The folk voice: Eric Bogle
JOHN H THORNBER CFC
IN 1994, in the midst of a severe drought, the Roman Catholic Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocesan Pastoral Council organized a weekend of discussion and reflection on the impact of the drought on the lives of the people of the rural parts of the Archdiocese and what the Church might offer them or their communities. The weekend was held at Goulburn and, as Principal of the Secondary Boys’ Boarding School there, I happened to be asked to prepare a morning liturgy.
As my creativity depends on the creativity of others, I pulled together three elements. The first was Eric Bogle’s song Leaving the Land. The second—informed and inspired by Walter Brueggemann’s book The Land—consisted of two quotes from Deuteronomy which spoke of the responsibility to the land. The third, as it was the post-Easter period, a set of prayers filled with Resurrection hope which acknowledged the pain of a present situation.
At morning tea, several people (male and female) asked me ‘Where can I buy that hymn? Catholic Bookshop?’ They were surprised to find it was, in fact, at their local music shop.
In the discussion session later reporting the work of small groups, one of the calls was that the Church be more in tune with the pain of people, particularly in the liturgy. The attending priest, a caring pastoral man, struggled to answer, indicating that he had difficulty seeing how anything more could be done. He was assisted by a loud outburst from a gentleman at the back who cried out: ‘Like this morning’s prayer!’ The cry was met with several audible murmurs of approval from among the two hundred present.
Eric Bogle’s song had touched the life situation of the people. They had not heard of him. They did not know his work. This, I suggest, is an example which supports the claim that through his songs, Eric Bogle has been influencing the spirituality of Australia.
Bogle was born in Peebles, Scotland in 1944. ‘I’ve written poetry since I was about eight years old. I don’t know why. I just found a facility to rhyme things, which is an easy facility, it’s not something that’s a great gift’.1 He had, in his teenage years, formed a band (‘Eric and The Informers’) performing rock’n’roll and skiffle. He also became involved in ‘supporting the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and went on his first Ban The Bomb demonstration, where he heard folk music for the first time. He immediately became a convert, and like most converts, a bit of a hardliner’.2
In 1969, he emigrated from his homeland to Australia, undertook studies in accountancy, and joined the Canberra Folk Club. He began writing songs. The first one (Leaving Nancy) he wrote for himself about the pain of parting from his mother. Friends who heard the song urged him to sing it publicly ‘because they said there were lots of people out there who could identify with every word’.3
The second was And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda in 1972. It has had a remarkable impact on Australia and beyond. It has ridden the changing response of Australian society to Anzac Day celebrations from disgust and tension as ANZAC seemed to imply a glorification of war around the time of the song’s writing, to the reflective honouring of men who can now tell the awful stories of what they went through at Anzac Cove.
The song has been recorded by other artists (over eighty of them) including The Furies, Rod McKuen, Slim Dusty and The Bushwackers. What is extraordinary is that most Australians have heard the song, but few know that Bogle wrote it. Warren Fahey, his music label partner, after describing this as the highest compliment for a songwriter, comments: ‘I have even heard it claimed as a traditional song from Australia’.4 The song holds this place, touching the deep mythology of the nation. It is the re-telling of the story from the point of view of an Anzac veteran whose legs had been blown off, yet able to challenge what the values being promoted are.
The last verse and chorus:
So now every April I sit on my porch,
And the band played ‘Waltzing Matilda’,
In 1972, the words would have reflected the mood of ‘time to end it’. In the third millennium, the nation is grappling with who is allowed to march as indeed all Anzacs have died. But now a spirit, much more than a mood, sees reflection on who is allowed to march as young people look to take a place in the march wearing service medals of grandfathers and great uncles with pride and reverence. Anzac Cove, a distant place with difficult access, far from being a despised and forgotten memory, is now a powerful place of pilgrimage for young Australians.
Bogle has touched the pain of the nation grappling with the horror of war and the tension in the need to remember and honour the event and the people who were involved. It is one of the roles of the prophet and poet to touch the pain, particularly in times when other voices may be denying expression to those with and in the pain. This is a central theme of Bogle’s work.
While this song made him internationally known, it did not, as he says, ‘make him rich’. Further, it did not stop the urge to write. ‘Eric Bogle writes songs firstly for himself and that explains why so many appear so personal. He does, however, have a canny knack to take these songs out to the community-at-large’.5
Fahey speaks of Bogle as a sentimentalist who wears his heart on his sleeve and who ‘has never seen himself as a prophet’.6 However, it is perhaps for others to make judgments here. If all that came through were sentiment, it would touch our emotions and leave. An emotional response can be deep, but passing. Matters of the spirit, not only touch the depth, but somehow interact with the deep story contained there. That is what the poet or prophet does.
I do not wish to engage in distinguishing the roles of prophet and poet, if such a distinction exists, but put Evelyn Woodward’s insights:
The poet is a person with respect for the goodness of the past and a dream for the future. The prophet seizes these and brings them into dialogue with the domesticating influence of institutions and cultural moments in time.
I favour a more simple expression of prophets/poets:
The ones who touch the pain, provide the images of alternative worlds, and provide language to celebrate the achievements of human development which occur when such achievements seemed impossible, even unimaginable.8
They put us in touch with our story and help us re-interpret it in the light of the events of our time. They help bring about change, not with brute force, ‘But by people armed with nothing more than dreams’9.
With Bogle, one includes the further dimension to that of the poet through the song and the contribution of music to the story-telling. This gives the variety of techniques available through word, song and music. This method is a significant tool in ancient traditions and is seen in the Judeo-Christian Biblical Texts.
The significance of the artists’ work lies in the point that they deal with the elements that are ‘transformative moments’.10 They are the moments which are shaped by the spirit of the nation and influence the shape of the future by helping us imagine it differently. ‘We are people shaped by our imagination—our stories, our symbols, the images we share enable us to touch not only our concrete present reality but also the yearnings of our spirits toward a new, a transformed future’.11
Wainwright emphasises the importance of this as an element of control of lives and control of the future. The imagination allows us to put forward alternatives to the present mindsets. She uses Orwell’s phrase as a telling summary: ‘the one who controls the present controls the past and the one who controls the past controls the future’.12 There is a range of creative ways that artists cry out to us to look at what is wrong and celebrate what has been created as a spirit in Australia without looking to build a nationalistic fundamentalism. The singer-songwriter is one such channel to help ensure that the spirit is not dulled or seduced into the rhetoric of power when the need is to renew the face of the earth. Further, this kind of singer-songwriter is in the realm of the troubadour, wandering from place to place, passing on the message.
The world we create and live in is fed by the stories and myths of our past, by their re-telling and re-interpreting.13 With regard to the past, we need to take note of ‘The rhetorical power of the tradition’.14 With regard to the future, the poet’s words pay ‘attention to the power of the language to propose an imaginative world to the one that seems to be at hand—alternative to the one in which the reader or listener thinks herself or himself enmeshed’.15
This shaping of our world is given the title by some as a spirituality. ‘Spirituality is a certain attentiveness to life—an attentiveness which contains within itself a certain desire, a certain hopefulness, a certain anticipation. Spirituality is attention combined with intention’.16 From Ranson’s definition, there is an important distinction between spiritual and emotional. Both involve being touched by some element of life. However, where the emotion might pass, the spirituality goes beyond the immediate to the deep transforming story, comforted by it, or challenging to it or to those who abuse it in their interpretation.
It gives a basis for showing why Bogle is not a sentimentalist, just tugging on the heartstrings, but an influencer on the spirituality of Australia. His songs are attentive to life and to what the future is that we can create if we have the intentionality.
And I can almost touch the ocean,
In later renditions, Bogle has changed the my to our in the last verse. It is also usually being sung by all the concert goers as well. This is a quiet song in common time with a range of a little over an octave. It is easy to sing and encourages the participation of the listener. He addresses the song to the country and speaks of his relationship with it. It could be about almost any country in the world. The only indication that would place it in Australia is the use of ‘dreamtime place’. The language of the third verse enters the realm of blessing prayers and touches the deep story we have of the kind of world we aspire to and expect as a nation.
How deep those expectations and dreams are has been revealed in recent weeks in Australia, October 2002, with the Bali Bombings which shattered the peacefulness and caused Australians to reflect on self-identity in the national response.18 It also saw the nation seek expressions for that spiritual depth in churches and other sacred places. I believe the singing of Shelter would have contributed to the communal expression of grief and healing, confirming us in our belief that we are a people of peace and giving us an expression in language which touched our deepest beliefs. These beliefs are significant both in what they express and what they omit. Despite an appalling act against our people, despite whatever the feelings, there were not calls for revenge, only for justice. The song in the tradition of powerful rhetoric, calls us to believe that we want a country that will always live in peace at a time when the experience is of rupture. The spirituality of Australia is about peaceful relationships and settling differences peacefully.
With regard to Shelter, Fahey comments that what is expressed is difficult to achieve in verse ‘without hitting those dangerous rocks of jingoism’.19 It is interesting to compare it with Peter Allen’s popular I Still Call Australia Home. The latter does appeal wonderfully to the emotions, but does not call us to reflect any more deeply. It would not have satisfied in the weeks following the Bali rupture.
In 1988, for the Bicentennial year, Bogle wrote Something of Value. Perhaps nothing more clearly shows the songwriter’s gift and artistic capacity to cover the events of two hundred years and express hope for the future in six minutes.
Something of Value
We took it all by the gun and the sword
From England’s new Jerusalem
So now beneath the Southern Cross
So here’s to us all, poor frail humankind
The song touches the pain of our history yet gives an image of the country of reconciled people that many proclaim. It gives the rhetoric that Brueggemann spoke of, giving us language and expression for the kind of world we believe in with dreams of paradise but recognising the need and place of redemption. We need such expression when other voices say that it is impossible to achieve, or it isn’t worth the effort, or it’s a waste of time because speakers on both sides say of the other ‘they’ll never change’.
Songs such as these allow both sides to hear other possibilities. The melody sits in the memory, the words latch into bits we have learned. The construction ‘takes our spirit beyond self-absorption to an awareness of, an encounter with the experience of the other as (other)…enabling us to allow space for the sacredness of the story of the other’.20 The song is a call to non-Indigenous Australians, but includes Indigenous Australians in its framework, not just as the recipients of injustice, but people with an active role to play in the creation of the new world.
In 2001 he wrote Reconciliation. It was about the stolen generation of Aboriginal children. Each verse starts with a call to ‘imagine’.
• I want you to imagine that you’re a child again, small and black…
The chorus baldly calls non-indigenous to account:
It’s the shame, shame, of a Nation
The song reflects the spirit of many Australians at the time and the struggle that was (and is) occurring with a government approach that seeks ‘practical reconciliation’ without acknowledging and apologising for the wrongs of the past. The poets give us the language to cry out showing why the official position does not meet the needs. The intention of many Australians, expressed symbolically in ‘bridge walks’ was that reconciliation needed non-Indigenous leaders to say ‘sorry’. That was the spiritual drive. That was the cry.
One of the recurring themes in Bogle’s work is the poor treatment of Aboriginal people in recent Australian history. In addition to the ones mentioned on reconciliation, songs such as Poor Bugger Charlie (on treatment in the justice system and death in custody), Hard, Hard Times (alcoholism) state the pain of the misery of the life faced by aboriginal people and the injustice of it without preaching a solution. They do simply cry out the pain. In hearing the pain, the community, all parties in it, have a chance to respond. Non-indigenous may respond ‘It can’t be that bad’ or ‘I didn’t realise it was that bad’. The indigenous people can respond with ‘Yes, this touches how bad it is’. But both parties have room to hear the story. Each party can reflect on what each has taken for granted.
One of the deep elements of Australian spirituality is a belief in the equality of people. Recent studies of the comparative development of colonized nations such as Australia and Argentina suggest that the former encouraged the arrival of many people, grew many crops and developed a middle class. The latter brought few who made great wealth at the expense of the poor, developing an elitist group.21 This in itself has shaped how we see ourselves and our spirituality.
Long before Bogle, writers and others had been pointing out the contradiction in the statement of that belief of equality and the active exclusion of Indigenous people from basic human rights. While those matters have been addressed in law with the support of non-indigenous Australians, there are still matters of health, education, respect and justice where there is no equality. The poets keep singing, calling us to the truth in our proclaimed intentionality.
Given that this artist’s medium is songwriting, it is important to note some of the techniques he employs. They involve the two tools of word and music. ‘As a songwriter you tend to put a bit more on the line than a singer or an instrumentalist does. If you write and perform your own songs, and those songs have a strong political or social content…then the areas for criticism are numerous indeed’.22
Bogle gives an insight to some of the tools required for songwriting when he lists the areas critics have addressed—‘Your lack of depth, sensitivity, understanding of issues, grammatical expertise, relevance, talent, vocal range’. I will emphasise the written word of the song and it’s meaningfulness. But whether one considers that the spiritual is expressed through music itself, or the songwriter needs a vehicle to help or make people listen, the music counts. Bogle says he may spend months creating the words but rarely more than a couple of days on the music.
His music catches the ear with a certain familiarity in the sound yet with a ‘very broad palette of musical influences and traditions, not just Celtic Folk and Australian Bush Music but just about everything from Appalachian Mountain music to Delta Blues or Rock and Roll’.23 He is also backed by talented musicians and very skilful arrangers for the instruments which often enhance the images in the presentation.
In No Man’s Land—The Green Fields of France, he uses 3/4 time.24 The early verses have a rolling Celtic lilt that suits the sad questioning of William McBride at whose World War I graveside he sits. The chorus uses the same time, but swings into a different rhythm picking up both anger and sadness in the questions. The anger and sadness then build to an intensity in the last verse.
It is an anti-war song, and Bogle uses the technique of addressing his words to one who cannot respond. In calling his character William McBride, he picks a name which could be Scottish, Irish, Welsh, English, Canadian, Australian, or belong to someone from New Zealand or the United States. This appeal is further developed in the chorus:
Did they beat the drum slowly
And I can’t help but wonder now Willie McBride
The anti-war motif is strong in Bogle’s writing as it is in the Australian culture, psyche and spirituality. This aspect of the Australian outlook is reflected in current times with the opposition to a government proposal to support a US led force in a pre-emptive strike against a nation considered dangerous. It has been highlighted by the national response to the Bali bombing of October 12, 2002. When asked what he thought of the people who had done the bombing, one injured person’s response was ‘I reckon they ought to take a good, hard look at themselves’. Justice is being sought, not revenge. Concern for the Balinese and compassion for those affected were the pre-eminent values shining through from ‘a fair and compassionate people’.26
Bogle has reflected that sense of self in Shelter as well as addressed the pain of war in many songs. As a contrast to And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, he was asked by the Department of Veteran Affairs in 1997 to write a song for the occasion of the return of the surviving Anzacs to Gallipoli, The Gift of Years.27 He gives us expression for the national pain of the treatment of Vietnam Veterans in Welcome Home. This led to another song in Dedication Day, where the previous creation became the centrepiece several years later assisting a Vietnam Vet cope with the suicide of another Vet—a not uncommon experience.
If it is through the story-telling that we find and touch the spirit—Bogle is an artist who helps us do that. Not dealt with here have been the fun songs, though satire is a tool that he uses across a range of themes. But there is the drive and the courage to write and proclaim. ‘In writing the songs and arrogantly believing that you actually have something to say, then you must of necessity lay all that you are and believe on the line. Such exposure of course makes you vulnerable. You have to accept that vulnerability’.28
Other themes recurring in Eric Bogle’s songs include the journey of the migrant, an exile here a stranger there, he lives somewhere in between, the care for abused children, uncaring society, but they can only be mentioned at this time.
Much of Bogle’s work lives in the Christian ethos, particularly at the foundational level of story telling, touching the pain, crying out for justice as the expression of God’s Kingdom as well as the reflection of the beauty of creation and relationships. He has just released a song entitled From The Cradle To The Grave, which recognises the transcendental element of life. It sounds familiar, musically and in expression, finishing with,
And when this journey has ended
Such is not out of place in Christian Hymnals. If we accept Rahner’s description of ‘God as the mystery of human experience’, and that God ‘is the depth dimension in experiences such as solitude, friendship, community, death, and as such, is the orientation towards the future’, then through this artist’s work we are brought closer to God.29
However, it was the farmer who asked me ‘where can I buy that hymn?’ who, from his Christian background, made the judgement on the Christian expression of Eric Bogle’s work and contribution to Australian Spirituality.
Br John Thornber, is the Governance Development Coordinator for St Mary’s Province of the Christian Brothers. He has been studying theology at the Catholic Institute of Sydney.
1 Eric Bogle, ‘An Interview with Eric
Bogle’, Scala News, 1989 http://www.senet.com.au/~scala/views.htm, Accessed,
October 11, 2002.
Bashir, Marie, Governor of New South
Wales. My notes on her speech from the Televised Memorial at The Domain,
Sydney, October 20, 2002.
© Larrikin Music Publishing Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used with permission.