(When I wrote this article three years ago there was no overview of folk music collecting in New Zealand in existance. Plenty of primary information could be found in old publications, song anthologies and in archival holdings: if you had the time, opportunity and inclination to go looking. But there was no way to gain an overall sense of how much folk music had been collected here; who were the informants; what kind of music and songs had been found; and where this material could be sourced from. Hence the need for the exploratory article, 'In Search of Native Song'. Three years on, I've just completed writing an MA thesis on the subject and have managed to get rather deeper into it. My understanding of 'folk music' and 'traditional music' have changed since 2003 as well, so I would probably take a different approach if I was writing the article today. But rather than re-writing the piece entirely, I thought it would be better to grit the teeth, correct the most glaring errors and let an early treatment of the subject remain largely as it is. Michael Brown, April 2006)
This article only relates to folksongs in the English language, though of course there is a fair amount of other traditional music in New Zealand: Maori, Polynesian as well as other folk music from Europe, Asia and elsewhere. My general aim will be to describe the history of collecting activities in this country - the people and organisations involved, the scale and nature of their work and the published collections. This isn't intended to be an in-depth discussion of the music itself - however I've tried to convey something of the range and flavour of material that has been found and have offered a short historical summary to provide a little context. Also included is an interview with one of the main collectors (Phil Garland), whose comments enlarge upon some of the areas I've summarised.
I have tried to focus closely on traditional folk songs, though in New Zealand this has its difficulties. As Angela Annabell has written:
Only a proportion of… [New Zealand] material approaches the ideal of the classic folksong - that is, of folksongs as the end product of extended processes of oral transmission'.1Folklorists here have relied heavily on printed sources and furthermore, many of our best-known songs are the result of 'extensive restoration and amendment'.2
Thus, while I've tended to reference only the most relevant material, a broader overview has been necessary to put collecting here in its true context.3
As the 19th century progressed and the 20th century began, New Zealand saw the rise of various industries - mining, flax milling, timber felling, kauri gum digging, wheat growing and sheep farming - all of which attracted migrant workers from elsewhere in the English speaking world: Australia, Britain, Ireland, Canada and the United States.4 Many of these industries were based in the back country far from towns, so songs, verse and recitations were an important form of entertainment. In some cases, eg. gold-mining, there was a thriving creation of new folk material. Other workers, such as crewman on coastal ships or railway navvies, also produced their own localised songs and verse.
Huge economic slumps in the 1880s and 1930s, which resulted in poor living conditions for large sections of the population, saw the creation of protest-orientated songs and poems. Connected with these periods of depression were the rise of strong organised labour movements from the 1890s onwards - movements which partly forged their sense of consciousness through folk culture. It also created , between the 1880s and 1940s, a culture of 'swagging'. 'Swaggies' were dispossessed itinerant workers (or shirkers) who travelled the countryside in their thousands, often expressing their experiences in song, verse and yarn.
New Zealand's military history, from the wars with the Maori in the 1840s-60s through to the World Wars of the 20th century, has also seen a rich folklore develop in the Armed Forces.
Despite all this, the surviving heritage in New Zealand is quite small compared with other western countries. This situation is borne out by the fact that only a small handful of collections have been published and very few field recordings released.5 Why this situation has come to pass is a complex question and beyond the scope of this article, but there is general consensus on one point: collecting began too late.
Those who began collecting in the 1950s found that many songs had been lost to living memory by the time they arrived on the scene - people often remembered song-titles but not songs themselves. If there had been a dedicated collector operating in the early 20th century - an individual like Cecil Sharp, John Lomax or Banjo Patterson - then folksongs may well have become established as a integral part of New Zealand's wider popular culture. As well as preserving material, a collector would have become a role model and an inspiration for further work.
The first person to seriously consider local folksong as a noteworthy part of New Zealand culture was the historian James Cowan (1870-1943). This was in two newspaper articles published in the Christchurch Press newspaper - 'Sailor Memories' (1912) and 'The Bush Poet' (1913).6 In the second article he notes the lack of a serious collector of the bush ballads and sea songs of New Zealand, no doubt reminded of the efforts of Banjo Patterson in Australia (whose Old Bush Songs was first published in 1905):
So far no New Zealander has attempted to record the unprinted old 'home-made' songs afloat in bush and backblocks communities in New Zealand, songs which though rough-hewn as to rhyme and metre sound well enough when chanted by strong lungs at a 'sing-song' around a camp-fire.7Cowan supplies the titles and snippets of text from some two dozen songs. These include many sea shanties and various local songs, one of which is a 'nativised' sea shanty. One song uses an intriguing mix of punning Maori-English doggerel - a type of song not widely found here. He provides lyrics for Paddy Doyle's Lament, a comic song from the Army militias of the 1860s:
It was down in Otago they collared me,In the two decades after Cowan's articles only Mona Tracy and Dr Percy Jones followed Cowan's lead, both on a very small scale. A pioneering Australian collector, Jones was visiting New Zealand in 1940 and obtained a gold-field song - The Shanty By the Way - from an old man in Auckland. He later passed this on to Rona Bailey (see below). This song has often been used to illustrate how the folk process can operate here, so I'll give a brief account and some sample lyrics.
A Government soldjar to be,
To go up and fight the wild Mowrees
In the forests of Taranakee.8
Shanty began life as a poem by the Australian poet E J Overbury, published in 1865 as The Public By the Way concerning the ramshackle 'grog-shops' of the Victorian gold-fields. This was then taken into the oral tradition by miners and when these miners followed the gold-rushes to New Zealand in the late 1860s, they brought it with them. Along the way the words became less 'literary' and became attached to the tune of Finnegan's Wake. By the 1870s it was apparently something of a classic in the West Coast settlements, but as the miners drifted or 'rushed' away over the subsequent decades, the singing community dwindled. It was still remembered up to the 1950s but was no longer in oral circulation - except in enjoying a second life through the Folk Revival.
Landlord stands with smiling face,The history of this song has been analysed in depth by NZ Folklore Society founder Frank Fyfe in A “Shanties” or Two (1970).
He likes to see your cash forked out.
Landlord stands with smiling face,
Sometimes he will stand a shout.
Rows of bottles standing upright
Labelled with bright blue and gold,
Beer so cold it needs no icing
From the cellar's drear dark hole.9
Mona Tracy (1892-1959) was a journalist and writer who collected several songs, verse fragments and yarns from people on the West Coast and elsewhere. She herself remembered scraps of The Shanty By the Way (which her parents sang) and parts of other songs from the South Island. Her book West Coast Yesterdays is still one of the best evocations of the goldrushes, with many stories and yarns collected in the field.10
Rona Bailey began collecting New Zealand folk music in the early 1950s. She was prompted to do this after hearing local broadcaster Arnold Wall bemoan the lack of local collecting. Bailey already had a strong connection to music through her dance studies in the United States in the 1930s, which led to a career as a Physical Welfare Officer upon her return to New Zealand in 1939.
Starting out, Bailey spent much time searching in archives and soliciting material through newspaper advertisements. In 1956 she decided to undertake a field trip with her friends Bob Armstrong and Dick Scott (a labour historian and writer) on the West Coast of the South Island, which had been a thriving gold-mining district in the 19th century. They spent several weeks visiting pubs, rest-homes and chasing various leads and were able to turn up a number of songs, fragments and pieces of verse. Some dated to the gold-rush days of the 1860s, while others were of more recent origin, the Coast being legendary for its writers if doggerel verse. They made no recordings, although this was attempted on a number of occasions - however they generally found people too shy to commit their voices to tape.
In 1956-7 she made a field trip to the former gumfield areas of Northland, but found a disappointingly small amount of material. In 1958 she obtained a state literary grant to do field collecting in Central Otago and Southland with her friend Betty Hunter and though she gathered important songs and fragments, this trip was again less successful. Her later finds include The Dugout in the True (a parody of a WW2 song mentioned below) and a number of sea-songs collected in Bluff in 1958, such as The Foggy Foggy Banks:
When I was but a lad at school,Speaking of her field expeditions, Rona has expressed the feeling that if work had started twenty or even ten years earlier a far greater number of songs would have been found. She described to me several occasions where someone who could have been a prime informant was found to have recently passed away.
I did not love my home.
Like lots of foolish fisher lads,
I thought I'd sooner roam.
Soon I joined a trawler
And there I quickly found,
There wasn't no plain sailin'
When I reached the trawlin' ground.11
As part of her ongoing researches she continued to use printed sources - anonymous broadsides and verse found in old newspapers, song-books and archival manuscripts. While this is a fairly common practice among folklorists, in New Zealand it has been especially important, helping recover some of the material an early folksong collector may have picked up from oral sources.
The late Herbert Roth (1917-1994), with whom Rona Bailey collaborated for the 1967 book Shanties by the Way, was also particularly strong on locating folk material from printed sources. Being a librarian and labour historian, Roth had good access to the printed record of union folk culture. Examining his collection held at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, one finds mainly newspaper cuttings, broadsides, political pamphlets and the like. In my opinion, much of the best material dates from the early 20th century when union culture here (as elsewhere) was particularly vigorous and creative. One prolific folk-poet deserves special mention in this regard - Henry Kirk a.k.a. 'The Mixer' - a Greymouth wharfie who published his verses and parodies widely in union journals.12
In the early 1960s, Bailey and Roth pooled their resources and began to assemble Shanties by the Way. This was published in 1967 and is one of the most authoritative basic sources for those with an interest in New Zealand folksong. It includes 80 or so items: a few of James Cowan's fragments quoted from his articles, satirical compositions by Charles Thatcher and assorted anonymous poems and pieces of political doggerel. Perhaps only a quarter of the items are folksongs of a traditional nature. Some songs have music, others supply the name of the original air and there are several new melodies composed by Neil Colquhoun (in cases where music could not be located). Generally there are no reconstructions or amendments.
Rona Bailey's collecting activities began to drop off in the 1960s and though she still takes an interest, devotes herself to a number of different fields.
Neil Colquhoun, an educationalist and school teacher (now retired), first began collecting local folksongs and verse in the 1950s. None of this material was recorded in the field, but rather learnt by ear or transcribed by hand. In the late 1950s he formed The Songspinners, a revival folk group which played the songs he'd found, reconstructed or composed himself.
In 1965 Colquhoun published the collection New Zealand Folksongs (23 pieces) and in 1972 a much expanded 2nd edition New Zealand Folksongs - Song of a Young Country (51 pieces). This book is the source of many of the best-known songs here. It is a populist collection and was principally concerned with presenting singable, 'complete' versions of songs. Many pieces had been assembled from fragments, amended or supplemented, both lyrically and musically, or were poems set to music. This approach did spread a positive message about the existence of a New Zealand folk tradition, but also aroused criticism in some quarters for its supposed inaccuracies. Perhaps most crucially, the collecting notes were extremely brief, which meant it was often difficult to know the nature of the original sources and the extent of reconstruction.
Some of the most interesting songs came to Colquhoun in 1957 from American composer John Leebrick, from Massachusetts. These include Come All you Tonguers, New Zealand Whales and Davy Lowston:
My name is Davy Lowston, I did seal, I did seal.Apparently Leebrick had collected these songs in the 1920s from the daughter of a former whaler who'd picked them up during whaling voyages to New Zealand in the 1830s and '40s. They had been lost to New Zealand in the interim.
My name is Davy Lowston, I did seal.
Though my men and I were lost, though our very lives it cost,
We did seal, we did seal, we did seal.13
The traditional songs that Colquhoun himself collected include local whaling songs (Soon May the Wellerman Come), Depression-era ballads (My Man's Gone Now) and various occupational songs (Railway Bill, Cargo Workers, Down in the Brunner Mine). A number of other pieces in Songs of a Young Country are clearly of British origin, including a music-hall ditty, Little Tommy Pinkerton, and a traditional ballad, Darling Johnny O:
My Johnny signed on board the Dragon,Les Cleveland has stood somewhat apart from the other collectors, both in his first-hand experience of oral traditions and in specialised areas of focus. A multi-talented individual, Cleveland has worked as a bushman, journalist, broadcaster and finally, as a lecturer in Political Science at Victoria University (Wellington). He has published many books and sung on several albums recorded in the 1950s-70s.
Bound for some place I don't know,
But true it is I have had no letter,
From my Darling Johnny O.
Where are those cheeks once red and rosy
Not so very long ago?
A wat'ry grave has changed their colour:
Speaks the ghost of Johnny O.14
His connection with folksong began during four years of service in the NZ Infantry in WW2. Finding the subversive, ribald and blackly comic lyrics of the ordinary soldiers a subject of interest, he later wrote them down. As typifies military folksong, these mostly consisted of numerous parodies of folk or popular songs. A few of the traditional songs are very frequently collected - Samuel Hall, Maggie May - others perhaps less so, such as The Soldier and the Sailor, which had apparently been learnt from British troops in WW1 (the song is said to date from the Crimean War). There were also several original ballads originating in the Maori Battalion.
After the war, Cleveland continued to gather songs from ex-soldiers and in 1957 published an excellent collection, The Songs We Sang, consisting of 51 songs and poems. The book partly drew upon the collecting work of Jim Henderson - later a writer and broadcaster - who preserved soldiers' verse during and after WW2. Here is a sample lyric from Dugout in Matruh, a song probably of Australian or New Zealand origin:
I'm just a greasy private in the infantry I am,In the late 1940s Cleveland worked in the back country for a number of years and began to hear songs circulating among trampers. Tramping is the New Zealand equivalent of the British rambling or hiking, though 'tramping trips' may take up to two weeks in rugged wilderness. The cultural phenomena of tramping songs deserves serious study, suffice to say that it was part of a genuine urban folk-culture that flourished here between the 1940s and 1970s as part of the 'Tramping Club' movement.
I've a little dug-out in Matruh,
And the flies crawl all around me as I nestle down to sleep
In my flea-bound, bombed-out dug-out in Matruh.
. . .
Oh I wish I had a sheila to sit upon my knee,
To relieve me of the misery that I'm in,
For I'd woo her and caress her, if this her home she'd make
In my flea-bound, bombed-out dug-out in Matruh.15
In 1991 Cleveland published The Great New Zealand Songbook, in which he included 62 songs of various kinds, from popular hits like Blue Smoke and Paekakariki to political ditties and a parody on the national anthem. There were also folksongs and pieces of folk verse set to traditional or self-composed tunes. A few 'classics' had already appeared in other collections, but there were some unpublished items as well, such as The Soldier's Farewell, an anonymous song from the early 1950s:
I met a little kitten in Wairoa,Cleveland has expressed reservations about how the folk tradition of New Zealand has been represented elsewhere, and the folksongs included in The Great New Zealand Songbook are those he either believes to be uniquely expressive of this country or which have personal significance. Overall it is very much a populist collection in the vein of Songs of a Young Country (with similarly minimal source information), and includes an extensive introduction and lengthy chapter notes.
Bought her a big red ruby stone;
Sunday I put it on her finger,
Monday she left me there alone.
. . .
Then I got a letter on Thursday,
'Sorry, don't love you any more,
Met a boy in Operation Deepfreeze,
He and I can keep each other warm.'16
In 1994 Cleveland published his groundbreaking book Dark Laughter, which analyses the folklore and social culture of the military in a rigorous and fascinating way. It is international in scope, but includes many New Zealand songs, as well as some vivid descriptions of soldiers' singing in WW2, drawn from the author's own experiences. This autobiographical element is one of the strongest aspects of Cleveland's writing. Combined with his large and specialised collection, it has enabled him to make the deepest intellectual analyses of any New Zealand folklorist.
The prime mover in the Folklore Society was Frank Fyfe (1936-1997), an Australian who'd moved here with his wife, and become heavily involved with the Folk Revival scene in Wellington. In particular, by running the 'Balladeer' coffee-bar, the Fyfes provided a platform for much local folk singing in the 1960s and Frank was a noted singer in his own right.
Fyfe was a dedicated collector and apparently made many field recordings between 1966 and 1975 of yarns, tales, songs and instrumental music played on homemade instruments. These homemade folk instruments included the 'flagonophone' (made of beer flagons) and a one-string benzine-tin violin, which was reported to have been played with some virtuosity by its 76 year-old owner Samuel Barrett. Some of the material the Folklore Society gathered was written up by Fyfe and others in The Maorilander, a publication distributed by the Society to its members between 1970 and 1972. This ran to six issues and includes a variety of articles, songs, tales and oral histories. One noteworthy song collected by Fyfe was Timber, a traditional song of North American origin, but found here among the timber workers of the North Island:
From the bushmen to the breaking down,He also provided lengthy analyses of existing material, such as the John Leebrick songs, bringing to light one fragment - Shore Cry - not previously published. In 1974 Fyfe and his family moved to the small town of Greytown, where he continued to gather local folktales and yarns, publishing a series of small booklets up until his death in 1997.
From the breaker-down to the bench.
From the benchies to the tailing-out,
From the tailor-out to the yard.
. . .
Timber, I want to go,
Way back to Idaho.
Timber, I want to go home.17
Before going into the fate of the Folklore Society, I'd first like to describe the activities of the other Folklore Society branches. Here we meet for the first time with Phil Garland, who remains perhaps the most enduring of all the early collectors.
Garland's interest in folk music began in around 1964. He was a professional singer at the time and became curious about local folksongs. He has since toured throughout the world (most widely in Australiasia) and has been involved with various clubs, bush-bands, a record label and solo recording ventures, releasing many albums over the years. He was also involved in collecting for the Christchurch branch of the Folklore Society.
In 1969 the various branches of the Society raised enough money to allow Garland to engage in full-time collecting, which he carried out for three-four months in Central Otago. During this expedition he found various songs, but even more poetry and yarns. Most material was recorded, though in one case an informant refused to be taped and insisted on Garland learning his song the old-fashioned way, over a bottle of whisky! Garland has also spent time researching in libraries and has obtained some important material from the archives of Radio New Zealand, most significantly a variant version of The Young Man Fresh From England. This was a comic song by Christchurch entertainer Charles Martin from the 1860s which was still in oral circulation in the mid-20th century:
I am a jolly farmer from Bedfordshire I came,As most of his collecting has been done in the South Island, the songs generally reflect the working history of this region, with an emphasis on droving, shearing and gold-mining. In 1996 Garland published his own collection The Singing Kiwi, containing about 110 songs, some wholly traditional and others reconstructed from fragments. A few of the traditional songs may be quite old (Springtime Brings on the Shearing and The Dying Bushman) - others relatively recent, like The Life of a High Country Shepherd:
All the way to Lyttelton and Morgan is my name.
I know my way about a bit, with both eyes can I see,
Although I'm just from England, you don't get over me.18
It's the life of a high country shepherd,About half of the songs in The Singing Kiwi are contemporary songs, mostly composed by Garland himself. A proportion of lyrics come from the latter-day ballads of Joe Charles and Ross McMillan, set to traditional or newly-composed tunes. There is also a chapter on 'Colonial Dancing', a tradition in New Zealand that has had little study done. Throughout the book there are notes on the sources of the material and descriptions of Garland's collecting activities and strategies, as well as historical background information and a two-page bibliography. For a more extensive and detailed description of Garland's collecting, see the interview below.
Resembles the life of a dog.
In summer you sizzle in sunshine,
In winter you freeze like a log.
For companions I have only collies
Who're continually scratching for fleas,
And from climbing the slopes of the Coronet,
I'm considerably gone at the knees.19
We now move to the Auckland branch of the Folklore Society, where the four most active collectors were Angela Annabell, Pat and Rudy Sunde, and Bill Worsfold. They all worked on a fairly small scale and obtained songs from informants in the Auckland and Northland areas.
The late Angela Annabell (1940-2000) studied for a doctorate at the School of Music at the University of Auckland. Her dissertation - 'Aspects of the New Zealand Folk Song Ethos'20 - includes material which she collected in the field, mostly tape-recording her sources. These include versions of The Dying Stockman and The Wild Colonial Boy (both Australian) and various English nursery rhymes. One major discovery was Captain Matheson, a local version of Son of a Gambolier, which described the nefarious misdeeds of the captain of a local brigantine.
One of Annabell's other contributions to the subject is the entry on New Zealand's 'European Folk Music' in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (see 2001 edition), which expands on the previous entry under the same heading (by John Mansfield Thomson - see 1980 edition).21 It is a good summary and covers both folksongs and instrumental folk music, as well as including a short bibliography.
Rudy Sunde has been a longtime folk singer and enthusiast with a particular interest in sea songs. His group The Maritime Crew regularly perform in Auckland and have put out several CDs. Sunde's collecting work largely began in the 1970s while Chairman of the Auckland Foklore Society, though I have come across earlier fragments which bear his name (as collector). The principle songs he collected, together with his wife Pat Sunde, include Captain Matheson (from the same source as Annabell), and versions of two earlier songs found by Rona Bailey (The Gay Muttonbirder, Foggy Foggy Banks). These were important as they were the first versions to be preserved with tunes intact. All these songs were recorded in the field and later transcribed for the Society.
The fourth collector associated with the Auckland Folklore Society is Bill Worsfold, now a full-time folk singer of wide touring experience, both here and overseas, as part of a duo with his wife Kath Worsfold. Some of the most interesting songs that the Auckland Folklore Society collected came via Worsfold, most notably from an octogenarian in Whangarei - Harold Curtis-Smith. The songs of Curtis-Smith were not 'nativised' in any way, and include a version of the English Wing Wang Waddle O and a 19th century broadside The Same Old Game. Other songs collected by Worsfold include fragments of a horse-racing ballad Hakaru Races and a version of The Little Shirt My Mother Made for Me, learnt by the source in the 1920s and featuring some localised lyrics. All these songs were tape-recorded from the sources.
Bill Worsfold has also communicated an interesting theory about the scarcity of collected folksong in New Zealand. He believes that many of the early collectors sought folksongs in the wrong areas and that they should have concentrated not on the former gold-field areas but on the gum-fields, and that valuable time was lost this way. According to Worsfold:
Goldrushes are, by their nature, ephemeral. The same guys who rushed to New Zealand for gold, lost no time in rushing elsewhere when a new strike was made, so very little was found from descendants of prospectors. Gumdiggers, on the other hand, used the proceeds of gumdigging to buy land and develop farms. Their descendants are still there today.Due to changing circumstances the Folklore Society (and its various branches) closed down in 1974-5. Probably the main factor in the Wellington branch winding up was the departure of Frank Fyfe in 1974. But even before this there were difficulties. In his 1972 annual AGM speech Fyfe regretted the lack of new membership and waning commitment from existing members in Wellington. Remembering that everyone involved was a volunteer, collecting in their own time at their own expense, it's probably not too hard to understand. After a time, when the initial enthusiasm runs out, such ventures may need to progress to the 'next stage' by seeking state financial support (and as yet, New Zealand Governments have shown little interest in offering such support). Perhaps another reason for the decline in general enthusiasm was a discouraging lack of results in field collecting among some of the branches, though this shouldn't necessarily mean that the material had totally dried up.
Since the mid-1970s only Phil Garland, out of the original Folklore Society members, has continued active field collecting, and his activities in New Zealand were interrupted in the 1990s by a move to Australia. He has now returned and is planning to publish another collection.
Personally, I hope that more material is collected. I have heard, for instance, that there are some old Irish ballads still remembered on the West Coast. There is probably a fair bit of heritage still to be gathered from the tramping community, who often parodied the old student and army songs from the 1940s and '50s, though many of the song texts are already available in various club song-books.
It may possibly turn out that the older New Zealand folklore has survived better in different genres from the folksong - such as the yarn or 'local legend'. There have been a great many books published which collect yarns, old stories, and associated folklore. These can be about certain districts or towns, occupations (e.g. soldiers, railwaymen, deer-cullers) or simply personal memoirs. Some of the writers that come to mind in this regard are Jim Henderson, David McGill and Graham Hutchins. These books are not academic in any way, which indicates a strong grassroots interest.
There have been some scholarly studies done in the general folklore field. Fred McCormick mentions Brian Sutton-Smith and his books on childrens' games, rhymes and songs. Janice Ackerly has also published articles on this subject. There has also been quite a lot of work done on local slang and the general etymology of New Zealand English, which also has managed to get public attention through regular programmes on public radio.
As far as songs are concerned though, there has been minimal study done at an academic level apart from the work of Angela Annabell, Les Cleveland and Robert Hoskins (a specialist in the songs of Charles Thatcher).22 There are no Folklore departments or graduate courses in any local university, except those relating to Maori or Polynesian traditional culture, or the ethnography of other cultures.
There are signs of change though. Historian James Belich devotes a number of chapters in his bestselling book Paradise Reforged to what he calls 'pakeha folklore' (ie. the folklore of New Zealanders of European descent).23 These chapters analyse cultural motifs and themes within local culture in the 20th century, using folk materials as well as literary sources. This is a lead which hopefully other writers and academics will follow, and perhaps some of the work in various Social Anthropology departments already crosses over into the Folklore area. The New Zealand Ministry of Culture and Heritage has made various public statements in recent years on the importance of preserving and studying 'Heritage', so it seems an ideal time to hold them to it!
Before winding up I need to mention a few important people missing from the main part of this history. Most are (or were) only slightly involved in actual collecting, but all have had a role in one way or another:
Michael Brown - April, 2006
I've read that you were engaged in full-time collecting for a while. When was this and what were your results?
I first went 'on the road' collecting in 1969, starting in Otago because of its association with the early gold rushes. To begin with, I spent a week in the Hocken Library [University of Otago, Dunedin] perusing newspapers such as the Otago Witness dating from the latter years of the 19th century. I was searching for songs and poetry - many poets and rhymesters of the period sent their work to the newspaper for publication - in much the same way that people do with letters to the editor today. I discovered a great deal of poetry written by the likes of Hamilton Thompson and David McKee-Wright. McKee-Wright has been described on many occasions as New Zealand's outdoor laureate of the day - many agricultural workers, swaggers, shearers used to recite his ballads around their campfires right across the country.
The time spent in Hocken was most useful in that I found a great deal of evidence that 'the writing of bush balladry' was extremely common - reminiscent of the Australian experience. Not surprising really, because during the 1890s there was an influx of Australian shearers into New Zealand coming to work the high country stations on a contract basis and they brought their heritage with them. Consequently New Zealanders were exposed to the poetry of Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson, the latter wielding the most influence on our aspiring rhymesters and balladists of the time.
I followed up my time in the Hocken by going 'on the road' in Central Otago, visiting many small towns, interviewing old-timers and finding some half-dozen examples of what can be described as folksong. Lots of yarns and tall stories - and once again, plenty of poetry! That was pretty much the case for the six month period that I was 'on the road' before running out of the smallish grant of money that had been raised by the NZ Folklore Society, interested groups and individuals.
Fortunately it didn't end here, as I tried to continue my work on a weekend basis, whenever possible for the next few years, covering both Canterbury and the West Coast. I have continued with this work on a more casual basis over the last 30-odd years and fortunately whenever I've been performing in concert around the country, there is always someone in the audience to come forward with something of interest - another contact or a snippet of a song.
However, over the years I have certainly found more examples of poetry than song, leading me to the conclusion that there has been a large tradition of the writing and recitation of bush poetry in this country. To be fair, I have certainly uncovered some fine examples of folksong and instrumental tunes, which I have recorded, along with some interesting variants on songs from traditions other than ours - mainly Australia - and I'll go into the reasons for this more fully as we continue.
Did you (or do you still) make tape recordings of material or transcribe by hand?
I used both methods - making tape recordings of most of those informants I've met and interviewed while field collecting - it's absolutely vital to do so if you want to pick up those inflections and subtle tonal nuances of voice that cannot be put done on paper. There was no other way than to transcribe by hand the material from places like the Hocken Library. There have been certain occasions today when I haven't had a tape recorder with me, that I've had to make do with a written copy of something from an informant - if I've felt it was important enough to further follow up then a return visit is organised at a later date.
What is the range of songs and verse you have collected, in terms of their being purely local songs, traditional songs from elsewhere (Britain, Ireland, Australia) or 'nativised' variations?
I have collected enough verse, yarns and tall stories to publish a book of such material - which is one of my next projects, one I have been thinking of for some time now. Many of the collected songs have been local and a considerable number are originals often written by my informants. I have found a few older songs and even snippets of some of these have surfaced amongst informants papers, in letters, newspapers, books, requiring me to piece lines and verses together to complete the songs, even with some earlier examples of collected song from the sealing and whaling days. I must admit that I have been quite active in this regard over the years, rather than let what I consider to be some worthwhile songs disappear into oblivion.
Although there have been many variants of British and American songs collected in earlier years by such luminaries as Rona Bailey, Bert Roth, Neil Colquhoun and Les Cleveland, my experience has only unearthed a couple of examples of such material, instead finding that Australia has made the most significant contribution - although some of these are already variants on British song.
The majority of collected tunes demonstrate strong Scottish / Irish affiliations - I suspect probably due to [informants] having been heard / learned from recordings of such material.
What would be some examples?
My best examples of collected song would be:
What were your impressions about the people you collected from and what did the songs mean to them? Were folksongs still being passed on to new generations do you think (apart from yourself)?
The majority of my informants were rural people or people who had originally come from a rural background - farmers, shearers, musterers and the like.
Most of them thought the songs had little value or importance in the way that I did. They were considered to be curiosities that had either been in the family for years or something they had heard and retained for their own amusement. They certainly didn't pass them on to new generations and in that regard much may have been lost over the years.
However I did find the occasional example of songs being handed down:
What was the range of instrumental tunes you collected (I think you found a bit of this) and did you find many folk instruments - kerosene tin violins for instance?
As I mentioned earlier the majority of tunes displayed strong Irish and Scottish affiliations or ancestry. Because most of my work has been conducted in the South Island, I have found a great Scottish influence in many aspects of day to day living … right down to evening entertainment and dancing. That's another story!
Most of the tunes were 'Waltzes' or 'Jigs and Reels'. The Kokatahi Band are study in themselves - combining German marching Band music with Irish and Scottish tunes, which makes for an interesting sound at best. The West Coast Goldfields boasted a number of Germans amidst the normal international mix, which naturally included a big percentage of Irish and Scottish miners.
The most interesting instrument was the saxolin, which resembled a violin boasting a trumpet attachment (much like his master voice picture on early HMV recordings). It delivered a more high pitched raspy tone than a normal violin.
Otherwise the most common instruments I heard on my travels were the concertina, melodeon, harmonica, and violin. I think I heard bones played on a couple of occasions, but the other unusual home-made instrument was the ubiquitous beer flagon either played by knocking the bottom out and placing tissue paper across the mouth piece in the style of a kazoo or by part-filling it with liquid and rubbing it up and down a door jamb to achieve different tonal qualities.
Do you feel collecting started too late in this country, compared to Australia for instance - or do you have any thoughts as to why there does not seem to be the same amount of 'nativised' folk song around?
Yes! We did start collecting too late in many ways, although work was done back in the 1930s and '40s by NZBC (now known as Radio New Zealand) they obviously didn't feel what they were hearing was of any great significance and much of what they recorded has been lost or destroyed. One only has to visit their Archives to appreciate what truly happened. Fortunately today their oral history unit is doing a great job - the Spectrum program is a good example of that. Sounds Historical, hosted by Jim Sullivan on Sunday nights does its best with what little it can find.
Australia has done a fantastic job and the National Library in Canberra has a whole area/wing set aside for folklore and music. We could certainly learn from this. If one considers that a country needs a degree of continuing isolation (in terms of towns and villages) for an oral tradition to develop, it's nigh impossible for that to have happened in New Zealand - fifty years after the European Settlement of the country, the motor car arrived, effectively ending any such chance of developing any sort of oral tradition. Our very youth as a country was our enemy.
The Maori story is of course a very different one, but I'm dealing here with European music in New Zealand and it doesn't make good reading, when all said and done. A few people have made attempts at preserving songs about our country and their lifestyle but mostly folk were too busy carving out a new life to worry about saving any little songs, rhymes and verses that popped up along the way. The best time frame to tap into is from the 1860s through to the Great depression of the 1930s, hen men were on the road searching for gold, looking for work, shearing sheep on contract basis - before the real advent of the car. That appears to be the only time that songs, stories, yarns etc … were shared and distributed among the common folk.
Could you make any broad characterisations about the folk process here (how it could be unique in any way)?
This will be a very broad and general response - at present our folk processes resembles that of any other country in the western/global world. To date I think I've already covered this fairly well in my lengthy responses.
If there's anything unique about our folk process it must be the predominance of bush poetry during the formative years and the cross-pollination that is now occurring with Maori traditions and folklore … songs written by white New Zealanders that are tapping into Maori myth and legend, creating a unique and ethereal sounding Pacific feel. It's slowly making inroads and with more and more intermarriage taking place, the combining of these two cultures will eventually create a very unique folk tradition and heritage, which can only augur well for the future.
Phil Garland - December 2003
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