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Come Ye Blessed: A recital of Norfolk’s musical heritage

Come Ye Blessed: A recital of Norfolk’s musical heritage

Music is a wondrous art form of organised sound, understood on a primal level by each and every culture in the world. Used as a way to express a complex array of emotions or ideas, humans naturally gravitate towards music and our bodies physically respond to it. Being a versatile form of communication, music can transmit human emotion in a way that transcends language and cultural barriers; yet it also has the ability to define and assert them. Time has shown that regardless of the environment, music has a way of finding a voice. In the story of the Norfolk Islanders and their Pitcairn ancestors, music weaves through each page and continues to evolve with each new chapter. It has helped define them culturally, and to continually re-align with their identity in a changing world. Even the sound of the Norfolk language is musical, with singsong changes in pitch and tone – so it’s no surprise really, that Norfolk Islanders possess a rich and eclectic musical heritage: one which tells their story in a way that no other medium could.

The tale begins with two inherently different cultures from opposite sides of the globe. One, known for its free and uninhibited nature; the other, for its reserved and calculated disposition. Yet when it came to musical expression through song and dance, there was a common thread of understanding. Both cultures sang and danced to express joy, and they could appreciate the musical qualities of the other. The Polynesians differentiated most significantly from the Europeans in the sense that music was an unrestrained channel of life’s emotions. The Europeans on the other hand, held their musical expression on a tighter leash and kept it for appropriate occasions. There was a grand mix of local and folkloric cultures amongst the Bounty crew, including English, Irish, Scottish, West Indian, North American and German influences. There was even a visually impaired Irish fiddler specificallyenlisted by Captain Bligh to provide musical stimulation for the Bounty’s crew. Forced dancing would take place for three hours each day, to which the crew would often retaliate through mockery of Bligh in the ditties they sung and steps they danced. Once the crew began to integrate into Polynesian society, they were known to have adapted their steps and rhythm to the percussion and vocal chant-based music of late eighteenth century Tahiti.

Perhaps there was music in those first few years on Pitcairn after the infamous mutiny, though the mixed Polynesian/European race lived in an almost constant state of tension due to vast personal and cultural divides. Whilst the women probably crooned to their babies, and the men sung songs as they worked – the musical exuberance of their earlier days were gone. At the turn of the century, a decade after the Bounty’s arrival on Pitcairn shores, John Adams turned to God after a profound religious epiphany. The small Pitcairn community, with Adams as their patriarch, fervently embraced the Christian morals and beliefs, and found a united voice through religion. Although not particularly musical, Adams taught his young flock to sing familiar hymnody as best he could. The folkloric songs of the mutineers seemed to die with them, though there is evidence that Tahitian-style music and dancing continued to be taught. Early visitors to the Island had expressed delight at being entertained in the Tahitian fashion by the Pitcairners, however, by Captain Beechey’s arrival in 1925 it appears the Islanders attitudes leant more towards christian piety and modesty. Though impressed by the skilled display of music on the gourd, porou (rhythm stick) and makeshift bass made from the Bounty’s old copper fish-kettle; Beechey records the dancing as being performed with embarrassed reluctance.

By the time the Pitcairn community were relocated to Norfolk Island in 1856, hymn singing had been a daily part of their lives for over 50 years. The arrival into the community of John Buffett in 1823 and George Hunn Nobbs in 1828 greatly expanded the singing repertoire of the Pitcairners, and introduced them to a western style of pitch and performance. With the acquisition of harmoniums and an accordion, plus tuition from visitors to the Island, the Pitcairners flourished in their newfound avenue of musical expression. Nobbs, a talented composer, co-wrote two of Norfolk’s most popular hymns: ‘The Pitcairn Anthem’ and ‘Gethsemane’. Both remain favourites on Norfolk Island today, with The Pitcairn Anthem – regarded as Norfolk’s unofficial anthem – reverently sung at funerals to mark the passing of a Pitcairn descendant. So varied was the memorised repertoire of the Pitcairners that they found an appropriate hymn for each occasion. There were hymns of gratitude and praise, of hope and love, to farewell, or honour a safe arrival. One could liken this manner to that of their Polynesian ancestors who would dance for each occasion, using this form of musical expression as an accepted channel of emotional release. Perhaps this was part of the Polynesian legacy left to the emerging Pitcairn population.

In 1855, just prior to the Pitcairner’s relocation to Norfolk, Fortescue Moresby visited Pitcairn and noted that “the islanders sang two hymns in most magnificent style; I have never heard any Church singing that could equal theirs, except at Cathedrals”. When the entire Pitcairn population of 194 people arrived on Norfolk’s shores, they were met by midshipman Frederick Howard, who, upon attending a ‘singing meeting’ of around 60 Pitcairn men and women, wrote that his senses had never been “enthralled to such an extent by music,” adding that the Pitcairners “did not sing for effect but rather for their own amusement and that of their visitors”. WWII and the whaling industry, in particular, brought an influx of distractions to the close community; though it seems that the beloved hymns – particularly those written on Pitcairn and Norfolk – helped to keep the community united through a strong sense of identity. Foreign hymns that struck a familiar chord were taken to the hearts of Islanders as their own, such as the stirring ‘Let the lower lights be burning’, which held significance for the Islanders during the whaling years. It would be sung by both the whalers far out to sea and the waiting families on land to keep spirits high and invoke divine assistance – and the burning lights which sent “a gleam across the wave” would be those of lanterns and small fires lit along the island’s cliffs guiding the men home.

In the early 1950’s, Norfolk Islanders were living a semi-subsistence lifestyle, yet from most accounts the Islanders were content. Laughter and singing intertwined as the small community found great entertainment in each other’s company. There were dances twice a week, and music formed a large part of social interaction. Ian McCowan will never forget his first day teaching at Norfolk Island Central School, when he was invited to listen to a group of children singing. According to Ian, they not only “sang beautifully” but their natural ear for music was enhanced by an obvious love of singing. A year later, when Ian married a Norfolk Islander, his own home became a popular place for friends and family to gather and play music. By this stage, Norfolk Island had seen a resurgence of pride in their mutineer and Polynesian heritage – partly due to the glamorisation of the Bounty saga, but also due to a sense of disillusionment in the Island’s administration. Playful songs were being composed in the Norfolk language, and most houses contained at least one Polynesian-style ukulele, ready to strum a tune at a moments notice.

In Sydney at the time, the Polynesian Club was a popular venue for Islanders away from home; a place where Norfolk Islanders felt akin to other Polynesian cultures and their musical heritage. A number of young Norfolk women, with no prior experience, quickly established reputations as skilled and charismatic Polynesian dancers, and many Norfolk Islanders acquired musical skills from other club members. One Norfolk Islander, affectionately known as ‘Steggles’, learnt not only to dance, play the ukulele and sing a number of popular Polynesian songs; he was also responsible for one of the best-known contemporary Norfolk Island compositions – ‘The Coconut Song’. Fed up with those who harped on about Tahiti, he wrote a song about Norfolk being just as good – “wi ooni nor gat a kok’nat” (we just don’t have coconuts). Friend and talented musician Eileen Snell helped compose the song, and the couple collaborated musically for many years. Compositions like The Coconut Song and Eileen Snell’s ‘Mauatua’ are iconic examples of the social music making on Norfolk that existed in the mid-late 20th century, and exemplify the role that these earlier islanders played in asserting Norfolk’s indigenous pride. But that’s not to say that hymn singing was a forgotten pastime – even the most raging parties of today have been known to break out into heartfelt renditions of favourite hymns. Today, Norfolk Island is at an interesting place musically. Aspiring musicians have a variety of ancestral and current shoulders to stand on for inspiration, in addition to modern music styles. Unlike earlier eras, it is difficult now to define a particular music style that encapsulates Norfolk’s society – one that best tells the current story of Norfolk Island and its people. As the Norfolk youth sing the hymns too fast for the older generation, and relate socially through inanimate objects – it may seem like the future of Norfolk music is in trouble. However, the beauty of music as a form of expression is that it encourages the creator to relate to the world around them, and to deny upcoming generations this honour would be a travesty. Local role models are important; especially those who are seeking to preserve and maintain Norfolk language, social history and folklore. Additionally, opportunities that encourage musical expression are essential, such as youth music nights and song competitions. For a people with musical strains bursting from their genetics and a precious identity to protect, it’s unthinkable that music will ever lose its voice on Norfolk Island. For the sound of Norfolk is rich with feeling, melodious and catchy – like a beautiful song that stays in your head.


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 03 Issue 01, 2013. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.


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