Story: Popular music

Page 5. Wartime music and early recording, 1930s and 1940s

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Impact of war

The Second World War had a deep effect on New Zealand popular music. Many top bands lost musicians and singers as they joined up, but others replaced them to play dance music in cabarets and halls throughout the country. There was no shortage of work, as people needed a place to relax and meet – especially once the US troops arrived in 1942.

Dance band musicians also played in the military bands. In the European, Middle East and Pacific theatres of war, the Kiwi Concert Parties provided musical entertainment for the servicemen. The troupe was a sanctioned alternative to the risqué songs the soldiers sang after hours.

Patriotic songwriting proliferated, but the closest New Zealand came to having a national song was Anania Amohau’s stirring ‘Māori Battalion marching song’, written to an American melody. While fighting in Italy, many in the 28th (Māori) Battalion became familiar with Italian songs, influencing Māori popular music for a generation.

Apple a day

One of the more unusual patriotic songs was about apples. Export difficulties resulted in an oversupply of apples, and New Zealanders were urged to do their bit to consume the glut. ‘The apple song’ was played every morning on commercial radio stations for weeks in 1941 to keep the fruit on listeners’ minds.

Recording situation

Since the mobile recordings in Rotorua in 1930, there had been no professional recording of music intended for commercial release. From about 1935 studios recorded advertising jingles, and radio studios made recordings of live music broadcasts. These were only cut onto acetates, custom-made discs that deteriorated after being played just a few times. Occasionally, individuals and groups made primitive recordings in these studios, for their own use.

The Second World War – and lack of interest from HMV, which controlled New Zealand’s retail record industry – prevented local artists being recorded and released.

Local recording

The breakthrough came in 1948, when the Wellington-based radio manufacturer Radio Corporation decided to make its own records to sell with their radiograms. The company launched its own label – TANZA (‘to assist New Zealand artists’) – and its first release was ‘Blue smoke’, written by dance-band pianist Ruru Karaitiana.

‘Blue smoke’

‘Blue smoke’ marks the birth of the home-grown recording industry. It was the first song written by a New Zealander, recorded and processed locally and released on a New Zealand label.

Ruru Karaitiana wrote the song in May 1940 while on board the Aquitania, which was taking New Zealand soldiers to war. The song was inspired by the sight of blue smoke emerging from the ship’s funnel, drifting home to their loved ones. There are reports of the Māori Battalion performing the song in Egypt and Italy and at informal singalongs.

Pixie plays on

In 2011, 13 songs recorded by Pixie Williams between 1949 and 1951 were re-released on an album called The Pixie Williams collection. The original master recordings no longer existed, and the album producers had to create new, digitally remastered songs from old shellac records.

After the war the song seemed to take on a life of its own, and was published as sheet music in 1947. Karaitiana chose a young Hawke’s Bay singer, Pixie Williams, to record the song for TANZA, and after its release in 1949 it sold over 50,000 copies on 78-rpm discs.

Pop on the radio

In 1946 the influential pop radio programme Lifebuoy hit parade (named after a brand of soap) was launched on the ZB stations. Each week, for 30 minutes, it broadcast the latest pop songs according to the sales charts in the United States and Britain. Although the selections passed through the producers’ filter of what was acceptable, rather than reflecting the actual charts, for 19 years the programme was essential listening for pop fans, whether they liked songs from musicals, novelty hits or dance tunes.

How to cite this page:

Chris Bourke, 'Popular music - Wartime music and early recording, 1930s and 1940s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 June 2024)

Story by Chris Bourke, published 22 Oct 2014