Introduction To New Zealand Folk Music

By Captain Swing. 3373 Words
This article first appeared on November 8th 2020.

Whalers, sailors, runaways, settlers, shearers, miners, bushmen, gumdiggers, soldiers, drinkers, swaggers… our ancestors were a varied lot. They came from Britain mostly, with England, Scotland and Ireland as the main places of origin; but there were also Welshmen, Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, Scandinavians, Poles, Americans, Australians, Canadians, and others.

For the most part, when they came to New Zealand, they blended into the homogenous, British-derived culture that we today would call “New Zealand European” or “Pakeha”. Though they kept many of their traditions from the old countries alive, some parts of our culture sprouted into being in the new land.

A (generally) classless society, political openness, equality for the common man, etc., could be counted among this category. But this article is not about politics. This article is about culture; specifically, music and poetry, two areas that flourished during the colonial period.

The British people have had songs and poems longer than they have had writing; the Germanic sagas and tales of heroic Beowulf are merely the oldest that survive of the Anglo-Saxon tradition; and the medieval English “Sumer is icumen in”; the ancient Cumbric lullaby “Pais Dinogad” and the uncounted Welsh bards are all part of a tradition as old as the land itself.

Horn Dancers of Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire. The antlers have been carbon-dated to the 11th century.
The annual dance continues to this day.

You may be familiar with folk music. Everyone knows the odd song or two via references in other media, especially sea shanties; and you are probably at least partially familiar with traditional Irish music from groups such as the Clancy Brothers, the Irish Rovers, the Dubliners and others: or the political folk-style music from American singers like Woody Guthrie, or the much better Utah Phillips.

The disproportionate popularity of traditional Irish music over any other nations is a bit unusual; but at least partly explained by the large Irish-American population (and market), which made it a profitable genre for American music producers during the folk revival of the 1960s. Scottish, English, Welsh, etc., folk songs meanwhile have remained more localised.

The folk music of New Zealand is even more-so, although among the international folk-fan community a number of New Zealand folk songs have become popular, they are still unknown to the masses.

The one folk song I can almost guarantee you have heard (a version of) is Click Go the Shears; imported with the shearers from Australia in the old days, it was the basis for the Macdonalds “click go the seatbelts, click, click, click” jingle years ago.

Shearers at Mr. Pattie’s farm, Riwaka, 1905

But ‘Click Go the Shears’ is not the only one. Not even close. New Zealand’s folk history is deep, and even now there are numerous artists and bands both keeping the traditions alive and creating new music in traditional style.

The first New Zealand song is Davy Lowston; about a historical sealer named David Lawrieston, who with nine other men was marooned on a small island off the shore of New Zealand for several years in the 1810s, after the disappearance of their ship and it’s Captain Bader.

Overseas the song has been transformed, via the folk transmission process, into several versions, with one variant singing the song as if it took place in Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.

Other early songs include several whaling songs; Soon May the Wellerman Come, referring to the Sydney-based Weller Bros whaling company; Come All You Tonguers, about the “tonguers” who butchered the caught whales; and New Zealand Whales, a version of an older ballad about whaling off the coast of Peru.

For more New Zealand sea-shanties and songs, you can find the works of The Maritime Crew, and the Wellington Sea Shanty Society. Some other good sea songs are John Smith ABUnder the Southern Cross and Across the Line, but these only barely scratch the surface.

It was only in 1840 that the white population in New Zealand stopped being a rag-tag group of escaped convicts, stranded sealers, missionaries and drunks. The arrival of the New Zealand Company, as well as Governor Hobson, brought civilisation, and began the steady stream of British and European immigration to this country.

The New Zealand Company printed a “Song of the Emigrants to New Zealand” in their first issue of the New Zealand Gazette, while still in London in August 1839. As far as I know, it has never been put to music, but it is a lovely historic piece and would be a terrific song if anyone decided to sing it.

 Steer, helmsman, till you steer our way
 By stars beyond the line;
 We go to found a realm, one day;
 Like England’s self to shine.
 Cheer up! cheer up! our course we’ll keep
 With dauntless heart and hand,
 And when we’ve ploughed the stormy deep
 We’ll plough a smiling land.
  A land whose beauties importune
 The Briton to its bowers,
 To sow but plenty’s seeds and prune
 Luxuriant fruits and flowers.
  Cheer up! cheer up! our course we’ll keep
 With dauntless heart and hand,
 And when we’ve ploughed the stormy deep
 We’ll plough a smiling land.
 A sunny land with varying sweets
 Of healthy plains and hills,
 With giant woods to build our fleets,
 And floods to drive our mills.
 Cheer up! cheer up! our course we’ll keep
 With dauntless heart and hand,
 And when we’ve ploughed the stormy deep
 We’ll plough a smiling land.
 There tracts uncheered by human words,
 Seclusion’s wildest holds,
 Shall hear the lowing of our herds,
 The tinkling of our folds.
 Cheer up! cheer up! our course we’ll keep
 With dauntless heart and hand,
 And when we’ve ploughed the stormy deep
 We’ll plough a smiling land.
 Like rubies set in gold shall blush
 Our vineyards, girt with corn,
 And wine, and oil, and gladness gush
 From Amalthoea’s horn.
 Cheer up! cheer up! our course we’ll keep
 With dauntless heart and hand,
 And when we’ve ploughed the stormy deep
 We’ll plough a smiling land.
 Britannia’s pride is in our hearts,
 Her blood is in our veins,
 We’ll girdle earth with British arts,
 Like Ariel’s magic chains.
 Cheer up! cheer up! our course we’ll keep
 With dauntless heart and hand,
 And when we’ve ploughed the stormy deep
 We’ll plough a smiling land. 

Thomas Campbell, London, 16th August 1839

Other immigrant songs include a New Zealand version of the famous Black Velvet Band. The more common Irish/Australian version is a sad song about a convict being sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and having to leave his beloved behind.

Our version is more positive, a song of a young Englishman going overseas to New Zealand as an emigrant, hoping to make a fortune in the colonies, so that he can return home and settle down with his love.

The emigrant ships Gertrude
and John Duncan
leaving Gravesend for New Zealand, 1862

I Only Spoke Portuguese” is not a traditional song, but was written by Bill Worsfold about his great-grandfather’s experiences in this country. There was a small but noteworthy Portuguese community in early New Zealand; Antonio Rodriguez de Sardinha won the New Zealand Cross during the wars of the 1860s, and another Portuguese gumdigger was immortalised under his nickname “Don Buck”.

The Waipu Settlers, written by Willow Mackey, with it’s refrain “For the Gael fares forth where he never fared before, across the wide and stormy seas, to seek a kinder shore” tells the story of Norman MacLeod’s Scottish pilgrims, who migrated first to Canada and then Australia before finally finding their sanctuary in New Zealand.

Rudy Sunde, a late Auckland folk singer with Dalmatian roots included the song U Tudini on his album “Songs of New Zealand”. This song, with verses in both the Dalmatian language and English tells of the emigrants and their trials in this strange land of golden kauri gum.

Dalmatian cultural groups also kept their folk music alive through the traditional kolo, a type of circle dance common to all South Slavic peoples, and music from their homelands. A recorded example is this song, Kolo, by the band “Sons of the Gumdiggers“.

Not all the gumdiggers songs are in Dalmatian; there were many British and others on the gumfields as well, and other songs include The Way of the Trade and the Trade of Kauri Gum, both of which were recorded by the Song Spinners.

Some individual immigrants were extremely influential on the culture of early New Zealand. John Barr was known as the Bard of Otago, or simply as “Craigielee” after his farm, which he used to sign off several early poems, and dozens of his works were published in Otago newspapers from the 1850s-70s, mostly written in strong Scots.

 There’s nae place like Otago yet;
 There’s nae wee beggar weans
 Or auld men shiverin’ at oor doors,
 To beg for scraps or banes.
 We never see puir workin’ folk,
 Wi’ bauchals on their feet,
 Like perfect icicles wi’ cauld,
 Gaun starvin’ through the street.
 We never hear o’ breakin’ stanes
 A shilling by the yard;
 Or puir folk roupit to the door,
 To pay the needfu’ laird.
 Nae purse-proud upstart mushroom lord
 To scowl at honest toil,
 Or break it down, that he, the wretch!
 May feed on roast and boil.
 My curse upon them; root and branch;
 A tyrant I abhor;
 May Despotism’s iron foot
 Ne’er mark Otago’s shore.
 May wealth and labour, hand in hand,
 Work out our glorious plan;
 But never let it be allowed
 That money makes the man.
John Barr, South Craigielee, Otago, 1859

Some other prolific writers in the era include “Eldred” of Orepuki, the Wairarapa’s Philip Henry, and Richard Wiseman of Thames, who produced numerous “local songs” with names like “The Coromandel Mule”, “The Parawai Steeplechase”, “The March of Parihaka”, “King Tawhiao’s Tour to London” and “The Wonderful Ship Loch Ken”.

The New Zealand Wars of the 1860s produced a number of songs and poems; some written by civilians, but also many by warrior poets like Private Alexander Whisker of the 58th Regiment, Corporal P. Berrins of the 57th, and my favourite, Private Matthew Fitzpatrick of the 65th Regiment.

The Battle of Rangiriri, November 1863

I have so far collected more than sixty poems in and about the New Zealand Wars. Among the events mentioned are the initial outbreak of fighting in the Taranaki, the deaths of officers like Brooke, Hamilton and Tempsky, Pitt’s Victorian volunteers heading for action in New Zealand, the wreck of the ship Orpheus, and several battles and massacres.

This poem, published in the New Zealander, is a more fun example. Based on Robert Burns’ classic A Man’s a Man for A’ That, it pits the underappreciated, hard-working volunteer against the “Auckland gentry” that bribes his way out of having to do his duty during the time of struggle.

  But sneer na Volunteers awa
 For guid men are unco scant yet,
 And Auckland gentles are but sma’,
 They’re better just than want yet.
 God bless you Tam! consider now
 Ye’re unco muckle dautet,
 But ‘ere the Maori War be through
 Ye may be better sautet.
 For a Volunteer’s worth more than twa
 Of your fine Auckland gentry,
 As a ten pound note gets them awa’
 From carrying coals and sentry.
 From a’ that and a’ that
 Their menial toil and a’ that
 The rank is but the guinea’s stamp
 The man’s the gowd for a’ that.

A Volunteer, Wairoa, 1864

One of the New Zealand Wars poems, The Fall of Rangiriri, was included in the book “Shanties by the Way”, by Rona Bailey and Herbert Roth, among a number of other old songs and ballads. Some of the few recorded songs about the wars are Rewi’s Last Stand, von Tempsky and Alexander Whisker’s Song.

Another period which produced more than its fair share of music were the gold rushes. Beginning after Gabriel Read’s famous discovery, the rushes temporarily boosted the populations of Otago, Southland and the West Coast to enormous heights, and both in terms of traditional and contemporary songs, it is probably the richest period in our cultural history as far as folk music goes.

The song Close Shave, by Bob Bickerton and here performed by Irish folk singer Andy Irvine is a humorous take on the sort of shenanigans which often followed a gold rush; while Martin Curtis’ Old Hearth Wall and Gin and Raspberry are more reflective, and are based on history of the Cardrona area.

From the West Coast, The Stable Lad and Biddy of the Buller are two good songs about this era, with other notable West Coast songs including The Charleston Drum, The Grey River and A Wet Night in Greymouth.

Discovery of gold in the Coromandel, 1853

Other gold-rush related songs include Bright Fine Gold; Farewell to the Gold, Rose of Red Conroy, The Great Snow Storm, Packing My Things, The Diggers Farewell, Old Billy Kirk, By the Dry Cardrona, Gabriel’s Gold and the Hills of Coromandel, which tells the story of the end of the less known northern gold rush.

Coal-mining was a longer-lasting and even more dangerous occupation than gold-digging, and there are also several songs about the coal mines, such as Down in the Brunner Mine, about a mine where sixty-five men and boys were killed in a disaster in 1896; Strongman Mine Disaster, about a 1967 disaster at the Strongman State Mine that killed 19 men; and this song by Ross Harris from the documentary ‘The Dennison Dilemma’.

Not everyone wanted to work in the mine, however, and the late 1800s saw the rise of the swagmen; men of all ages and rather surprisingly all classes who took the roads. You most likely know the Australian song Waltzing Matilda, about the swagmen of that country. The same phenomenon was common in New Zealand. Starlight Hotel is one of the best of the songs in this genre.

The Shiner and Russian Jack are the most famous of New Zealand’s swagmen, at least if you go by how many songs they are mentioned in. Annie and the Shiner, Hooray for the Swag and the Shiner and The Shiner fall in Ned Slattery’s camp, while the Wairarapa swagman gets the creatively named songs Russian Jack (by Bob Lovell), Russian Jack (by the Wild Geese) and Old Russian Jack, as well as a statue in Masterton.

Peter Grey is another song connected to both swagmen and the Wairarapa region. According to John A. Lee, Grey “promised plenty and delivered little” to those he lured to work for him in the area, and swagmen would create new verses about going south to work for the man.

This wouldn’t be an article on New Zealand folk music without mention of sheep or shearing. Rather than go into too much detail, because it’s such a stereotype, here are just a few of the best songs for you to listen to.

All Among the Wool
Ballad of a Shearing Man
The Shearing’s Coming Round
The Shearing Gang
The Woolshed
Up the Mangapapa
Wool Away Jack
Wool Commander

There are several different songs about the Southern sheep-stealer James Mackenzie; including Mackenzie, Mackenzie and His Dog, Sheep Stealing Mackenzie, the Ballad of James Mackenzie, and Mackenzie’s Ghost, with songs about the region he discovered include The Mackenzie Trail and the Old Mackenzie Homestead.

There are also a large number of songs about the First and Second World Wars; Les Cleveland published a book The Songs We Sang about the songs sung by New Zealand troops during the second war; the most interesting part of which for me is the last two pages, where he lists the titles of songs he wasn’t allowed to put in the book itself.

They have very interesting names like; “You Can Tell Them All We Learn —- All”,

There’s A Shortage of Good Whores in Mobile”,
Round and Round Went the Great Big Wheel”,
Put On That Old Blue Ointment”,
Oh My Name is Tiger Lily, I’m a Whore from Piccadilly”,
“The Bastard from the Bush”,
“For They Were Large Balls”,
“If I Was a Rugby Fullback”,
“A Drunken Old Harlot Lay Dying”,
“Isn’t It a Pity She’s Only One Titty” and “I Wish I Was a Fascinating Bitch”.

Les Cleveland and the D-Day Dodgers released a number of recordings of songs sung in the Second World War, and some more contemporary songs include Vic MacDonald’s In Memoriam, Martin Curtis’ The Daisy Patch and Phil Garland’s Hands Across the Sea.

After the wars, during the Folk Revival of the 1960s, the more political and possibly more well-known style of folk music popularised in America also came to New Zealand, with songs like Rod Mackinnon’s version of the anti-war Universal Soldier; but traditional pieces and styles continued to make up the greater part of the folk repertoire.

And though not as popular as it was forty or fifty years ago, folk music is still a thriving genre and there are a number of folk clubs and festivals in New Zealand. The Wellington Folk Festival took place over the Labour Day long weekend last month, for example.

And to finish off, here’s just a dump of some other songs by various New Zealand groups and artists, without my bothering to categorise them at all. Some are new songs, some are old; some are traditional folk, others blend the lines with country or bluegrass; but all make up part of our people’s cultural heritage.

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