Talk: Pixie Williams, The Voice of Blue Smoke

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Pixie Williams, c1951

If you haven’t already, come along to the Central Library to see our Pixie Williams: The Voice of Blue Smoke display – it is looking (and sounding!) fabulous.

To round up the display, we will be having a talk on Tuesday 1 October at 6pm. Chris Bourke, author of Blue smoke : the lost dawn of New Zealand popular music, 1918-1964, will be speaking on the significance of Pixie Williams and Ruru Karaitiana’s hit ‘Blue Smoke’; New Zealand’s first pop song. Come along and learn more about the iconic New Zealand track and the woman behind it, as well as the city at the centre of the song’s production – Wellington in 1948.

Syndetics book coverBlue smoke : the lost dawn of New Zealand popular music, 1918-1964 / Chris Bourke.
“Bringing to life the musical worlds of New Zealanders both at home and out on the town, this history chronicles the evolution of popular music in New Zealand during the 20th century. From the Kiwi concert parties during World War I and the arrival of jazz to the rise of swing, country, the Hawaiian sound, and then rock’n’roll, this musical investigation brings to life the people, places, and sounds of a world that has disappeared and uncovers how music from the rest of the world was shaped by Maori and Pakeha New Zealanders into a melody, rhythm, and voice that made sense on these islands. The accompanying audio CD wonderfully brings to life the engaging text, underscoring seminal moments in New Zealand’s musical history.” (Syndetics summary)

You can place a reserve on Pixie’s album, Pixie Williams: For the Record, below:
For the record : the Pixie Williams collection, 1949-1951.

Pixie Williams: The Voice of Blue Smoke

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Update: Our Pixie Williams: The Voice of Blue Smoke display is now open and will be available to view during opening hours on Central’s first floor for the next three-four weeks. A cabinet guide is available here.


On Monday September 16 at 10.30 am, Wellington Central Library will be opening a special display celebrating the life of Pixie Williams. Come to the library to join in the opening and view photographs, instruments, albums and taonga belonging to Pixie. Also available for review will be Chris Bourke’s book The Lost Dawn of NZ Popular Music 1918-1964 which details the story of the making of ‘Blue Smoke’.

In 1949, aged 21, Pixie Williams gave voice to one of the most enduring popular melodies of the twentieth century – ‘Blue Smoke’.

Originally released in early 1949, ‘Blue Smoke’ was arguably New Zealand’s first pop song – the first song wholly written, produced and recorded in New Zealand. It was also a huge hit topping the New Zealand chart for six weeks and selling 50,000 copies. It was played on radio stations and juke boxes around the world and covered by a host of international artists, including Dean Martin. ‘Blue Smoke’ was one of 13 songs recorded by Williams between 1949 – 1951.

Photograph of Pixie Williams

Pixie Williams, c1951.

Born Pikiteora Maude Emily Gertrude Edith Williams (Pixie) on July 12, 1928 in Mohaka, near Gisborne, Williams was raised by her beloved grandparents and enjoyed a happy and musical upbringing until the age of 12, when her grandmother died. As her grandfather had died in 1934, she was taken into the care of her uncle and was required to do a lot of hard, physical work on his farm while keeping up with her school work. At age 14, her natural mother returned to collect her, after relatives expressed concern at how hard she was being worked.

However, not much changed for Williams and she was still worked hard, but managed to save a bit of money and decided to get some singing lessons, because she loved to sing and ‘wanted to do it right’.

At the age of 17, she escaped to ‘the big smoke’ (Wellington) and got a factory job.  Pleased to have left ‘home’, she vowed never to return.

Pixie moved into the YWCA Hostel on Oriental Parade. Her roommate, Joan Chittleburgh, heard her extraordinary singing voice as Pixie always sang in the shower and at hostel piano sessions every Sunday evening. ‘Blue Smoke’ was one of the songs in Pixie’s repertoire.  Through Joan, Pixie’s talents came to the attention of composer Ruru Karaitiana (whom Joan later married), who was looking for a singer to bring his song to life.

Pixie Williams and whanau

Pixie Williams (top) with friends, 1949, YWCA, Wellington.

Karaitiana wrote ‘Blue Smoke’ in 1940 on board the troopship S.S Aquitania, off the coast of Africa. A member of the 28th Maori Battalion Concert Party, it was sung in the desert between battles and became popular at troop concerts and at home long before it was recorded. Evoking the emotion and sadness of parting loved ones heading to war, the song appealed to post-war sentiments.

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S.S Aquitania in Wellington Harbour, c1940.

Karaitiana’s ‘Blue Smoke’ launched Williams’ career. It was a magical collaboration between artists that nearly didn’t happen. Williams twice turned down Karaitiana when he asked her to record his song. Two months after first asking, she finally agreed – on the condition that the recording didn’t interfere with her Saturday hockey games.

Recorded at Radio Corporation’s newly built Columbus Recording Studio at 262 Wakefield Street, the recording was a true DIY production. Recording engineer Stan Dallas, who built the Studio, experimented to get the best sound and came up with the idea to connect the electric guitar direct to the recording equipment instead of using a microphone – a practice that became the way recording studios worked internationally. And lap-steel guitarist Jim Carter went to night school to learn radio technology and made his own five-watt amplifier for the recording.

With no sound-proofing in the studio, or editing capability available (as artists are used to today), ‘takes’ had to be perfect from start to finish. The strain on Williams ‘unprofessional’ voice, and the musicians, took a toll. It took an agonising nine days to capture over 5 weekends.

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‘Blue Smoke’ song sheet

‘Blue Smoke’ was the first of Karaitiana’s compositions to be recorded. It was the first song ever recorded by Williams and the first release for newly formed label TANZA (To Assist NZ Artists). It was also New Zealand’s first wholly written, produced and commercially recorded song.

Pixie went on to record 12 other songs between 1949 – 1951 with ‘Let’s Talk it Over’ being another hit selling 20,000 records.

Humbled by the attention her recordings were causing, and always the reluctant star, Williams left Wellington for the South Island for a working holiday, ending in Dunedin.

Karaitiana had made the move to Dunedin in 1950, and they reunited for concerts at Dunedin’s His Majesty Theatre. Karaitiana had also penned two more songs which Williams’ recorded at the studios of 4YA Radio Station – ‘Saddle Hill’ (about a famous Dunedin landmark) and ‘It’s Just Because’, written in honour of the troops of K-Force departing for the Korean War.

Williams didn’t return from her holiday and while there she met the man she would marry, Irishman John (Paddy) Costello – with whom she had four children. She had successfully slipped quietly from the limelight.

After the death of her husband in 2006, and diagnosed with dementia, Williams returned to Wellington to live with her son.

At this time, a special project was undertaken by Williams’ daughter, to capture all of her mother’s recordings in one collection for release while she was still alive.

Williams’ family hadn’t heard of the majority of their mother’s recordings so the project was one of discovery, and the chance to capture her music and story for future generations.

Recorded onto brittle 78 Shellac discs, finding the whole collection was the first obstacle. This was made possible by family friend and ’scratchy records’ collector, George Boraman, who had started collecting Williams’ recordings in 1970. When hearing of the project, he was missing one record and, once found, he presented the full collection to Williams’ daughter for remastering.

With no background in the music or recording industry, Williams’ daughter turned to another family friend. Tim Fraser agreed to produce the collection. He sought the services of Mike Gibson, mastering engineer from Munki Mastering, for the arduous task of re-mastering the recordings, and Marcus Wilson, an audio expert to capture the definition and detail that was so difficult to capture. This ended up being another great DIY project reminiscent of the original recording of ‘Blue Smoke’.

Pixie Album Cover

For the Record album cover

On her 83rd birthday on July 12, 2011, ‘For the Record – The Pixie Williams Collection 1949-1951’ was released. Williams’ was wheelchair bound at this stage but well enough to attend the launch and 63 years after the first recording, was honored with a Triple Platinum award for ‘Blue Smoke’ and a Single Platinum Award for ‘Let’s Talk it Over’ from RIANZ.

For Williams, her recording career was very much for the love of it. Like many musicians who recorded with her, she was never paid for her work. She couldn’t read music but taught herself to play guitar, ukulele, the banjo and piano accordion. At age 73, she decided to teach herself the organ – for something to do.

On 2 August, 2013 she passed away peacefully, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and dementia.

“Music – it’s what keeps you going through good times and bad. It kept me sane in the hard times. Forget the pills. When you’ve got music in your life – you’ll be ok.” Pixie Williams

Blue Smoke – Musicography:

The popularity and poignancy of Blue Smoke followed her down the years with TANZA’s first ever recording outlasting the music genre’s that followed.

  • In 1990 Blue Smoke was used in Jane Campion’s ‘An Angel at my Table’, a film adaptation of Janet Frame’s renowned three-part autobiography.
  • Film-maker Gaylene Preston used Blue Smoke to close her movie ‘Ruby and Rata’ released in 1998.
  • In 2001, 52 years after it was recorded, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Australian Performing Rights Association (APRA) in New Zealand APRA members and an invited group of experts voted Blue Smoke No. 17 of New Zealand’s top 30 songs.
  • In 2006 Blue Smoke was used in Robert Sarkies film ‘Out of the Blue’.
  • In 2009, on the 60 year anniversary of the song, The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra released their upbeat version of the song giving it the full ukulele treatment in a special single-disc release also available online.
  • In 2010 kiwi Shelley Hirini released her version of the song which was recorded in Nashville, USA and has a distinct country sound.
  • Early this year Shelley Mac (nee Hirini) in association with Blue Smoke Records and Williams’ daughter, released her tribute album to Pixie Williams titled ‘Do You Remember’. Recorded in New Orleans, USA (to capture that very special jazz and blues sound that Karaitiana and Williams so loved), and in Wellington, New Zealand with Dr Lee Prebble, thankfully Williams got to hear it, and give it her blessing, weeks before she passed away.

For the record : the Pixie Williams collection, 1949-1951.

Syndetics book coverBlue smoke : the lost dawn of New Zealand popular music, 1918-1964 / Chris Bourke.
“Bringing to life the musical worlds of New Zealanders both at home and out on the town, this history chronicles the evolution of popular music in New Zealand during the 20th century. From the kiwi concert parties during World War I and the arrival of jazz to the rise of swing, country, the Hawaiian sound, and then rock’n’roll, this musical investigation brings to life the people, places, and sounds of a world that has disappeared and uncovers how music from the rest of the world was shaped by Maori and Pakeha New Zealanders into a melody, rhythm, and voice that made sense on these islands. The accompanying audio CD wonderfully brings to life the engaging text, underscoring seminal moments in New Zealand’s musical history.” (Syndetics summary)

BLUE-SMOKE

All information and photos included in this post is used with permission from Blue Smoke Records.

28th Māori Battalion Final Meeting

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In early December, the 28th Māori Battalion Association held their final meeting; a decision which was made by the founding members themselves. Spokesman Matt Te Pou says “The vets don’t want the formality of running an incorporated society anymore – with ongoing meetings and AGMs – it all takes a toll on them.”

In total, 3,600 men served with the 28th Battalion during World War 2 in campaigns across North Africa, Greece, Crete and Italy. They were a front-line infantry made up of volunteers who served with valour and distinction. There are now 26 Māori Battalion veterans, with less than half able-bodied.

A powhiri and a formal remembrance service was held at Pipitea Marae to acknowledge the remaining veterans, followed by a luncheon. There was also a National War Memorial Military Service in the morning with the Governor General and Associate Minister of Māori Affairs as Guests of Honour.
(adapted from www.scoop.co.nz)

Here on the second floor of the Central Library, we’ve put together a display to commemorate the event. Do come and have a look.

We also have a number of books on the 28th Māori Battalion:

Syndetics book coverOfficial history of 28 Maori battalion.
“John Douglas Publishing is delighted to be able to produce this work with kind permission from Manatu Taonga Ministry for Culture & Heritage and the 28 Maori Battalion Association. This is the official history of one of the greatest fighting infantry units of World War II, the 28(Maori) Battalion. We have done everything possible to ensure the book is as close to the original, printed in 1956. As Lieutenant-General Bernard Freyberg wrote in the foreword to the book: “In this history you will read the whole story – how they went overseas from New Zealand in 1940, with the Second Echelon to England, to take part in ‘The Battle of Britain’. In many campaigns this Battalion took a great part, often a decisive part, in the fighting. But as glorious as these battles were, and as gallant and brave as was the Maori part, it is not only of their bravery but what fine fighting men they were. “To know and appreciate their great qualities you must understand their background and their tribal traditions. Maori are a fighting race, and according to their traditions and in keeping with the laws of New Zealand, they did not come under the National Service Act, which called up men when they reached the military age. The Maori was always a volunteer. For them it was an honour to serve.” – adapted from Wheelers.

Syndetics book coverNga tama toa = The price of citizenship : C Company 28 (Māori) Battalion 1939-1945 / Monty Soutar ; [foreword by Henare K. Ngata]
“The fascinating story of C Company, Maori Battalion told through personal recollections, eyewitness accounts, numerous anecdotes and amazing photographs. At times heart-rending, at times heart-warming, this impressive book captures the special ‘spirit’ of the Maori Battalion – an amazing book that documents the stories of those who were actually there.” – Books in Print

Syndetics book coverMaori in the great war / James Cowan.
“Maori form a significant proportion of the modern New Zealand Army, and Maori officers have achieved the very highest commands, Their unique culture is deeply embedded in its tradition and daily routines; celebrated by Maori (indigenous) and pakeha (non-indigenous) soldiers alike. The exploits of the 28th (Maori) Battalion in WWll – peerless in attack – are well-remembered. Not so well known is the major Maori contribution to the Allied cause in the Great War. Maori were quick to respond in 1914. Over five times as many as the specified contingent of 500 men volunteered, and that number of places was allocated on a tribal basis. As the centennial of the start of WWl approaches, it is timely to revise and republish Cowans 1926 work.”–Publisher’s description.

Syndetics book coverVictoria Cross at Takrouna : the Haane Manahi story / Paul Moon.
“In May 1943, Lance Sergeant Haane Manahi of 28th Māori Battalion was recommended for a Victoria Cross by four Allied generals, including Freyberg and Montgomery, for his astonishing feats of bravery at Takrouna, Tunisia. However, the award was mysteriously downgraded to a Distinguished Conduct Medal. This biography of Haane Manahi details Manahi’s courageous acts during the battle in the Second World War and uncovers the events surrounding the Victoria Cross recommendation and its downgrading”– Back cover.

Te mura o te ahi : the story of the Maori Battalion / Wira Gardiner.
“In the history of New Zealand warfare, few fighting units have eclipsed the achievements of the 28 (Maori) Battalion. Formed at the outbreak of World War Two, the Battalion gained a reputation for fearless aggression in numerous encounters in Greece, Crete, the Western Desert and Italy, finally returning to New Zealand in triumph in 1946. In this concise and highly readable book, Wira Gardiner recounts the full story of the Maori Battalion, from it early beginnings to its eventual disbandment. It is a fascinating story of daring and adventure, of heroism and bravery, of victory and tragedy. ” – adapted from Mighty Ape.

Ake, ake, kia kaha e! : songs of the New Zealand 28 (Maori) Battalion.
Radio New Zealand/Nga Taonga Korero recordings of the Battalion while it was in North Africa and southern Italy. There are spoken messages, situation reports, concert medleys aimed at tribal areas from which the men were drawn, a song of remembrance by Pacific Island members, and a previously undiscovered message from Princess Te Puea Herangi at a farewell concert in New Zealand.

Te Hokowhitu a Tu : the Maori Pioneer Battalion in the First World War / Christopher Pugsley.
“In Te Hokowhitu a Tu, distinguished military historian Christopher Pugsley recounts the story of the Maori Pioneer Battalion for a new generation. Drawing on rare archival material and previously unpublished diaries and letters, he not only tells the wider story of the Battalion’s military exploits but also gives a vivid account of daily life for soldiers on active service. Illustrated with a large number of fascinating photographs, the book includes a complete list of soldiers who fought with the Battalion that will be of particular interest to their descendants.” – adapted from Wheelers

Awatere : a soldier’s story / Arapeta Awatere ; edited by Hinemoa Ruataupare Awatere.
“Arapeta Awatere was a humble man born in 1910 at Tuparoa on New Zealand’s East Coast; in World War II he served his country with distinction in fierce fighting, rose to the rank of colonel and led the 28 (Maori) Battalion. Post-war he became a distinguished community leader, an Auckland city councilor, an orator and a genealogist. In 1969, at the age of fifty-nine, his life shattered. He was convicted of a crime of passion – the murder of his mistress’s lover – and he ended his years in prison. This book is part of his legacy: the passion, insight and pain left by an indomitable spirit and strong intellect whose life’s work was nearly foundered in one night. Awatere: A Soldier’s Story gathers together his autobiography, many of his poems and songs, and two essays. Readers of this book will long remember one of the great figures of twentieth-century New Zealand.” -Huia Books