The blues comes to New Zealand
Whereas folk and country music derive from Britain, the blues genre has predominantly African-American roots. Jazz musicians in New Zealand were playing blues instrumentals –using a 12-bar song structure – from at least the 1930s. Acoustic blues was disseminated in the 1950s through the recordings of US performers such as Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy and British ‘skiffle’ star Lonnie Donegan. Broadcaster Arthur ‘Cotton-Eye Joe’ Pearce featured some electric R&B (rhythm ’n’ blues) on his Big beat ball programme, but acoustic blues was not widely heard until the early 1960s.
The La De Da’s get the blues
Kevin Borich of the La De Da’s remembered the band ‘doing a lot of Motown and Top 40 covers. Then we got into John Mayall and the Rolling Stones which was basically playing blues, white man's blues. That's how I got into blues and more into guitar playing, when I heard Clapton and then Hendrix came along. We got into blues through the English. They educated the whole world as far as blues goes.’1
New Zealand musicians were performing blues by the mid-1960s, either acoustic blues at the folk clubs, or electric blues from R&B-styled pop bands such as the La De Da’s or Bari and the Breakaways. New Zealand rock musicians were deeply influenced by the British blues revival, generated by bands such as the Rolling Stones, who toured New Zealand in 1965, and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. In the folk clubs – especially Wellington’s Balladeer – performers such as Max Winnie, Val Murphy and the Australian expatriates Frank Fyfe and Frank Povah were blues proselytisers. Others who championed acoustic blues, as performers and scholars, were Colin Heath, Alan Young and Canberra-born Bill Lake.
The meaning of the blues
Singer Hollie Smith commented, ‘I don’t think the meaning of the blues ever changes, that’s the beauty of it. The blues don’t need to be sad necessarily but ideally are based on emotion more than anything else. They stay relevant regardless of age or society.’2
Developing homegrown blues
By the late 1960s the combined influence of folk and R&B blues aficionados led to a vibrant jug band and blues-rock scene. In 1969 acts such as the Capel Hopkins Blues Dredge, Gutbucket, Killing Floor, the Underdogs and the Windy City Strugglers performed at events such as the National Folk Festival in Wellington and the National Blues Convention at Moller’s Farm, Oratia. Former Breakaways guitarist Midge Marsden began hosting a specialist blues programme, Blues is news, on radio station 2ZB, and two local blues magazines emerged, Blues (Auckland) and Good Noise (Wellington).
Several New Zealand bands and folk musicians had recorded blues by the late 1960s. It was not until the late 1970s that original songwriting in the genre became commonplace, with writers such as Hammond Gamble (‘Leaving the country’) and Bill Lake (‘Kingfisher’). Since the 1980s singer Marg Layton has been a stalwart of the blues scene, and performers such as Darren Watson, Tura ‘Bullfrog’ Rata, Shayn ‘Hurricane’ Wills, Rick Bryant and Darcy Perry have been determinedly creating original blues.