Knifemaking: finding connection, making playlists, and the Songline

“The melodic contour of the song describes the land over which the song passes … certain phrases, certain combinations of musical notes, are thought to describe the actions of the ancestors’ feet.  An expert song man … would count how many times he has crossed a river or scaled a ridge – and be able to calculate where, and how far along, the songline he was … A musical phrase is a map reference. Music is a memory bank for finding one’s way about the world.”

Bruce Chatwin- The Songlines

When I was nineteen I had a summer job working at a large water park.  More specifically, I was working in the kitchen of a restaurant in a large water park.  We were serving expensive diner food, cafeteria style, to about 10,000 people in swim suits a day.  It was an awful job.  I cleaned grease traps, grilled two hundred pounds of chicken a week, worked the fryer, sliced peppers, and steamed sausages.  I had to shave everyday and my work uniform always smelled like burnt french fries, no matter how many times I washed them.

I worked with about half a dozen Polish guest workers, all of whom were grad students and law students in Poland, and, despite an obvious language barrier, were wickedly smart.  They would teach me filthy things to say in Polish, and I would burn them hip-hop CD’s.  If I were working the fryers, one of them would invariably walk by and toss an ice cube into the hot oil and then laugh hysterically as I danced like a scarecrow while getting spattered with 350 degree oil.

My favorite job was washing dishes because nobody would bother me.  There were about five different tiers of management and anytime I screwed something up there would be anywhere from two to three managers coming to tell me about it.  I preferred the solitude of the dishroom and somedays I would be in there for twelve hours.  To this day I have a little bit of eczema on my left pinky finger and I swear it came from that filthy dishroom those years ago.

It was a 25 minute drive from my parents’ house to work.  I had a Sony mini-disc player, which had just come out, and I made a special go-to-work disc that I hooked up in my car.  I listened to that list all summer.  It got to the point where I knew exactly where I should be by what song was playing.  I would start the car and press play and The English Beat’s “I Confess” would take me out of the driveway.  I would roll up to the last stoplight before the interstate entrance about midway through “Alex Chilton” by the Replacements.  If I hadn’t hit my interstate exit by the time Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” came on, then I knew I was running late.  Without any stops or traffic problems I would end up at the security gate by the time Stiff Little Fingers’ “Just Fade Away” was in full swing.

I knew the songs of both tree and pothole, of billboard and gas station.  I couldn’t discern if I was connected to the songs, or if the songs were connected to the drive, or the drive was connected to me.  I imagine all three were intertwined.

A few years later and most of the way through college, I had gotten in the habit of taking a walk every Sunday morning to a very old and picturesque cemetery near campus.  I had a very special list I had listened to every Sunday for about two years.  It was more nuanced than the Stiff Little Fingers and the Replacements, but powerful nonetheless.  No matter how hungover I was, once I had put my headphones in my feet knew the path out the door of my tiny apartment, and onward through every rock and cobble and briar and headstone.

I’ve made many playlists since then.  As someone who has trouble finding connection, I find making these lists help me to connect to my world.  Many people remember their youth by the music of the time, but sometimes this paints a rosy picture while glossing over the more bristly bits.  And one doesn’t walk through life without encountering the bristly bits.

For the past five or six years I’ve built a playlist which has faded the lines between myself, the music, and the experience.  Even with some 24 hours of music, I can start it anywhere and instantly remember where I was, what I was doing, and how I felt when I decided to add that particular song.  This list has been my most recent Songline, reminding me of incredible highs, heartbreaking lows, and everything in between.  Some sections are difficult to listen to, while I find myself frequently returning to others.  The experience, music, and myself all become one.  And while it’s still being built, it serves to remind me of where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going.

This is the lesson of the Songline, a knife built to travel.  It is designed in such a way as to be an extension of the hand and to connect one with one’s work, just as we oftentimes (if we’re lucky) connect ourselves to our journey and those around us.

The design is based on the Nessmuk trapper knife, popularized by George Washington Sears.  Sears was an outdoorsman and writer.  He carried three primary tools when out in the wild: a double-bitted hand axe, a small two bladed folding knife, and a larger fixed blade similar to the one below which he called the “Nessmuk”:

This one starts roughed out in 1095 hi-carbon:

Establishing a center line:

Full flat grind:



Spacing material for the handle.  Computer board blank:

Qaurtersawn White Oak, for strength and wisdom along the journey:



Bursting the curls- oiled at 220 grit before final sanding:

The Songline:

You can read more about the history of the Nessmuk hunter here:

Know Your Knives: The Nessmuk Knife

Songlines and the Dreamtime- this article is a good place to wet your feet:

Indigenous songlines: a beautiful way to think about the confluence of story and time


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