More Memories of Bert Roth

John Low

Following on from the piece in our last isssue on the loss of the highly respected New Zealand labour activist and historian, Bert Roth, Branch member John Low, the Librarian at Blue Mountains City Council Library, writes:

I wonder if readers are aware of Roth’s interest in folk song and his share in the editing (with Rona Bailey) of Shanties By the Way. This was, I think, the first collection of New Zealand “folk” songs and ballads to be published and appeared in 1967.

A few years ago I purchased, in a second-hand bookshop in Katoomba, a copy of a small NZ magazine from the 1960s (Fern Fire, No.14 Sept.I966). It contained an article on the folk music scene in New Zealand in which was printed “a very good recent example” of a song that attempted to comment on “conditions of work and living generally in New Zealand”. The song was titled “M.V.Kaitawa” (sung to the tune of “The Reuben James”) and concerned the loss of the collier Kaitawa with all hands on the night of 23 May, 1966. The song was written by Herbert Roth.

Here is another area in which Bert Roth sought to give “to the working men and women of New Zealand a much richer appreciation of their past and of the power of collective action”.

We reprint the song: M. V. Kaitawa
by Herbert Roth

Have you heard of a ship, Kaitawa was her name,
Manned by hard sailing men both of honour and of fame.
She flew the Southern Cross and a gallant ship was she,
But today she’s in her grave at the bottom of the sea.

Tell me what were their names, tell me what were their names?
There was Charles, there was Ray, there was Ian, there was James;
Tell me what were their names, tell me what were their names?
There was Charles, there was Ray, there was Ian, there was James.

From West port she sailed taking coal to the North,
Captain Sherlock her master a man of sterling worth.
From West port she sailed on the run to Whangarei,
Never destined to reach Great Exhibition Bay.

Twenty-nine men went down to their dark and watery grave.
When the good ship went down not a single life was saved
On the twenty-fourth of May she struck Pandora Bank.
Near the lonely Northland shore the brave Kaitawa sank.

It was there in the dark of that uncertain night
That they sailed without radar to Cape Van Diemen’s light;
Then the roar of the storm as towards the rocks they bore
And it laid the brave Kaitawa on the cruel ocean floor.

Well (two months) have passed since those brave men have gone
And those cold Tasman waters are now still and calm .
(Two months) have passed but still I wonder why
For shipowners’ dividends the best of men must die.

Quoted in an article by Pat Sunde, “Folk-Song Scene. N.Z in Fern Fire No.14 September 1966. (In the same issue Roth also had an article on Arthur Desmond published.)