THE ORIGINS OF BLUE SMOKE
World War II - 1940
Born on 4 March 1909 at the Tahoraiti marae near Dannevirke, Rangi Ruru Wananga Karaitiana was an accomplished jazz pianist who toured locally with his own dance band before the outbreak of World War II. Ruru enjoyed playing classical as well as dance music, and began composing songs, learning what worked with the public, by trying them out at dances.
In May 1940, Ruru was a member of the 28th Māori Battalion aboard the troop ship Aquitania, on his way to fight in the Middle East. A friend drew his attention to the smoke trailing from the funnels back to New Zealand, while they were steaming further from home. The image of the blue smoke drifting back to their loved ones was sad and evocative.
Within half an hour Ruru had written the lyrics in his head to a melody he had already composed. He called the song Blue Smoke and within two days Ruru was performing it at shipboard concerts where it became a regular item at singalongs. Evoking the emotion and sadness of parting loved ones heading to war, it was picked up by the troops of the Māori Battalion with reports of it being sung in the Middle East in Egypt and Italy between battles and becoming popular at troop concerts.
The song appealed to post-war sentiments once the Māori Battalion had returned home, and was building in popularity at singalongs and parties, in wool sheds and on Marae long before it was recorded. By late 1947, Blue Smoke had gained enough popularity to be published as sheet music and by 1948 it was chosen by Radio Corp to be its first completely indigenous release on its new record label TANZA.
In 1952 Ruru became the first New Zealander to gain an Australasian Performing Rights Association (APRA) award of 25 pounds for sales of Blue Smoke exceeding 50,000 and Let's Talk it Over exceeding 20,000.
Source: Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964, Chris Bourke.
Photo above: Ruru Karaitiana, c. 1940
Photo below: Troopship Aquitania at Pipitea Wharf, Wellington, 1940
"We were on the troopship Aquitania in 1940 off the coast of Africa when a friend drew my attention to the smoke trailing from the funnels. 'Look at that bloody smoke. It's going the right way, back to New Zealand, and we're steaming farther from home.' It was pure luck. He put the song in my lap. It was a natural."