Reviewed by David Famularo
Bush, Bog, Brine and Bugle: Yestermusic of Featherston County is not so much an embellishment on factual history but a subtle re-invention of it – reviving the past but informing it with contemporary twists. At first the conceit is not obvious which is part of the wit of this collection of songs, ostensibly from Featherston’s settler past.
Through the 12 songs on this CD, producer Chris Miller has created a series of evocative myths. Yestermusic is also theatre to the point where the potpourri of musicians Miller has employed are called the “Players” Through them and some masterful number 8 wire production skills, he has brought alive a parade of almost forgotten characters.
The types will be familiar but their stories are not. Recording the characters of local history was a more haphazard affair 100 years ago, usually simple one or two paragraph anecdotes that passed from one generation to another.
Diaries that revealed the inner lives were few and far between. They would more likely record the number of bean seeds planted in spring than a settler’s feelings about their lives in their new home. Of course, there were exceptions, sometimes in letters to family and friends back home, but all in all, New Zealand’s European settlers were a taciturn lot, particularly the males who considerably outnumbered the females.
Miller has gone to considerable effort to research the times his characters lived in. The liner notes are an impressive piece of work, filling in details about the songs and enriching their meaning.
Many of the songs stand on their own merit as entertaining and often poignant tunes. One of the most beautiful and moving is Te Tuna Heke, sung in Maori, a sad farewell from an eel (tuna) who lived in New Zealand for 80 or so years who is departing for its final trip to spawning grounds far away in the South Pacific. Likewise the tara tern, which migrates between the Arctic and Antarctic circle several times during its life which asks itself if it is ready for the long journey.
Take away the Wee Fish has a more overt ecological theme, being a prescient ecological morality tale 100 years ahead of its time, its author “Fabian Guinness” considered a madman for seeing the danger of oil to the earth’s oceans.
Miller’s strong personal connection with Italy comes out in the fate of Ava Ragnatella, the Italian wife of a cruel immigrant Yorkshire farmer, whose fate is connected to the phenomenon of tarantism and the pizzica or spider dance from her home region of Apulia.
The little boot maker Rutherford did indeed lead recruits over the Rimutaka hill from Featherston Military Camp to Trentham from whence they departed for waiting ships in Wellington harbour, as can be found in a letter to the editor at Papers Past. But whether the rag he supposedly wrote ever existed is a mute point.
No Google search will find any pages dedicated to the subject of the Ballad of Swagman Magee. Instead it is an entertaining yarn with just the right amount of tongue in cheek humour to leaven its warning to all young men.
One of Yestermusic’s most charming moments, and the one that ends the collection is The Last Post (The Poppy & The Fern). Ostensibly a remastered recording of an original sound recording in situ by Canadian sound recordist Samuel Beaumont in 1918, it captures enthusiastic but terribly disfigured former soldier Timothy Mandrake playing the Last Post on harmonica somewhere in the bush above where soldiers were bivouacking for the night as part of their training. Scratches and hiss from the original recording remain. Like most of Yestermusic, a grand piece of historical imagining.
Here is a link to the album liner notes online (http://bit.ly/1OK0wcQ) or search for “Featherston’s Finest” on Spotify or iTunes. For more info on the album, contact Chris Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.