Now is the hour, NZ's first million-selling song?

Hear 'Now is the hour' sung by the St Joseph's Maori College Girls' Choir.

‘Now is the hour’ ('Po Atarau' / ‘Haere ra’): New Zealand’s first million-selling song?

Po atarau
E moea iho nei
E haere ana
Koe ki pamamao
Haere ra
Ka hoki mai ano
Ki i te tau
E tangi atu nei

Now is the hour,
when we must say goodbye
Soon you'll be sailing,
far across the sea.
While you're away,
Oh please remember me.
When you return,
you'll find me waiting here.

The origins of ‘Now is the hour’ can be traced back to the ‘Swiss cradle song’ by Clement Scott. This popular piano piece was released in 1913 by the Australian music company of W.H. Paling and Co. In New Zealand it was quickly adapted for the song ‘Po atarau’ and used to farewell Maori soldiers departing for the First World War.

The song was modified in 1920 by Maewa Kaihau who wrote the verse ‘This is the hour’. By 1935 it was known as the ‘Haere ra waltz song’, and it became a favourite as the last waltz at dances and farewells. It was heard often during the Second World War as soldiers were farewelled.

‘Now is the hour’ highlights the blending of Maori and European traditions to produce a song that could be understood and appreciated by both the Maori and European communities.

In 1945, British wartime singer Gracie Fields visited New Zealand and heard the song performed by a concert party in Rotorua. Her driver, an Auckland dance band leader, taught her the song, and in July 1947 Fields sang her version on a BBC radio programme. Her recording of ‘Now is the hour’ became a huge international hit. Then, in February 1948 a version by Bing Crosby entered the United States charts. It was Crosby’s 42nd (and, somewhat appropriately, last) single to reach the top of the pop charts.

In January 1948 Time magazine explained that:

Everybody else was singing it before Americans even heard of it. It began 35 years ago as the Swiss Cradle Song, written by an Australian. Then a Maori woman, who liked the tune made up some words to go with it, sang it at a Maori festival. The natives picked it up; so did white New Zealanders who mistakenly thought it an old Maori folksong.

Then England's Gracie Fields got hold of it. By now it had new lyrics and a new title: ‘Now Is the Hour’. Her brassy-voiced music-hall record of the catchy, draggy tune has been No. 1 on England's hit parade for 23 weeks. London Records decided that the song was just what they were looking for to crash the rich U.S. record market. Last week 24,000 records (weighing six tons) of Gracie Field’s version arrived in Manhattan, the biggest shipment of foreign records ever to hit the U.S. Gracie wouldn't have the place to herself. Bing Crosby, Kate Smith and Eddy Howard all managed to put the song on records before Jimmy Petrillo, by putting a stop to all U.S. recording, got off his own variation on ‘Now Is the Hour’.

St Joseph's Maori College Girls Choir

St Joseph's Maori College Girls Choir.

Community contributions

16 comments have been posted about Now is the hour, NZ's first million-selling song?

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Don't read this

Posted: 19 May 2020

"NZ’s first million-selling song?" Why the question mark? I just want to know if it's the first million-selling song or not. TELL ME!

Edward J. Breen

Posted: 14 Aug 2018

I was shipping home from Korea in November 1952. I boarded the troop ship at Sasebo, Japan to the music from the military band. There was a lot hooping and hollering from the troops during the celebration. Then a group of about twenty young, about 12 or 14 year old, Japanese girls in traditional Japanese clothing came on to the dock. I wish I could explain or describe the absolute silence and mood change that came over the troops when these young girls sang Now Is The Hour to no accompaniment . They sang it beautifully first in English then in Japanese. Many thoughts ran through my mind one was the realization, and I am sure others realized, that a great and to many of us sad adventure was ending.
Hearing that sung still brings back the the emotion of that November day of 1951 nor have i heard it sung better than those those young Japanese girls.

Tony Hitchcock

Posted: 16 Apr 2018

What year was this recorded? PETER HITCHCOCK and FRANK DOUGLAS from EMI used to go and record these girls almost yearly. This was Dad's favorite and is being played at his funeral on Friday.

Stephen Barrett

Posted: 03 Nov 2015

There is also the song 'Search Me, Oh God', to the same tune. Beautiful either way.

Ian Strachan

Posted: 08 Feb 2014

I lived in New Zealand from 1973 to 1981 just south of Auckland in Papatoetoe.
My memories of this song also takes me back to the times I saw the passenger ships leaving the harbour.
I gained many Maori friends whilst in NZ and thank them all for sharing a part of my life.
Visiting Rotorua and especially attending Maori concerts will always live in my heart where I recall this epic song among many others being sung.
I still have some old vinyl records of various NZ artists however with modern technology I now have down loaded some favourites including this one.
For anyone wishing a good mix of Maori music I suggest Wikki Baker and the choir.
Onions may bring a tear to your eyes however this song not only does that but touches the heart as well.
It is rewarding to hear how this song is appreciated and remembered world wide just as is our Robbie's song Auld Lang Syne.

I also will have Po Atarau as a farewell

Ian Strachan

08 Feb 2014


Posted: 05 Oct 2013

I served in the Merchant Navy in the early 1960's and was in Auckland when a ship carrying passengers to 'The Islands' Tonga and Tongarua left port. Passengers aboard dropped streamers down from the decks to their friends and loved ones on the quay, which they held. As the shipped slowly drifted away to begin it's voyage, all the people sang Pa Atarua as the streamers stretched and finally snapped. I was twenty years of age then. And now at 73 still get a lump in my throat when I recount the experience.

Doug Harrison

Posted: 19 Apr 2013

This song was played to farewell most passenger ships leaving Auckland in my youth in the 40s & 50s. It will be played at my funeral


Posted: 16 Aug 2012


Nya Taryor

Posted: 15 Jun 2012

When I was an elementary school student at Ganta Methodist Mission School in Liberia about 55 years ago, we always sang this song when American Missionaries were returning home to America on their periodic furloughs. When I went on to High School at the College of West Africa, in Monrovia, the song was also our favorite song when a member of the missionary staff was returning home. I have always loved the song. Today, the president of our organization in the USA is returning to Liberia for a short visit. We think it is appropriate to sing and play this song as a tribute as she travels overseas. Nya Kwiawon Taryor

Peter. J. Parker

Posted: 18 Mar 2012

As a child during the second world war, I recall with great nostalgia; listening to my grandmother singing: 'Now is the hour'. Tears would stream down her face, as she thought of her three sons who were all serving in the Royal Air Force, in various parts of Europe and the Middle East. Wonderful words and a memorable tune.
Peter Parker. 17th March 2012