Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Here is something a little unusual, a music book-review,

tangentially linked to art, by Hamilton contributor Deborah Cain.

The Tex Morton Songbook, by Gordon Spittle, 2008.
Paperback. 21 x 15cm. 140pp. $nz30. ISBN 0-9582788-1-4. GWS Publications
PO Box 105981 Customs Street Auckland 1143. New Zealand.

Sometime in 1937, the singing cowboy Tex Morton once met himself on the streets in New Zealand as a shop window “cut-out” sign. Like the image of a neon cowboy, all aglow in a photo-print by Paul Hartigan of another era, it is a commercial world out-of-sorts with what might be considered quintessential New Zealand.

Tex was called various things in his life-time. In 1935 he had a day job working on the giant face at Luna Park Sydney for Neon Signs. It was around this time that the name “Tex”, and the descriptor “yodelling boundary rider thing”, caught on. Droving, boundary riding, and other odd jobs, as well as “busking, bumming round with [a] …boxing troupe”, and working in the Queensland cane fields with people like the Australian-born American genre actor, Errol Flynn, are all part of Morton’s story.

Although Tex was not very happy with the boundary rider bit, he was an important figure in the country and western music, and the circus scene, in Australia. But the 1932 stage name Morton came from a garage sign in Waihi, where as a teenage-runaway he had first used it to evade police detection.
Born Robert Lane in Nelson, 30 August 1916, he is the focus of a new publication by Gordon Spittle, titled The Tex Morton Songbook. This started “as silent music” and a songbook, 1986, that became part of an anthology of NZ iconic music in 1997 called Counting the Beat by Spittle. Ongoing research and interviews produced a file of collected data that over a number of years became a project of tying up loose ends about the facts and fictions of the man. A yarn with still more tall-tales to unravel.

The narrative and the lyrics are intriguing. The songbook is presented in a clipped and extensively researched text, with endnotes providing supplementary vignettes. A 1930s depression-era freight train-jumping hobo becomes a circus showman, yodeler, music writer, radio and recording artist doing stints as an illusionist/hypnotist, called “The Great Morton”. Throughout his life Morton-aka-Lane had many sell-out performances in his many guises.

A 1949 stop-over in New Zealand on his way to Hollywood and Nashville, Morton was interviewed by a journalist for The Listener who noted how a pair of high-heeled Australian stockman’s boots were essential to the singing cowboy image, along with his hat and show-business tattoos. At this time the stockman worked on recording songs in the Shortland Street Astor Studios with a band, where a Hawaiian or Polynesian sound met with country and western.

The “balladeer from the bush” persona could have been a match for the contentious 1992-93 Sydney Biennale Boundary Rider cover, for having tried “to get into the skulls of people over in Australia that they’ve got a folk music of their own”. Tex Morton even travelled on tour with Hank Williams in 1952 as the lead-up artist, and watched that singer’s decline into an ultimately fatal drunkenness.

While the buck-jumping (rodeo) shows that Morton toured with were part of small town communities all over Australia and New Zealand, and along with the likes of Jimmy Little [see Tracey Moffatt’s short film Night Cries, 1989] who performed with him for the Grand Ole Opry in Sydney, 1959, they are part of Antipodean music history. The book is an informed and entertaining read.

1 comment:

John Hurrell said...

This guy toured with Hank Williams. Wow! Bob Dylan eat your heart out!