Topic: Sailing Along on a Moonbeam

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One of the delights of delving into the past is the discovery of hitherto unknown and unexpected connections. This is the story of Claude Upton Grayling from Katikati, his connection with Pixie Williams, and his contribution to the local music scene.

 

The story came to light when a script-writing team from the Katikati Theatre, Inc. was creating an evening of entertainment for the 2013 New Zealand Mural Festival, which is held every two years in Katikati. Come into the Parlour was to be a collection of sketches, poems and readings such as the early settlers were wont to put on in their homes for an evening‘s entertainment before the arrival of the cinema.  While browsing in the town archives the team came across a copy of the programme of the Mammoth Missouri Minstrels, a variety show put on in 1950 to raise money for the new War Memorial Hall.  The show was organized and compeered by Claude and one item in the programme was a song, Sailing Along on a Moonbeam, written by Claude.  No one in town seemed to remember anything about this composition.

Minstrel groups were very popular around the world after the original Christy’s Minstrel blackface group was formed in Buffalo, NY in 1843 by Edwin Pearce Christy.  The act became popular and a version of the show opened in London in 1857, and later in Dublin in 1864.  Minstrel shows were variety shows featuring popular songs (negro songs in particular), with jokes and comic interplay between the interculator, and “Bones” and “Rastus”.  Ideal entertainment to liven up an audience looking for a good time. So they became popular in around the country with groups playing in Dunedin and Christchurch (1863), Auckland and Wellington (1866), Nelson (1868) and Invercargill (1881).  Some of them were clearly performed in blackface as there are stories in the local press about recipes for blackface makeup and the perils of applying some of these. There is reference to Christy Minstrel shows in Tauranga and Katikati in the 1870s and 1880s and a couple of shows were performed on the ship Lady Jocelyn when she was bringing settlers out to Katikati. Claude was evidently the mover behind the staging of the first Minstrel show in Katikati in more recent times, in 1948 – The Mammoth Missouri Minstrels.  Claude played the interculator with Wally Young as Rastus and Jimmy Johnson as Bones.  These three stood out as a fine comic trio according to a local critic. In this show the minstrels shared the stage with serious classical musical items including piano pieces by the local doctor/pianist Joseph Burstein.  However the second show in 1950 was mostly Minstrel fare1.

Claude was a farmer in the Aongatete district of the Bay of Plenty.  His farm was on Matahui Road, just a few kilometres south of the town of Katikati and about 40 km north of Tauranga, and his house still stands beside the present day Matahui Road school.  The area was primarily dairy farms before the kiwifruit orchards were established. What made Claude stand out was his musical talent.  In the early 1930’s he was part of the Joy Boys dance band along with Eric Wood, Harry Varley, Arthur Spedding and D.R. Hart, which performed throughout the district.  He played several instruments although he could not read or write music.

 A few phone calls to members of the Grayling family tracked down Claude’s daughter Marylyn, now living in Whangamata.  Yes, she had the song; yes, she would be delighted to donate a copy so it could be used in the show.  A visit was arranged and here came the unexpected news.  The song had been recorded by Pixie Williams on the TANZA label in 1951, and you could now download it from the internet because it was part of a CD of Pixie’s songs remastered from the original recordings.  It is a beautiful waltz tune, created, Marylyn said, after Claude had gone sailing on the Tauranga harbour at the end of Matahui Road when the full moon was rising over the water at the end of an autumn day.  Although Claude died of a heart attack at the young age of 45 (just a month after the variety show) when she was only 5, she could still remember the family sing-a-longs around the piano.

Pixie Williams’ brief professional singing career from 1948-1951 was “ a shooting star of New Zealand music – a clear, bright, magical voice, a luminous career, a brief flash of light….”2 Pixie achieved her measure of fame by singing Blue Smoke, the first commercial recording made in New Zealand and released by the TANZA3 label in 1949.  Pixie was introduced to the composer of Blue Smoke, Ruru Karaitiana by his fiancée who was staying in the same Wellington boarding house as Pixie.  His band, the Ruru Karaitiana Quintette (sic) backed the song. Pixie made several records for TANZA and in 2011,  the year she received a Triple Platinum Award for Blue Smoke, a remastered album of her songs was issued by Blue Smoke Records through the efforts of her daughter, Amelia Costello.  Among them was the song Sailing Along on a Moon Beam (on the B-side of Maori Rhythm), attributed to a composer Rayling, about whom nothing was known.

Now we know of the link between the ephemeral singer, Pixie, and the forgotten composer, Claude.  Pixie died on the 2nd of August 2013. Sailing Along on a Moon Beam was sung at her funeral.  Reading the lyrics you can see why it was chosen above her other better-known songs4

     The light of the moon is romantic,   filling our thoughts with trust,

     When day is done with a full crew of one, I go sailing along in the dusk.

       Sailing along on a moonbeam,  adrift in its silvery light.

      You poor mortals below cannot possibly know

      The thrill of the still of a calm summer’s night.

      The sad weary world sleeps below me, forgetting the cares of the day,

     While I sail along on a moonbeam tonight, to dream worlds that are far away.

 

The Katikati Heritage Museum has found a copy of the first record produced in New Zealand ,Blue Smoke, in its extensive collection of old 78 rpm records.

 

TANZA Green Label 1 recording of Blue Smoke was sung by Pixie Williams backed by  the Ruru Karaitiana Quintette. The song was recorded 3 October 1948, processed 23 February 1949, released June 1948.  It was a huge hit topping the New Zealand chart for six weeks and selling 50,000 copies. It was played on radio stations and juke boxes around the world and covered by a host of international artists, including Dean Martin.

 Ruru Karaitiana wrote Blue Smoke and the B side of Blue Smoke featured another Karaitiana composition Senorita – which drew a single review that it was “a gay, inconsequential trifle written by the same composer in Latin American rhythm”.

 

Both songs are now available in re-mastered form on the CD For the Record issued by Blue Smoke Records in 2011 to commemorate Pixie’s 83rd birthday.  This CD also contains other songs recorded by Pixie on the TANZA label, including Sailing Along on a Moonbeam written by Katikati’s own Claude Grayling.  Unfortunately  the Museum does not have a copy of this record, but has another by her in the Green Label series (T5) featuring the Maoriland/Best Wishes combination with Bill Shand and his orchestra.  The Museum also has a copy of the second TANZA record hich f features the song Paekakariki.  Altogether we have 14 records in the TANZA Green Label series.


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1 Copies of the programmes from both shows are in the Katikati Archives.

2  "http://www.bluesmokerecords.com" www.bluesmokerecords.com

3 TANZA  (To assist New Zealand Artists)  was set up by the Radio Corporation of New Zealand.

4 A copy of Sailing Along on a Moon Beam is now in the Katikati Archives.  Marylyn still has the original score and other compositions of her father’s.

 

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Sailing Along on a Moonbeam


Year:c.1950