Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Neil Colquhoun; Reanimating NZ Folk Song

Collector, composer and publisher Neil Colquhoun, regarded by some as the the father of New Zealand folk song, died on Wednesday, 29th October 2014. Tony Vercoe, former manager, owner, producer: Kiwi Records/Kiwi Pacific Records Ltd, 1959-1989, writes:

The first Kiwi Records catalogue, of 15 pages, was published by A H & A W Reed in 1959. At Page 8 are described and illustrated two 7-inch extended play discs, featuring the Song Spinners directed by Neil Colquhoun: Cat. Nos M3I-1 “Songs of the Whalers”, and M3I-2  “Songs of the Gold Diggers”. 
The initially small Kiwi Records division had been set up by Reeds to reflect in audio terms what the parent company was attempting in the book publishing field – to present a perception of New Zealand activities, attitudes and life. It’s to the credit of the then New Zealand Broadcasting Service (NZBS) that in those early days they had recognized the value of Colquhoun’s work and were prepared through a licensing arrangement with Reeds to enable the programmes to be published on Kiwi discs. 
I had been working as a programmes producer at NZBS during the 50s but was invited in that same year (1959) to join the Reed company, to manage and develop the Kiwi Records catalogue. It was an opportunity and challenge I could not resist.
Neil Colquhoun already had a third programme of New Zealand folk songs in preparation, and I remember, when attending a pre-recording rehearsal, being struck by several things: that from a small place such as Levin was then, he’d been able to muster so persuasive a group of amateur singers and instrumentalists; that under his quiet direction their commitment and discipline clearly were absolute, and that from quite sketchy original sources he’d been able to reconstruct complete songs and to arrange parts for his singers and instrumentalists which merged and flowed beautifully. This new collection was “Songs of the Gumdiggers”, which we recorded for Kiwi Records in Wellington’s Lotus Studio, Victoria Street, Frank Douglas being the audio engineer. 
In his scholarly treatise In Search of Native Song - traditional folksong collecting in New Zealand ( Michael Brown identifies the historian James Cowan as sounding, shortly pre-WWI, a timely signal about the need to search for and document New Zealand folksong. The alert was later taken up by Mona Tracy, Rona Bailey, Herbert Roth, Neil Colquhoun, Les Cleveland, among others. 
Other Song Spinners recordings followed, and my cooperation with Neil culminated in the major double-LP album project Song of a Young Country (Kiwi SLC-101/102), this being his collection of New Zealand folk songs and recorded by a group of performers including Neil himself, Marilyn Bennett, and Phil Garland along with others. Together with the associated Reed book New Zealand Folk Songs it was published in 1970. 
Among the contributory collectors and performers mentioned, I believe and hope that of all his work, Neil Colquhoun’s unique and salutary achievement, back in the 1950s, of breathing life into fading, almost forgotten relics from our past should stand as his essential memorial.
Tony Vercoe

Neil is survived by his wife Barbie, 3 children, 3 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.