Looks make the musician

It was important to look the part: country singer Ron Hayward photographed at Desgranges Studio in Te Kuiti, circa 1949.

Ray Hayward’s stash of photographs is one of the great finds Chris Bourke uncovered while researching for his award-winning book Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964 – now an exhibition opening December 13 at New Zealand Portrait Gallery.

Snapped professionally, 18 year old Hayward poses with his guitar looking every bit like an American country singer, even though his boots were made for walking around Taranaki.

“Those pictures gave me an idea of how much it was about looking the part,” says Bourke. “We took these overseas styles and made them our own.”

Similarly, Bourke recounts a great tragedy for any aspiring country musician of a certain era – nowhere to buy a pair of cowboy boots. Nola Hewitt, one of The Tumbleweeds out of Dunedin, augmented her gumboots with hand stitching, heels, and artful pruning of the boot tops for a professional photograph of the band, taken in 1950.

It’s one of the 60 images on display at the Portrait Gallery, alongside photos of audiences dancing to swing, casual snaps of jazz musos at Wellington cafes, and rock ‘n’ roll stars being mobbed by fans. The exhibition is a riff on the book: readers will recognise some images, however Bourke includes many new photographs uncovered since publication in 2010, as well as music-related ephemera – antique radios, sheet music of New Zealand songs, and yellowing copies of Radio Record, Playdate, The Listener, and Hot Licks, a musical magazine that predated Rip It Up. A portfolio of late 1970s photographs taken by Rip It Up founder Murray Cammick is also included.

“That magazine and Murray have been very influential to me,” says Bourke, who worked there for three years during the 1980s before becoming a broadcaster for Radio New Zealand, writer and editor for The Listener, and author of a biography of Crowded House. “It was run on a shoestring and many photos never appeared very large in the magazine.”

To see them displayed among the older work covered in the book is not a great leap, argues Bourke. “It was the beginning of the end of the culture cringe and Rip It Up played a role in that. There was a long period when people didn’t think local music cut it. It was like an inferiority complex. Blue Smoke shows what a fallacy that was.”

Bourke is keen to write another book exploring the early 1960s period when music went underground and leading up to the more liberating 1970s. However, he’s been busy preparing a 44-page publication for this exhibition, a rich coda of new information for fans of Blue Smoke, winner of three categories at the 2011 New Zealand Post Book Awards – Book of the Year, Best Non-Fiction, and People’s Choice.

“I’m finding things that I think, ‘Oh damn, I wish that had been in the book,’” he says.

The Portrait Gallery’s Elizabeth Alley first broached the idea of an exhibition, not long after Blue Smoke was published, and though Bourke is a first time curator, it wasn’t difficult to come up with images. “I got a lot of material from the musicians themselves who were happy to share it, whereas photo archives of old newspapers and magazines have priced themselves out of the market. You pay $100 per photo. That makes it completely unaffordable.”

Alexander Turnbull Library, however, was very generous with their archives and Bourke says he’s happy to help people knock the dust off their family heirlooms. “It’s important for people to dig out their grandparents’ photo albums because they might have material that’s historically significant and they don’t realise it.”

Asked if an exhibition like this would be possible 50 years from now, with so much material captured in bytes rather than boxes, Bourke says it could make his job even easier. “Digital photography and recording means there’s so much material saved informally. So much has been lost through photo albums and newspapers being thrown out. And YouTube…it’s almost going to be too much.”

Originally published December 12, 2012 in Capital Times. 

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