Lest we forget
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Smoke got in my eyes.
I have never cried during an interview before but it seemed that everyone I found myself talking to about the song Blue Smoke joined me in shedding a tear or seven.
I cried about the agonies of war while talking to Shelley Hirini, half of pop duo Pearl, the singer who has re- recorded the song 70 years after it was first written. I cried about losing loved ones with Amelia Costello, the daughter of the legendary Pixie Williams, responsible for singing New Zealand's first pop song. I cried after talking to Pixie herself. Such a beautiful soul, so strong, so talented, a living treasure. Such a beautiful story. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
It started when an old-fashioned biscuit tin arrived at The Press. It contained marbles, a peanut slab, postcards telling stories from another time and actual photographs of the Karaitiana and Williams families during wartime. Rolling the marbles around in my hand, I looked at the family photos in grainy black and white. A family affected by war. It made me think of my own granddad on board the Kiwi at Guadalcanal in 1943. The tin also contained a modern rendition by Hirini of New Zealand's first pop song, a country- tinged version of Blue Smoke.
The British troop ship SS Aquitania carried the main body of the 28th Maori Battalion and more than 2000 other men of the 2nd Echelon of 2NZEF. In October 1940 Ruru Karaitiana, a private in the 28th Maori Battalion, was on the ship bound for the Middle East when a mate pointed skywards at the funnel and the drifting smoke fading off into the distance. Inspired, within a few days he had written the words for and composed the melody of Blue Smoke in his head.
When the song was released in 1949 it marked a vital turning point in New Zealand's musical history as the first locally recorded and pressed commercial record to be entirely recorded and produced in this country.
Karaitiana, who passed away some years ago, was from the Ngati Mutuahi hapu (sub-tribe) of Rangitane. A jazz pianist, he toured locally as part of a dance combo. Back in New Zealand at the end of the war in 1947 he started the Ruru Karaitiana Quintette and in 1949 they performed Blue Smoke with Pixie Williams (from Mohaka ki Ahuriri) on vocals. The music contains lap steel and rhythm guitars, ukulele and double bass and had a Hawaiian-vibe. The hardest problem Karaitiana had with the song, however, was getting Pixie in the studio to record it.
Speaking from a rest-home in Wellington where she now lives, Pixie is a real character.
"I turned him down lots of times, it clashed with my hockey games," she recalls.
It seems our nation's first pop song, Blue Smoke, was recorded over nine days and around the whims of a fridge. "The way we recorded in those days it was just where you were and you heard everything in the background: traffic, you name it. There was a fridge in the next room that would buzz a lot, we'd have to wait for the buzzing to stop before we could record."
Pixie's daughter Amelia Costello says she'd always been aware her mother could sing but never realised how beautiful her voice was until the pair were in their trusty Hillman heading down the road sometime in the late 80s. "It was an old car and the radio never worked. We were going along and mum was singing Ella Fitzgerald's Mack the Knife. . . . I decided then that I was going to do something to celebrate mum's voice."
When her father passed away it cemented Amelia's desire to do this for her mother.
"I remember asking dad if he had any regrets once and he said 'why would I have any regrets? I did everything in life I wanted to'.
"I wanted to do this for mum while she is still alive. She could have gone on from Blue Smoke and had a big career doing what she loved - she got offered something in Canada - but her husband didn't want her to do it and so she just stepped quietly out of the limelight."
When Amelia met Hirini by chance at a party, and with the blessing of the Karaitiana family, the seed was planted for a re- recording of Blue Smoke 70 years after it was written. "I went to Nashville to record it and I used Dolly Parton's mic," Hirini says. "I've tried to stay true to the spirit behind it yet make it relevant for now, too."
When it was released in 1949 the song appealed to the nation's post- war sentiments, evoking as it does so painfully beautifully the melancholy of parting from loved ones. Over 50,000 copies were sold. It went on to be covered by a number or overseas artists, including Dean Martin. In 1951 it was rated the fastest selling music in the United States.
Pixie, herself, is a little sick of it after all these years, it seems.
"That song's been following me around for over 60 years. Change the bloody record I say," she laughs.
This will be possible. Thanks to another member of the family's collection and an eagle eye on Trade Me, Amelia now has an album's worth of previously unheard recordings by Pixie and Hirini plans to re-record them in New Orleans.
"There are some marvellous songs on there like Maori Girl and even a Christmas song," Hirini says. "We're hoping to release it at Christmas and then we'll tour it over summer."
As we dry our eyes, Amelia says this "smoke" has gotten into her eyes and heart.
"I seem to cry with everybody I talk to about this, it's very emotional. Women cry and men get lumps in their throat."
It's as it should be.
Lest we forget.
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- The Press