Touring and performing in England and Australia in the 1980s inspired New Zealand folk singer Mike Harding to delve deeper into the songs of his homeland. He scoured libraries, museums, radio archives and second-hand shops, and in 1992 his book When The Pakeha Sings Of Home: A Source Guide To The Folk & Popular Songs Of New Zealand was published by Godwit.
The book was an assembling of the songs Harding had located, researched, recorded and performed at home and abroad since moving to Auckland in the late 1970s and taking to the road during the following decade.
In its preface he described a commitment to improving his own understanding and awareness of songs that told something of New Zealand and its people and how he was constantly reminded of how little known the songs were.
Those songs are separated into colonial folk and popular song from 1769 to 1945, including folk ballads, colonial songs, parlour songs, national and patriotic songs and songs of war, and modern popular song from 1945 to 1990.
Harding’s criteria for When The Pakeha Sings Of Home was all those recorded and/or published songs he had been able to find, in English, that could be identified, perhaps by no more than a single local place name or Māori word, as songs from New Zealand.
In the introduction, he explained the exclusion of te reo waiata: “Here in New Zealand the Māori have developed their own tradition of waiata and chant. In the course of a thousand years of becoming familiar with this country and its mountains, bush and sea, they have expressed their feeling for the land in song forms well integrated into daily and ceremonial life.”
It further recounted an instance of a function in Ireland where New Zealand Dairy Board delegates were called on to perform songs from their home. The best they could do was a rough rendering of ‘Pōkarekare Ana’ and the Chesdale Cheese jingle from the late 1960s.
Harding pondered why, when New Zealand folk songs had always been there, were New Zealanders reluctant to hear them? He concluded the cultural cringe and “the hesitancy of the media to expose us to anything we have produced ourselves”.
From the time of his first national tour with Taranaki Sol in 1983, Mike Harding was introducing audiences to the contemporary folk music of his peers and New Zealand folk music he had learned from others or from the Song Of A Young Country songbook that followed the 1971 album of the same name. “That was a pretty major book, that one,” Harding told AudioCulture. “There weren’t too many like that accessible to the general public.”
In 1985, Auckland folkie Roger Dick published A Preliminary New Zealand Song Index. “He put together this personally assembled folder of New Zealand folk songs,” Harding said. “And I thought, ‘Ooh, this is a really good thing to do.’” Later, while taking the songs of his home to England and Australia, Harding began contemplating a more in-depth study.
“Going overseas you really appreciate where you’ve come from when you step away from it,” he said. “It was probably one of the Australian trips when I started thinking seriously about it and I went to a couple of libraries over there to see what I could find.”
Over the next few years, he visited libraries, museums, second-hand and op shops, and contacts all over New Zealand, investigating recordings, sheet music and any mention of songs of the land. He was a frequent visitor to the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, the Hocken Library in Dunedin and the Radio New Zealand Archives.
“I was very lucky,” Harding said. “Our archives have become a lot more sensitive since then. I was able to get in there at a time when I could be in a little room with these recordings and have a cassette player going. I liberated some of them that way.”
Plenty of times he would unearth obscure one-off recordings that might have sold a hundred copies locally before fading from memory, other times songs were in circulation but had never been recorded.
Radio New Zealand afforded Harding the opportunity to put many songs he had discovered back into circulation. At the end of the 80s he recorded a programme with John Clark in their Dunedin studios. In 1991, he made When The Pakeha Sings Of Home, a 12-part series for National Radio, recorded with Ian Johnston in Palmerston North.
Resident in Christchurch, Harding gathered the collection into a presentable package with the help of his housemate Gwyn Claxton’s word-processing skills. He sent it away to the Godwit Press publishing house in Auckland and was elated when they agreed to take it on straight away.
Published in 1992, When The Pakeha Sings Of Home: A Source Guide To The Folk & Popular Songs Of New Zealand made its way to libraries and museums nationwide as an important reference work. It wasn’t necessarily a big seller and Harding fielded the inevitable questions of why he hadn’t made it a songbook.
“A lot of people looked at it and expected a songbook, but it was very much a listing of all the recordings and the songs that have New Zealand content, and in English, so I concentrated on that,” he said. “People wanted to have the songs in their hands.”
Besides more familiar tunes such as ‘Now Is The Hour’, ‘Taumarunui’ and ‘Big Norm’, When The Pakeha Sings Of Home abounds with delightful titles such as ‘Why Don’t You Mend The Roads’, ‘Come All You Tonguers’, ‘The Disputed Turkey’ and ‘Queen Of The Stockcar Ball’ – a track from Washed Out Willie And The Wasted Westerners’ 1990 cassette Skidmarks On The Soul – that beg to be sought out and heard.
In the years since, Harding estimates there would be just as many songs with New Zealand content as the ones included but he has no ambition to tackle an updated tome. He points to the internet and in particular John Archer’s New Zealand Folk Song website (folksong.org.nz) that has made the songs of this land more accessible than ever.