Monday, February 12, 2007

Russian Jack

From the nz-folk list.

John Archer wrote:
I was looking on the internet for details about the swagger Russian Jack (it may have been him who came through the Mangamahu valley in about 1948 and whose reclusive ways scared all us kids) and I came across an article by Wairarapa archivist Gareth Winter containing this quote from an 1880s ballad.

‘Oh, leave me not,’ the maiden cried,
‘To eat my heart in grief away.’
‘Let me depart,’ the youth replied,
‘I must go south to Peter Gray.’
The parson said, ‘My flock, farewell,
‘I must be going without delay;
‘And someone else can toll the bell,
‘I’m going south to Peter Gray.’

The article says the Ballad of Peter Gray became known among all the workers and swaggers of the North Island. He was reputed to have been a contractor, awarded a large contract to clear a substantial amount of scrub. He offered good contracts for workers and men flocked from miles around to work for him. But they had to buy their gear and food from him and they usually ended in debt.

There is also an 1860s comic American Peter Gray ballad, based on Blow Ye Winds of Morning, but there it is the girl who leaves the boy, and it has a different rhyming structure.

I phoned Gareth Winter (who was most helpful) and discovered he had got his NZ Peter Gray quote from the book Swagger Country by Jim Henderson. So any of you who comes across such a book, you may find more of this interesting and well-written ballad. Has anyone already come across it? Phil?

Also, folk researcher Frank Fyfe used to live in Masterton, and if I remember correctly I was was told all his research was left in a box on the veranda of his house, and thrown away when he died. But Gareth mentioned that the Wairarapa Archive has a large number of Frank Fyfe's papers, although he doesn't know of any folk songs among them. The Wairarapa Archive database has this information that I have summarized here:

His papers reflect the wide variety of interests he held:

  • the Greytown Film Society that met in the converted barbershop he and his wife Anne owned;
  • his presidency of the Greytown Folklore Society.
  • researcher of the Wairarapa Branch of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust
  • research into historical affairs in Wairarapa.
  • the formation of the MAJIC, providing employment for middle-aged jobless.
  • political causes, as can be seen by various Labour Party material,
  • he stood for the South Wairarapa District Council, appointed to fill a vacancy in 1995,

Following his death the papers were gathered from various rooms in his house and deposited with the Wairarapa Archive. No order has been imposed on the papers other than keeping obviously similar records together.
John Archer

I am aware of the Peter Gray song and have a 3rd verse for you:-

"The farmer left his untilled crop,
He left uncut his crop of hay,
The woman wept, he would not yield,
But went down south to Peter Gray."

There is a chapter on Peter Gray by John A Lee in his book "Roughnecks, Rolling Stones & Rouseabouts" which is where this verse is printed. Lee states that "a road rhymster wrote hundreds of Peter Gray verses, which were added to by others as his infamy was disclosed> >From an old diary, I cull three verses........
Your original two plus this one!

It would be a most enlightening exercise to research John A Lee's papers, which I believe are deposited in Auckland University Library - feel free to correct me If I'm wrong! I also have "Swagger Country" by Jim Henderson.

Re Frank Fyfe's papers - it's probably best to talk to Michael Brown, who did a lot of research on Frank Fyfe, when writing his wonderful thesis last year. I believe only some of Frank's papers are in the Wairarapa Archive, mostly to do with his Wairarapa research and publishing. Nothing from his folklore collecting days.

None of the Folklore Society Field tapes and inter branch correspondence appear to have survived. The story I heard was that it was all stored in a box, that got rain damaged from a leak developing in the roof directly above. Everything was so damaged that it was unfortunately dumped. Such a shame/disaster in this technological day and age, when some of the important material may well have been retrievable. But it's no use crying over spilt milk - "Such is life" as a well known Australian republican was heard to say just before he departed this mortal coil.
Fortunately I made copies of most of my field tapes before sending the masters up to Frank in Wgtn for deposit in the Turnbull Library, something else that never happened.
Phil Garland

I think Gareth probably got it out of "Roughnecks, Rolling Stones and Rouseabouts" by John A. Lee.Over the last few years I've gone through the National Library archives looking for anything relating to Frank Fyfe's collecting, likewise the Wairarapa Archive. Neither have any of the original fieldwork (tapes, field notes etc.) of the NZ Folklore Society in Wellington. I've been told by a family member that the story about the box of stuff being thrown away after Frank's death is correct. It had been stored in a garage and the material it contained was discovered to be water-damaged. Luckily a few songs were published in 'The Maorilander' and 'Heritage'.The Wairarapa Archive has some of Frank's later field notes in it, but nothing pre-1975. And I didn't find any songs, apart from one he wrote himself about Robbie Muldoon (it wasn't complementary).Thankfully, it seems most of the NZFLS fieldwork done in Auckland and Christchurch has been preserved, thanks to the good efforts of Phil Garland, Rudy Sunde, and Angela Annabell.
Michael Brown

Sorry John, I forgot to mention that "Swagger Country" (1976) has two chapters about Russian Jack, which might help give you a clue whether he was the swagger you saw in 1948. Apparently he mostly swagged between Rangitikei and Wairarapa, including the Para Para road, which would have put him in your neck of the woods. He is described as:
"A tall well-built figure, he had a dropping Stalin-like moustache. He always wore a wide-brimmed felt hat... He always carried a huge pack."
If I remember rightly his battered, knarled boots used to be on display at the tiny Tinui museum near Castlepoint.

Michael Brown

Your mention of Russian Jack, John, takes my mind back to when I was a child and Russian Jack stayed at our house. I was only about 4 and a half and we were living in a settlement called Homewood, on the East Coast of the Wairarapa. Dad was working as a roads labourer and for the rabbiting board. Interesting times for my young parents who’s minds still harked back to the time of the 2nd world war.

Anyway, we lived in this wee cottage in the middle of no where and my mum tended her 60 Rhode Island Reds and sold the eggs, and made her own butter… you know the kind of thing. Russian Jack stayed with us at least twice, perhaps three times. He would never sleep in the house, preferring the outdoors, so my parents made him a bed of hay in a redundant bathtub which awaited installation in vain on the back porch. He seemed a happy guy and not at all scarey, tho my sister said he smelled bad. I never noticed that. He had very intense eyes and leaned down to talk to us. He seemed to think we should dislike him which, of course, made us like him the more.

He did odd jobs for my dad, who in turn mended his boots, which were very worn and holed. And he had a curious layer of newspaper on his head and chest which he said kept out the cold, and wads of newspaper stuffed in his ears.To keep out the bugs, he told my horrified mother.
He was very deaf, so we all had to shout, but it could just have been the wads!

When he went off on his travels , the parents would fill his two billy cans, one with milk and the other with eggs and off he’d go with his billies dangling off his pack.

My parents liked him because he would milk the cows and stuff, but when another traveller turned up my dad took him in dislike and sent him away. He didn’t want to work, my dad said.
We found a wee pile of stones with an arrow of stones pointing to our house. Dad said it was a signal for a sanctuary on the road and that we should leave it alone.

My parents were travellers themselves , in their way, and shortly after Russian Jacks’ last visit we moved away. But it was a happy place with happy memories , and a large part of what made it memorable was Russian Jack.

Cheers, Beverley Young

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello I remember Russian Jack very well as a child, our mother use to give him tea leaves, and Dads tobacco, we were very scared of him as kids, he use to walk past our house up Onga Road Hunterville and even slept near our fathers garden. We were not sure where he was headed perhaps out to Otairi Station. Regards Beverley