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We know relatively little about the life of Harry Schaefer. From members of his family and other musicians around the Forbes district, Rob Willis has been able to put together some of his history, but Harry Schaefer seemed a private man in many ways, and having died over forty years ago there aren't all that many people left who remember him first hand. The quotes below are from interviews recorded by Rob Willis for the Oral History and Folklore Archive of the National Library of Australia. The music manuscripts have been lodged in the Library.
Harry Schaefer was the youngest of eight children, born on November 11, 1876 at Echuca, where his parents had settled. His father Carl had emmigrated from Rhenish Bavaria in 1857, and had met Anna Lorke, originally from Prussia, while living in Germantown, near Geelong. They were married in 1862, and moved to Echuca sometime between 1864 and 1867. Carl had been a musician in Germany, but the family history suggests that Carl saw being a farmer as a more suitable occupation for Harry, and discouraged his musicmaking.
"Harry's father wouldn't even teach the boys so they used to have to steal his violin. I don't know whether you have ever seen one of the old, what they call the old strippers they had years ago for stripping the wheat before the headers came out. Well, they had a great big box on the back of them and they used to get the old chap's violin and they'd hide in there and learn to play it - that's how they all used to play music."
Biddy McClenehan - Harry's Niece
Harry was involved in farm work in the Forbes and Parkes area for most of his life. He married Adelgunda Helene Miegel at Euchuca in 1899, and the photograph on this page was taken at that wedding. They moved to the Forbes district shortly after, where they bought a farm. A child was born the following year, but died shortly after birth, and Adelgunda died the following year.
"I think the most vivid thing I remember of Uncle Harry was his appearance, stocky-you know, a real bushman-and his love of music."
Ivy McClenahan:- Harry's Great Niece
"He used to ride a push bike - strap the old violin around his back - always used to ride the push bike from Parkes out here - usually had a tin whistle with him as well. He could play anything. He had a flute - he could play anything you gave him, and he was all self taught."
He married again, some years later, to Annie Dempsey, who died in 1920, and served in the AIF during the First World War. There doesn't seem to have been any other children. Harry Schaefer died in Forbes on May 22, 1954 aged 79 years. He is buried in the Forbes Cemetery, with his grave marked by a simple wooden cross.
"Harry Schaefer - anything you'd ask him he'd play it - any instrument you'd put in front of him he'd pick it up and play it just like that."
Lionel Pietsch - concertina player and a friend of Harry
The variety of instruments played by Harry was truly amazing - fiddles, Strohviol, flute, tin whistle, piano, clarinet, accordion, cornet and other brass instruments are among those mentioned. Harry was also a member of the Forbes Town Band and some of the dance music in these books is obviously written out for brass players.
"I think I was first introduced to him by Bill Cade (old time fiddle player from Forbes), and I got to know him as an old time dance band player in the area, commonly used in woolsheds and so forth around. But he seemed to be able to play pretty well all the instruments, violin, Strohviol, piano accordion, he seemed to have a variety of instruments down at his place. When I saw him playing it would all be by ear he was very quick at picking things up. If you played a tune a couple of times, even less than that, he'd sort of get hold of it and go away with it, where we'd have to play it over and over again to get hold of it."
Merv Hawke - musican and dance band player
"We went out to Inchgower ( a woolshed) to put on a dance to raise funds for the ambulance - and some wise character said 'Where's the orchestra?' I said 'That's it over there - that man with the violin on his lap'. Harry Schaefer - only bloke there - and boy could he play, wasn't two ups and he had everybody on the floor, happy as Larry - one violin. He played almost all over the place on his own. You see every year they had a school picnic dance at Wowingragong (School) and he was the orchestra - one man on the violin - Oh yes. See, Harry Schaefer wouldn't buy a piece of music - No he was too miserable - No he'd hear something on the wireless or another band playing it - He'd go home and write it out - stop in the head - write it out himself - by golly boy."
Joe Hohnberg - founder of the Forbes Ragtime Band and close friend of Harry Schaefer