The Yodelling Drover
Hollywood may have invented the idea of singing cowboys, but New Zealand had the real thing. One of the most intriguing characters in Blue Smoke is Johnny Granger, who released several discs – all at 78rpm – for Zodiac in the early 1950s. He was a dairy farmer from Whitford, Auckland, who returned to farming after his successful stint as a singer. Born in 1929, Granger entered a talent quest, and impressed a representative from the Australian vaudeville company Barton’s Follies, who offered him a contract to join the troupe.
In 1950 Granger toured Australia and New Zealand with Barton’s Follies, performing alongside “specialty acts, beautiful girls, funny comedians [and] scintillating scenes”. Among them was Nola, “contortionist extraordinary”; the Brittons, a trio of trick cyclists; Willie Berrigan, “the perfect fool”; and the Follies’ “lovelies”.
After this experience over the Tasman, back in Auckland he recorded for Zodiac with a full backing band, including fiddle and steel guitar; especially notable is his version of ‘You Don’t Know What Lonesome Is’, which comes complete with mooing sounds. He also recorded standards such as ‘Tear Down the Mailbox ’ and ‘Cold, Cold Heart’, the latter just weeks after Tony Bennett covered Hank Williams’s original. ‘Tear Down the Mailbox’ is given a western swing feel, and in the bridge he encourages his band to “get real gone”. C’mon Yehudi – let her scrape, boy! Okay Bobby with the big bass fiddle … and a little bit of geetar … With musicians like Ray Gunter and Bobby Ewing in his band, Granger was in classy company; I wonder who the violin player was – if it had been recorded in Wellington rather than Auckland, Alex Lindsay would have been recruited.
Unfortunately I couldn’t source a good photo of Granger for Blue Smoke. In the Barton’s Follies poster held by the Alexander Turnbull Library his mug-shot is too small (he is at centre left, click here for a bigger image), and the printing quality of the postcard above wouldn’t have reproduced well. (Many early New Zealand country singers handed out postcards to their fans.) But Granger’s recordings have recently been digitally reissued as digital downloads by Stebbing’s, the owners of Zodiac. Granger also recorded with Pat McMinn on ‘Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way’ and ‘Let’s Live A Little, both on Zodiac. Since writing about the Yodelling Drover earlier, a more recent batch of early New Zealand country music has been reissued in the series; volume 11, In a Country Mood, now includes ‘Tear Down the Mailbox’.
The Barton’s Follies poster is among the Cabot papers in the Alexander Turnbull Library’s Ephemera collection (Eph-D-CABOT-Variety-1950-01).