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August 2015 Issue
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Death of the backcountry singalong

Keeping the spirit of the campfire singalong going. Photo: Matthew Pike
First the moa, then the huia, now the backcountry singalong. Matthew Pike asks why such a popular tramping pastime joined many of our native birds on the road to extinction

It’s easy to glorify tramping in the 1950s, 60s and 70s; days when large groups of friends would gather in giant trucks or buses and head away for a weekend, a week or even a fortnight to explore somewhere wild, beautiful and new. There would be shenanigans, comradeship and the odd drop of whisky. They’d tell stories around the campfire, flirt, and bask in their freedom away from society’s rules and gaze. At least, that’s how I imagine it.

I’m realistic enough to know there’s never been a time of utopia and in all groups there would be folk who didn’t get on with each other and days when the weather was so miserable most would rather be at home. And the reason club buses and trucks were so common was because people lived on more of a shoestring than today.

But I’ve recently learnt that one of my romanticised visions of the past isn’t romanticised at all. The idea that large groups would fill a hut or surround a campfire and sing into the early hours is extremely accurate. In fact, it was a huge part of group comradeship. Ask any tramper from that era about those evenings and they’ll offer a warm smile and recall some of the happiest moments of their lives.

Chris Horne, who was a member of Victoria University College Tramping Club (VUCTC), as it was then known, in the late 1950s, says it was in the cold, noisy, smelly and uncomfortable truck that the singing began. One song in particular was used to kick things off: The Slopes of Mt Alpha, a parody of Isle of Capri.

‘Twas on the slopes of Mt Alpha I met her,

‘Neath the shade of a leatherwood tree,

She had a razor-sharp slasher beside her,

She said “Come down the Quoin Ridge with me”.

“The ability of a good sing song to pass the time was extraordinary,” says 76-year-old Horne. “We became less overwhelmed by the smell of fumes from the furniture truck.” The trucks were large, enclosed vehicles with no seats and maybe a mattress or two if they were lucky. But they provided freedom from the stress of studies.

“It was tremendous fun,” recalls Horne. “Just a group of friends heading into the hills, leaving behind the tension of studies. The feeling was incomparable – such a relief from the stress.”

 

Lindsay Maggard plays the Mueller Hut Guitar. Photo: Tararua Tramping Club

Lindsay Maggard plays the Mueller Hut Guitar. Photo: Tararua Tramping Club

 

After the truck journey singalong normally followed a scurry to the first hut in the dark. Trampers were too busy following a torch beam and often too exhausted when they reached the hut to continue singing, but by Saturday night it was back on.

“By Saturday we were completely relaxed from the stresses of our studies,” remembers Horne. “We would be singing by the fire all evening. It was wonderful – such happy times.”

Songs like The TTC often reflected the jovial mood:

When we go, into the snow,

You will find us there with a gallon of beer,

And a dozen down below.

At the other end of the country, Southland Tramping Club member Arthur Williams recalls thoroughly enjoyable trips in the club’s converted bread van. He joined the club in the mid-70s and says on most trips the song books would come out or someone would randomly start things off.

“There’d also be a couple of us in the cab at the front, singing with the driver to help keep them awake.

“Different people would start off the songs – I’m a notorious whistler. It was a good way to bond. If you had rounds, people would take it in turns to do their own verse, then everyone would join in the chorus. Everyone felt a part of it.”

Michael Brown is a musicologist who has studied the songs and the singing culture of the Wellington-based Victoria University and Tararua tramping clubs.

Brown says, given the culture of the time, it would have been strange if there hadn’t been singing on tramping trips. “People were used to singing in those days – they were much more relaxed about it than today. Singing was part of home entertainment. There was still a bit of an afterglow from the era of people having pianos at home and having a Sunday night singalong. Until 1966 pubs closed at 6pm, so people had to go home to party.”

Brown says the period was also an aftermath of when people would join tramping clubs after returning from service in the Second World War – an environment where singing was pivotal for morale.

Groups would sing popular songs of the time but also parodies – some political, some about tramping, others bawdy.

“VUCTC would have been interested in singing bawdy songs,” says Brown. “The youngsters would have been looking to push the boundaries a bit.”

The song Oh, Sir Jasper do not touch me, sung to the tune of John Brown’s body, was particularly risque:

She wears her silk pyjamas in the summer when it‘s hot,
She wears her woollen nightie in the winter when it‘s not,
But Glory be to autumn when the leaves begin to fall,
When she slips between the sheets with nothing on at all.

There were also politically-themed songs, like this parody from the song Bible stories:

Don’t moan about taxation as the rearmament increases,
We’ll defend you even if we have to bomb you all to pieces.

Many tramping clubs had song books detailing the most popular numbers. Most would have had songs unique to that club.

“There were a few talented unsung songwriters who had a bit of a knack for it – born entertainers who could come up with a good line,” explains Brown.

 

Tony Nolan singing the Waiatoto Song at Tararua. Photo: Paul Mccredie

Tony Nolan singing the Waiatoto Song at Tararua. Photo: Paul Mccredie

FMC president Robin McNeill recalls a Southland Tramping Club family trip to Moke Lake in the 1990s where the children were quietly flicking through the old songbooks. The adults had clearly forgotten how bawdy some of the lyrics were, leading them to face some extremely awkward questions about the birds and the bees. “This required some quelling of panic and quite a bit of diplomacy as acceptable answers were devised,” explains McNeill.

 

By this time the songs would have been alien to the children, and quite probably some of the adults too, because since the 1970s the backcountry singalongs appear to have died out.

Brown says several factors have led to this cultural change, one being that trampers tend to make their own way to and from trips, losing one of the main venues for a singalong.

“There’s also been a change in nature of huts. Previously a lot of huts were maintained by clubs and work parties – the spirit and camaraderie of the group would have suited that. But after the 1960s people stopped doing this as the Forest Service took over.” Brown adds that the following generations have become uneasy about singing in public, and it’s a cultural shift that Chris Horne noticed after leaving the country for several years to then join Tararua Tramping Club in 1980.

“When I joined the club I found it had become uncommon to use a van,” he explains. “The singalongs stopped when clubs dispensed with these vans.

“It’s sad that it’s all gone. It added so much to the experience, everyone was on the same wavelength and there was a real togetherness.”

Auckland Catholic Tramping Club still uses a purpose-built bus for virtually all its trips. But club member Liz Sampson says there haven’t been singalongs for many years. She believes the singalong as part of our overall culture has died. “There are still a lot of club buses around,” she says. “But the singalong in society has died a natural death.”

While Michael Brown thinks this is a pity, he believes it would be difficult to artificially reinstate singing as a tramping pastime. “It’s a shame – the great thing about creating parodies and singing in a group is that it’s such a great form of expression.

“But tramping is about freedom from rules and usual life and if someone’s forcing you to sing it’s counter to that. Tramping is pretty live and let live – it’s just the way it’s had to be. You never know, perhaps somebody out there is starting their own tradition right now.”

Though New Zealand’s backcountry may have lost its musical culture, there are still sporadic examples of tuneful encounters, often with trampers from overseas.

Wilderness writer and photographer Raymond Salisbury recently discovered an Israeli tramper playing a flute on the way down from Mueller Hut. Numerous trampers encountered an American visitor walking the Te Araroa Trail with a violin.

Ongaruanuku Hut in the Waitakere ranges has an out-of-tune piano wheeled in by some determined students, while Mueller Hut has its own resident guitar.

In fact, the guitar at Mueller – called Charlotte Moon Rise Rainbow – has its own Facebook page with 105 followers. The person who left it there, Joe Ricci, is from Denmark and spent six months in New Zealand, living in Christchurch but getting outdoors as much as possible. Ricci is a classical guitarist and bought a guitar to keep his fingers in shape while he was over here.

“My friends and I had so many amazing bonding experiences with my guitar as the centrepiece, so we came up with the idea of leaving it in a hut somewhere for people to enjoy.” Ricci’s first trip to Mueller Hut was without the guitar, but he decided it would be a perfect place to leave it before heading back overseas.

“I remember sitting out on the porch facing Mt Sefton, watching avalanches and wishing there was a guitar for us to play.”

He invites people to record a song up there and post it to the guitar’s Facebook page.

“There have been around 10 videos posted so far; all of them leave me smiling.

“Two of my favorites are of a young boy who seems to have never played a guitar, playing Eye of the Tiger, and of two guys jamming to All the Single Ladies on top of Mt Ollivier with a crowd of people watching and looking over Hooker Valley.”

As Michael Brown says, music isn’t something that can be forced on people. But perhaps next time you’re in a full hut and the conversation lulls, why not dare to fill the void with a popular melody. Who knows, others may join in. If they do, you could end up having one of those wonderful singalong evenings veteran trampers remember so fondly, and rekindle that spirit of camaraderie.

 

The Tararua Ranges

By Tony Nolan of TTC in the late 1940s. This is one version sung to the tune of The North Atlantic Squadron

If you stand on Lambton Quay,
On Friday night then you will see,
In rain and snow the tampers go,
To the Tararua Ranges.

Away, away, with billy pack,
A rollicking down the mountain track,
We‘ll all get lost and never come back,
In the Tararua Ranges.

Hear them holler and hear them bawl,
As up the Marchant Ridge they crawl,
And all they see is nothing at all,
In the Tararua Ranges.

Away, away, etc.

Into a hut we go to sup
A dirty plate, a greasy cup,
The girls will have to smarten up,
In the Tararua Ranges.

Away, away, etc.

The Secretary can’t read or write,
She sleeps all day and eats all night,
And if she could, she’d ride a bike,
In the Tararua Ranges.

Away, away, etc.

The President is old and grey,
They say he’s ninety-nine today,
He‘s reached that age by staying away,
From the Tararua Ranges.

Away, away, etc.

The Treasurer went on the bash,
And drank up all the available cash,
And now he’s got big rocks to smash,
In the Tararua Ranges.

Away, away, etc.

The Chief Guide’s getting old and grey.
He’s lost the track three times today.
He’ll never find it anyway,
In the Tararua Ranges.

Away, away, etc.

So if you’re under ninety-three,
And find your life a misery,
You’d better come along with me,
To the Tararua Ranges.

Away, away, etc.

Double bunking

By Harold Gretton of VUCTC, mid-1930s and sung to the tune of The more we are together, with the italicised chorus sung after each couplet:

Twas in the Orongorongo
Where I heard this sad songo

No more double bunking double bunking for me

I said to the vocalist
Oh why do you so insist

He said I’ve had a gutsful
Of tramps where the hut’s full

I‘ve weakened and lost weight
And I’ve buggered up my prostate

I‘m washed out like a dishrag
And I’ve ruptured my sleeping bag

My tongue’s covered in fur too
And I can‘t eat my burgoo

Henceforth and hereafter
I’ll sleep on a rafter

On peak or on Pinnacle
Or under a waterfall
On sand or on shingle
But I’m going to sleep single

No more double bunking, double bunking double bunking

No more double bunking, double bunking for me.

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