Phil Garland is one of New Zealand's true musical treasures, a respected folklorist and a musical balladeer who has recorded 17 albums. His mission for over 30 years has been to gather and preserve for posterity, the songs and stories of New Zealand.

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Phil Garland - the Kiwi Balladeer

New Zealand's singing historian Phil Garland talks to Jim Low - April 17 2004


JIM: Can you tell me about your early musical background?

PHIL: Phil GarlandI was brought up in a classical music household where both my parents sang - my father had been a Christchurch Cathedral chorister and also played classical piano. I began taking piano lessons when I was about 7or 8 years old, but I objected to staying indoors practising, when I could be outside playing sport with my mates, so this exercise only lasted for a year or two. At least it taught me to read music, which has proved to be most beneficial over the years.

I first started singing in the local church choir and then, much to my parents' horror, moved on to singing rock'n'roll and pop music as a teenager in the late 1950s and early 60s. This was a reasonably successful period, which culminated in my recording a couple of songs, one of which went to the top of the Coca Cola Top 30 Hit Parade in 1963. Midway through 1964, I chanced upon a Gibson 12 string guitar in a local music shop and became quite fascinated by the sound it produced. I did some research and found it was mainly used in making folk music, so I purchased it and went about learning to play folk music and it seems I've never really looked back.

JIM: Who and/or what were some of your first musical influences?

PHIL: I was brought up on a diet of classical music before being seduced by early Rock'n'roll music. It took some five years before I discovered Folk Music and it's story- telling ability, which is what kindled my initial interest.

My earliest folk music influences were The Kingston Trio, The Limeliters, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Tom Paxton and a little later The Corries and Ewan McColl. When Bob Dylan arrived on the scene I started to imagine myself as a meaningful songwriter and set about trying to compose American songs during the mid 1960s. Everything I attempted to write seemed to have a Kiwi flavour and content, no matter how hard I tried to sound American. I eventually resigned myself to this fact and started singing my Kiwi songs in the local folk club, where to my utter surprise and amazement, they were very well received. From that moment on I was hooked on New Zealand folk song.

JIM: When did you become aware of the possibilities of song as a form of preserving heritage?

PHIL: When I set off to Britain and Europe on a working holiday in 1965, with a large repertoire of British and American songs along with what few Kiwi songs I knew. While singing in British folk clubs I found that Kiwi songs attracted most attention and all the time I was noticing how much history and heritage was tied up in their traditional song. This set me to thinking that there must be something more back in New Zealand, so when I returned home I set about looking for like minded people and discovered the newly formed N.Z. Folklore Society. With their help I began putting the wheels in motion to obtain funding and go field collecting, which I finally started doing in 1969. This collecting work helped to make me more aware of the possibilities of preserving our history and heritage through the medium of folk song.

JIM: Where are some of the places you have performed and what are the associated memories with these performances?

PHIL: Music making has taken me to some places around the world I probably would not have visited otherwise. There are naturally so many memories associated with these performances, I could fill a book - but obviously time and space won't permit me that luxury here. To date I have performed in England, Scotland, Paris, South Africa as well as throughout Australia and New Zealand.

When returning to New Zealand from the UK on board the 'Northern Star' in 1966 I met up with one of the ship's officers, who was also an enthusiastic folk performer and together we opened a folk club in the children's nursery, running every night for five weeks starting 11pm to 1am. This proved so successful with nightly attendances of 150 - 200 people, that I was met by a huge Press contingent on our arrival at Wellington, which certainly didn't do my musical reputation any harm at all.

I still give many performances around New Zealand, where people come up and share snippets of verse, songs and background information to poetry and stories associated with Kiwi folklore. Every one of these performances is a potential collecting exercise and is never taken lightly. There have been times I have written songs about historical events and occasions to have someone come up after the concert and say

'You've just sung about my family" or "that happened to my family". Such responses give me the impetus to continue writing in the knowledge that I'm not only telling their stories, but adding to the national archive of oral history.

JIM: Can you share some of the collecting experiences you have had?

PHIL: One of my favourite experiences comes from when I was field collecting in Arrowtown, Central Otago in 1969. I made arrangements to meet a potential informant in the local pub and set up the tape recorder for the interview and song I was after. He made me put the tape deck away and said:
"If you want to learn this song you'll have to do it the same way all my kids have learned it - orally!"
So we spent the next few hours drinking copious quantities of whisky and learning this song. When I finally stumbled out of the pub and returned to the camping ground where I was staying - so that I wouldn't forget what I had learned - I set up the recorder and sang the song somewhat drunkenly into the microphone in the middle of the camping ground around 1am. It worked well and importantly I didn't forget any of it.

I met a bloke who boasted a large repertoire of early Kiwi songs and reportedly had written new verses to some of our vernacular songs. I came to know him very well and visited him many times over the years, but I could never persuade him to record any of the material he knew. After many years of trying I had almost given up on ever collecting his valuable treasure trove, when one day he arrived at my home clutching a large bottle of whisky, sat down and announced "I'm ready - do your thing!" I recorded him talking and singing non-stop for the next couple of hours. That glorious occasion has remained with me for a number of years and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

JIM: How important has song writing been to you?

PHIL: Song writing has given me a real "Sense of Place" by enabling me to set a number of the stories I've collected from old-timers to music. My song writing hopefully will preserve oral history for future generations, as well as depicting our Kiwi story through music and song. I never thought I would become a songwriter - it has been something that has crept up on me over the years.

Yes I wrote three songs way back in 1965, but the next 25 years saw me collecting songs, stories and yarns, while setting collected verse to music. The next logical step was to start writing my own songs based on what I'd heard and learned. I think I'm improving all the time, although some songs are definitely better than others.

JIM: Who are some of the songwriters who have influenced you?

PHIL: This is a hard one to answer - no one in particular. I feel I've learned from various sources and songwriters over the years. The British and Australian traditions have been major influences, which must surely include the folk movement at large. I have also learned from many of my informants and local rhymesters along the way. If I had to single out anyone in particular, it would have to be Henry Lawson, who not only did so much for Australia, but also New Zealand as well. He had a very strong influence here, particularly on the work of Otago poets David McKee Wright and Ross McMillan, for whom I have gained a great deal of respect.

JIM: Tell me about some of the projects with which you have been involved.

PHIL: In recent times I've found myself being commissioned by various Arts councils and historical groups to research and write songs for Kiwi tourism and history projects at large. I never expected anything like this to happen, especially when I normally write only when the muse takes me. I've been pleasantly surprised at the results I've obtained when the pressure goes on to come up with something by a deadline. I suppose all those years spent 'honing' my craft have finally stood me in good stead.

Back in the 1970s I was commissioned by Radio New Zealand to compile a musical documentary for broadcast on New Zealand Day for 1977. The broadcast was duly aired and nothing further was heard for some six months, when I received a phone call from National Radio advising that they had entered the documentary in an international competition for ethnic radio programmes held in Japan. The 'Hoso Bunka' award was open to all members of the Asian- Pacific Broadcasting Union and we had won the ultimate prize from 60 other entries! Radio N. Z. presented me with half the prize money to fund ongoing collecting and research work. I've been dining out on this one for nigh on 30 years now!

A mobile farming display expo that moves around New Zealand often utilizes me singing shearing songs in conjunction with their sheep shearing demonstration. This is always a hit, especially with tourists and children, who would not usually see such activities. This a great example of how Folk Music can be used effectively in telling the story of Wool, Immigration, Gold, Coal and Swagmen, etc . . . I'm sure this occurs in Australia as well.

I'm often found performing at Ferrymead Historic Park in Christchurch, presenting traditional Kiwi songs especially over long weekends. This involvement was instrumental in leading me to record my most recent album, Swag O' Dreams, which features 150 years of European settlement in Canterbury through music and song.

I have also been heavily involved in researching and recording music for places like the Gore Hokonui Moonshine Museum in Southland, which is dedicated to telling the story of illegal whisky distillation during fifty years of prohibition.

My music can be heard at the Westland Goldfields Museum in Hokitika and more recently at the Totara Farm Estate just south of Oamaru, where I was commissioned to write a song about the inaugural frozen meat shipment to England in 1881.

JIM: Do you have any other projects in the pipe line?

PHIL: I am currently involved with researching, writing and composing songs for Creative Southland, who are initiating a number of heritage trails for tourists to follow to historic sites. The tourists will be given a heritage map with background details to the sites along with a CD featuring songs highlighting personalities and events associated with these places.

I am also heavily involved in helping create a Swaggers Museum highlighting the life and times of those characters of the road, telling their story, detailing their exploits and demonstrating their contribution to New Zealand's rural economy. Traditional Kiwi music will certainly be a contributing part of this project.

I am about to meet with overseas financial backers and television producers this weekend about researching and recording music for a TV series about The N.Z Goldfields, scheduled for showing in Canada and the USA next year.

JIM: If someone was introducing you to an audience who were unfamiliar with your achievements, what things would you appreciate them mentioning?

PHIL: Time is always of the essence in these situations, so I would simply ask them to mention that I'm a 'Kiwi Balladeer, Songcatcher and Singing Historian.' Hopefully my musical performance and material would do the rest.