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© The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 April 2002
This document is at http://www.rogerclarke.com/WM/Casimir020420.html
This is a mirror of the orginal article, to ensure that it's appropriately archived.
It's a page within Roger Clarke's Waltzing Matilda site
Eric Bogle says he's written far better, but it is Matilda, his monument to war's futility, that defines him - for better or worse. Jon Casimir looks at how the song worked its way into our imagination.
Tucked away in Eric Bogle's CD collection are three or four discs of special note. They're interesting not merely because they contain versions of his most famous song, And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. More than 100 albums can make that claim. What makes this little grouping significant is that in the writing credits of each disc, where Bogle's name ought to be, is the word "Trad".
"A lot of people now think the song is traditional," Bogle says, fidgeting with a cigarette in his Adelaide backyard as a pair of miniature schnauzers find a place in the sun. "And a lot of people think that I died in the war, and penned it in blood as I expired in the bottom of a trench."
He pauses, takes a drag, then changes direction.
"I never thought the song would outlast me, but I have decided now there's no doubt it will. For how long, I have no idea. Nothing lasts forever. Hopefully it'll be sung for quite a few years down the track, especially in this country.
And hopefully it will get to the stage where everyone forgets who wrote it."
He says this not because he dreams of a parallel universe in which he isn't the writer of Matilda, but because he understands that the greatest songs are meant to eclipse their creators, to erase their own creation. They have a rightness about them that makes it feel as if they have always existed. They belong to culture and country.
And though the tirelessly self-deprecating Bogle would not claim the mantle, Matilda is one of the greats, a song that has dug itself so far into the Australian consciousness in such a short time that it does, indeed, feel like a memory.
In the 31 years since its birth, Matilda has been recorded by folkies and punks, and adopted by the far Right and the far Left. It has been sung in places obvious and strange. In 1991, Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Vietnam veteran and winner of the Congressional Medal of Honour, made local headlines when he broke into the song live on American television after winning his Senate race.
Eight years later, Robert Eddy, a Brisbane veteran of the 1960s confrontation with Indonesia in Borneo, stood in the middle of the cemetery at Anzac Cove, waiting for the dawn of Anzac Day, and recited the entire lyric as an audience of predominantly young Australians cheered. "It's just something I felt I needed to do for the old fellows," he said afterwards.
Last year Matilda came in at No 12 on the Australasian Performing Right Association's list of the best Australian songs of the past 75 years. You could say it was hard done by, but the fact that Matilda made the list at all was testament to its power. It has achieved its renown without the help of a major record label, without ever making the Australian top 40, without regular radio play (at seven minutes it scares programmers) and without pulling any of its lyrical punches.
Compare Friday On My Mind's "Gonna have fun in the city/Be with my girl, she's so pretty" with Matilda's "I looked at the place where my legs used to be/And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me" and then try being surprised the Easybeats topped the poll.
Although part of Bogle may wish to fade into the background, the truth is that Matilda does come from somewhere, and her life has been odd and fascinating, marked by coincidence. The story began at a boy scout jumble sale in Peebles, Scotland, in 1956, where a 12-year-old boy purchased a set of bound volumes of World War Illustrated, a "penny-dreadful propaganda sheet" which had been published weekly during World War I.
The books were full of drawings of "brave Tommy bayoneting the fiendish Hun" and articles such as the one by Arthur Conan Doyle which explained how the British soldier's brain came to be larger than the German's. What fired the young Bogle's imagination, however, was not so much the words as the photography, the scratchy black-and-white pictures of life on the front line. Poring over these, he felt a sense of both the enormity of the conflict and its individual toll.
Bogle says he devoured everything on World War I that he could find during his teens and knew many of the legends of Gallipoli and the Anzacs before he emigrated to Australia in 1969. Indeed, when he arrived, one of his ambitions was to meet and speak with veterans, "to learn more of their ethos".
Another ambition was to make a new life for himself, which he did at first in Canberra, working as a leading hand at a company that specialised in the hire of scaffolding and building products. Bogle moved up to become office manager and, after studying at night, accountant. He jokes that he was so efficient at delegation that he was able to write songs at work. And it was in the office that Matilda came into being.
Conceived in 1971, the song was meant to be an anti-Vietnam War protest. Ironically, Vietnam veterans would later adopt it more than any other vets. Bogle says the World War I survivors he played it to were polite ("they came from a polite generation") and appreciative of the effort he had made to tell the story ("They knew I was nowhere near what the awful reality was. Of course I wasn't. I wasn't there. No song could really convey it."), but not as passionate as many Vietnam vets, who seemed to identify with the emotional truth of the lyric, if not its actual story.
Bogle found the central image, the lyrical hook, for the song while watching a military band play Waltzing Matilda at an Anzac Day parade. But when it came to the graft of writing he found himself, he says, "on a cleft stick". He realised the depth of his respect for the Anzacs, for "these special men". He didn't want anything that would denigrate them or question their courage.
But he did want to write about the futility of war.
Matilda took two weeks to finish. Bogle premiered it at the Hotel Kingston, home of the local folk club, playing it twice to receptions he recalls as underwhelming: "People were falling asleep, throwing themselves out of the window, killing themselves to get away."
At eight verses, the song was, he reckons, about twice as long as it needed to be. And three of those verses were hammering home points he'd already made, "shoving it down people's throats, as if they were too stupid to get it in the first place". He tried to cut it to four, but couldn't tighten any further than five.
"If I'd known the song would last this long, I would have taken more care writing it," he says ruefully. "I felt that as long as the Vietnam War was on and the feeling within the community was such as it was, the song might have some validity, but as soon as the war was over, it would disappear forever."
After streamlining the lyric, he pretty much forgot the song, his attention distracted by life (he met his wife, Carmel), work (he moved to Brisbane) and newer, fresher tunes. While Matilda languished, the troops came home from Vietnam and when Bogle did think of her, it was only to reflect that she seemed irrelevant now, destined to obscurity.
She might have remained unheard, were it not for the collision of fate and someone else's ego. In 1974, Bogle entered the National Folk Festival songwriting competition (first prize: a $300 Ovation guitar) in Brisbane. He can't recall the name of the tune he entered, but the thought of it makes him squirm now: "It was one of those songs comparing the seasons with a man's life, you know, really original shit."
The first competitor broke with convention by singing two of her songs, so of course every writer in the queue decided to do the same. When Bogle looked in his guitar case for inspiration, he found the words to Matilda.
"I sang the first song and got polite applause. Then I did Matilda, and for the first time, and thankfully not the last, there was a second's silence after I finished. I thought, 'I've fucked it here.' I hadn't sung it very well. Then this storm of applause broke out and I thought, 'Ovation guitar, come to daddy!' Well, that wasn't my first thought, but it was pretty close to my first thought."
The judges voted Matilda third, a choice that caused a small storm of protest and, Bogle says, focused more attention on the song than a victory would have. After the festival, a woman from the Channel Islands named Jane Herivel badgered him for a tape recording, which he sent her.
The fuss died quickly and Bogle went back to his accountant's life. A year later, he took his new wife back to Peebles "to meet mummy and daddy and give her an idea of why I was like I was". A few weeks after they arrived, his father died. Two months later, so did his mother. Bogle took back his old job in the local mill while everything was sorted out.
One day, a call came over the PA asking him to come to the front office. There, he found a man dressed in Scottish Gas Board uniform, who asked if he was Eric Bogle, the Eric Bogle who'd written And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. The man's name was Harry Mathieson and he ran a folk club 50 kilometres away in Hamilton.
"Unbeknown to me," Bogle says, "Jane Herivel had taken the song back and sung it at a big festival in the south of England. June Tabor, a well-known English singer, was in the pub when Jane was singing it. She came over and said, 'I have to have that song.'
"I was uncontactable, so she gave the song to June, who made it the song in the folk scene and folk clubs that year. Everybody and his dog sang it. A guy called Archie Fisher took it across to North America and made it well-known there, too. This is all in 1975 and 1976. I was totally unaware of it. Harry looked at me and said, 'Everybody knows your song."'
After a little coaxing, Bogle played a few clubs under his own steam and watched as others made his songs famous. Tabor recorded an unaccompanied version of Matilda in 1976 that he still regards as the best interpretation. The same year, Irish act Clancy and Makem took it to No 1 on that country's pop chart. In the following year, the Furey Brothers helped two other Bogle compositions, No Man's Land and Leaving Nancy, to the same spot.
Matilda had, in fact, been recorded in Australia first, but not by Bogle.
He'd been beaten to it by "Rockin"' John Curry, who'd had a minor chart hit with Four Maries in 1974. Curry's version of Matilda scraped into the Top 40 in NSW the following year, but didn't make the national chart. Doug Ashdown later had a similar regional experience in Queensland with his reading.
Bogle returned to Australia in 1977 and recorded the song himself, releasing it the following year on his debut album, Now I'm Easy. He has since committed it to disc four or five times and charitably insists the worst version is his own first attempt. Even so, he has to allow himself some leeway to be thankful - the moderate success of Now I'm Easy allowed him to give up his day job in 1980 and concentrate on music.
When asked why Matilda has become so successful, Bogle doesn't exactly shrug, but admits he's a little nonplussed. Perhaps, he suggests, its appeal (it has been recorded in Danish, Spanish, French and Portuguese) has something to do with its universal theme of the futility of war, with its very human perspective, its sense of individual loss. "It can't be the melody," he laughs, "or the fuckin' lyrics, which are pretty basic."
Indeed, he says that if he sat down to write Matilda today, with the same material and the same intent, the result would be different. He'd change a couple of historical inaccuracies for a start. He says he knew the Anzacs landed at Anzac Cove, but felt most Australians connected Suvla Bay with Gallipoli. That made an easier rhyme so he used it, and he now curses his own laziness. He has also since found out that tin hats were not issued until 1916 in France. That, he says, was a careless error.
What bothers him most, however, is not a mistake so much as a lack of lyrical clarity at one point.
"In the last verse, I say, 'The young people ask what are they marching for and I ask myself the same question.' I knew what I was trying to say there. The old soldier knew why they were marching, but he was heartbroken that they had to. But what comes across is that he's saying Anzac Day is a waste of fucking time. I said it clumsily. I'd say it better now."
In the end, he feels Matilda's success has been mostly to do with timing. He suspects that a surge of interest in notions of Australian identity, the beginning of which he pins to the Whitlam era, helped move the song into the cultural mainstream. As Australians began to examine their past and "create heroes for once worthy of the title in the Anzacs", interest in the song grew.
"It wasn't my song that regenerated any interest," Bogle insists. "Some people say it was, but it wasn't. A song is not that powerful. But as Australian society changed and people began to get more interested, the song came into its time."
And though you could certainly forgive ambivalence on the author's part, Bogle says he hasn't developed a love-hate relationship with Matilda, which has opened many doors, but also defined him as Eric "and the band played Waltzing Matilda" Bogle. The romantic in him knows how lucky he is to have touched so many lives, and the accountant in him recognises an inbuilt superannuation scheme when he sees one: "Every six months a wee cheque drops in through my door from my publisher and I say, 'Thank you Matilda.'
"I've never been at a stage of my career where I have refused to sing it," he says, "but I have been a bit pissed off sometimes. When the media gets in touch with me, it's invariably about that song. I've got 200 other songs. And in my opinion, lyrically and melodically, I have surpassed Matilda many times. But not in the public's opinion.
"Of the war songs I've written, The Gift Of Years is far superior to No Man's Land, which is superior to Matilda. The tune is far nicer. The lyrics are a bit deeper. The Gift of Years is only two minutes long - which Matilda should have been - and in 16 lines I say more than I did in all seven minutes of Matilda."
He shakes his head and smiles. "That's my personal opinion. And The Gift Of Years is a song that people like, but Matilda..."
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This document is at www.rogerclarke.com/WM/Casimir020420.html