It's called bush balladry. And from music clubs buried in a concrete wilderness, to country pubs at the end of a long gravel road, it seems to be making a comeback. Gwyneth Hyndman talks to ex-Southland schoolteacher Gary Elford about his second book of ballads, dancing at community halls until daylight, and how an Ohai legend involving a taser gun is pure poetry.
It's hard to write an upbeat pop song about a bastard son of a London undertaker, who was sent to the most dangerous penal colony in Australia as a youth, escaped, only to be recaptured - then ended up doing time until the dottery age of 40, for a crime it turns out he never committed.
Three verses and a refrain won't do it, says Gary Elford, who was commissioned to write a collection of music for a 2015 family reunion and was given a 700-page account of history to sift through for material, which included this gem about his great-great-great grandfather.
And that was just the first half of his ancestor's life. Following his pardoning, the ex-convict went on to get married, fathered 12 children, and embarked on a new career on the gem fields of Australia's East Coast, before he was murdered there in the Tablelands at age 75.
Not really the stuff that makes for a groovy sing-a-long on the radio. But an ideal subject for five 1000 word poems in an old form of storytelling known as bush balladry.
It's a genre that precedes country music, allows for unpredictable characters with no linear life story, and is really the only kind of song structure that can handle all the good, the bad and the very ugly that bubbles up out of nearly every family history Elford says. Maybe its because of this, that bush balladry is catching on.
At the recent Cardrona Folk Festival there was about double the number of people from 20 years ago, Elford notes. While the age group who appreciate the ballads is generally older, young people aren't as tuned out to it as he had once assumed.
As a relief teacher, Elford's had a chance to test out some of his work on students in the classroom. The results have been surprising.
"I'll look around and see their faces and think ‘this is going nowhere', then three, four weeks later one of them will recite a line from the poem."
Elford was born in Australia, but came to the South Island to take up a teaching position at Lake Tekapo 30 years ago. While he played guitar and mandolin and wrote poetry during his years in education - which eventually took him to Invercargill - he never strayed out of teaching food technology at the school that is now Aurora College. Music and poetry were just an evening pastime. He played in country music clubs and got better at the instruments he knew and got familiar with ones he wasn't, like bass guitar.
His foray into poetry had a typical start, with scribblings as "a pimply, lame teenager" that were tucked away and forgotten until the death of his father 20 years ago. Elford returned to Australia for the funeral, and found himself going back to writing as a way to process his grief.
The poems and songs he laboured over during that time came to fruition in his first collection Beneath the Sugarloaf, largely about his own family, with a few Anzac Day poems. A few years ago, Elford moved to Christchurch to be closer to his partner, Jane, and then began work full time on his second collection, which came out last month.
While he misses aspects of the south, he is content to be in a season of life where he can be a musician and writer full time, travelling to places like Castle Hill to throw a party with his music in the tiny community hall tucked into the foothills of the Southern Alps. He knows he is living the dream.
"I've never been able to do this in my life before," he says. It isn't something he's taken for granted. Every moment counts. The first collection took years to compile, after putting most of his creative energy into teaching. The Night the Rat Stepped Out took about a year, thanks to his adherence to a strict work schedule that he was a bit shocked he followed. "I've actually become quite disciplined in what I do."
Elford's teased the colour out of places and events that are mostly in Southland for his latest work. It was an area that he came to know well, and many of the tales he turns into song, came from the pubs, music halls, weddings, and small town events on weekends away.
The Catlins, especially, feature warmly in his work, from The Niagara Burns Dance to Broadlands and Slope Point Wedding. Though he also uses an urban legend he heard from Ohai, about a man who accidentally tasers himself with a birthday gift he bought for his wife.
Elford says it was story that was sent to him by a friend in Ohai, via email, and he figured that though it had a universal theme, it worked best as a tale that remained in that town.
Other stories have a softer touch - Glory Days finish the collection with a poem about running in Hagley Park during the autumn, "in the coolness of mid-April morning's mist".
While he has moved his life north, Elford still credits the south for inspiring volumes of ballads.
"I just love Southland. Its such a beautiful place with really special people. Its a place that's full of talent - you don't have to look under many rocks to find a surprise."
The Night the Rat Stepped Out is available at Trevor Daley Musicworks on Tay St.
- The Southland Times