Jason and Chloe Roweth,
By Andrew Hull
There’s an aphorism that describes how one should undertake various tasks or pursuits; ‘You either go long, or you go deep’ – sometimes ‘long, or wide’; meaning, you shouldn’t try and cover everything, focus your energy. Regarding Lawson, I don’t think the Roweths ever heard, and certainly never heeded that advice. Of course, if you want to go truly meta, then you couldn’t really heed advice at all if you were going to fully embrace what Lawson means to Australian culture, and what he meant to himself. The man was both a product of his age, and a catalyst of it – searching for the soul of the nation, and creating it at the same time – lost, by lifestyle, to those he loved, and somehow beloved because of it.
Henry Lawson was born on the Grenfell goldfields, and grew up at Eurunderee/Gulgong, and Mudgee. When you grow up in a small town, there are unwritten social rules that permeate your being. They are the tenants of the scale of the structure, the reliance that each must have to the other, the trust required to co-exist and the fear that is generated by it. Youths are expected-of, supported, but typically not pampered – the follies of youths are endured, but not encouraged - and even in the smallest village, a repeated offender to the social norms can be afforded opportunity and still be considered outcast. Here’s the thing though, if you come from outside that community and try to level accusation or judgement upon its outcast, you will meet the fiercest, indignant, universal defence from its fellow members. “He may be a rogue, but he’s our rogue” – that’s how it works.
Jason Roweth gets that. He understands it intrinsically, and this is what anyone fundamentally needs to fundamentally ‘get’ Lawson. I can see this in his eyes when he talks about Henry, I can hear it in his voice, and when he and Chloe coalesce, I can feel it in their music. He’s not Henry Lawson to them, he’s ‘Our Henry’.
Jason and Chloe Roweth have an enviable reputation within the Australian folk scene as the very best of interpreters and performers of traditional music and poetry. Multi-instrumentalist singers and reciters with over 20 albums to their credit, thousands of performances and features at virtually every festival in the country, it is hard to tell whether they are really interpreters of music, or whether it’s the music that interprets them. Combining almost-lost traditional tunes with nearly-forgotten verses, hunting down and reviving reminiscences, languishing lustily in carefully crafted originals, and finding ways to add colour to an already rich palette of spoken word, they are, as they say, ‘addicted to the stuff’.
Whether they found Lawson on this journey (as they inevitably must) or whether it is Lawson that found them, that intrinsic understanding of Henry’s place in our society appears to have been instantly recognisable. The care and consideration they give to his work is unmatched (and there are many who attempt the task) – there is no ‘picking the eyes’ out of the catalogue, and nothing in the way of ‘Henry’s Greatest Hits’ in their approach, they go both long and deep. In what must be exhaustively rehearsed and practiced performances, they’ll notice a tangent and, with barely a hint of caution, lurch off-track and follow it as far as it goes, recalling contrasts and comparisons, similarities and significant stories all linked to the central theme which has just become all the more colourful for their eclectic knowledge. They don’t just want to recite Lawson, they want to know him, moreover, they want you to know him. They talk about the writer, one hundred years deceased, as though he were a close common acquaintance, just popped out for a bit. You almost expect them to say “you won’t believe what our Henry has gone and done…”
This is the version of Henry that Australians are meant to hear. We are a small town of a nation, comprised of smaller towns and dominated by not one, but a legion of vast open emptiness’s known collectively as ‘the bush’. Our Henry saw that this is what we were, he recognised Australia as only a careful observer of life can. An observer who probably watched lips move in order to hear the words they produced, and knew that if he didn’t pay attention, he would never know the context of the muted world he experienced.
Jason and Chloe Roweth have paid attention. Its one thing to recognise your local rogue when you stumble across him, still another to simultaneously embrace, endorse, defend and condemn him. Their lives, infused as they are with lyric and verse, are informed by the greatest poets and wordsmiths, the most careful considerations and observations of the human condition, and the most honest of historical chronicles. They know that the highlights are not the whole story, the news clippings do not fully describe the events, and that the scandals and sensations rarely look more closely for the context. So, they sing and speak his work, sometimes finding or creating music to add colour, other times allowing that the work is colourful enough. They eulogise and remember Lawson, endorse and revere him, they regale, reflect and recite him.
Most of all though, they celebrate him. To spend some time with Jason and Chloe Roweth is to celebrate Our Henry in the round, fully formed character that he is. “Henry Lawson was sung in the bush before he was written” says Jason in one of the snippets he has meticulously collected from his conversations. In the same way, I think Henry lived in the hearts of Jason and Chloe before they even knew it, and just as the bush waited for Lawson’s words, those words have waited for this musical, lyrical and loving union between Jason and Chloe.
It’s a hundred years since Our Henry died, and despite the honour of a state funeral at the time, his name posthumously added to parks, streets and places, even his image on the currency, his anniversary is better reflected by his small, undistinguished grave at Waverley Cemetery. There’s little officially underway to celebrate him. If you get a chance to remember our local rogue and our finest, truest voice - take it. Look up Jason and Chloe Roweth to see where they are playing - they never stop, they’re addicted. You’ll enjoy their company, and I can’t think of anyone more completely covered by the cloak of Lawson’s legacy than this duo, nor could I conceive of a safer, warmer hearth for this intrinsically Australian voice.