Dame Mary's poetry set to music

A collection of 16 songs based on the poetry of Dame Mary Gilmore is believed to be an Australian first. The CD, The Forest Prayed, was launched on Saturday in Crookwell, near the birthplace of Dame Mary in Roslyn.

An Australian first: Dr Stephen Whiteside and Maggie Somerville duet on 'No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest'. Photo: Clare McCabe

An Australian first: Dr Stephen Whiteside and Maggie Somerville duet on 'No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest'. Photo: Clare McCabe

The collaboration crosses generations. Dame Mary's poems have been set to music and the vocal performance is by folk singer Maggie Somerville. The instrumentation is rich and varied, played by many of Australia's well-known musicians. 

"In addition to more conventional instruments, such as violin, cello, mandolin, piano and whistle, the listener will also hear the saw, the jaw harp, the spoons, the bagpipes and didgeridoo," Somerville said. 

The CD honours the lesser-known poet on the $10 note (the other is Banjo Paterson). "I was particularly attracted to the work of Dame Mary Gilmore because she is a woman, and I do fervently believe it is partly because of this that her profile is not as high as it might have been," Somerville said. Yet "Mary Gilmore was made a Dame, while Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson were never knighted."

Dame Mary is remembered for an early romance with Lawson. She was a champion of the underdog and a columnist for The Australian Worker. "Gilmore was a gifted and prolific writer who did much to preserve the history of Australia's pioneers," Somerville said.

The CD was officially launched by Louise Taylor, wife of Hume MP Angus Taylor. "Dame Mary Gilmore was an artist and a lover of words and clearly a patriot. She believed in things and ideas. She was quite radical and interested in things beyond herself," Mrs Taylor said. The melody of the poetry would suggest that Dame Mary had expected her poetry to be put to music, she said. 

In attendance were descendants of Dame Mary, including Margaret Cameron, Jean Meng, Allana Meng, Reta Beattie, Ian Baxter, Elizabeth Baxter and Kelvin Cameron.

Mayor John Stafford acknowledged the Shire's strong arts and music culture: "It's a credit to you [Maggie Somerville] that you've done it, that [which] is so valuable for us in the Shire, but also for Australia."