I have done a few hard yards teaching in schools over the years.  I dig the kids, love their energy. But like one of those grumpy old guys in the Muppets I am flummoxed as to how even with the internet, wikipedia and all the other online research tools at their disposal many kids still seem to have a  limited general knowledge. Ask a student “Who was the first man to walk on the moon?” and they are likely to tell you it was Louis Armstrong. “Close kid. But no cigar”.

When you ask a classroom of kids when New Zealand popular music might have started they will talk about songs they heard in the car on family road trips and perhaps mention Dragon singing “April Sun In Cuba” or OMC’s “How Bizzare”.  If they are particularly onto it they will suggest Ray Columbus singing “She’s A Mod”.

We know now that the first pop song which was written, performed, recorded and produced in Aotearoa was Blue Smoke sung by Pixie Williams. The lyrics describe the longing felt by the women on the wharf as they scanned the horizon for a last glimpse of the blue smoke billowing from the funnels of the troop ships carrying their men folk off to war.

The song was released in 1949 on the TANZA label (To Assist New Zealand Artists).  Blue Smoke is infused with the musical flavours of Pacifica. The lilting waltz time and Hawian pedal steel; the jaunty ukulele-like guitar and Pixie’s pure New Zealand accent tell you this is pure Kiwiana. There is even a touch of the blues.

The stories surrounding  Blue Smoke  and the wider history of early New Zealand pop music  have finally been brought to life in a recently published book  called “Blue Smoke – The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music: 1918-1964” written by Chris Bourke. It won several awards at the recent New Zealand Post Book Awards including the coveted Peoples’ Choice award.

The publication was a 5 year labour of love, painstakingly researched by the author who has produced a book which is entertaining and which is also an important contribution to New Zealand cultural and social studies. The book is a heart warming collection of stories about musicians who played in our provinces and cities between the end of World War One and 1964 -the year the Beatles  invaded  our shores. As an artefact it is beautifully produced. Anyone who has even a passing interest in New Zealand popular culture, jazz or social history should own a copy.

In a lap-topped , iPadded world Chris Bourke’s work  reminds us how wonderful  books are.  Another fine local example landed in the house this week .“Kura Koiwi “ by Nelson musician, bone carver and  researcher Brian Flintock. It  is more than just a look into the mystique of Maori culture. It is a beautiful piece of art. The overall design, the photography and the layout have been crafted with deep aroha for the subject matter. The chapter on taonga puoro  (Maori musical instruments) is particularly interesting –and beautifully illustrated.

When you see the affection that writers such as Chris Bourke and Brian Flintoff have for the written word and for the land, sea and skies of Aotearoa it makes you  glad to be a New Zealander. Maybe after years of cultural cringe, identity crisis and bloody tall poppydom we are beginning to love our own stories. We have turned a page.