The Band Played Waltzing Matilda and Other Total Tragedies

It started with me looking for songs by the Clancy Brothers. Just a search on a downloading thing. Random clicks on song titles that looked promising- I kinda believe in the song choosing you rather than the other way around. You might say it really started back with me getting Irish Heartbeat by Van Morrison & The Chieftains a few years ago to better understand what my dad refers to as ‘diddly-diddly music’.

Actually, it really started back in 1992/3, when I was back at primary school. We did singing lessons of a sort- we had these booklets with all sorts of songs in them and an accompanying tape. It never seemed a regular thing, but we did it enough times for me to remember. One of mine and Richard’s favourite songs in all the booklets was ‘Waltzing Matilda’. We were crazy for Neighbours at the time (we were ten, OK?) and by extension anything Australian. It was our favourite song because it was Australian and it was fun and about some mad swagman dude. We didn’t know at the time, of course, that ‘waltzing matilda’ is apparently slang for shagging one’s mattress (So an Aussie bloke once said on my favourite TV show, anyway). We loved it just the same, and ever since, I have had great affection for it, even when sung by drunken twats at a rugby match or something.

So, let us skip a few chapters to a few months ago. I’m looking for Clancy Brothers songs, and I click on a song called ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’, partly because I’ve heard of it before and partly because I’m still at heart a little 10 year old girl singing about a billabong with her best pal. And it was very sad. One of the most affecting anti-war songs I’ve ever heard. When they segue into the actual chorus of Waltzing Matilda, it brings a tear to my eye.

A couple of days ago I downloaded the Pogues version while looking for something else (A Pair of Brown Eyes, if you care). Then yesterday I had a brief LJ convo with Dan about it. So it’s been in my mind. Tonight I downloaded a version by The Dubliners. Big fucking mistake.

Now, it’s no secret that I love the sandpaper voice of Ronnie Drew. I really do. I like Dubs songs where he’s not singing, but not half as much as I love it when he is. It’s an amazing, truly distinctive voice and I’d recommend you all listen to him at some point because it does defy description (Download ‘The Irish Rover’ by the Dubs with the Pogues or maybe ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers’). So to hear him singing ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ is something else entirely. It’s an excellent song anyway, but that man’s voice, which sounds like it’s been through the wringer about twenty five times before being doused in poteen, elevates it beyond anything.

Maybe it’s the proximity to Remembrace Day and the kind old man who was so pleased that someone as young as me was so willing to buy a poppy. Maybe I’m turning into a sap. Maybe I started thinking about my granddad in North Africa and at Anzio. Maybe it’s just Ronnie Drew. Maybe it’s a combination, but sure wasn’t I weeping by about two thirds of the way in?

This isn’t like me. I occasionally have a tear spring to my eye during ‘Watching The Wheels’ by John Lennon, and I’ve never coped well with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ since Freddie died (13 years ago this Wednesday gone- I meant to post about it). I occasionally feel sad when I listen to The Doors, and hearing my Jimmy singing ‘The Crystal Ship’ during The Banger Sisters yesterday (good movie, btw) made me feel sad. I get angry-sad listening to Philip Lynott singing “I took your love and I abused it” a full fifteen years before he actually fulfilled that prophecy. Sometimes I even feel melancholy listening to my dearest Dino. But I don’t cry. Songs can make me sad, but they rarely inspire tears. Circumstances surrounding them might- I sobbed like a fucking baby the first time I heard ‘The Art of Dying’ after George died. But rarely songs themselves. Rarely.

So I wonder to myself, why does Ronnie Drew singing about a nameless, faceless Australian soldier make tears stream down my eyes like I’m a hurt little girl with a grazed knee?

This is why: John Lennon being killed was a tragedy. Jim and Philip and Freddie and George dying too soon are tragedies. None of it really compares to war, though. They left behind a family each, but war destroys thousands of families in one swift blow. War involves the Less Thans dying while the More Thans play God and Politics. War sends the able to do the unwilling’s dirty work. How many senators and congressmen and MPs have children involved in things around the world right now? How many Wal Mart and McDonalds employees have children involved?

We always promise never to forget, but somehow I have to wonder if we do forget the really important thing: Not that those brave, wonderful men in 1914 or 1939 died and were injured fighting for our freedom, but that they died and were injured so it wouldn’t have to happen again. My grandad went to North Africa and Italy and Yugoslavia so his as-yet unborn children and grandchildren would be free, but also so that they would live in peace. I’m not saying that certain things should be allowed to continue- Saddam Hussein ruling over his people with an iron fist isn’t my kind of peace- but we must ask ourselves why we’re still fighting, who is doing that fighting and how many more people will have to fill the military cemeteries around the world before humanity finally learns the lessons that the millions of unknown soldiers tried to teach us.

We no longer live in a world of cowboys and warriors, and it’s time we started acting like it. Not just leaders of any political persuasion, but the rest of us too. My granddad didn’t fight the equivalent of a D-Day a week (roughly) so we could ruin the world, and neither did the thousands of grandfathers, fathers and sons who didn’t return from the sand and mud.

But the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we stopped to bury our slain
We buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then we started all over again.

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