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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Although people began visiting New Zealand shores well before the 19th century, it is not until the 1790s that any sort of continuous contact with the country and its inhabitants was made. This was mainly due to a developing interest in 'flax' which was thought to have a great future in the manufacture of rope for use as rigging and Kauri timber earmarked for masts and spars on sailing vessels.

Come all you jolly seamen bold and listen to my song,
I'll have you pay attention and I'll not detain you long,
Concerning of a voyage to New Zealand we did go,
For to cut some lofty spars to load the buffalo”

Cheer up my lively lads, to New Zealand we will go,
For to cut some lofty spars to load the Buffalo.”

This ballad was written aboard the 'Buffalo' during her 1836 voyage to load kauri spars for the return voyage to England and is featured in W. H. Cheeseman's diary, where he also mentions that much singing and versifying was done by the crew in the evenings aboard ship.

The New Zealand heritage varies vastly from that of USA and Australia in that there was not the same degree of singing by her pioneers and early settlers. New Zealand colonists were in the main generally drawn from a different class of immigrant – there were no 'Pilgrim Fathers' or 'Convict Transportation.'

The New Zealand colonies were planned in advance and there was a conscious effort to create a better society. Though these early arrivals were for the most part drawn form the wealthier middle and upper classes of British society, there were some members of the working classes, but as most of them had been brought out mainly for labouring purposes, it is not unusual to find that most of the entertainment was of the drawing room variety and more in keeping with middles class status. Consequently before the onset of the gold rushes, there is a relatively small singing tradition, but a much larger tradition of the writing and recitation of poetry, often taking the form of “Home Thoughts from Abroad.”

For many years the dominant influences on New Zealand's musical heritage are British, Australian and American to a lesser extent. This does not mean there is no local tradition, far from it, but it obviously cannot and does not share the depth of the British Isles, USA or Australia. To understand this more clearly, we must take into account the time differences between the establishment of the countries, coupled with the fact that most people's awareness of folk music stems from their familiarity with recorded examples from USA and British Isles. What is 'folk' in the USA is not necessarily 'folk' in New Zealand, although if we accept that 'folk' applies to the 'common people' then we can expect some degree of similarity demonstrating New Zealand songs and ballads to have that certain something, which defines them as 'folk.'

“So far no New Zealander has attempted to record the unprinted old 'home-made' songs afloat in the bush and backblock communities in New Zealand – songs which though rough hewn as to rhyme and metre sound well enough when chanted by strong lungs at a singsong. There are not nearly as many as in Australia certainly, but still the doggerel rhymster is not unknown in the New Zealand bush and on the little sailing coasters that ply from bay to market port and back again. The city man naturally never learns these songs, but the gumdiggers' camp and the bushfellers' shanty, the sawmill hands' and the flaxmill hands' camps, know them well enough, at any rate in the North island.”

“I cannot speak from personal knowledge of the current shanties in the southern plains. I know this of the north, that some of the choruses bellowed around a camp fire or in the snug whare after kai, or out in a boat or canoe, date back at least fifty years. If they have no more value they have this, that they memorise more or less historic events of the troubled old days, which might otherwise be forgotten.”

James CowanThus wrote James Cowan, noted New Zealand historian in 1913, during his pioneering article on “The Bush Poet” where he quoted in part or in full several local songs. However Cowan never made any attempt to collect the many songs he must have heard in his travels throughout New Zealand and unfortunately his article would soon be forgotten. Although Maori songs were assiduously collected, there were no attempts to record the old bush songs until some real ground breaking work was undertaken by Rona Bailey, Bert Roth and Neil Colquhoun during the 1950s.

“O I wish I was in Auckland town – Away O aye O,
Where all the girls walked up and down – A long time ago!
It is a long time, a very long time – away O aye O,
A long time, a very long time – Oh a long time ago.

Lifted from James Cowan's article 'Sailor Memories – The songs of the Sea' published in the Canterbury Times of 12 June 1912. This is a local adaptation of a famous halyard shanty, which Cowan heard sung on a coastal trader in the Hauraki Gulf.

New Zealand folk music can be divided into chronological steps from the early 1800s through to the present day. If there is a common thread linking Kiwi folksongs, it is one of a 'work' ethic as early immigrants struggled to build the better society that had drawn them to this far-flung distant land.

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