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Folk, country and blues music

by Chris Bourke

As its name suggests, folk music is the music of the people. New Zealand folk music originated with sealers, whalers, gum diggers and bushmen who sang while they worked or for after-hours entertainment. Toe-tapping country music was popular from the 1920s, with stars including the yodelling sharpshooter Tex Morton and Johnny Cooper, the ‘Māori cowboy’.

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

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.


Folk music collection and revival, 1920s to 2010s

Folk-song collecting

In 1912 and 1913 historian James Cowan published two articles about songs that had become shared in New Zealand as folk songs. Apart from some collecting work by Mona Tracey and Percy Jones in the 1920s and 1930s, very little was done in folk-song scholarship until the late 1950s. Then Rona Bailey, Neil Colquhoun, Herbert Roth, Les Cleveland and others began song collecting in earnest. They looked for songs by sealers and whalers, pioneers, gumdiggers, gold miners, unionists, farmhands, swaggers (transient workers), soldiers and trampers (hikers). Many early songs had already been lost, but several influential publications emerged, including:

  • Bailey and Roth’s Shanties by the way (1967)
  • Colquhoun’s anthology Song of a young country (1972)
  • Cleveland’s Second World War soldiers’ collection The songs we sang (1959).

The folk revival

New Zealand was part of the worldwide folk revival of the 1950s and early 1960s. Cafés offered live folk music, among them Wellington’s Monde Marie, Auckland’s Poles Apart and Christchurch’s Folklore Centre.

Frank Fyfe established the New Zealand Folklore Society in 1966. Christchurch singer Phil Garland became a dedicated collector and evangelist of New Zealand’s home-grown folk songs. Garland’s devotion to New Zealand’s folk-song heritage resulted in many albums of historic and original material, including his songs ‘Tuapeka gold’ and ‘Wind in the tussock’.

Other original composers included:

  • social satirist Peter Cape (‘Taumarunui’, ‘Down the hall on Saturday night’)
  • nationalist songwriter Willow Macky (‘Tamaki moonlight’)
  • bush balladeer Joe Charles (‘Black billy tea’, written with Cleveland).

The difficulties of collecting

Folk music collector Phil Garland sometimes found his subjects a bit reticent:

I asked the bloke who answered if this was where Alf Woods [a violinist from Roxburgh, Central Otago] lived. ‘It might be,’ he cautiously replied. ‘Well, do you know if he’s home?’ ‘I don’t know.’ So I said, ‘Listen are you Alf Woods?’ ‘Nope!’ ‘That’s bullshit,’ I said. ‘Come in, mate,’ he said.1

The recording industry discovers folk

In the 1960s many folk musicians were recorded, as the industry looked for a local Peter, Paul and Mary. The Convairs and Plainsmen followed the Weavers’ template. Solo acts included Rod McKinnon, Val Murphy and Christine Smith. The Hamilton County Bluegrass Band’s local take on bluegrass was popular nationwide (with many songs written by member Dave Calder). In the early 1970s folk-rock acts such as Tamburlaine, John Hanlon and Shona Laing emerged. Laing was the most successful of many folk musicians on the television talent show New faces.

From whaling to conservation

New Zealand protest songs go back to the 1830s, when the song ‘Come all you tonguers’ cursed the agents who robbed shore whalers. ‘Paddy Doyle’s lament’ bewailed harsh discipline in the colonial army during the 1860s wars. ‘Down in the Brunner mine’ was a protest against the conditions that led to the 1896 mine disaster. From 1918 ‘The bloke who puts the acid on’ ridiculed the unfair practices of conscription boards. John Hanlon’s 1973 song ‘Damn the dam’ reflected growing environmental concerns.

By definition, folk is a democratic genre. The simplicity of its production means it remains vibrant, defying musical fashions, giving many a chance to perform and record. In the 2000s troupers such as Graeme Gash, Mike Harding, Paul Metsers, Chris Priestley, Rudy Sunde, Kath Tait and Chris Thompson have been joined by Lorina Harding, Age Pryor, Tessa Rain and Tiny Ruins (Holly Fullbrook). Hirini Melbourne wrote many songs in te reo Māori, including a series inspired by native bird life, while Mahinaarangi Tocker composed topical songs in English and Māori. Folk clubs and festivals continue to thrive, where guitars are passed around, stories are spun and songs written for another generation.

    • Phil Garland, ‘Chasing a dream.’ Journal of Folklore Research 44, nos 2–3 (2007), pp. 163–164. Back

Country music pioneers, 1920s to 1940s

Early years

Country music is a descendant of folk music. English and Celtic pioneers in the United States transformed their traditional songs in the new environment. Standards once dominated the repertoire, but New Zealand country musicians quickly adapted the genre to describe the South Pacific rather than the Wild West.

New Zealanders heard country music as early as 1926, when discs by US artists such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were available locally. Early visiting acts included Fred Mayfield’s Cowboy Band in 1928 and Carson Robison with his Buckaroos in 1932.

Happi Hill and Cotton-Eye Joe

Two famous radio programmes helped popularise country music in New Zealand during the 1940s and 1950s. Happi Hill, from Lost Lake, Alberta, Canada, hosted 3ZB’s Saturday country-and-western programme Haywire hookup. On one occasion Hill brought a horse into the studio to produce genuine sound effects. Another country-music evangelist was ‘Cotton-Eye Joe’, whose Cowboy jamboree show played on 2YD. Cotton-Eye Joe was the alter ego of Arthur Pearce, who as ‘Turntable’ hosted 2YA’s legendary jazz show Rhythm on record.

Tex Morton

Among those responding to these signals from a distant prairie was Robert Lane, who became famous as Tex Morton. Growing up in Nelson during the 1920s he heard merchant sailors singing, received guitar lessons and began busking for a living. In 1932 Lane made demonstration discs in Wellington, some of the earliest country recordings outside of the US. Renaming himself Tex Morton, he moved to Australia in 1933. His recording and touring career lasted almost 50 years. Morton influenced country music on both sides of the Tasman. He was an accomplished songwriter, yodeller, hypnotist and sharpshooter. Morton’s original songs using Australian settings were especially innovative.

Wedding tour

The Tumbleweeds were one of New Zealand’s most popular country bands, with a distinctive mix of Hawaiian, cowboy and hillbilly styles. The Tumbleweeds toured the country in the summer of 1951–52. The eight-member party included the band, two comedians and a magician, travelling together in a truck and a caravan that doubled as their accommodation. During the trip a double wedding took place among the band members, with Myra Hewitt marrying Cole Wilson while her sister Nola married Colin McCrorie.

Kiwi cowboys sing

Young New Zealanders were enchanted by cinema’s singing cowboys, particularly Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. In Dunedin in 1939 Les Wilson, ‘the Otago rambler’, was first billed as a ‘14-year-old yodelling cowboy’. Wilson later had a hit with his ‘Wahine song’, performed as a duet with Jean Calder. Wilson’s older brother Cole led the influential group the Tumbleweeds. Formed in Dunedin in 1949, its core members were Cole Wilson and Colin McCrorie, and two sisters, Nola and Myra Hewitt. The Tumbleweeds’ version of ‘Maple on the hill’ became a standard for amateur country acts to master.

Country music branches out, 1950s onwards

Local stars

The early recording industry promoted many local country singers: they were simple to record, and their discs sold. Among the prominent artists of the 1940s and 1950s were Jack Christie, Jack Riggir (father of country star Patsy Riggir), Johnny Hamblyn, and Johnny Granger, a dairy farmer from Whitford. Women country singers of the period include Phyl Mounce, Fay Doell, Jean Calder, and the Canadian Sisters – Violet and Irene Tomblin, born in Christchurch, but raised in Saskatchewan.

TANZA cowboy

By night Jack Christie performed as one of New Zealand’s yodelling, singing cowboys. His day job was working to help set up the pioneering TANZA recording studios. (TANZA stood for To Assist New Zealand Artists.) Christie’s 1949 single ‘Overlander trail’ was TANZA’s third release. It followed Ruru Karaitiana’s ‘Blue smoke’, sung by Pixie Williams, and Ken Avery’s ‘Paekakariki’.

Johnny Cooper became known as the Māori cowboy when he began recording for HMV in 1955. With his band, the Range Riders, he covered songs by Hank Williams and Hank Snow. His biggest hit was Kitty Wells’s ‘One by one’. The Cooper original on the B-side, ‘Look what you done’, became a party favourite throughout the country. Rex Franklin, from Hawke’s Bay, wrote many of his own songs. With his wife Noelene, Franklin recorded originals such as ‘Rocky mountain lullaby’, ‘On the Takapau Plains’ and ‘A real New Zealand cowboy song’.

Country music hits the big time, 1960s–1980s

New Zealand country music came of age in the 1960s, with radio play for artists such as Garner Wayne, Paul Walden, Peter Posa and Maria Dallas. In 1968–69 The country touch was a very popular local television series. Hosted by Tex Morton, the show featured many acts, with the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band enjoying the highest profile. Mosgiel entrepreneur Joe Brown released numerous albums by country singers such as John Hore and Eddie Low, promoting them on package tours.

Chicken love

Garner Wayne was a Canterbury country singer and songwriter who wrote more than 300 songs and recorded over 100. Wayne’s songs often expressed his love of New Zealand, but his most popular number was ‘Love in a fowl house’, describing a romance between a rooster and a hen:

‘Eerr Eroo! Oh won't you be my wife?’
‘Buk Buk Buk Buk Buk!’ she replied
I’ll be yours and I’ll be true
And I’ll lay lots of eggs for you
I’ll be yours for the rest of my life.1

New Zealand’s most prominent country music event is the Gold Guitars Awards, held in Gore since 1974. It attracts nearly 600 entries in many categories, reflecting the ongoing enthusiasm for country music in dozens of clubs throughout New Zealand.

Another television series, That’s country, screened in prime time from 1976 to 1983. Hosted by Ray Columbus, it gave wide exposure to mainstream acts such as Patsy Riggir, Suzanne Prentice, Brendan Dugan, Gray Bartlett and Jodi Vaughan. It also provided the television debut of perhaps New Zealand’s most original country act, the Topp Twins. Jools and Linda Topp – lesbian twins from Waikato – emerged as accomplished yodellers, comedians and songwriters.

Country rock and alt country

The 1970s and 1980s saw New Zealanders responding to the country-rock genre, including Al Hunter, Ritchie Pickett, the Red Hot Peppers and the Warratahs. The Renderers began playing alternative country, combining country and alternative rock influences, in 1989. In the 2000s they were joined by such ‘alt country’ acts as the Eastern, the Unfaithful Ways and Bernie Griffen and the Grifters. Increasingly, artists performed original material. In the 2000s singer-songwriters including Tami Neilsen, Jackie Bristow, Kylie Harris, Miriam Clancy and Delaney Davidson have followed in the footsteps of Tex Morton, Garner Wayne, Barry Saunders, Wayne Mason and Dusty Spittle in their quest to create a uniquely New Zealand country music.


The blues

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.


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Chris Bourke, 'Folk, country and blues music', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)

Story by Chris Bourke, published 22 October 2014