Friday, February 17, 2006

Going A'Waltzing

. Sometimes the news is just too full of obvious absurdity to dignify it with comment. How is it possible to highlight the lunkheaded narcissism of a David Gregory more starkly than he does himself every time he opens his baboon mouth? How is it possible to further underscore the screamingly self-evident hypocrisy of mainstream media that are too "sensitive" to print mildly satirical cartoons about Muhammed but too committed to the public's "right to know" not to publish quasi-pornographic photos from the years-old Abu Ghraib scandal? Even repeating the facts for the purpose of laughing is a tautology. The people whose job it is to collect and report the facts about today are insane. How can we escape their manufactured loony bin of jackass headlines and feckless talking heads?

The only recourse on such occasions is to look beyond the headlines for a topic of interest or intrigue, a doorway into more fertile realms. It so happens that if you ask, the universe will provide. Today, it turns out, is the birth date of the man credited with writing the mysterious Australian national anthem/drinking song/mystical hymn Waltzing Matilda, whose baffling lyrics are, once decoded, a paean to the universal desire to escape the insanity of those who insist their will upon you.

The story of the song's composition reads like a series of haphazard circumstances that somehow combined to produce a permanent cultural icon.

On this day in 1864 A. B. ("Banjo") Paterson, the Australian bush poet who wrote "Waltzing Matilda," was born in New South Wales.... While on a visit with his fiance to Dagworth Station (large ranches, originally run by the government on convict labor) in Queensland, Paterson was taken with a nameless tune that he heard his hostess play on the piano from memory. Having decided to set words to it, Paterson immediately found his raw material in his host's guided tour of the Station, which included a description of those events surrounding the eight-day Shearers' Strike several months earlier. The "swagman [a drifter or itinerant sheep-shearer, carrying his swag or blanket-roll] camped by a billabong [waterhole]" was Samuel "Frenchy" Hoffmeister. He was a militant member of the Shearers' Union, thought to have been the one responsible for burning down the Dagworth woolshed, killing 140 sheep. He was not relaxing "under the shade of a coolibah [eucalyptus] tree" but hiding out. If "he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy [tin can of water] boiled," it would have been very softly. When the swagman "stowed that jumbuck [sheep] in his tucker [food] bag" he was adding the fuel of poaching to the fire of political and class war. When "up rode the squatter [wealthy landowner], mounted on his thoroughbred," backed by "the troopers, one, two, three," it was a contest no swagman -- least of all a militant unionist-arsonist-poacher -- could win. When he suicidally "leapt into the billabong," crying "You'll never catch me alive," it was the leap of a cornered, outback, underclass, convict-bred martyr, to the cry of 'up yours, mate.' [boldface mine]

Thus, it all begins with a remembered tune played by ear and overheard by a writer of lyrics. According to legend the original tune was a Scottish air called Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea, which you can listen to here in midi format. You'll note right away that it doesn't sound very much like the world famous melody of Waltzing Matilda (there's a fuller version, plus lyrics, of Thou Bonnie Wood here; be advised, though, that the midi file at this site plays automatically), but that's part of the wonder of the process. In fact, an additional artist, Marie Cowen, is credited with revising Paterson's original into the song's current form in 1906. Reading the history, it's as if the song itself is somehow determined to be and so guides its own seemingly random journey of creation to achieve its full incarnation.

Which brings us to the puzzle of the key phrase, the title. What exactly is "waltzing Matilda"? Here's your answer:

Frenchy" Hoffmeister, the historical swagman... was from German stock, as was the expression "waltzing Matilda." Auf der walz means to 'go on the tramp' or hit the road, used in Germany to describe traveling workers or soldiers on the march; a Matilda came to mean those women who followed the soldiers, to 'keep them warm.' Eventually the soldier's greatcoat or blanket was a Matilda. Thus Paterson's swagman-hero was not only without justice, or food, or a way out, but a woman's warmth.

The Swagman with his Matilda

So, what appears to be a highly parochial Australian folk song is revealed as a blending of Scottish, German, and English cultural artifacts that began by accident and subsequently wandered its way into worldwide consciousness. It has escaped its original historical context, and it has even escaped Australia. The sound file accessed by button above is the opening title of the Hollywood movie On the Beach, which was set in Australia but peopled by characters from around the globe. The song was used to dramatize their plight as the last survivors of nuclear war, awaiting the inevitable death by radiation that would eventually descend from the sky. For them there could be no escape, no more waltzing away from insanity. And while Waltzing Matilda possesses the extraordinary property of being effective as a military march, a joyous bar singalong, and as an endearing folk tune, in this movie the emotional climax is provided by a choral rendition that approximates a funeral lamentation. Wherever it goes, Waltzing Matilda seems to carry all shades of life within it.

The pilgrimage of this special piece of music is likely to continue on and on, but we'll close today with a nod to the most powerful current interpretation, Tom Wait's Tom Traubert's Blues. This sound file is only a sample, but you can buy the album here, and if you do, I think you'll find that just like the original, it has a way of growing stronger and more deeply moving on each hearing.

When the news gets to be like it has been in recent days, here's your way out. Turn off the TV, log off the Internet, and turn up the volume on Tom Traubert's Blues. You'll eventually come waltzing though the worst of the madness, chastened and stirred, but still very much alive.

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