Saturday, July 27, 2019

Certain Songs #1594: The Pogues – “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” | Medialoper

Album: Rum, Sodomy & The Lash
Year: 1985

. . .

One of the more interesting things about Rum, Sodomy & The Lash is how it’s structured: the first side is nearly all Shane MacGowan originals (or co-writes), and the second side is nearly all covers.

Even for an Irish Folk-Punk band like the Pogues, that was kind of a risky move, but the riskiest of all was closing the album with an eight-minute dirge about the horrors of war. “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” was written in 1971 by Eric Bogle, an Australian singer-songwriter who was born in Scotland. As so often happens.

But it works, at least partially because thematically, “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is a companion piece to “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” only far far darker and sadder, but it mostly works because MacGowan fully inhabits the Australian soldier who narrates his life accompanied initially by Jem Finer’s lonely banjo.

Now when I was a young man I carried me pack
And I lived the free life of a rover
From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty outback
Well, I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in 1915, my country said “son, it’s time you stopped rambling”
“There’s work to be done”
So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun
And they marched me away to the war

And the band played “Waltzing Matilda”
As the ship pulled away from the Quay
And amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears,
We sailed off for Gallipoli

So “Waltzing Matilda” itself — most recently put to good, if slightly anachronistic, use in the Deadwood movie — is an Australian bush ballad first written down in 1895 by the awesomely-named Banjo Peterson. There is a huge huge wikipedia page on “Waltzing Matilda” naturally, so you can dig into that if you wish, but one thing I learned is that but while I’ve always taken “Waltzing Matilda” at face value — dancing with someone named “Matilda,” it’s actually slang: “waltzing” for “traveling” and “matilda” for “bedroll.”

But, of course, when they got to Gallipoli, it was a fucking disaster, and while the narrator survives, it was at a terrible cost, both sides initially losing thousands, and then digging in for the long haul.

And those that were left, well we tried to survive
In that mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
Though around me the corpses piled higher
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head
And when I woke up in my hospital bed
And saw what it had done, well I wished I was dead
Never knew there was worse things than dyin’

For I’ll go no more waltzing Matilda
All around the green bush far and free
To hang tent and pegs, a man needs both leg
No more waltzing Matilda for me

By this time, Finer’s banjo has been joined by James Fearnley’s accordion, as well the rhythm section playing a slowly as possible, so you don’t miss a single word MacGowan is spitting out, the sadness and bitterness slowly growing, as the soldiers returned home.

So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed
And they shipped us back home to Australia
The legless, the armless, the blind, the insane
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where me legs used to be
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve, to mourn, and to pity

But the band played “Waltzing Matilda,”
As they carried us down the gangway
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared
Then they turned all their faces away

And so now we’re years and years into the future, and the unnamed soldier has spent far far longer as a crippled war hero than he ever spent as a carefree rover; and now there are yearly parades to mark the occasion of Gallipoli, because it was a major event in the history of Australia, as useless fucking battles in terrible wars often are.

And so now every April, I sit on me porch
And I watch the parades pass before me
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reviving old dreams of past glories
And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore
The forgotten heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask, what are they marching for?
And I ask myself the same question

But the band plays “Waltzing Matilda”
And the old men still answer the call
But as year follows year, more old men disappear
Someday no one will march there at all

And at this point, the horns come in, and MacGowan then sings “Waltzing Matilda” itself, and it is ridiculously, insanely sad. Kassia bursts into tears every time this song comes on, and this song has been coming on for nearly 35 years, and as we all get older, it only gets sadder.

That said, I do wonder that when anybody covers this song, does the reviewer write, “And the band played ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda'”?

“And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”

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