John Shaw Neilson, regarded as the finest lyric poet in Australian literature, was born in 1872 at Penola, South Australia, and died in Melbourne in 1942. The eldest of six children, he was of Scottish descent. His education consisted of about two and half years schooling, and he then began a life of manual labour in the bush, fencing, clearing scrub, shearing, harvesting, road-mending, fruit-picking, which lasted till he was fifty. Within ten years (1897-1907), his mother and two sisters died of typhoid and tuberculosis, and his eyesight began to fail in 1905.
He developed a style all his own because, while working at one or other of his jobs, he memorised the lines as he thought of them, repeated them to himself – thus working in a way akin to the oral folk ballad – and later wrote them down. When troubled by poor eyesight, he dictated his pieces to fellow labourers, his first audience.
Neilson’s dedication was remarkable - he produced verse of high quality for fifty years - and his craftsmanship was painstaking: ‘The Orange Tree’ took more than four years to complete.
The Pathfinder, Darryl Emmerson’s play about Neilson, premiered in 1986 as part of the first Melbourne Festival, and received much acclaim for ‘its skilful blend of storytelling and song’, and ‘wonderfully evocative and haunting music’.
Other commentators mentioned its ‘excellent performances’ and its ‘strong and beautiful vision, not only of our forebears, but of our rich and often overlooked cultural heritage’.
The play was then produced for radio by the Australian Broadcasting Commission, published by Currency Press, and later enjoyed a five-month tour of Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and the ACT for the Australian Bi-centennial Authority.