The old man, the sea and the walking frame blues

Henry Gibson Dan AKA Seaman Dan. Photo: Karl Neuenfeldt/supplied.

Each week, John Moyle explores notable songs, albums and identities from the Australian music scene. This week, he delves into the fascinating career of Seaman Dan.

Late last year, in a suburb of Cairns, a 93-year-old old man slipped out of life. 

Little known to most Australians, the old man was a legend in Far North Queensland (FNQ) and the Torres Strait, and with his passing, so goes a direct connection to the equally little known history of the pearling industry and everyday life on Thursday Island, known locally as TI . 

Born Henry Gibson Dan on Thursday Island in 1920, and known to most as Seaman Dan, he would chronicle the history of FNQ and the Torres Strait through eight albums and two compilation albums recorded between 2000 and 2016. 

During his recording career, Seaman Dan would become the one of the most celebrated Torres Strait Islanders, with his album Perfect Pearl winning an ARIA for Best World Music Album in 2004 – a feat he repeated in 2009 with Sailing Home

In 2005, the Australia Council would award him the Red Ochre Award for his contribution to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, stating that he was a “charismatic and consummate performer who blended traditional Torres Strait Islander and pearling songs with jazz, hula and blues”. 

Seaman Dan. Photo: Nathan Kelly/National Portrait Gallery/supplied.

That Seaman Dan ever got into a recording studio was due to a chance contact with American born musicologist Dr Karl Neuenfeldt, who had been working with Pegasus Studios owner Nigel Pegrum. 

“Karl was just walking down the main street of Thursday Island and he heard the strains of a beautiful velvety voice singing a tune, not in Creole but in English, and he wandered into the drinking establishment and there was ‘Uncle Seaman Dan’,” Pegrum said. 

Like Neuenfeldt, Pegrum was a transplant to Australia when a romance brought him here from the UK, where from 1973 to 1989 he had been the drummer with folk rock band Steeleye Span. 

Settling in Cairns, he built Pegasus Studios and set to recording some 50 didgeridoo albums for the Indigenous Australia label and projects in the Torres Strait and Cape York communities. 

“He was 70 when he started recording with us,” Pegrum said. 

“Uncle (Seaman Dan) had done a bit of recording in Darwin during the war, when you went into a booth and recorded directly to an acetate. I had already been doing some work with Karl and he suggested that we record Seaman Dan on spec.” 

From the ’40s to the ’60s, Seaman Dan worked on pearling luggers, firstly as a diver and later as skipper, and at one stage he was a taxi driver on TI, which has about 3.5km of roads. 

A case of the bends ended his diving career and would become the inspiration for his song ’40 Fathoms’ about the treacherous Darnley Deep, recognised as one of the deepest pearling dives in the world. 

This was the life upon which he drew his narratives for his songs. 

Thursday Island lies around 40km off the north Cape York coastline and has been populated by Torres Strait Islanders since the last ice age, with Melanesian contact starting around 2,500 years ago. 

Aerial view of Thursday Island. File photo.

The Torres Strait islands became strategic to the British during the early days of the colony. Later, in 1884, with the discovery of pearl shells, it attracted workers from Malaya, India, Japan and the Pacific Islands. 

During World War II, some 5,000 US and Australian troops would be stationed across the islands, bringing with them stringed instruments such as guitar and ukulele, plus 78 rpm records. 

This set the background for a fervent musical culture, from which in the ’50s the Mills Sisters would emerge and gain some mainland recognition. 

“Seaman Dan and the Mills Sisters all grew up together as they were going to school before the war,” Neuenfeldt said. 

Seaman Dan’s background reflects the mix of peoples and influences in the Torres Strait, with his great grandfather being Jamaican and his mother coming from Noumea. 

“He did speak Creole, which is the lingua franca of the area, and there are some references to it in some of the songs, but most of what he wrote was in English,” Pegrum said. 

“When we sat with Uncle, we wanted to keep things based on string instruments, accordions and keyboards, and his first album is very much in that vein with a few sprinklings of the instrumentation that was on TI at that time,” Neuenfeldt said. 

“We picked the musicians to match the ambience of what the song was about and it kept Seaman comfortable. 

“We also tried to keep it within his era and also made sure that it fitted with his voice, because he was a crooner.” 

As Seaman Dan made more trips to the Cairns recording studio, he became more comfortable with the recording process. 

“He was extremely musical and had excellent pitching, and I never heard him sing out of tune,” Neuenfeldt said. 

“Sometimes he would come in with a complete song and sometimes he would have a chorus and we would work those up. 

“The role of Nigel and myself as producers was to make this coherent.” 

With a growing list of classics under his belt, including the unofficial anthem for the area, ‘Are you from TI?’ and his life’s motto ‘Steady Steady’, Seaman’s naturally inquisitive nature saw him spread his musical curiosity to covering his idol Nat King Cole and the songs of the Caribbean, including reggae masterpieces ‘The Tide is High’ and ‘Rivers of Babylon’. 

“When we did the A Caribbean Songbook [album] he had to learn the music as he didn’t know Bob Marley from a bar of soap,” Neuenfeldt said. 

In all the years that Seaman had been recording there had been no film clips, until he recorded ‘Walking Frame Blues’ in 2016. 

Official music video for ‘Walking Frame Blues’ by Seaman Dan. Video: POWERNATION/YouTube.

Everyone knew that this could be one of his last songs and old friends and family felt that it was urgent to get a Seaman Dan performance down visually. 

Patrick Mau is a TI artist in his own right, and he also owns and operates the production house One Blood Hidden Image, which has developed projects with NITV, SBS and major recording labels. 

He is also Seaman Dan’s grandson. 

Mau would develop the script and sort the locations for ‘Walking Frame Blues’, before bringing in a team from Cairns to shoot. 

“If you listen to all of Seaman’s albums, it will take you on a journey, and ‘Walking Frame Blues’ was not only a really nice tongue-in-cheek song, we thought it would be great concept to shoot a video about,” Mau said. 

Starring with Seaman Dan in the video is the indomitable Norah Bagiri, another TI resident with a powerful blues belter voice; she plays the perfect foil to Seaman as they shoot the breeze about the prowess of their respective walking frames. 

Shot on a Canon 5D Mark111 and posted on Adobe Premiere by Brett Charles from Cairns-based Leftfield Productions, the clip also centres around a community event held in Seaman’s honour. 

“I promised him that I would make a clip for him one day and it finally happened,” Charles said. 

Mau said: “The end scene was when they were celebrating in the hall and the community came together to celebrate him and his great journey in music.”

Seaman Dan indeed had a long journey through life and fortunately left us with a musical legacy that will be with us forever, plus leaving a little of his infectious attitude to life for the wider community of music lovers to share. 

“I learned a lot from him and when you are daily with someone who comes from a different cultural background, you can learn a lot if your mind is open to it,” Karl Neuenfeldt said.