by Banjo Paterson
I'm currently Down Under on my 2012 Oz tour, and very happy to be here. The formal events started with a big dinner at the Athenaeum in Melbourne hosted by Michael Kroger and featuring me plus scourge of the Eurocrats Daniel Hannan, fellow freespeecher Andrew Bolt, The Australian's Janet Albrechtsen, and the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition Tony Abbott. You don't have to be that loyal compared to a government party tearing itself apart over the Julia Gillard/Kevin Rudd feud. Anyhow, it was a great night, and a grand start to the tour. Andrew Bolt very kindly compared me to Michelangelo, which may be my most unearned praise since Julian Porter, QC compared me to Mozart a decade or so back. But he also mentioned that, when he began reading me years ago, it was mainly about music - and not even music he particularly liked. Last time I was here, the IPA's Jon Roskam, who'll be joining me and Janet on stage in Sydney on Wednesday, also said my musical essays were among his favourites. So, while I'm staggering around the Lucky Country, we're going to rerun some Aussie Songs of the Week every couple of days. No surprises in our opening number - and, if you're interested, this piece is adapted from my book, A Song For The Season:
The ceremonial musical trend in the British Commonwealth in recent years has not been a happy one. Two or three decades back, folks in Her Majesty's farther-flung realms decided that "God Save The Queen" no longer represented the rich vibrancy of their young confident post-colonial nations and so it was time to get an anthem less obviously tied to the Mother Country's apron strings. Fair enough. But in practice it means that all these young, vibrant, confident, etc nations find themselves replacing "God Save The Queen" with some stodgy dirge of generic ceremonial character with insipid lyrics so anxious not to give offence they're paralyzed into all but the most vacuous generalities. Thus Jamaica, which reclassified "God Save The Queen" as the "Royal Anthem" and introduced as its national anthem this:
Grant true wisdom from above
While the Solomon Islands opted for:
That men shall brothers be
And New Zealand decided to designate a "co-national anthem" to share the spotlight with "GSTQ". It rather bravely rhymes "New Zealand" with "free land", which works in the same way "a tinkling piano in the next apartment" rhymes with "those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant". Anyway, aside from the feminine rhyme, it's standard stuff:
Guard Pacific's triple star
The old dominions faced an additional problem: in the new multiculti utopia, almost any line that isn't stupefyingly bland is objectionable to someone or other. Despite the remorseless filleting of the lyrics to "O Canada", every year or two some grievance is lodged against the two or three remaining lines of the original. Some feminist Senator objected to the sexism of "True patriot love in all thy sons command", and said Canadians deserved a national anthem that saluted the contributions of women. If that's the criterion, they should have stuck with "God Save The Queen". Someone else objected to the opening lines:
The words "native land" apparently exclude immigrants from the song's sentiments. To solve that problem and simultaneously address native grievances, I proposed amending it to:
There was a poll a few years ago which showed something like 80 per cent of Americans knew the first line of "The Star-Spangled Banner" but only 40 per cent know the first line of "O Canada". Which is remarkable, when you consider the first line of "O Canada" is "O Canada". Still, game as I am to disparage the Dominion's anthem, I have to say it's effortlessly outpaced in insipidity by the song our cousins Down Under have to sing on Australia Day every January:
Australians all let us rejoice
"Girt" is famously the only point of lyric interest in "Advance Australia Fair". Peter Dodds McCormick wrote the song back in 1878, which meant, by the time they decided to make it the official anthem 20 years ago, most of the verses were unusable. No point shaking off the old cultural cringe of "God Save The Queen" only to start singing couplet after couplet about "gallant Cook from Albion" and "true British courage" and "old England's flag". And how about this quatrain?
Britannia then shall surely know
So, after all the colonial sucking up was excised from the lyric, "girt" was pretty much all that was left. A few years ago, incidentally, there was an Aussie satirical magazine named Girt in its honor: I signed on with them but it folded after one issue. Don't believe I ever got the check. I try not to be biased against "Advance Australia Fair" on that account, but honestly, was there ever such a gulf between the spirit of a great nation and its official musical embodiment?
The same rules of standard songwriting apply to patriotic music. First, be specific. "The Star-Spangled Banner" meets that test. So too, in fairness, does "La Marseillaise". But, if you sit down to write a purpose-built national anthem, you wind up with something that sounds like it won second prize in a Write A National Anthem For Anywheristan competition.
With Australia, it's especially unfair, as the country has one of the best catalogues of folk songs of anywhere on the planet. I'm always surprised at how many I learned from afar as a child: it's not just that Oz occupied a particular place in the imperial imagination, but that that place had a very specific musical character, too. My dad loved to sing "The Wild Colonial Boy" to me. There are tons of verse-and-chorus numbers about similar characters but this is one of the few whose lyric is matched by its musical swagger:
'Twas of a Wild Colonial Boy
In 2002, Allen Mawer conducted an exemplary investigation into the song which proved fascinating not just from an historical perspective but also from a musicological one: Mawer is very sound on the process by which an essentially true story got distorted along the way because another judge's name rhymed more easily and a two-syllable constable fit the prosody in a way the three-syllable one didn't. It's a great song, although one understands why a number about a lad who shoots the Queen's troopers is perhaps not the most appropriate for state occasions.
Another one I always liked is "Wallaby Stew", written by Cecil Poole at the end of the 19th century. It's one of those songs that skewers time, place and sensibility: the energy of a Britannic proletarian culture liberated by distance from the confinements and class resentments back home. The chorus is marvelous:
So stir the Wallaby Stew
And over the years I still get a chuckle out of the verses, a rueful meditation on the vicissitudes of Outback life:
Our sheep were dead a month ago, not rot but blooming fluke
As the metropolitan reaction to the death of Croc hunter Steve Irwin reminded us, not all Australians want to be celebrated for the blokey camaraderie of the bush. No doubt it's very frustrating when Sydney has so many fine Thai restaurants and firebreathing imams to be continually cheered in popular culture for boomerangs and kangaroos and mates and cobbers and larrikins. But, musically, you can't beat something with nothing, and "Advance Australia Fair" is one big zero.
We've been frolicking down the "W" end of the folk-song index â€“ "Wallaby Stew", "Wild Colonial Boy" â€“ and we've only just reached the biggest "W" of all:
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
The poet Banjo Paterson is traditionally credited with the song in the version generally performed, though some scholars continue to question this. Still, the song we know today began life in January 1895, when Paterson was visiting the Macpherson property at Dagworth Station in Queensland, north-west of Winton. Also visiting, from Victoria, was Christina Macpherson, who'd come home to spend Christmas with her father and brothers after the death of their mother. One day Christina played Paterson a tune she'd heard at the races in western Victoria, and the poet said he thought he could put words to it. The tune is said to have been "Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea", but there was also an 18th century English marching song called "The Bold Fusilier". Paterson claimed never to have heard the earlier lyric but its pattern is so similar it's impossible to believe that "Matilda" wasn't laid out to the scheme of the earlier number:
A gay Fusilier was marching down through Rochester
Marlborough being the Duke thereof: Winston Churchill's forebear. "Cried as he tramped"? "Sang as he watched"? Don't tell me that's not a conscious evocation. Nonetheless, "Waltzing Matilda" is a splendid improvement on the original. If you're a non-Australian who learned the song as a child, chances are you loved singing it long before you had a clue what the hell was going on. What's a swagman? What's a billabong? Why's it under a coolibah tree? Who cares? It's one of the most euphonious songs ever written, and the fact that the euphonies are all explicitly Australian and the words recur in no other well known song is all the more reason why "Matilda" should have been upgraded to official anthem status.
And yes, a "swagman" is a hobo, and this one steals a "jumbuck" (sheep), but he ends up drowning, which gives the song a surer moral resolution than most similar material. Yet in a sense that's over-thinking it. It's not about the literal meaning of the words, but rather the bigger picture that opens up when they're set to the notes of that great rollicking melody: the big sky and empty horizon and blessed climate, all the possibilities of an island continent, a literally boundless liberation from the Victorian tenements and laborers' cottages of cramped little England. Few of us would wish to be an actual swagman with a tucker bag, but the song is itself a kind of musical swagman with a psychological tucker bag, a rowdy vignette that captures the size of the land. One early version of it went "Rovin' Australia, rovin' Australia, who'll come a-rovin' Australia with me" â€“ which is a lousy lyric, but accurately describes what the song does.
One sign of the song's muscular quality is the number of variations. Of the rock'n'roll crowd's monkeying around with it, I think I'll stick with Bill Haley and the Comets' goofy "Rockin' Matilda". The Pogues-Tom Waits approach â€“ "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda", "Tom Traubert's Blues" â€“ seems to me to glum up the works unnecessarily. To use it for the story of a soldier who loses his legs at Gallipoli is unduly reductive: It's too good a real marching song to be recast as an ironic marching song. I don't know whether today's diggers march to "Matilda" in Afghanistan and Iraq and East Timor but it's one of the greatest marching songs ever, and today as a century ago it remains the great Australian contribution to the global songbook:
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