Phil Garland has always been a 'do-er'-someone who churns out songs, books, recordings and most importantly, information. His latest book Faces in the Firelight carries the subtitle of New Zealand Folksong and Story. It is an interesting read…… part autobiography, part personal songbook and part positioning and justifications of New Zealand folk song. It certainly helped answer some of my long standing questions about where the New Zealand songs came from and why they were circulated.
There was an incredible amount of cross Tasman traffic in the 19th century, still is today but mostly in our direction, but back then it was mainly workers, especially shearers and sailors and as we know both were prone to singing. Australia and New Zealand were also bonded with gold rush era when thousands of fossickers moved from colony to colony and even Australia's most prolific and renowned goldfield's song-writing entertainer, Charles Thatcher, published songsters and performed in both countries. In many ways Phil Garland is a contemporary Charles Thatcher swinging comfortably between the two countries, writing his songs, documenting his journeys and singing his songs. The description Minstrel is comfortable for both.
One aspect of the New Zealand folksong heritage is the fact that many of the songs claimed as folksong are actually attributable to known writers. Some hardliners would negate these songs as not being traditional, but that is not necessarily the case as many of these songs did enter oral tradition. It is also important to state that in the 21st century, when the likelihood of such songs being sung 'traditionally' is highly improbable, these songs are an important link with the past. Garland's own songs, usually well crafted to match his easy listening vocal style, continue that tradition and it is good to have so many in the one publication.
The book has a folksy look to it. This is more a compliment than a criticism for the book contains some wondefully evocative drawings, photographs and cartoons. It is divided up into 16 characers covering the inevitable and the surprising: gold, shearing, timber, shanties etc meet the unexpected of early rogues and nannies, colonial dance, yarns and a cutely titled Kiwi Fruit on harvesting folklore. Personally, as an inquisitive bowerbird, the book had lots of bits and pieces that satisfied my curiosity. - Warren Fahey
“Faces in the Firelight lays out the many and varied circumstances of early New Zealand and how settlers expressed themselves in folksong. Each era – some consecutive, some overlapping, some concurrent – whether it be the early gold miners, gum diggers, saw millers, moonshiners or shearers, created its own culture of bush poetry, music and songs……Retelling the history and tales that went with the tunes paints the panorama of breaking in a land. Folk is history in song and in New Zealand thousands have played their part…..It is a good source book, a good starting place, an inspiration, a taste of what indigenous New Zealand folk music has to offer.” - Geoff Lewis – Hamilton Press.
“Ethnomusicologist, folk historian, a keeper of oral histories. Phil Garland is all of these and now he has finally committed to print his archive of tall tales, ballads, songs, stories and narrative poetry – recording the first stirrings of early New Zealand voices singing of being here……Garland began his “collecting” in Central Otago and like the frontier anthropologists of the late 19th century, he sought out the old hands in pubs and homes throughout these isolated rural margins – places where folk memory was still strong. Always ‘on the lookout for a character’ he began recording their songs and poetry: those unknown or little known beyond the bush, versions of versions, variant readings, building up a huge corpus of New Zealand folk music and balladry…… This is a unique book: scholarly in conception, popular and accessible in execution, it will fill a gap it has all but created for itself……” - Jeffrey Paparoa Holman – Christchurch Press
“Phil is well known for his many CDs and his previous book of collected and original songs, but this book documents some of the stories behind what we have heard. This is a fascinating book, covering stories, poems and songs along with his experiences in collecting them over the past forty years. He gives the historical background to various aspects of NZ history as he covers the gold rushes, the swaggers, gumdiggers, shearing and more; all illustrated with collected verse and story. It’s an entertaining, humorous and diverting look at New Zealand history from a different viewpoint and it was a real joy to dip into over the holiday period. It’s well worth a read” - Sharyn Staley – Wellington Bluegrass News