Banjo Paterson's Waltzing Matilda was one of four potential anthems Australians were offered in the 1977 plebiscite. The song received 28% of the vote, while Advance Australia Fair slid over the line with 43%.
The story was probably inspired by the Queensland shearer's strikes of the 1890s. During one violent protest at Dagworth Station, angry shearers fired their guns in the air and burned down the woolshed. The owner of the station and three policemen gave chase to a bloke known as Frenchy who, rather than be captured, ended up shooting himself at the Combo Waterhole. Some historians have described this apparent suicide as more akin to a gangland murder.
The State Library of Queensland has a pic of of the temporary shearing shed erected after the fire. There are three troopers on the left. The bloke fourth from the right is the land owner, dismounted from his thoroughbred.
All this is classic folk music fodder: Sad guy gets sadder and kills himself in the final verse. No idea why he's described as "jolly" in the first line, unless the term is intended in the same way my mother uses it as a substitute for a swear word. ("Now, where are my jolly keys?")
Some people don't get why this was ever suggested as a national song. I like it, but I'm a folkie who likes this kind of stuff. It's fun to sing and it's an engaging tale. The arguments are usually around the Aussie battler, the bush and all that. A fair go for short poppies. It's a better anthem than God Save The Queen, but I'll get onto that in my next entry.
Having said that, the melody and the story don't match up at all. So I've messed around with each, stealing a melody from one of the greatest thieves. A stolen tune seemed appropriate, after all.
So, here's a thing I've been thinking about a lot this past month or so: Australia's national anthem was written by a Scottish-born fella in the 1870s, and he was working as a teacher in New South Wales at the same time as the White Australia Policy was emerging.
Recent history included the Victorian Gold Rush and the associated influx of all them Chinese folks. Queensland cane growers were "blackbirding." In 1873 Aboriginal people were the victim of a violent "incident" at Palmer Goldfield, and there was a massacre the same year that Truganini died and the extinction myth was born.
In keeping with the times, Advance Australia Fair was an anthem for white men. The original opening lyric was "Australian sons, let us rejoice." A line from the second verse was "For loyal sons across the seas, we've boundess plains to share."
Anglo! Anglo! Anglo! (Men! Men! Men!)
After many boring years of disinterested debate the colonies decided to federate in 1901. The song was sung at the celebrations, while the flag representing English Christian-ness (Union Jack, southern cross) was hoisted for the first time.
Seventy six years later a referendum saw Advance Australia Fair selected as the national song out of four options, one of which was God Save The Queen. It was adopted as the anthem in 1984 after a couple of lyric changes ("Australians all..." "For those who've come across the seas...") and we've been half-remembering the lyrics at footy finals ever since.
Advance Australia Fair was written during a time and for a time which has long passed. Duh. We don't get it. It sounds racist, sexist and ignorant. There is entire line dedicated to the fact that we are actually - get this - an island.
But there are some gems amongst the gravel, so I've picked the lines that speak to me and changed the melody to one which can only be sung from some wonderful soul place, down deep. And, like the song's composer, I sang it in a classroom after my students had gone home.
Is it possible we picked the place on purpose?
Prompting, pushing poetry, prophecy, protest (Me?)
Perhaps the place picked us:
The festival for the manger baby
The busyness, the star, the stable
Outside the inn
Counting coins and traveling songs
Birthing noise and sandals in dung
Candlelight and conversation
Baby with nowhere to go, see?
At the door, no guards – but the soldiers come
At the window, no bars – but the soldiers come
Homeless and hopeful
Back on the road in the morning
Festival for a refugee
Shelter and seeking
Silent Night’s about asylum, right?
The island, right?
Attention centred on detention centres
Herod’s slaughter of the innocents
Holy night and all is alight with the riots (like the rhymes of the unheard)
Vagabond Lord / International Law
Human rights be a light on that tree
Off and on among the evergreen
From foreign seas with all the needle leaves
Red and green boxes
You and me
On our knees
Trying to imagine just what could be
Inside those boxes under lights
Like the baby in the trough on the Christmas night
Underneath a starlit sky
Live or die
Like the souls in those walls behind walls behind walls
Behind guards armed to fire
And no cameras inside
Small cages, big skies
Little gifts, blinking lights
Homeless baby, right?
While shepherds watch flocks we get undies and socks
While the refugees burn down their cages, we tan
In the afternoon street cricket sun while the man
And the mother of Christ and her son weep and run
To the country where once they were slaves
Will they never be safe?
The ocean of desert
The island of beatings and torture and raping and worse
All the waiting and waiting and waiting
Away in a manger
This little lost lady lies lonely and knows
That this stable is out here for a reason:
Too close to the homes filled with family and friends
Then that animal stench would offend, you know?
The cattle are lowing
The baby awakes
Lock that fucking gate
On the one day that’s stranded in three sixty-four
In the stable that’s stranded
Amongst homes with their double-locked doors
On the island that’s stranded by miles and miles, see?
‘Neath the star and the tree lights,
‘Neath the fires and the riots,
In the swaddling,
The cheap wrapping paper,
In the fencing and cages,
In the silence
The silence of night,
A Christmas surprise – and this on the island –
A new baby cries out