Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Singing Australia

When my family became Australian citizens it was a very low-key affair.  Mum and Dad never had any interest in ceremony and were not particularly patriotic, so we skipped the public ceremony and took our pledge in the Brisbane office of the Immigration Department in the presence of an appropriately-ranking public servant.  At least, Mum, Dad and my sister did.  I was still under 16 and automatically became a citizen when my parents did.

So I actually attended my first ever citizenship ceremony this week, supporting another relative.  It was an interesting event, because it emphasised just how much we are a nation of immigrants.  Brisbane's Deputy Mayor Adrian Schrinner, son of German immigrants, conducted the formal part of the ceremony.  Member for Brisbane Therese Gambaro, whose parents came from Italy, represented the Immigration Minister. These longer-standing immigrants welcomed new ones, proclaiming how happy they were that their parents had chosen Australia over the other alternatives on offer.  There was an Aboriginal dance troupe involved in the ceremony but we didn't get to hear what they thought.

There are three signature Australian songs that are always sung at patriotic events and we got to hear versions of all three, so let me share them with you.

The first is 'Waltzing Matilda', Banjo Patterson's song about a homeless man who steals a sheep, is caught and drowns himself in the billabong rather than allow himself to be arrested.  I love that we continue to sing this song at official occasions because it is so unpatriotic  It reminds us of the poverty and hardship which have been part of Australian life from the beginning, and of our ambivalent relationship with authority.  The swagman's ghost is still heard, even if familiarity has tamed and muted him.

The second is a little more awkward in a number of different ways.  It is our National Anthem, 'Advance Australia Fair'.  It was first performed in 1878, written by a Scottish immigrant called Peter Dodds McCormick.  Apparently he was frustrated at going to a concert at which the national anthems of various nations were sung, and finding Australia unrepresented.  The muse struck him on the bus on the way home, and by the next morning he had a complete song.

It has been performed at ceremonies ever since, including at the ceremony to inaugurate the Australian Commonwealth in 1901.  However, it has only been our National Anthem since 1984 when Australians finally got brave enough to ditch 'God Save the Queen'.  In 1974 at the request of the Whitlam Government the Australia Council held a competition to find an appropriate song.  It ended up concluding that none of the entries were worth considering and instead recommended a short-list of three songs - 'Waltzing Matilda', 'Advance Australia Fair' and a third option,'Song of Australia' written by British-born Caroline Carleton in 1859. These were submitted to a plebiscite in 1977.

Of course Matilda would never make a national anthem, but 'Song of Australia' could have been an interesting choice.  It includes the following words.

There is a land where treasures shine
Deep in the dark unfathom'd mine
For worshippers at Mammon's shrine;
Where gold lies hid, and rubies gleam,
And fabled wealth no more doth seem
The idle fancy of a dream — Australia!

Well, perhaps not, but the song that eventually won is not much better.  The original has four verses but only one of them was officially adopted in 1984, along with a second written by another hand for the 1901 ceremony.  Perhaps they just thought the song was too tedious to go on for its full length.  Most often even the two official verses are too much and we only sing the first.

Part of the reason this song makes an appropriate anthem is that it says so little of substance about our country and its aspirations that no-one can be particularly offended by it.  Yet it contains quite a few half-truths and some misleading but flowery language.

Australians all let us rejoice,
For we are young and free;
We've golden soil and wealth for toil;
Our home is girt by sea;
Our land abounds in nature's gifts
Of beauty rich and rare;
In history's page, let every stage
Advance Australia Fair.

This rather disembodied picture of a natural paradise conveniently avoids mentioning those who cared for it for 40,000 years before the British found it.  It also skates over our vast expanses of desert, and assumes that wealth inequalities will be overcome by hard work - a good aspiration which we seem to be failing to fulfill.  Nor are we as young as we used to be, and we are getting older by the day.

The second verse is even more problematic, even in its edited official form.

Beneath our radiant Southern Cross 
We’ll toil with hearts and hands; 
To make this Commonwealth of ours 
Renowned of all the lands; 
For those who’ve come across the seas 
We’ve boundless plains to share; 
With courage let us all combine 
To Advance Australia Fair. 

Of course recently we've been working hard to convince ourselves that our plains are not boundless and that we need to be very choosy who we share them with.  This includes a definite bias against those who come "across the sea" in favour of those who have the resources to fly over it.  I doubt this would have bothered McCormick, who did not write this verse, or even the authors who wrote it for the Federation ceremony with slightly different fifth and sixth lines.

For loyal sons across the sea
We've boundless plains to share.

A clear reference, of course, to loyal sons of Britannia.  This British connection is much clearer in the original second verse, which says

When gallant Cook from Albion sailed
To trace wide oceans o'er
True British courage bore him on
till he landed on our shore.
Then here he raised old England's flag
The standard of the brave
"For all her faults we love her still
Britannia rules the waves."

And of course McCormick's third verse makes it plain what this means for Australian identity

From England, soil and Fatherland
Scotia and Erin fair
Let all combine with heart and hand
To advance Australia fair.

No Germans or Italians here, thankyou, never mind anyone from Asia or the Middle East!  No wonder they had to edit it for official consumption.  At least they made it less offensive, but only by making it more platitudinous.

Which brings me to the third song, which is of course 'We Are Australian'.

If this song had been written by 1977 when the plebiscite was held, it could well have blitzed the field.  As it was, it was written in 1987 by two iconic Australian folk musicians, Bruce Woodley of The Seekers and Dobie Newton of The Bushwackers.  It has a few advantages over 'Advance Australia Fair' as an anthem.  For a start it has a tune you can actually listen to all the way through without falling asleep.  It also presents a very concrete view of Australian history, and even names some real people.  Hence, it's worth looking at what is says a bit more closely.

To Woodley and Newton's credit, unlike the earlier patriotic songwriters they don't ignore Aboriginal people.  The whole first verse is about them.  However, like the histories kids of my generation (and also Woodley and Newton's) were taught in school, the song abruptly shifts focus once it gets to the point where they are standing on the rocky shore watching the tall ships come.  Aside from a later reference to the painter Albert Namatjira they simply disappear from the story.  "Don't mention the war", as they say.

The story they tell of the subsequent British-Australian community is also a lot more realistic than McCormick's or Carleton's, but it's still all about myth-making.  It is a tale of triumph through adversity - of convicts who suffer the lash but finally become free men, of stockmen and farm wives waiting anxiously for the rain which does eventually come, of the depression that resolves itself into the "good times', conveniently skipping the First World War and stopping short of the Second.  At this point the writers run out of puff and leave off history to talk about landscape.  The great post-war influx of migrants from outside the UK is lumped into the generalisation of the chorus, "from all the lands on earth we come". The Schrinner and Gambaro families will just have to be content with that.

All things considered, apart from noticing Aboriginal people Woodley and Newton have not progressed far beyond Banjo Paterson in their view of Australian identity.  Indeed when they come to naming names in Verse 4, they pair two real people (Namatjira and the outlaw Ned Kelly) with two fictional characters from Paterson's verse, the jolly swagman we have already met, and the stockman Clancy of the Overflow.  No women I'm afraid.

I kind of like the fact that Australians are so poor at patriotism this is the best we have to offer.  Still, there are plenty of other songs about Australia that never get a run and some of them are a lot more challenging than these.  How about this one, as a closer?  Sadly I can only find this slightly insipid cover on YouTube.  The author, the late lamented Scottish/Australian singer Alister Hulett, would have given it a lot more bite.

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