Neil Finn revives Anzac anthem

Jim Carter with Neil Finn at Carter's home in Nelson
Jim Carter with Neil Finn at Carter's home in Nelson

Many local songwriters and composers will have turned their minds to marking this year's Anzac centennial. But Neil Finn has taken a trip back into New Zealand music history to revive a song which has its origins in World War II and is seen as a starting point in the country's recorded music history.

Finn has re-recorded Blue Smoke, the song penned by Ruru Karaitiana as he headed away to WWII in 1940 with the Maori Battalion.

And he's done it with one of Karaitiana's old band mates, Jim Carter, who played steel guitar on the 1949 studio version.

Karaitiana finished the song while still at sea off the coast of Africa and played it at a shipboard concert. Among those who first heard the song on the ships was Finn's father Dick, who served in Italy.

Finn snr says Blue Smoke with its homesick lyrics was a powerful reminder of the family he'd left behind - while wondering if he would make it home. Predictably, he loves Neil's new version.

At the suggestion of Chris Bourke, whose book Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964 which looked at our pre-rock'n'roll music history, Finn sought out Carter, now 95.

With musician son Liam, Finn visited Carter at his home in Nelson and - after some gentle persuasion - got him to play ukulele and steel guitar as they recorded in his lounge.

A video of the visit has Carter pulling out his collection of vintage instruments, some nearly as old as he is, and a scrapbook of his days as a musician in Wellington.

Finn cajoles him into performing the song one more time. He is reluctant at first - after all, he didn't think much of his playing on the original, behind the voice of Pixie Williams

"A very big part of that record is your slide guitar playing," Finn tells him.

"I was never very impressed with it at the time," replies Carter.

"It's lasted pretty damn well, says Finn. "You didn't think you played it that well?"

"I thought it was pretty ordinary."

"As a song or as a performance?" asks the younger musician.

"Playing. The silly part is I can't play as good as that now."

Well, on the resulting rendition it sure sounds like he can.

Finn: "Jim made us feel very welcome and it was great to talk to him about music, instruments, his influences. I think he enjoyed having a face to face exchange with another musician and his humility was very endearing.

"He didn't think he had much to offer to a potential recording any more, but I just gently encouraged him to play along on ukulele with me. Once he was involved in the song again and it was sounding good he even tried his hand at the lap steel.

"His guitar part was simpler and leaner than the original but still elegant and soulful.

"On the day we had no real idea if this would end up as a good recording but it feels so right to me now. The original recording is perfect really, but I feel that with this humble new recording we have some of the original spirit and there is an authentic experience at the heart of it.

Says Carter: "It has given me so much pleasure to meet Neil and to play Blue Smoke again after all these years. I still can't believe it".

The song is being released on April 11 by Murray Thom, the man behind The Great New Zealand Songbook collections.

"For the last couple of years I could just hear Neil performing Blue Smoke. There was no-one else that I could hear recording it. This recording is exactly what I was hoping for," he says.

The original 1949 recording topped New Zealand radio hit parades for six weeks and sold more than 20,000 copies within a year.

The song attracted overseas interest too, with covers released by Dean Martin among many others.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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