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The ghosts of dead miners

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A thick fog besieges Naseby, oozing through the pine trees and pressing itself up against old mining cottages and the town’s two pubs. The blue smell of woodsmoke hangs in the air and all is quiet on this damp autumn morning in the Maniototo.  Inside the Royal hotel the publican is stoking up the embers of last night’s fire, piling in hunks of radiata until the fire is blazing. In the corner of the room an accordionist warms up his instrument while the ghosts of old miners, curlers, shepherds and tramps stir in the recesses of the bar.

This was the scene I soaked up on Saturday morning, the first day of the Maniototo’s Bards, Ballads and Bulldust festival. I was playing in a  group with three quarters of The Chaps – Marcus Turner, John Dodd and Hyram Ballard; some of Dunedin’s best musicians. It was real thrill for me to be playing with these guys – I certainly felt pressure to lift my game and I only felt I was starting to get it right by the time we played our fourth set at the Ranfurly pub on Sunday afternoon. Our four gigs were spread across the Maniototo basin – at the Waipiata pub, Dansey’s Pass hotel and the Royal in Naseby. At each venue small but appreciative audiences heard us play a two hour set of songs – originals and covers, many which reflected the gold-mining theme of the weekend.

Picture Credit:Alexander Turnbull lIbrary

Picture Credit:Alexander Turnbull lIbrary

A highlight for me was the Dansey’s Pass show, where we enjoyed the acoustics of this beautiful old pub and played in front of a vast open fire. After the show I wandered down through the old gold diggings, past discarded sluice guns and the skeletons of old miners’ buildings to the river. The Kyeburn was in flood, raging through its gulch in the Central landscape and surging across mighty schist boulders worn round and smooth by the rushing of the centuries. A common theme of the poems and songs we heard over the weekend was a real passion for this part of New Zealand – legends like John Grenell, Ross McMillan and Brian Turner all expressed their strong feelings for this place. Standing on the banks of the Kyeburn on Sunday morning I  understood it. There is a powerful sense of living history in this area; river, stone and steel left as if the figures of the past had only just moved on for richer fields.
The group we put together for the event was fairly hastily thrown together – we’d had a couple of practises in Dunedin but I sort of felt I was still learning the songs on the job. I wished I’d  practised more at home before the weekend!

One of the thrills of a thing like this is hearing and learning the songs other people bring to the mix.

Some of the songs that the others tabled included:

Davy Lowston

One of the very few Pakeha traditional songs known to exist, this very old song tells the tale of a group of sealers who were stranded for four years on the Open Bay Islands off the Westland coast in 1810. The remains of their hut can still be found on these islands.

Farmer is the Man

An old industrial song of the American plains, given a modern reading here by Otis Gibbs. The version we played at the Maniototo had  a slow country rock feel that owed something to Neil Young or Steve Earle.

Tuapeka Gold

A New Zealand folk original by Phil Garland, the godfather of New Zealand folk.

I threw in three of mine as well as Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown,” which I really enjoyed playing with these guys.

Here’s a video of  Bruce and band performing Youngstown in London’s Hyde Park, in which my personal guitar hero Nils Lofgren summons the ghosts of Ohio’s steel workers from their graves with a devastating, spine-chilling solo. Enjoy.


One response »

  1. It was a pleasure to perform with you Bill and I really enjoyed the feel we were able to get on these songs over the weekend. The standout for me was your song “Shenandoah” – as great a NZ folk song as I’ve ever heard. Let’s do it again sometime soon!


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