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Percy Cowan: Light in dark times

This is a sneak peek of edition 22 of Traces!

By Peter Baker

In May 1926, Percy James Bevin Cowan – a violinist, entertainer and friend of the poet Henry Lawson – lay in a tent in the bush on the Manly Harbour foreshore with a fever and uncontrolled coughing. Boatbuilder James Verrall had granted permission for the slightly built, pale man to camp near his boatshed, hidden from the views of seaside residents.

Percy Cowan was born in 1884. His mother, Eva, came from a family of house painters and his father, James, made a living auctioning building materials as Sydney’s slums were demolished. Percy’s younger sister, Eva (nicknamed Dolly), was added to the family in 1885 and his brother, Albert, arrived in 1886.

With the enthusiasm of a music lover, Percy’s mother encouraged him to master the violin and Dolly to perfect her fine voice under the tutelage of Miss Russell at Allowah Cottage, Annandale. As the children grew, Percy’s father was thick with Sydney Council, spending many hours in the company of mayors, councillors and the well-connected of Annandale.

By the age of 12, Percy was giving violin performances, with his sister in accompaniment, at Leichhardt Town Hall. James also ushered them into the smoky upper rooms of local hotels to entertain councillors and their followers, above the clink of glass and beer-swelled voices. As Percy reached his teenage years, music was in a state of feverish change. American ragtime captivated the young – it was vigorous and lively, and allowed for innovation. While Dolly was drawn to academia, Percy experimented with the new music and found he had a natural talent for comedy acting. He loved the violin and formed a loose band with his mates John Lennon (cornet) and Roy Allen (piano), and they joined the Sydney Philharmonic Orchestral Society.

To read more about Percy’s interesting life, read the latest edition of Traces.

Pictured: Percy Cowan, photo courtesy of Wendy Lander

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