Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Perhaps more than Neil Colquhoun or any of the other veteran collectors of NZ folk songs and lore, you are the most well known and respected. What do you credit this to?
Stickability is the buzz word! Hopefully it's because I've been steadily collecting, researching, recording and performing for over 40 years now and if one keeps persisting with something you really love, then eventually you must get noticed. I do maintain a high profile and consequently manage to entertain all manner of audiences throughout New Zealand and Australia. Fortunately most of them all seem to like what I do.
Tell us about your recording label, Kiwi Pacific and your relationship with them. How many albums have you recorded?
It's an interesting relationship. I first joined forces with them back in the early 1970s - the original deal was done with the shake of a hand and they've been looking after me for some 35 years or more. They used to pick up the expense tab for all my recordings, but that changed after "How Are You. Mate?" in 1990. Since then I've either had to self finance all my projects or find sponsorship from other sources. Kiwi still take care of cover design, packaging and pressing, so I consider myself quite fortunate in this regard. If the albums didn't turn a profit, then I'm sure I'd have been an indie artist long ago.
I've recorded some 16 albums in all mostly with Kiwi Pacific bar one and been involved with or contributed to a further 6 with other companies over the years.
Your latest CD has a Southland theme. What brought this on? How much of this material is your own?
I was commissioned by Creative Southland to research and write appropriate material related to a tourism package combining arts and heritage trails around Southland. I wrote 8 songs for the Southern Odyssey project, and included a couple of trad songs plus some appropriate material from the likes of Paul Metsers, Dusty Spittle, Helen Henderson and Brendon Fairbairn.
The project isn't finished yet - I understand there are still another seven trails to come on board, which means I may well have to write some more songs in the near future.
You have a fairly simple, no nonsense approach to recording your songs. Do you worry that your recordings may become dated or is that consistency a plus for your audience?
Yes I try keep things as simple as possible in the studio. I normally record my voice and guitar at the same time, which I think helps give it a better feel of "live" performance - it sometimes requires a little more effort in miking up to obtain the best results, but it is the way I work best. I have had some very understanding musicians working alongside me over the years and I'm very grateful for their ongoingsupport.
I do my best to work within the parameters and boundaries of the tradition. I don't want to compromise my ideals too much, although I must admit I have made use of modern techniques when recording my backing artists. My feelings are that if the technology is available then why not use it.
I have never worried about my recordings becoming dated - I'm sure they must do over time, especially given the rate of modern technological advancements. If I started to worry unduly about such things then I'd probably never get anything started or finished. Regarding 'consistency' it's not something I've consciously thought about, but there may well be a stream of consistency lurking within!
I really can't answer for my audiences, although to be fair I have had the occsional person say they preferred an earlier and simpler arrangement of a song, to a more modern up to date treatment of the same piece.
I know you sell albums overseas. Is there a good level of interest in your material outside of New Zealand? What other artists recorded your songs?
There is a good level of interest overseas and in this regard a number of people make contact searching out my recordings of New Zealand songs. This has certainly been helped by the world wide presence of my website,enabling me to sell to people in countries I've never been to. Interestingly, whenever I perform at specialised outdoor events and a queue forms to buy albums afterwards - I can guarantee that over 90% of those purchasers are from overseas - In many ways I feel the cultural cringe is still alive and well in Aotearoa New Zealand.
There are a number of overseas artists, who have either incorporated my songs into their performing reperotires or in some instances even recorded them. A few that immediately come to mind are Gordon Bok and Schooner Fare in the USA - Martyn Wyndham Read and The McCalmans in the UK as well as such artists as Wongawilli Bush Band, Leaping Lizards, The Pioneers, Denis & Lynne Tracey, all of whom are from Australia. Graham Wilson - Mike Harding - The Worsfolds - Shona Lang and The Pog Band [oh yeah, that's right - Ed] all recorded something of mine down the years for which I'm eternally grateful as well.
What is your vision for New Zealand folk music and folklore?
I would like to see New Zealand folklore and music incorporated into the education syllabus and eventually made available as a fully fledged folklore studies unit in the Universities. I long to see more Kiwi songs being sung in schools and more people being exposed to our wonderful musical heritage. Radio NZ is the only network that does lend real support to the music via The National Programme. I'm convinced that if more people were made aware of the music it would start achieving better listening levels Maybe even better use of such music at overseas promotions marketing New Zealand. I live in hopes!
Thanks Phil. You can see Phil on YouTube here and visit his website here.
Monday, February 12, 2007
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.
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.
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.
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.
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