I want you to listen to this song all the way through, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.
That is John Williamson, sung at a football match in Australia before about 60,000 Aussies.
First, what’s interesting about “Waltzing Matilda” is that my grandfather knew it, my dad knew it, I know it, my sons know it, and I’m sure my grandsons will.
But how? What magic is it that causes four generations to know the refrain of a song belonging to a country no one had ever visited, or citizens no one had ever met?
This is the magic of what we call “a standard”, you know, where everyone just knows it. America used to have these, too. Only now we don’t.
Recently, Glenn Beck sponsored an event in Dallas, Restoring Love I think it was called. And he commissioned a batch of songs to be written by some pretty well known artists, and had been playing them for several weeks as promos to the event.
Now, not to demean the writer-performers, or the classic “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood from which they all seemed to be derived, they gave new meaning to the musical term “derivative”. And sappy. I sort of wish Lee had broken the mold after he recorded that song, for those songs pointed to the problem I’m talking about here. They all seemed directed at people who would more likely hold hands around a campfire before turning in, vespers, than march off to face down union thugs on the National Mall, singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I can’t see anyone standing on their tippy-toes and bellowing out a chorus of any of those songs at a sporting event, or whistling the refrain while walking down the street…except maybe past a graveyard.
We have solemn patriotic hymns out the wazoo. What we don’t have, and need, are rousing songs of unity…with a kick. Songs which say “Clear the room and I’ll fight ye all, I’m so damned proud of who I am.”
Believe it or not, the National Anthem used to be that way, for it was one of the few songs we all hear while gathered in a large assembly some place. We were first taught it in school, along with “My Country Tis of Thee”, “American the Beautiful” and those songs were even in the Methodist Hymnal, which we’d sing every Memorial Day Sunday. (not sure Methodists still do that.) And back in the day, everyone sang it, they just didn’t listen to the Marching Tiger Band play it at the 50-yard line.
Personally, I was never a big fan of National Anthem, but in hindsight I may have been wrong. It does seem to be the one song everyone knows, and can be sung rousingly, simply by digging down deep and bellowing out the “”And the Rockets Red Glare…” refrain, as I still hear from time to time. I’ve found that one loud voice can turn on a dozen other loud voices just by deciding to be the first loud voice. Ever notice that? At high school football games my dad would stand, remove his hat, place it over his heart, and then belt that out almost like he was singing “How Dry I Am” down at the VFW. It was about the only time he ever let his hair down in front of me.
I also believe that was the only refrain he actually knew all the word to…besides “Waltzing Matilda.”
I’ve always been jealous of the East Europeans, who stopped loving their country while under communism, so instead loved the Rodina, their mythical Motherland, Narodna, doubly so. They seemed to have a whole battery of songs everyone knew, from great grandpa down to the kindergartners, none of them showing any hesitation in singing along whenever the occasion posed itself.
When a whole roomful of patrons in a restaurant can break into a folk song everyone knew, the words didn’t matter, it was patriotic just by their singing it together. The act itself was patriotic. I puffed up just watching it. It could have been “Roll Me Over in the Clover” for all I know (another one I’m sure you all know) and it wouldn’t have mattered, especially when sung in Serbian. Who can forget when the French broke into “La Marseillaise” in Rick’s Cafe in “Casablanca” singing down the Germans’ Yiddish version of “Der Fuhrer’s Face?”
When I was growing up we knew popular songs from three generations back, although, for the life of me I can’t say why. Why did my mother (born 1924) sing songs from the Gay 90’s? Was it Mitch Miller? The radio? Even as the music business was being divided up into age brackets with the advent of radio, phonograph records and the juke box, these old songs had legs well into the 1960s.
We don’t have that anymore, and with kids walking around strapped to ear-phones (not the other way around) we aren’t likely to. I can go to YouTube and watch/hear all the great rousing moments in music, as I’ve just shared with you here (above), and share vicariously with the crowd as they stand and sing, send it my friends, and get back all the oooohhh’s and aaahhhh’s, but in the end, from the listener’s point of view, it’s still a solo event. There is no shared history from yesterday, nor any expectation of a shared history tomorrow. There is no fraternal exchange that transcends, carrying today over into tomorrow.
Helluva way to build a culture, with no shared history.
When I see a problem, a thing that needs to be restored, I usually have a suggestion as to how it might be fixed. But here I don’t. That we don’t have such songs anymore in many respects points to all that afflicts us at the core of our national soul, and it can’t be fixed politically.
I just know that I can tell you without equivocation many of the problems we see in our youth today would never have appeared had that child, just every once in awhile, been able to stand alongside his father and mother, and belt out a great song that belonged to all of them.
This is why I lament.