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Category Archives: Bill’s travels – on the Road

On the trail of Davy Lowston: Neil Colquhoun

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Yesterday I borrowed a car and hit the motorway north of Auckland to visit Neil Colquhoun and his wife Barbie – the first foray into my film documenting the story of Davy Lowston. Neil is a former music teacher and composer and was one of the principle figures in the New Zealand folk revival. In the 1950’s and 60’s he was part of the Song Spinners, one of the first groups to bring old New Zealand folk songs back to life in the modern era. His book “Songs of a Young Country,” is one of the definitive collections of old New Zealand folk songs. It was Neil who returned Davy Lowston to New Zealand after locating it in the hands of an American song collector.

Neil Colquhoun at his home near Warkworth

Neil Colquhoun at his home near Warkworth

Earlier in the day I had spoken on the phone to Michael Brown, who has previously researched Davy Lowston and other New Zealand folk songs for a PhD thesis. He told me there are many uncertainties about the true origins of the song – although it refers to a New Zealand story, it is almost certainly impossible to ascertain where and by who it was actually composed. Michael made the observation that although many performers and academics have claimed it as a New Zealand song, it is in reality a “song of the sea;” one that probably drifted around the ports of New Zealand and Australia in the early-mid 1800’s. I like that idea a lot – I have begun to see Davy Lowston as a landless song, an oceanic drifter, like an albatross or a shearwater. An idea of tragic beauty that formed in some long-gone sea-fearing mind and blew with the winds from port to port, only to vanish from sight, then finally to reappear, thanks to the work of people like Neil Colquhoun.

After finding Neil and Barbie’s place about 15 minutes on from Warkworth, I parked the car and walked in through a generously verdant garden, the centrepiece of which was a tangelo tree laden with fat orange fruit, a strange sight for a southern lad in the middle of winter. After lunch I sat Neil down in a  chair and we began talking. At the end of the interview, conversation turned to the grand piano in the corner of the room. On a whim, I asked Neil to play something so I could film it. He sat down and played the chords to Davy Lowston. The grand piano thumped and bellowed and from behind the camera I imagined I was on some old ship, bound for Australia with a hold full of whale oil and a headache from the previous night’s drinking –  with that tune rolling around in my wandering mind.

I write this from Auckland airport. I am bound for Australia today, not under creaking sail but in the cabin of a Boeing. My first stop is Sydney – where the Davy Lowston story has its genesis. Stay tuned for more…

Last week in Dunedin – pints by the fire and a night at the opera.

I’m about to disappear from my adopted hometown of Dunedin again for a few months, and I must admit I’m a bit sad to be bidding farewell to this wondrous little city. I’ve lived here on and off for eight years and something (beyond work) always draws me back; despite the occasionally fraught relationship I have with the place. For every chill southerly blast that sweeps down Crawford Street, there’s a warm, welcoming bar filled with original music to hide in. For every Speights-swilling student spewing their Saturday night out on Albany Street, there’s an engaging conversation to be had with one of the city’s more interesting inhabitants. Musicians, academics, scientists, artists, filmmakers, writers, sportspeople – many of them world-class, reside in Dunedin and you never know who you’re going to bump into out on the town. It’s the people and the music that keeps me coming back to Dunedin

The week for me began with the Midwinter Carnival last weekend, where Dunedin showed off and celebrated its wintry side. On Sunday I watched Ivy Rossiter of Luckless perform her haunting, electric guitar drenched music at the cozy little Inch Bar. On Monday night I drank pints of good beer and talked documentary-making at Eureka. On Wednesday I attended Tahu’s open mic night at Queens where I was thrilled to hear new songs from one of Dunedin music’s real treasures – Grant Ramsay, who performs as Swampy. Grant writes incredible songs that fuse magical realism with sharp local references and haunting tunes to create something truly original, something truly Dunedin. It was great to hear him play again.

On Thursday night I watched the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Dunedin City Choir perform Verdi’s “Requiem” at the Town Hall. When the terrifying Dies Irae shook the paint from the ceiling it was one of those music moments you never forget. The whole thing was spellbinding.

And last night? Well I had the best intentions of going out again but then Dunedin’s other great attraction – a roaring fire and a bottle of whisky – got the better of me.

Bound for America

I’m coming to the end of my current job in Dunedin and preparing to head out into the world on an amazing adventure. First stop is Australia, where I have a few gigs lined up; one each in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. From there, its on to America, where I have the thrilling opportunity of filming a documentary about New Zealand songwriter Donna Dean, who is touring over there with her Dunedin-based band. I’ve never been to the States before, so this is an opportunity too good to refuse!

donna dean

As well as filming for a documentary on Donna, I plan to work towards another couple of creative projects, which will give me the impetus to travel from one side of America to the other, taking in both coasts and the vast mythical landscape in between . The first is a film exploring the song “Davy Lowston,” which I have alluded to in previous posts. I plan to track the journey of this old New Zealand folk tune from the remote shores of the South Island to America and beyond. Another area of interest for me is Massachusetts on the north eastern shoulder of the continent, and particularly its whaling ports such as New Bedford and Nantucket. I have been researching for a whaling documentary for a while now, so I plan to make my way up there after Donna’s tour finishes and see what I can dig out.

I have a strong sense I’m going to be uncovering some pretty fascinating stories on this trip, so stay posted to this blog because I’ll be regularly posting updates. For now, it’s prep time – I’m organizing all my video equipment and booking flights and of course loading up the MP3 player with appropriate tunes to guide me on my way. My research into Davy Lowston has already led me down some interesting musical paths. A few days ago I started listening to Seattle duo Pint and Dale. They specialize in music of the sea and recorded Davy Lowston for their 2001 album White Horses. I emailed William and Felicia the other day and they sent me a download of their latest album Blue Divide. My first stop in the US may be Seattle, where I hope to catch up with these two. Stay tuned.


Song of America

Over the weekend I drove up to Omarama and used the three hour road trip as an opportunity to listen to an album called Song of America, which I had been put onto by an American friend after we played a song off it at a recent gig in Naseby. I knew nothing much of the album, but I found it on Spotify and downloaded it. A triple-album with over 50 songs on it, it was perfect for a long-ish drive, so I chucked it up and started listening. It was only by the time I got almost to Omarama that the concept of the album was becoming clear to me. It was a journey through American history, revealed in song.


Song of America starts with the native American “Lakota dream song,” then touches on the pilgrim music that crossed the Atlantic to take root in the cold swamps of Virginia. It traverses African-American spirituals from the days of slavery; rally-calls from the era of independence, civil war anthems, popular tunes from the 20s and 30’s and the Second World War, folk and rock from the 60’s and 70’s before bringing us into the current day with a nod to rap music and 9/11.

By the end of the drive I was hooked,waiting in fascination to for each subsequent track to reveal its chapter of the story. I actually finished my journey a couple of songs before the album ended so I had to sit in the car for another ten minutes to hear it out. I am planning a trip to the States very soon, so this sort of thing has a lot of resonance at the moment.

Here were a few of the highlights of that first listen:

Let us break Bread together – the Blind Boys of Alabama;

Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child – Beth Nielsen Chapman

Peg and Awl (the album version is by Freddy Johnston, but this links to the version off Anthology of American Folk Music)

Go Down Moses

Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye – Janis Ian

Thousands are Sailing to Ameri-kay – Tim O’Brien

Deportee – Old Crow Medicine Show

Rosie the Riveter – Suzy Bogguss

Youngstown – Matthew Ryan

The Message – Shorty Wop (link to the original by Grandmaster Flash)

And finally…

Here’s a link to the recording of some of the tracks on the album