistling Man”, while on “Never Admit the Pain”, Somerville has chosen to only include 8 lines of the full poem.
She also asks a male to recite the first stanza and then concludes the 2nd with a full sounding choir.
Perhaps the highlight of the album for me is “No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest”, which includes an excerpt of the then Prime Minister John Curtin’s speech, which adds to the poem’s patriotism and call to arms.
In contrast is “And We All Joined Up”, which, while having a similar theme to “No Foe…”, has a very light hearted arrangement using a jaw harp.
Another distinctive song is “I Wish t I Was Unwed Again”, which takes a look at the lot of a housewife.
I’m not sure if Gilmore intended the poem to be humorous.
The album finishes with the anti-war song, “War”.
In summary, this album is unusual in its approach, although not unlike John Schumann’s and Hugh McDonald’s recording albums of the poems of Henry Lawson.
However, there is much to like, its folksiness, the production, the instrumentation, and the raising of a profile of an Australian icon.

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About Maggie Somerville

Maggie Somerville is a Melbourne-based singer/songwriter, who has been writing and performing in bands, duos and as a solo performer, for over thirty years.
Read more.