Unsung hero

BY TERRY SMYTH
Last updated 05:00 13/12/2009
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Photo: Jacky Ghossein
Jack Saunders
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Albert Bokhare Saunders

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AT HIS home in suburban Sydney, tickling his old piano, Jack Saunders plays a tune written by his late father, Albert Bokhare Saunders, in 1910. The tune, instantly recognisable, is called "Swiss Cradle Song", but only Jack and his family know it by that title. Most people know it as "Now is the Hour", while to others it's "Haere Ra" or "The Maori Farewell".

By any name, it's a true classic. For almost a century, the melody alone, or with words in Maori and English, has stirred hearts across the world and particularly in New Zealand, where it became the anthem of Anzacs sailing off to war, of those they left behind, and of the generations since who hold them fast in memory.

"Now is the Hour" has been performed by countless crowds, choirs and soloists, played by musical ensembles of every size and type, and recorded by artists from British wartime stars Gracie Fields and Vera Lynn, crooners Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, to operatic soprano Kiri Te Kanawa and many more.

Most published scores of the song credit the music to Clement Scott with lyrics by Maewa Kaihau and Dorothy Stewart. However, just who should get the credit for what is the nub of a musical whodunnit. And the solution to the mystery lies in the life story of Albert Bokhare Saunders, as told by his son Jack, and backed up by documentary evidence.

This is Albert's story.

ALBERT SAUNDERS was a boy from the bush – born in 1880 and raised on Wirra Warra, the 40,000ha property near Brewarrina, in the NSW far-west, which his family had established in the 1860s. He took his middle name, Bokhare, from the river that ran through it. By age 16 he was a skilled bushman and crack rider, but a life on the land was not to be his destiny.

As hard times got harder, his father William was forced to borrow money but he died in 1895 before the debt could be repaid. The lender foreclosed and the Saunders had to leave.

"On a wagon with all the furniture on it, and a horse and sulky, off went Grandma and five kids," Jack says. "They ended up in Moree."

There, Albert made a modest living selling bicycles. To top up the coffers, he taught piano and other instruments, and turned his hand to composing – employing a natural talent as a member of a musical family (his elder sister Evelyn is known to have composed at least one popular song, "The Gwydir Waltz").

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The early 20th century was the golden age of popular piano music. With most people obliged to make their own fun, it was all the go to gather around a piano in the parlour. Publishers of sheet music did a roaring trade, contracting composers to bash out tunes. The composer was paid a small fee for each piece – unusually between 10 shillings and two pounds, two shillings – and the publisher held the copyright.

Albert would write about 300 pieces in his lifetime, published by Palings and other music publishing firms, and his most popular works sold in the hundreds of thousands.

Jack Saunders: "He would go to the publisher and say, `I have these six pieces I wrote.' The publisher would say, `I can use this one or that one,' and give him so much money.

"The publisher would also suggest things to write, and one of them, for Palings, was a `tunes of all nations' series. There were 15 listed, including German Evening Song, Japanese Lullaby, Polish Dance and Swiss Cradle Song, all under the name Clement Scott. He wrote under 26 names, including his own."

It was common practice for composers to write under house names such as "Clement Scott" – pseudonyms devised by publishers to give the impression they had a large stable of composers, rather than the same few writing in various styles.

Jack has many handwritten original scores by his father. The same pieces, when published as sheet music, are attributed to Clement Scott.

As well as house names, Albert wrote under pseudonyms he devised himself, such as Albert Trebla (Albert backwards) Albert Earl (his brother Earl), Albert Evelyn (his sister) and Victor Wilnor (siblings Victor, William and Norma).

IN 1910, the year he wrote "Swiss Cradle Song", Albert, now married, moved to Sydney, where he and his wife Olive would raise 11 children.

"As well as composing, he taught music, played piano at silent pictures shows, and later on had orchestras at silent pictures," Jack says. "His band got kicked out one time because he was passing a bottle of grog among the orchestra.

"My dad was quite an unassuming man but was drunk every Saturday night and at Christmas time. I never knew a sober Christmas with my father. But he would pawn anything to get us Christmas presents. His kids came first.

"We were so poor in those days. He tried to make a living from music but it didn't always work out so he'd get other jobs. But they didn't last long and he'd take up writing music again and we'd starve again."

In 1932 – the lowest depth of the Great Depression – Albert's wife Olive wrote to her well-off sister-in-law Edith, thanking her for a gift of clothes, sheets and blankets. "We had not a sheet on the bed for months," she wrote. "It takes all Albert earns to pay rent and supplement the dole, as we only get two loaves of bread a day and one packet of milk and nine penn'th of meat. If Albert did not earn a little, we would be hungry.

"There does not seem anything to look forward to. The future to us is a blank. We just drift on flotsam and jetsam."

Meanwhile, across the Tasman, Albert's "Swiss Cradle Song" had struck a chord with the Maori community. Fond of waltz time, they changed the tune's time signature from 4/4 to 3/4 and added lyrics, first in Maori, then in English. Came the world wars and the song, as "Haere Ra" or "Now is the Hour", was as Kiwi as, well, the kiwi, and widely believed to be a Maori folk song, an assumption that persists on both sides of the ditch.

Attribution for the lyrics remains contentious. Maewa Kaihau, a poet descended from Maori royalty and French aristocracy, claimed credit, but so did two families of Tuparoa shearers, the Graces and Awateres, a claim they maintain to this day. Also credited is Dorothy Stewart, an Australian-born, New York-based agent and songwriter. Stewart was the agent for British singer Gracie Fields, who recorded "Now is the Hour" in 1947 after hearing it on a tour of New Zealand.

Stewart's contribution was most likely the middle eight bars – a coda recorded by Bing Crosby but excluded from most versions of the song. Stewart's descendants are still in dispute with copyright owners EMI (who now own Palings) over 50 years' back-payment of royalties.

To add further confusion, some sources still credit the music to another Clement Scott, an English theatre critic who, having died in 1904, presumably wrote the tune posthumously.

Fields and Crosby both had world-wide hits with the song. For the publishers, too, the money rolled in, and in the years to follow it kept rolling in. Yet all Albert Saunders ever made from the song was two pounds, two shillings.

When, in 1946, he died of heart disease at the age of 66, the golden age of piano music was long gone – killed by radio and talking pictures – and recognition for his most famous work was denied him. In his last days, Albert voiced his greatest regret. "You've got a little boy," he said to Jack's brother Victor. "Don't ever let him sign any other name to his work but his own."

Two years after Albert's death: "A ship came into the harbour and it was advertised that there were 50 tons of records aboard, with recordings of `Now is the Hour' by Bing Crosby and Gracie Fields," Jack says. "An article said `Now is the Hour' was written by Clement Scott, a well-known composer who didn't want his name disclosed."

Albert's widow, Olive, went public, but her assertion that her late husband was Clement Scott was denied by Palings. "They denied it because they knew there'd be a big payout," Jack says.

In 1952, the family took their case to the equity court, claiming copyright ownership for Albert. The Saunders' witnesses included a man who had helped Albert write out the original manuscript for the piece in 1910, others who had played it publicly from Albert's manuscript that year – three years before Palings published it – and an expert witness who attested that the piece was written in Albert's unique, self-taught style.

Palings then produced a certain Mr Darling, one of the firm's store managers, who claimed he had written the piece as Clement Scott. Under cross-examination, he denied he had stolen the piece from Albert.

Judge Roper, in his summing up, deemed Darling's evidence unreliable. But while the witnesses supporting Albert's claim impressed the judge as "honest and truthful", he found that recollections of events more than 40 years earlier could not be considered accurate. He dismissed the family's claim with costs.

"We were too poor to fight on," Jack says. "Palings kept on getting the money and dad got no recognition."

More than half a century later, in February this year, in his address at the annual Supreme Court Judges Opening of Term Dinner, former judge Robert Ellicott, QC, who in 1952 was a junior in the legal team appearing for the Saunders family, recollected that Judge Roper, an otherwise "impeccable" judge was known for one defect.

"It was almost impossible to get him to find fraud," Ellicott recalled. "This observation arose following a case over the authorship of the music of a well-known song." The song was "Now is the Hour". "Our clients claimed that one of their family had written it in, of all strange places, Moree, and had played it in front of a Mr Darling, then a manager at the music store, Palings.

"A grand piano was set up in Roper's court and one of our leading pianists played the tune. Darling denied he had plagiarised it and, despite what we believed was a withering cross-examination of him, Roper refused relief."

Apparently denied natural justice, Albert Bokhare Saunders' only legacy is his musical family. Jack, 81, a retired music teacher, is a noted musician, bandmaster, composer and arranger, as is his son John.

That's immortality of a sort. But then: "I was 17 when he died," Jack says. "We used to play duets together but I never got to talk to him much about his life. How I'd love to talk to him now." Particularly about a certain song. A great song.

- Sunday Star Times

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