Eric Bogle’s Gallipoli anti-war song continues to resonate despite Anzac Day's surge in popularity
Interview with Scottish-born folk singer-songwriter Eric Bogle, who who in 1971, wrote "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," a song about a soldier wounded at the Battle of Gallipoli.
On Anzac Day in 1971 a Scottish migrant keen on cigarettes, his own opinions, and the idea of swapping an accounting career for the life of the protest singer, watched his first commemorative march slowly work its way up the main street in Canberra.
There wasn’t a lot of interest in Anzac Day parades back then. For some people, especially the young, it was a lightning rod for anti-war protests. For many others, it was an anachronism. For Eric Bogle, then in his early 30s, it was the inspiration for what would become one of Australia’s great songs.
Despite growing up in Scotland, Bogle knew quite a bit about Australia’s war history. Two great uncles had died in World War I. He’d read about Gallipoli, about Simpson and his donkey, about Lone Pine. So when he arrived in Australia in 1969 the part-time folk singer was keen to get involved in the moratorium movement at the capital’s home of peace and free love, the Australian National University.
But Bogle, who admits to being a bit of a sucker for the pomp and polished brass of a military parade, didn’t feel any anger at the soldiers as they passed by that day. He was upset with the politicians who sent them to fight. “I thought it was an immoral war, as most Australians did,” he recalls in his thoughtful, soft and still-Scottish brogue as we sit in his Adelaide study, on a bright day more than 40 years later.
“Then, I can assure you, Anzac Day – not just in Canberra but everywhere – was not as well attended or accepted as it is now. And I was watching the parade come past me in Northbourne Ave in Canberra and one of the bands was playing Waltzing Matilda as it passed, you know.
“And there were a couple of old diggers behind it, World War II boys, and then some World War I boys in cars or jeeps behind them. So I thought, the time is right for an anti-war song. But I didn’t set it in Vietnam because even at the time, with Aussie boys dying there, most Australians couldn’t point to the f***ing place on a map. They had no idea where it was.
“So I thought, I’ll set the song in Gallipoli, because it doesn’t matter what war you’re writing about – the end result is exactly the bloody same: lots of dead young blokes.”
With centenary commemorations about to begin for the beginning of World War I, and then next year, the Gallipoli landing, Australians are about to be inundated with stories about those dead young blokes. Sixty thousand Australian men were killed in the Great War. Imagine the new Adelaide Oval filled with the dead, and you are still not there.
A lot has changed since Bogle watched his first Anzac Day parade.
For one thing, his trademark folk-singer beard has turned grey. The protest singer has also found himself taking a more nuanced view of the world – he still gets angry at Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten, but he is less certain he always knows the answer to the world’s problems.
Another change has been our perception of Anzac Day. Now, Bogle is worried that the message of his song – that war is an obscenity – has been lost in the years since it was written, somehow twisted into the jingoism that he was railing against.
When he wrote the lyrics, he described World War I as a “forgotten war” and suggested Anzac Day seemed likely to fade with the old soldiers. Instead, to Bogle’s dismay, it has surged in popularity.
Australia’s military expeditions from the 1990s onwards put new troops into the parade, but that hasn’t been the only boost. The day itself has become a powerful national touchstone in a way Australia Day hasn’t managed. And, far from forgotten, the Great War is back in the spotlight.
Yet despite this – or maybe because of it - Bogle’s anti-war song continues to resonate. In Australian terms, only John Schumann’s I was Only 19 rivals it for emotional force.
Matilda tells the story of one man’s Gallipoli horror, contrasting the nationalistic jingoism that draws this swaggie from the bush and aboard a troop ship, with the bloody reality of war and the cold reception and wiser reflections on his return. It uses Banjo Paterson’s song to first evoke Aussie innocence, then government manipulation and warmongering, and finally sadness and regret.
So, wouldn’t it be a grand idea for Bogle to tune his guitar for the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, to sing that song, and strike a powerful and unmistakably Aussie note, at the place where it all happened?
For Bogle, getting to the end of his career, it’s a question that comes at an interesting time. The invitations are certainly there. But he is having none of it. It is plainly wrong to play songs like his at such occasions, he says. He already knocked on the head an idea to sing at the dawn service in Adelaide. “I think it’s distracting,” he says. “It takes the focus off why people are there.”
And there’s another thing. Bogle also doesn’t think his own song has the authenticity that some want to give it. Not like the works of the World War I poets he keeps in a box in his bedroom. “In one line, most of them have written far better stuff than I’m ever capable of,” he says.
“I get embarrassed when people seem to think what I write A, has any real quality and B, has any real truth. I don’t believe it has. Besides these people, the ones who were there… I’m a real pale cypher, me.”
Bogle worries that the commemoration of the conflict will be an overblown media event. “I mean Gallipoli itself, I’ve never been there – and if I ever do go there it certainly won’t be on Anzac Day,” he says.
Never been to Gallipoli? That seems extraordinary. Why not?
Bogle lets out a big, slow sigh.
“Confronted with the reality I’m not sure I could have lived with the song,” he says.
“It’s cowardice more than anything else. I thought maybe the ghosts would rise up and say, ‘It’s a shit song, why don’t you f**k off and write something decent?’”
Some singers have many hits, some songwriters produce multiple award winners. I’ve liked Bogle’s music for decades, and long ago as a police reporter in Melbourne made many good contacts among Victoria’s detectives singing his songs in the pub on boozy Friday nights. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea. But folk songs have power, especially at an emotional level.
Bogle’s good at hitting that mark.
As he puts it, he doesn’t write for people to dance to, or make love to; he writes to get to the heart. And it’s been his war songs especially – another is the Green Fields of France – that do it best.
But he’s had just one really well-known success (“one is more than most get” he points out) and, he insists, never any real commercial good fortune.
So his tough assessment of Matilda seems odd. It continues to win him invitations all over the world. It was a hit in Ireland (for other singers) and is still recorded five or six times a year. It’s been a question for Trivial Pursuit and Sale of the Century, and made the Australasian Performing Right Association’s list of the best 30 Australian songs of the past 75 years.
Yet Bogle, as he sits there occasionally puffing on his electronic cigarette, seems a bit uncomfortable with the song. Matilda was only the sixth or seventh he ever wrote. It was originally eight verses, although he can’t remember exactly what they were, and went for way too long at 12 minutes.
Some lines weren’t completely accurate either, although he never pretended to be writing a history – there weren’t tin hats in 1915, nor were the Australians the ones to land at Suvla Bay.
He insists he is not uncomfortable with it, though.
“Uncomfortable with the way it’s accepted and used perhaps,” he says. “But there is a danger, and I’ve been accused of it, of encouraging Anzac jingoism by my songs.
“One bloke accused me of starting the whole f***ing bullshit actually. He reckons – as I did – that Anzac Day was on its way out and then people like me started ‘romanticising’ – these are his words, not mine – and ‘popularising’ it.
“I said ‘You’ve got to be joking – I mean accuse Channel 7 or Nine or Ten, or even the ABC and the media, but I just wrote a song mate’. But there is some truth there. Because the war was 100 years ago, there is a strong move… to mythologise and romanticise it.”
All of this is adding to Bogle’s questioning of whether it is time he took a final bow.
He and wife Carmel – they have been together since those Canberra days – are now winding back their lives. Editing it, he says.
On his blog recently, Bogle told readers he was contemplating packing it all in. He is, after all, due to turn 70 in September.
“It’s a natural thing, as you grow older you try to simplify your life,” he explains, sitting in the study of the eastern suburbs home the couple recently moved to.
“Too many people hang on to the things through habit rather than conviction or feeling of love and commitment.”
That means he’s got rid of things like his shack on the Murray, and his lifetime smoking habit. Now, might it also see him finish his career? He’s a protest singer after all. Now he’s older, he tends to see the other side more.
“I’m not as impatient or intolerant as I used to be,” he confesses. “It takes me longer to figure out what to say now because I see all different sides I never saw before. But I don’t want to sit on the fence. I used to think my truth was Truth with a capital T, now I know my truth is different to other people’s truth.”
He says Australians are pretty apathetic when it comes to social issues, anyway. And even when they have got out on the streets to oppose the government in big numbers, as they did in the case of the Iraq War in 2003, nothing changed.
“So you keep fooling yourself you’re living in a democracy where things can change,” he says, “but that’s not the case.”
Maybe he should write protests songs about getting old then?
US singer Glenn Campbell’s best work in years came when he sang about his decline through ageing. Too close to the bone, Bogle thinks.
“Society needs angry young men, they don’t need angry old farts like me. We’re an embarrassment.”
Bogle long ago saw what happens to singers who pass their use-by date – and he hasn’t forgotten.
“My very first gig, professionally, was in the Western Suburbs Aussie Rules football club in Sydney in 1980. And I shared the bill with a fellow called Buster Noble... a Vaudevillian.
“He was wonderful. He had a checked suit, the revolving bow tie, and played the banjo/ukulele and sang music hall stuff. Tap danced. He was a classic of his type. His time was well over.
“We shared the bill. Me playing the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, him singing When I’m Cleaning Windows. And the audience, such as it was, gave him a real hard time. They gave me a hard time as well, but not as much as poor Buster.”
Going home that night, Carmel was very quiet.
“She’d been hugely supportive… I used to be an accountant earning good money and then I became a musician...,” Bogle says. “She said promise me you’ll go, promise me you won’t hang on, you won’t keep going along after you should stop, and make a fool of yourself in front of total strangers.
“And that was a big fear, that I’d outstay my welcome, and I’d just keep going through habit, but not through conviction.
“And I think I’ve reached that stage now, where I’ve got to question whether what I do is worth doing. Is it worth doing?”
The paradox is that he could get quite a lot of work now he’s relevant again thanks to the centenary – and “that’s part of why I’m questioning it.”
“I feel a bit guilty sometimes that people seem to think I’m some sort of authentic voice,” he says. “I’m a sympathetic voice, but there’s no way I could write about wars. I wasn’t there.”
It’s a weight, clearly. “I get asked to a lot of things… but I sometimes wonder why I should be there. This year, I lied to everybody. I got invitations to Tasmania, and said ‘No I’ll be in Victoria’, and invitation from Victoria and said ‘No I’ll be in South Australia’.”
So what did you do on Anzac Day? “I sat here and kept out of the f***in’ way.”
For 2015 he has four or five different invitations… “I’ve delayed a couple of them. I will do something for them. But not on Anzac Day.”
He is disappointed the day hasn’t faded away as the last lines of his song once forecast. That’s where he wasn’t clear, he says now. He didn’t mean Anzac Day would be gone once the Gallipoli veterans died, but that it would happen in a future time when we no longer fought wars.
“It’s a careless song, that’s one of the reasons I get embarrassed,” Bogle says. “I was still learning my craft. What I meant at the end… I was just expressing a hope or belief, I can’t remember which, that one day Anzac Day would just be a footnote in history.”
It will happen, he still believes, and points to Britain’s now-forgotten Waterloo Day as an example of a once great commemoration no longer honoured.
“We need a national day,” he agrees. “And we should always honour and remember all those who died in our name. But if we are still defining ourselves as a nation in a hundred years’ time largely by the blood shed and the sacrifices made by our servicemen and women, then we haven’t matured much as a nation.”
Listen to And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda here