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.