14 Oct 2017

Chris Bourke - Good-bye Māoriland

From Saturday Morning, 10:06 am on 14 October 2017

The songs and sounds of New Zealand's Great War

Author and musician Chris Bourke

Author and musician Chris Bourke Photo: Supplied

Chris Bourke's latest book, Good-bye MaorilandThe Songs and Sounds of New Zealand's Great War, is an account of the influence of music in World War l - from military bands and concert parties to Maori music and patriotic song-writing.

Bourke is a writer, journalist, editor and radio producer. He wrote the definitive biography of Crowded House, Something So Strong (1997), and Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music, 1918-1964.

He's currently content director at Audioculture: The Noisy Library of New Zealand Music.

An excerpt from Chris Bourke's Adventures In Maoriland

We Shall Get There in Time 

NEW ZEALAND’s songwriters rallied to support the war as soon as it began, and soon flooded the market with their original songs. By the armistice they had written approximately 200 songs responding to the conflict. The majority of their efforts championed the British Empire and its way of life: what the war was trying to preserve. Some songs emphasised New Zealand, romanticising it as ‘Maoriland’, while highlighting the country’s loyalty, familiarity and connections with Britain.

Most were earnest, although they also portrayed the war as a great adventure. Early songs such as ‘England’s Watching’ and ‘Sons of New Zealand’ emphasised the Dominion’s subservient status. As the war continued, the tone of the songs changed; by the latter stages, songs such as ‘We’ll Never Forget Our Boys’ acknowledged that so many had sacrificed their lives.

The message of ‘We Shall Get There in Time’ - written by Harry Ribbands and Archie Don in 1915 - is not as craven as its title suggests

The message of ‘We Shall Get There in Time’ - written by Harry Ribbands and Archie Don in 1915 - is not as craven as its title suggests Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

Some of the songwriters were music professionals – usually teachers or organists – but most were dedicated amateurs trying to capture the moment with their hobby. The most successful song was written by an amateur two years before the war: ‘Good Old New Zealand’ by Louis Benzoni sold over 51,000 copies. The sales were eclipsed by the massive success of songs from Britain – among them, ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’, which was ubiquitous – but the locally written originals were often performed in patriotic concerts.

New Zealand’s role in helping the Empire was the songs’ most common theme: Britain was often portrayed as the Motherland, and as the youngest child in the imperial family, it was New Zealand’s duty to come to her aid. ‘To keep the flag of freedom flying high’ was the cry, and a song such as ‘We Shall Get There in Time’ epitomised New Zealand’s loyalty and dependability.

The patriotic songs were of their moment rather than written for posterity, providing topical commentary on recruitment, training camps, or battles such as Gallipoli. By 1916 a Wellington music critic cried ‘enough’ to the flood of patriotic songs. War fatigue crept in, and scepticism about censorship and propaganda; sentiments in the songs shifted from stiff upper lip to bittersweet. When the armistice arrived on 11 November 1918, the patriotic song industry quickly drew ground to a halt, its pro-war message unwelcome, and its repertoire untouched inside piano stools.

A WELLINGTON teenager was one of the first composers to react to the country’s need for patriotic songs. Just two weeks into the war, Joye Eggers’s song ‘England’s Watching’ received its debut performance at a Town Hall fundraiser, in the presence of the Governor’s wife Annette, Lady Liverpool. Before a backdrop showing a rustic woodland scene, ‘four little girls’ performed Eggers’s song, after which the Dunedin tenor James Jago sang ‘Rule Britannia’. The Mayor, John-Pearce Luke, read out a telegraphic cable with positive news from the front, which brought ‘wild enthusiasm’ from the audience. He launched into a song ‘meant to represent the National Anthem’, starting ‘at least an octave too high’.’ 

However, few could resist the manipulations of the event – the presentation of red, white and blue bouquets, posies ‘sweetly proffered by the little children’, the song ‘Give! Give! Give!’ ‘melodiously sung by Hugh Wright’ – and donations were generous. 

When ‘England’s Watching’ was published a month later, the Evening Post said the song was ‘of that comparatively simple and easily-mastered type which counts for popularity in songs of this class . . .… the refrain possesses a tuneful swing, without which an essential element of success would be lacking’.’ 

Songs were starting to flood the market in support of the cause, but the taste of the public seemed to be absent without leave, said the Free Lance:

‘What are called patriotic songs will always sell at such times as these, if they have any of the necessary qualities. The sentiment must be obvious, the mildly trite but catchy. The market for such shallow stuff will continue good, but musicians in the true sense will have little to do or to get till the war is over.’ 

‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ by NZEF soldiers Harry Ribbands and Charles James, 1917

‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ by NZEF soldiers Harry Ribbands and Charles James, 1917 Photo: Music Heritage Trust NZ

Amateur songwriters, dedicated hobbyists, and professional musicians were already crafting their responses to the war. The first batch uniformly championed the Empire and the courage of New Zealand’s sons as they went to defend it. The country’s connections with ‘Home’ were assumed in songs such as ‘Britons All’, which stated that the Empire’s distant sons were needed to defend the Motherland and the Empire’s ‘free’ way of life. While many songs assumed New Zealand’s support, as if the Empire had a sense of entitlement, and the fledgling dominion no sense of independence, other songs emphasised the uniqueness of the far-flung outpost. New Zealand had its own symbols – ferns, stars, clouds – but these just made the young country an exotic member of the imperial family. Coming from pioneering stock, New Zealand’s troops were courageous and reliable, loyal but independent: a special breed of warrior to counter the threat from the perfidious foe.

The most prominent themes of songs written and published by New Zealanders during the war expressed New Zealand’s patriotism and support for the Empire (‘New Zealand’s Sons Fall In’, ‘Britannia’s Southern Sons’). Almost as common were songs that expressed homesickness for New Zealand, which they describe as a peaceful idyll (‘The Long White Cloud’, ‘A Cottage Built for Two’). These songs were aimed at the domestic market (‘Good-Bye My Sweet New Zealand Lassie’) and written by civilians for civilians; evidence that songs were sent from New Zealand for the enjoyment of soldiers overseas is slight and unreliable. Overt recruitment songs such as ‘The Lion-Heart (Enlist for Service Freely)’ were uncommon, being incorporated instead into songs expressing patriotism: it was apparently self-evident that to do one’s duty, one needed to enlist (‘Our New Zealand Boys’, ‘Britain Calls Again’).

The exuberant nature of some song titles portray the war as a great adventure, and rarely is a song limited to just one theme. ‘The Soldier’, for example, acknowledges the Empire’s call, the courage of New Zealand recruits, while lamenting the girls left behind. Earnestness is the norm, perhaps because New Zealand lacked a music-hall tradition of humorous, satirical and topical songs; or, for families, the sense of distance and loss was more acute compared to Britain, whose troops could return home from the Western Front in 24 hours. A rare example is ‘We Shall Get There in Time’ which is not as craven as its title suggests. Instead, it uses music-hall humour and many puns to exhort recruits to help the Empire, while also vowing to ‘catch the Kaiser’. Even more uncommon were songs directly confronting the reality of losing loved ones, such as ‘The Heroes Who Sleep Over There’.

An excerpt from Good-bye Maoriland: the Songs and Sounds of New Zealand’s Great War, by Chris Bourke (Auckland University Press, 2017). (c) Chris Bourke

Chris Bourke is a writer, journalist, editor and radio producer. He has been arts and books editor at the NZ Listener, editor of Rip It Up, and produced Saturday Morning. He wrote the definitive biography of Crowded House, Something So Strong (1997), and Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music, 1918-1964. He is currently content director at Audioculture: The Noisy Library of New Zealand Music.