Bruce Thomas, Chair of the Wangka Maya’s Board of Directors (left), shakes hands with John Hutchinson (right)

John Hutchinson's legacy

John Hutchinson's legacy of sound

 Tessa Elieff

Sound archivist Tessa Elieff reports from a ceremony of appreciation for WA field sound recordist John Hutchinson that took place during Reconciliation Week.

In May this year, Peter White (Senior Manager, Indigenous Connections) and I were able to formally recognise the achievements of John Hutchinson in a ceremony of appreciation at the State Library of Western Australia (SLWA).

As part of this event, John donated copies of his rare Aboriginal music recordings to the NFSA and the SLWA. With the assistance of the NFSA, and in an act of repatriation, he also provided copies to Bruce Thomas and Alfred Baker from the Wangka Maya Pilbara Resource Centre, Aboriginal elders from where the recordings originated. The ceremony occurred during Reconciliation Week and I felt there was a great sense of healing and celebration amongst the attendees – the majority of which were friends and family of John. Did I mention that he is a bachelor with no children of his own? And yet, at the ceremony there were four generations of the Hutchinson family present to honour John on this day.

The repatriated recordings of Aboriginal music are exceptional for a number of reasons including that they are some of the first ever field recordings gathered by John Hutchinson in remote Australia. They include not only traditional music and ceremonies, but also four songs by two men who had heard about this ‘white fella’ with his recording device and appeared out of the bush to ask John if he would record them. While John did not note their names or origins, he did capture their words in these four beautiful stories: ‘Song about a snake’, ‘Love song about a boy’, ‘Love song about a girl’ and ‘Song about a didgeridoo’.

Group shot from the ceremony of appreciation, including: John Hutchinson (centre) and four generations of his family; Bruce Thomas (4th from the left, middle row); Margaret Allen, SLWACEO and State Librarian (7th from the left back row); and the NFSA’s Peter White (6th from the left, back row) and Tessa Elieff (3rd from the left, middle row).

Amongst these recordings I was startled to find two contemporary pieces that were most likely written between 1930 and 1945.

The first of these was a song that originates from Aborigines at Mulga Downs telling the story of the first time they saw a truck used to transport bales of wool from the station (listen below). Before this, camels were the only means of transporting the wool bales. Most local Aborigines had not seen motorcars, let alone large trucks, at this time so you can imagine the surprise when one rumbled into the station – certainly something worth writing a song about!

John Hutchinson - Trucks at Mulga Downs (1959)

The second song tells the story of the Second World War bombing at Broome – specifically the attack on anchored ships that had Dutch refugee women and children on board. The men had moved on shore believing the women and children would be safer on the ships. When the bombing began they were forced to watch, shore-bound and helpless, as their families perished.

John has expressed to me a strong wish for there to be a complete collection of his material. With the assistance of his family members and the SLWA, we will continue to focus on finding and acquiring the remaining recordings of his that we currently do not have so his work can live on at the NFSA.

Thank you to Margaret Allen and Dr Jean Butler from the State Library of Western Australia for their generous contribution and support of the event.