Story: Folk, country and blues music

Page 1. Folk music – the voice of the people, 1790s to 1920s

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Folk music is music played by ordinary people rather than artistic elites, learnt through social osmosis rather than from educated tutors. Continually evolving songs are passed on orally, rather than through recordings or books.

Informal music-making existed in New Zealand long before the arrival of Europeans. Māori had a rich musical culture including haka, karanga, poi and waiata, and a range of musical instruments. From the late 18th century, sealers, whalers, missionaries and early settlers introduced European instruments and song forms. The newcomers began shaping a repertoire for their adopted home from old traditions and new experiences.

Lost sealers

The oldest songs in English from New Zealand are six whaling and sealing songs collected by John Leebrick from the daughter of an American whaling captain. One, ‘David Lowston’, describes the marooning of a party of sealers in south Westland from 1810 to 1813:

My name is David Lowston
I did seal, I did seal
My name is David Lowston, I did seal
My men and I were lost
Though our very lives ’twould cost
We did seal, we did seal, we did seal.1

Songs of a young country

The first European songs associated with New Zealand were those of the sealers and whalers. Sailors sang sea shanties to keep time at work. Early settlers composed songs about immigration and pioneering, often to traditional tunes or popular songs from home. Soldiers in the New Zealand wars and hopeful prospectors in the 1860s gold rushes sang about their lives.

Minstrels and balladeers

Gold also brought professional entertainers such as Charles Thatcher and Joseph Small, along with local singers like Charles John Martin. Thatcher came from Australia and wrote many songs on current events and personalities. Some were so popular they were adopted as camp songs, passed on orally by gold miners and bush workers. The bush ballads of David McKee Wright were recited at rural camps and later turned into songs. In the early 20th century Harry Kirk, ‘The Mixer’, a Greymouth watersider and unionist, composed topical ballads and protest songs.

Bright fine gold

Lullabies and songs taught to children are folk songs often composed and sung by women. One of New Zealand’s most famous songs, ‘Bright fine gold’, was derived from a mid-19th-century lullaby:

Gold, gold, gold
Bright fine gold
Wangapeka, Tuapeka
Bright fine gold.2

In the 1950s the novelist Ruth Park added verses, using the original rhyme as the chorus, creating a new folk song.

The music of the people

The songs of gum diggers, bushmen, flax-mill workers, and farmhands were sung while relaxing around the fire or at the pub. Itinerant shearers brought many Australian bush songs to New Zealand. Soldiers in 20th-century wars developed their own songs, often bawdy numbers based on popular tunes. Tramping (hiking) club parties were another source of humorous songs.

Folk songs had roles wider than pure entertainment. They could praise real or mythical heroes, mourn tragic events and act as social commentary, political satire or protest.

Waiata for Māori and Pākehā

Māori composers began using European melodies from at least the mid-19th century. Some Pākehā composers, such as Alfred Hill, adapted Māori songs for their works. Some Māori songs became so popular that they entered both Pākehā and Māori oral tradition. These include compositions by:

  • Paraire Tomoana (‘Hoea rā’, ‘E pari rā’)
  • Hēnare Waitoa (‘Tomo mai’, later a pop hit as ‘Hoki mai’)
  • Kīngi Tāhiwi (‘He pūru taitama’)
  • Tuini Ngāwai (‘Haere rā e roa’, ‘Arohaina mai’).

Sir Apirana Ngata and Paraire Tomoana published ‘Pōkarekare ana’ in 1921. They noted that the original version came from the Far North in the early years of the First World War, but was then adapted by Māori soldiers from the East Cape. Since the 1920s the song has commonly been attributed to Tomoana and occasionally to Ngata.

  1. Rona Bailey and Herbert Roth, eds., Shanties by the way: a selection of New Zealand popular songs and ballads. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1967, pp. 12–13. Back
  2. ‘NZ folksong: the lyrics of Bright Fine Gold.’ (last accessed 11 September 2013). Back
How to cite this page:

Chris Bourke, 'Folk, country and blues music - Folk music – the voice of the people, 1790s to 1920s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Chris Bourke, published 22 Oct 2014