Neil Finn and Jim Carter record "Blue Smoke."
In February, Neil Finn travelled to Nelson, to the home of Jim Carter, to record Blue Smoke. Jim, who will turn 96 this year, played steel guitar on the original recording released back in 1949 - the first record to be fully composed, recorded, and pressed in New Zealand.
Also in attendance were Neil’s son Liam and journalist Chris Bourke, both with cameras, ready to record this precious moment in time. Chris Bourke set up the collaboration, having met Jim Carter in 2008 when researching his book Blue Smoke. He has written, “If there is a ‘big bang’ moment in New Zealand’s music history, it was made by the gentlest of melodies. For a delicate song, Blue Smoke carries a lot of weight - it marks the real birth of New Zealand’s indigenous record industry.”
This project resonated strongly with Neil on both a personal and professional level and the resulting recording done in Jim’s lounge is both gentle and moving.Neil’s father Dick was among the first to hear the new recording.
Dick Finn, who served in WW2, remembers hearing the song being played and sung on the darkened deck at night aboard his troopship. He says it was a powerful reminder of the family he’d left behind as he lay in his bunk facing an uncertain future, wondering if he would make it home. Dick absolutely loves Neil’s treatment of this historic recording. Some of the proceeds from the sale of the Blue Smoke recording will be donated to the New Zealand RSA Poppy Appeal.
When talking about the day of the recording, Neil says, “Jim made us feel very welcome and it was great to talk to him about music, instruments, and his influences. I think he enjoyed having a face to face exchange with another musician and his humility was very endearing. He didn't think he had much to offer a potential recording anymore but I just gently encouraged him to play along on ukulele with me. Once he was involved in the song again and it was sounding good he even tried his hand at the lap steel. His guitar part was simpler and leaner than the original but still elegant and soulful.
On the day we had no real idea if this would end up as a good recording but it feels so right to me now. The original recording is perfect, really - but I feel that with this humble new recording, we have some of the original spirit and there is an authentic experience at the heart of it. Thanks Jim.”
Jim responds, “It has given me so much pleasure to meet Neil and to play Blue Smoke again after all these years. I still can’t believe it.”
Jim first featured on the 1949 recording of the song.
The Executive Producer of Blue Smoke, Murray Thom, is the man who created the best-selling ‘The Great New Zealand Songbook’ in 2009.
Murray says, “This project started out as an idea for a full album, utilizing the finest Australasian artists. However, my motivation over time changed to just wanting to release Blue Smoke with Neil. For the last couple of years I could just hear Neil performing Blue Smoke. There was no-one else that I could hear recording it. This recording is exactly what I was hoping for.”
Blue Smoke was originally written by Ruru Karaitiana on the troop shop Aquitana, in 1940. Back in New Zealand after the war, Karaitiana assembled a quintet to record and release a version with singer Pixie Williams in 1948. The backing music was Hawaiian-style and the instruments included guitars, ukulele and a lap-steel guitar. The song topped New Zealand radio hit parades for six weeks and sold more than 20,000 copies within a year.
The original recording attracted strong overseas interest. English duo Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth met Karaitiana and recorded a version. In the United States covers were released by Dean Martin, Al Morgan, Teddy Phillips and Leslie Howard. In 1951 New York music trade magazines described Blue Smoke as one of the major hits of the year – a ‘musical jackpot’ - with both jukebox and radio listeners. Dean Martin even phoned Karaitiana from the United States seeking more songs.