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Songs of the Bush

The subject of this story, John Hutchinson, passed away in 2015, aged 87, of natural causes (see ABC News). His incredible recordings are still cherished by nature lovers around Australia.

Meet one of our long‑term supporters, John Hutchinson, whose early interest in electronics and his love of the Australian bush has led him to create the world’s pre‑eminent collection of Western Australian bird songs.

John’s invention incorporated a tape recorder, a radio and a turntable with two arms that both played and cut records. Photograph by Angie Smashnuk

John's invention incorporated a tape recorder, a radio and a turntable with two arms that both played and cut records. Photo by Angie Smashnuk.

For over 50 years John Hutchinson has cut a solitary figure, traversing vast tracts of Western Australia in pursuit of what he calls his life’s work.

John’s grand passion is capturing the extraordinary range of Western Australian bird songs, and it has earned him an international reputation. John says his love of birds, and the Australian bush, harks back to his childhood growing up in Wyalkatchem, a town about 200 km north‑east of Perth.

“I was in the bush a lot from an early age,” says John. “The Jarrah forest then had big, shady trees and there was wildlife all around you – almost within touching distance.”

John’s other early passions included classical music and electronics, in particular early tape recorders. In 1953, after pouring over issues of Radio and Hobbies magazine, he decided he would build his own. The resulting machine was a masterpiece of early engineering incorporating not just a tape recorder, but also a turntable with two arms that played and cut records, and a radio. Hailed by his contemporaries as the most comprehensive machine of its time in Australia, this early ‘radiogram’ still works today.

A male Rufous Whistler. Photo by Robert McLean

A male rufous Whistler. Photo by Robert McLean

To pursue his other love, classical music, John decided to pack up his state‑of‑the‑art recorder and head to Bunbury. Here he spent seven years both performing and recording classical music, enabling him to indulge simultaneously in two of his grand passions.

“Then I joined the Department of Agriculture doing noxious weed control and was posted to the town of Carnarvon in Western Australia,” says John. “I was made responsible for a huge area including the Kimberleys and the region now known as the Pilbara. I was in my element, traversing that huge region with all its wildlife. Of course I took my recorder with me and operated it from the car battery.”

Finding himself now far removed from his beloved classical music, John began looking for something else to record. It didn’t take him long to discover the captivating sounds and rhythms of Aboriginal corroboree music. Working with several tribes, including the Waroora and Wunambal people (Bush Heritage also has a long‑standing relationship with the Wunambal Gaambera people in the Kimberley) John made dozens of original recordings.

The Sandstone Thrush likes to sing duets with company. Photo by Wayne Lawler / Ecopix

The sandstone thrush likes to sing duets with company. Photo by Wayne Lawler/ Ecopix

However, as many Aboriginals across the region began dispersing to cities, towns and settlements, it become harder and harder for John to find any corroborees to record.

In need of a new recording passion, the next sound to catch John’s ear was the symphony of native bird song surrounding him.

Having stumbled quite accidentally across what he now calls his life’s work, John has spent close to 60 years criss‑crossing the outback in pursuit of the most beautiful and elusive songs.

At times he has gone to extraordinary lengths (including ‘staking out’ a single rufous whistler for days on end) to amass over 300 tapes – and what is now regarded as the world’s pre‑eminent collection of Western Australian bird songs. The wonderful video below is from the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

John doesn’t hesitate to name his favourite bird. “The sandstone thrush in the Kimberleys,” he says. “It’s a magnificent songster and two or more will get together and sing duets and it’s just superb.”

Black-chinned honey eater. Photo by Robert McLean

Calls of the black-chinned honeyeater have been described as vibrant, ringing and musical. Photo by Wayne Lawler/ Ecopix

Of course, recordings of such significance cannot remain on old tapes forever. After investigating his options both here and overseas, the good news is that John’s entire bird songs collection is being copied and digitised by the State Library of Western Australia, where it will be held in perpetuity.

John Hutchinson has spent more time in the bush than most Australians are ever likely to. Over the course of his life he’s seen a lot of change – none of it good he says.

“When I was young the bush was ‘natural’. It wasn’t as badly affected as it is today. We’ve lost most of our real bush, and our wildlife, and what remains is mainly on private land.”

It was out of his own deep concern for the Australian bush and his admiration of Bob Brown’s vision in creating Bush Heritage that he decided many years ago to become an ongoing supporter. “I’ve taken a keen interest in Bush Heritage because they’re doing the sort of thing I support. They are trying to bring the wildlife back into the bush – and they are trying to bring back the bush itself.”

With two records, four CDs, seven audio cassettes and two books under his belt, what lies ahead now for John Hutchinson? “I’m planning a DVD on birds and wildflowers and I’m going to rewrite one of my books. That should keep me busy for the time being.”

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