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The surprising mystery behind the 'Kiwi' anthem Haere Ra

Inia Te Wiata plays the piano in 1962.

A talented former Aussie bushman wrote a melody that became a worldwide hit and one of the most famous songs ever associated with New Zealand. Max Cryer explains why almost no one knows about him.

In 1890, the northern New South Wales backblocks bush property of Wirra Warra was devastated by floods. The lessee, William Saunders, sought considerable loans but faced foreclosure and destitution, so he moved his family and furniture in a horse-drawn cart to the small town of Moree.

His son, Albert, at 16 an experienced bushman and expert horse rider, found a job selling bicycles. He also discovered a hitherto unsuspected musical talent – he could play piano and had a gift for teaching it to others. He also developed a growing interest in composing. In the early 1900s, Albert Saunders married, moved to Sydney and was supplementing his income by selling tunes he’d composed to a music publisher.

It was the era when piano music was socially popular. Singalongs around the piano or “thematic” solo performances were a cornerstone of home entertainment. Publishers encouraged self-inspired composers to submit piano tunes – for which a maximum fee of £2 2s was paid, and the company then owned the tune.

Albert Saunders. Photo/Supplied

Saunders never prospered from his innate talent for music. Composing, teaching piano and playing keyboard for silent movies still left major gaps in the family finances, especially when raising 11 children during the Depression years. There were times when their beds had no sheets and his wife wrote to her sister-in-law: “We just drift on flotsam and jetsam.”

Over a period of 40 years, Saunders composed some 300 pieces of music, which Australian firm WH Paling & Co and others published. Transformed into sheet music, Saunders’ tunes sold in the hundreds of thousands, but they were published by Paling under the name Clement Scott.

Sometimes the publisher would suggest themes for music to be written to. Paling had an idea about a series of “tunes from all nations” and suggested this to Saunders. So “Clement Scott” penned such compositions as German Evening Song, Japanese Lullaby, Polish Dance, Russian Sleigh Song, Arabian Night Patrol, Egyptian Love Song, Irish Cradle Song and Italian Peasant Dance. His 1913 composition, Swiss Cradle Song, sold a whopping 130,000 copies.

Some of the songs, published in 4/4 time signature, found their way to New Zealand, where they were to undergo a transformation.

Sheet-music covers of Swiss Cradle Song and Haere Ra. Photo/Supplied
Legend has it that a Māori family heard a pianist playing the Swiss Cradle Song to accompany a silent movie and liked it. Prominent Māori families – the Graces and the Awateres – took up the song, improvising and fitting Māori words to what they’d heard and gently adjusting the time signature.

By the 1900s, British colonists had been coming to New Zealand for decades and from them Māori first heard and enjoyed the 3/4 “waltz” time signature. They quickly embraced it and incorporated it into their own music.

Although traditional Māori vocal music sometimes had three notes to a bar – such as the haka Ka Mate – it worked as a chant rather than a swaying waltz style. But, within two years of Swiss Cradle Song being published in Australia, Māori had adapted its 4/4 time into a gentle 3/4 rhythm.

Various Māori words for the tune started appearing and it slowly developed into a farewell song.

During World War I, as young New Zealanders left for foreign battlefields, the song’s farewell aspect grew to prominence – early te reo versions of what became known as Po Atarau spoke of going to a faraway land and hoping to return.

Maewa Kaihau. Photo/Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 7-A6036

The tune was refined again in 1920 as New Zealand was preparing for a visit by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII). Louisa Flavell was married to Henare Kaihau, a Māori member of Parliament. She became known as Maewa Kaihau and was an accomplished pianist who taught music. Her daughter was among the Māori teens chosen to entertain the royal entourage, so Kaihau decided to provide English words to the now well-known melody of Po Atarau. Kaihau renamed it Now Is the Hour and it was performed in English and Māori for the prince.

Kaihau later took the bold step of having the song published in New Zealand, under the title Haere Ra, including the fairly new English and now-familiar Māori words. But she also made another bold adjustment – the cover announced that Maewa Kaihau had not composed just the words, but also the tune.

Paling hit the roof, pointing out its legal copyright to the melody. Sheet music identifying Kaihau as composer was withdrawn.

So, all editions of Now Is the Hour/Haere Ra attribute the words to Kaihau. But, to this day, the melody is credited to Scott – in reality, Saunders.

Ana Hato. Photo/Supplied

Haere Ra was sung frequently in New Zealand and Māori soprano Ana Hato recorded the song in 1927. Over the following 20 years, Now Is the Hour became a favourite as the “last waltz” at dances and de rigueur for friends, relatives and brass bands to perform for departing cruise ships as those on board threw paper streamers.

Now Is the Hour was mainly known only within New Zealand. The big change came in 1945, when British star Gracie Fields came here on a concert tour.

She was enormously popular and her concerts were sell-outs. In Rotorua, she was welcomed by a Māori concert party and one of their songs caught her attention. The Māori driver transporting her between shows taught her that song – and once back in Britain, she sang Now Is the Hour on a popular BBC radio programme and then recorded it.

Her recording was a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. In England, it was on the hit parade for 23 weeks. Sales in the US were so buoyant that a chartered aircraft flew from London carrying stacks of the record, and the liner Queen Mary brought even more. Time called it “the biggest shipment of foreign records ever to hit the US”. Fields sold several million copies of the song and launched it worldwide.

Gracie Fields. Photo/Getty Images

When Fields’ recording hit the US market, one of Bing Crosby’s musical advisers recommended that he record it, too. Crosby took that advice and his version, released in early 1948, stayed at No 1 on the US hit parade for three months and became his 18th million-selling recording.

When a ship arrived in Sydney carrying both Fields’ and Crosby’s recordings of Now Is the Hour, a local newspaper reported that the song had been written by an Australian composer “known as Clement Scott who didn’t want his real name disclosed” (a man the manager of Paling claimed to have seen, but nobody else ever had).

Fields and Crosby brought Now Is the Hour to international attention and it has since been performed by a diverse range of singers including Kate Smith, Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Burl Ives, Vera Lynn, Pat Boone, Ivan Rebroff, the Everly Brothers, Inia Te Wiata and Kiri Te Kanawa. Every recording listed Scott as the composer.

The tune has also established a fairly low-profile second life as a hymn in the US. In 1936, Irish evangelist Edwin Orr visited New Zealand. After his revival meeting in the small North Island town of Ngāruawāhia, he was waiting outside the Post Office when four young Māori women sang Po Atarau to him. Orr was charmed and scribbled the tune on the back of an envelope. Back in the US, he used the tune as the basis of a Christian hymn and called it Search Me oh God. It is still published in American hymn books with the tune attributed as “a Māori melody”.

Bing Crosby. Photo/Getty Images

In 1962, Frank Sinatra arrived in London to make a new record. Key people in London music and show business were invited to watch the sessions and were greatly impressed with the concentrated way in which Sinatra sang his way through the repertoire, which included Now Is the Hour.

The resulting album was issued under the title Sinatra Sings Great Songs from Great Britain.

Albert Saunders died in 1946, aged 66, unrecognised for his musical contribution to Now Is the Hour. Six years later, the remaining family went to court to compel Paling to acknowledge its responsibility to the man who’d composed one of its biggest hits. The family took with them musicians who had discussed the original melody of Swiss Cradle Song with Saunders and had heard him play it before it was published. Out of nowhere, a man called Darling made a counter-claim to being Scott, but couldn’t produce any evidence whatsoever. The judge declared both sides “unreliable” and dismissed the case.

In 2000, Albert Saunders’ son Jack invited journalists to examine manuscript papers with handwritten compositions by his late father side by side with Paling’s publications of exactly those tunes in sheet music “composed by Clement Scott”.

Frank Sinatra. Photo/Getty Images

This evidence was clear that Scott was really Albert Saunders. Furthermore, Jack Saunders reported that before his father died, he told him, “You’ve now got a little boy of your own … Don’t ever let him sign any other name to his work but his own.”

Paling didn’t budge. Eventually, the company became part of EMI and retains the international copyright to the tune – still legally acknowledging the fictional composer.

Nevertheless, the Australian National Library now lists its copy of Now Is the Hour as composed “by AB Saunders”.

Television presenter, radio broadcaster, singer, cabaret performer and author Max Cryer wrote about Albert Saunders and Now Is the Hour in Love Me Tender: The Stories Behind the World’s Favourite Songs.

This article was first published in the January 25, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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