Farewell, the nation's songbird

"Blue Smoke goes drifting by into the deep blue sky
And when I think of home I sadly sigh
Oh I can see you there with loving tears in your eyes
As we fondly said our last goodbyes."
- From the song Blue Smoke, written by Ruru Karaitiana on the troop ship SS Aquitania in 1940.

Pixie Costello, nee Williams, died on August 2 aged 85.

It's her voice you can hear on New Zealand's first pop song, Blue Smoke.

Back in 2010 I first interviewed Pixie, or Pikiteora Maude Emily Gertrude Edith Williams as she was born in 1928.

She was a beautiful soul, humble, strong, inspirational and down-to-earth.

After the interview was over we talked in general about life, and the merits of Speight's, and I treasure the words and wisdom she offered me then, and the other times we have talked since.

Our acquaintance started when an old-fashioned biscuit tin arrived at The Press.

It contained marbles, postcards telling stories from another time, and photographs of the Karaitiana and Williams families during wartime and of our brave men, some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice to defend our freedom.

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 onboard the Kiwi at Guadalcanal in 1943.

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 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 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.

''I turned him down lots of times, it clashed with my hockey games,'' Pixie told me.

Our nation's first pop song, Blue Smoke, was recorded over 9 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 said.

The song was re-released in April 2010 to mark its 70th anniversary.

Pixie's daughter, Amelia Costello, told me 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.''

Last year Amelia released an album of her mother's music. She did this to honour her mother and I'm so grateful she did.

When it was released in 1949 the song appealed to the nation's post-war sentiments, evoking as it does so painfully and beautifully the melancholy of parting from loved ones. Over 50,000 copies were sold.

It went on to be covered by a number of overseas artists, including Dean Martin. In 1951 it was rated the fastest-selling song in the United States.

''That song's been following me around for years. Change the bloody record I say,'' Pixie laughingly told me once.

When Blue Smoke was re-released in 2010, Pixie performed it on Anzac Day at Te Papa, which also showed an exhibition about her and Karaitiana.

''I'm a living exhibit! Well I never ...'' Pixie said at the time.

Pixie was much loved. She was a real character and, yes, a national treasure.

In Pixie's words: "No matter where you are, music will always have some meaning. When you have music in your heart, it stays with you. Music will always live on."

Listen to her voice. Treasure our cultural heritage.

Lest we forget.

The Press