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?

What do you know?

Martin Tay

Posted: 02 Aug 2010

Dear Sir,Madam, I would like to buy a CD with this Maori song Now is the hour. I live in Singapore. Any retail outlet where I can buy or maybe I can purchase one CD with this song from your recommendation. Many thanks, Martin Tay

Hiriana Gilly

Posted: 10 Sep 2009

My uncle served with the Maoris in WW2. He said that when Crete was evacuated, not all the soldiers were able to get away. He was one of the lucky ones and as the boats pulled away from the shore, the Maori boys started singing this to each other. He had tears in his eyes as he told me the story as an old man. My mother also told me the Maori women in Gisborne where she lived sang this song to farewell the troops as they left to go overseas.

Robert Brinkhuis

Posted: 08 Sep 2009

44 years ago, my family left Auckland to return to Holland, on the 20th january 1965.As our ship the Castel Felice sailed out of the harbour at night they played now is the hour. As I listend to the words and saw the lights of Auckland slowly dissapearing I felt shivers down my spine. We lived in Auckland for 6 years and I was 13 when we left. Now when I hear this song and I am 57 years old now I get wet eyes as I allways long to go back again. Robert


Posted: 26 Oct 2008

Dear Hiroshi You can see the score on the NZ Folk Songs website Jamie

Hiroshi Onodera Mr.

Posted: 26 Oct 2008

Now is the hour is a beautiful song. I would like to sing this song with my Japanese Chor members. Would it be possible to provide me the score book?

George R. Boyden

Posted: 14 Sep 2008

I first heard this song on the radio shortly after WW II. Gracie Fields was sang it. I was a teenager, and heard her sing (radio) for the American soldiers during the war. When she sang "Now Is the Hour" it brought tears in my eyes. I would love to have this recording played at the end of my funeral. Maybe my request will be honored, I will never know. A very moving recording. USA