Thursday, 16 December 2010

Meet Leonard Hussey…

Mr Hussey finds time to put his banjo down and pick up a large dog
I'm just decompressing from the last flurry of design activity for the year long project which has been the Explorers' Club. As I have mentioned in previous posts it has been a great project to work on, with an excellent range of musicians and having a new release coming out each month this year but it has been a lot of work. 

The Explorer's Club poster image
After I hit the send button on the last 'deliverable' I ran a hot bath and turned on Radio 4, by coincidence the programme that happened to be on was called "Vital Mental Medicine" which was about Shakelton's ill fated expedition to the South Pole in Endurance and the role music played in keeping the stranded crew alive and it seemed to chime with the Explorers Club.

I knew about Frank Hurley's amazing photographs of the ship, the frosted rigging making the ship look like a spectral apparition trapped in the pack ice, but I didn't know anything about Leonard Hussey and his musical role in the expedition! Hussey was the expeditions Meterologist but was made part of the crew because he could play the banjo.

The importance of music was made clear as the Endurance was sinking through the Antarctic pack-ice, Ernest Shackleton allowed each member of his expedition to take 2lbs of possessions with them as they abandoned ship. One exception was made; while Hurley was wading through the ice cold water saving his photographic plates Shackleton dove in and saved Leonard Hussey's banjo saying, "We must have that banjo. It's vital mental medicine."
So it proved; when Shackleton set off in a small boat to sail to South Georgia to get help, he left behind twenty-two men on Elephant Island. There they lived for months under an upturned boat and old sails. Every Saturday the banjo-playing meteorologist put on a concert. He composed songs about the crew members and whenever they caught a seal to eat brought out his banjo. He played, the men sang - and anger and depression were kept at bay.

Leonard Hussey survived, as did his banjo, now in the National Maritime Museum, its skin marked with a dozen signatures of members of the failed expedition to the South Pole.

Mr Hussey's banjo signed by the gang

Hussey was interviewed in the 1950's for radio where amongst other things he talked about his banjo having seen action in warmer climes, "having among other things been played to an audience of cannibals in Africa."

Ah the magic and universality of music!

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