HAND CRAFTED AUTOHARPS
Evan Mathieson conducting his regular Autoharp Players’ Workshop
at the annual Dorrigo Folk and Bluegrass Festival.
Photo by kind courtesy ©Lindsay Mar
This article featuring Evan Mathieson was published in the “Pickers Portrait” feature section of the American “AUTOHARP QUARTERLY” Magazine, Summer 2008 edition, by kind invitation of the Editor/Publisher Mrs Mary Ann Johnston.
EVAN MATHIESON was born in 1943 in the small township of Nullawarre on the infamous Shipwreck Coast in the state of Victoria in Australia. The nearest town is Warrnambool, the home of the prestigious Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum, and Evan’s family farm was close to the beautiful Twelve Apostle rock formations in western Bass Strait along The Great Ocean Road.
Evan’s parents were both good singers and often performed at local concerts. His great-grand parents had donated part of their farmland for the building of a small local “ecumenical” chapel to be used alternately by the Church of England, Baptists, Methodists, and visiting Missionaries on sabbaticals from their overseas mission postings. The Mathieson family routine every Sunday was to attend church and then to gather at the Grandparents’ family home. Whilst the older members of the family socialised, the then very young Evan pestered his very favourite Aunt Edna to take down her old black Rosen Autoharp from its special spot on the top of the tall kitchen cupboard and play a tune for him.
This was the start of Evan’s fascination for the Autoharp, and now some 60 years later, Aunt Edna has gone to meet her maker but the seed she sowed all those years ago is still bearing fruit and Evan now not only Australia’s foremost Autoharp Player, but he also hand-builds his own Autoharps with the very distinctive “map of Australia” soundhole.
When Evan was a teenager, his father died unexpectedly, so Evan left the family farm and moved to Melbourne where he took up singing and playing guitar. The first Folk concert he attended was Pete Seeger Live at the Melbourne Town Hall, and Evan was hooked on Folk Music from then on.
After a short time of working in Melbourne, Evan made the 2,000 km move north to Brisbane where he met and married Lyn — and bought his first Autoharp! Once more a Seeger — Mike, this time — insprired his interest! Mike Seeger appeared in concert at the Brisbane Town Hall where he played “Victory Rag” on his Autoharp and Evan decided that one day he would do that too!
The result was that in 1968 Evan purchased his first Autoharp, a 15-bar Apalachian model Oscar Schmidt with a solid spruce top and a birds-eye maple back. He transferred his finger picking guitar style to the Autoharp and taught himself to play “Victory Rag” and ”Grandfather’s Clock” (very fast Bluegrass style), as well as playing the Autoharp to accompany his vocals in his contemporary and traditional Folk, and Blues and Jug Band repertoire.
Way back in those days before the wonderful www., our only way of purchasing strings and replacement parts from down here — way “Down Under”! — was via snailmailing a “REMOTE AREAS ORDER FORM” to Oscar Schmidt in the USA, and then waiting for weeks and sometimes months for the parcel to arrive. This we did patiently until the dreadful day that our “Remote Areas Order Form” was returned marked “RETURN TO SENDER — ADDRESSEE NOT AT THIS ADDRESS”! Evan’s poor old OS Autoharp languished with several broken strings needing replacement for quite some time, until help came in the form of yet another Seeger — Peggy, this time. We met up with her at the National Folk Festival held in Maleny in Queensland where we were delighted to see her sing and accompany herself on Autoharp. We told her of our returned order form and she was able to tell us that Oscar Schmidt had been taken over by Washburn, and she very kindly gave us the new contact address to help us to access our much-needed Autoharp strings.
Once the new strings were acquired, the Autoharp “disease” took Evan over again! As his playing improved he became frustrated by the limitations of his 15 bar Oscar Schmidt, and when the glue joints in the corners started to give way in our humid tropical Queensland climate, Evan was forced to take desperate action and after pulling his Schmidt apart and then re-glueing it, he decided to build a new Autoharp for himself.
This was the start of the Aussieharps which Evan lovingly handcrafts from Australian timbers. Then people started bribing him with money to part with his particular instruments which suited their needs. So now Evan usually builds 4 Aussieharps each year, tailoring them for the particular wishes of his clients — left-handed or right-handed, for either table or upright playing, chromatic or diatonic.
As a natural progression, the new Autoharp owners of course wanted instruction on playing and looking after their acquisitions, so this led to Evan being invited to conduct Autoharp Players Workshops at various Folk Festivals. (In Australia we do not yet have the population to support the number of Autoharp enthusiasts required to stage full specialty Autoharp Festivals.) At the first Autoharp Players Workshop that Evan ran at the National Folk Festival now based in our national capital Canberra, we met up with Roz Brown who arrived to perform with his Autoharps and Limberjacks at the Festival after attending a World War II Veterans’ Reunion in Cairns, North Queensland. In his luggage Roz had brought some copies of the AUTOHARP QUARTERLY which he kindly left with us. Thus commenced our very happy association with AQ which has now become a greatly appreciated part of the Autoharp Workshops and Performances presented right up the east coast of our big, wide land.
Evan has been enthusiastically involved in Folk Festivals ever since they were first held here in Australia. In 1967 and 1968 our first Australian National Folk Festivals were held in Melbourne. In 1969 the National started its roving life and that year was held in Brisbane, (under the title of the 1st Moreton Bay Folk Festival) and is now usually referred to as the 3rd National Folk Festival. As well as performing, Evan was also voted into the job of Program Director for this Festival. It was during this time that he worked with the late, great Harry Robertson who was one of the founding fathers of the Folk Movement in Australia. Harry was also a very fine songwriter who wrote from his real life experiences as an Engineer with the British Navy on Salvage Tugs in the North Sea, with the Norwegian Whaling Fleet in the Antarctic, as a Merchant Seaman on Tankers around the world, and lastly in his everyday working life in ship repair in Brisbane after he and his family migrated from Scotland.
Harry Robertson’s great songs (which Evan learned directly from Harry back in the 1960′s) were the obvious choice for Evan’s first CD titled “Harry’s Legacy” which was released in 2007. This CD includes a 24 page booklet of the songwords and archival photos, and features Evan singing, reciting, playing guitar, but most importantly of all playing his own handbuilt Diatonic and Chromatic Autoharps.
Evan’s Autoharps are proudly played by some of the best singer/songwriter/performers in Australia including Phyl Lobl (Vinnicombe) www.phyllobl.net, Sue Gee, Graeme Fletcher, and “left-hander” Dot Newland.
Last year his No. XXIII autoharp winged its way to the UK with its new owner/player Nancy Kerr and her performing and life partner James Fagan. Nancy’s personalised 21bar chromatic features in her composition “Break Your Fall” on their new CD “Station House”. A photo of Nancy “hugging” her Aussieharp may be seen at www.KerrFagan.com
We would like to conclude with a special word of thanks to the AUTOHARP QUARTERLY Editor/Publisher Mary Ann Johnston and the AUTOHARP QUARTERLY for their very special place as an invaluable contact point for ‘Harpers — especially in the wide remote spaces ”Down Under”.
FOOTNOTE from Lyn. Since this article was published in the AUTOHARP QUARTERLY magazine in 2008, the then Editor/Publisher Mary Ann Johnston has suffered severe ill health. As a result she is no longer Editor/Publisher and her knowledge, dedication and passion for the Autoharp is very greatly missed by us all.
The AUTOHARP QUARTERLY has now been passed on to new hands and may be found at www.autoharpquarterly.com