National Anthems

1 the queen god save her

I wonder how attached people still are to national anthems, and flags and all the paraphernalia of nationalism. Most of them date from the 19th century and are the vestiges of movements like imperialism and colonialism. We’re over that now. Nationalism has been associated with wasteful wars for a long time, ever since people went off to the first world war in their millions to die for reasons we can no longer discern. Now anthems serve mainly as accompaniments to pretend wars like sporting events.

My attention to the subject was focused by watching a monologue by Paul Hogan. Hogan claimed that Australia was the only country in the world to have three national anthems, which I guess makes Australians appear pretty conservative.

The first derives from Australia’s membership of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and is the British Royal Anthem. It’s the only one I know, because when I was a kid and went to see a movie, there was always a newsreel of the British Queen attending the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. She was dressed in uniform, rode side saddle and I think carried a sword with which she saluted the troops. THere was a surge of music, then came the national anthem, God Save the Queen. And blimey if the audiences didn’t rise in the dark, stand up, and sing along. I didn’t. I was too embarrassed. And I didn’t approve of the Queen even then.

Later on Australians got their own national anthem, called Advance Australia Fair. Both anthems coexisted, and each was sung by more conservative or more progressive groups. I had a brush with Advance Australia Fair at school, but got by opening and shutting my mouth and miming. Pretty ridiculous. But back then I thought national anthems were definitely not cool.

Then some people pushed for a traditional folk song called Waltzing Matilda, and it became the ‘unofficial’ national anthem of Australia. At least it didn’t sound like a hymn. I was into folk music about the time I left school and knew the song from records made by the Bushwhackers. It was OK to sing along to that one.

2 swagman

God Save the Queen dates from 1745 and the threat of invasion by the Stuart Pretender and his son. Both Catholic and Protestant sang the song, putting ‘king’ for ‘queen’. The author is unknown, the tune related to one used by both Purcell and Handel.

God save our gracious Queen!
Long live our noble Queen!
God save The Queen!
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us:
God save The Queen!
O Lord our God arise,
Scatter her enemies,
And make them fall:
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix:
God save us all.

It was all about politics and the divine right of monarchs and became instantly old fashioned in 1746. But the British are slow to change and they got used to singing it. They also like one called Rule Britannia, written by James Thomson about the same time as God Save the Queen and with music by Thomas Arne.

When Britain first, at Heaven’s command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

Typical national anthem lyrics these seem. The British also sing Jerusalem, a poem by Blake in which England is a metaphor for both Heaven and Jerusalem. That one doesn’t go down well in the Middle East.

3 Britannia

Advance Australia Fair was written in 1878 by Peter McCormick. It’s been modified since it was made official national anthem in the 70s.

Australia’s sons let us rejoice,
For we are young and free;
We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil,
Our home is girt by sea;
Our land abounds in Nature’s gifts
Of beauty rich and rare;
In hist’ry’s page, let ev’ry stage
Advance Australia fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing,
Advance Australia fair.

Seems to leave out the ones who aren’t sons, not to mention the growing number of elderly; that most of the land is infertile scrub; that most Australians were originally not free but convicts; and makes claim only that Australians are hard workers. And is “Australia fair” a reference to the White Australia Policy? Pretty humble for a national anthem. Not like Rule Britannia which has angels declaring Britain’s right to rule. But Advance Australia Fair has one of those mournful tunes that sends you to sleep when you hear it, so the words are rarely closely examined. Unless it’s sung by a party of drunken football fans.

The best aussie anthem by far is Waltzing Matilda, which has lyrics written by Banjo Patterson about 1895 set to a traditional tune which exists in two versions, a brass band one and a more lively dance tune.

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”

Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong.
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee.
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag:
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred.
Down came the troopers, one, two, and three.
“Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong.
“You’ll never take me alive!” said he
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”

4 down on his luck

A good story, apparently based on fact. A hobo/tramp/swagman stops by a lake to boil his kettle and make a cup of tea. A sheep comes down to have a drink of water and the hobo slaughters the sheep and stuffs the corpse in his pack (this was obviously before Animal Liberation). The sheep’s owner, an illegal claimant of the land surrounding the lake, arrives with police officers and tries to arrest the hobo, but he commits suicide by drowning himself in the lake. His ghost can still be heard, singing a jolly song calling on other tramps to join with him in roaming the land and stealing what sheep they can.

Rather odd for a national anthem don’t you think? Australia, a nation of thieving drifters prone to self destruction. Behind the jolly tune is a tale of an (ineffective) protest at the impoverishment of the small settler forced to tramp the land looking for work, or more often what he could steal just to survive. Even though unofficial, one of the more unusual anthems.

The story parallels that of the American west, where big ranches crowded out small settlers and often left them little option but to rustle some livestock for food. When that happened the big ranchers bought in the law. According to the movies there was a shootout and the small man won out, but really it was much more like Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, in England like Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and in Australia like Henry Lawson’s stories. Lawson was much more authentic than Patterson (and made less money).

So far the only national anthem worthy of being called one is the xenophobic Rule Britannia. What do other countries have? Must anthems be xenophobic?

New Zealand has the same kind of humble lyric found in Australian anthems: must be because we’re ‘down under’. It dates from the 1870s and was originally a hymn.

God of Nations at Thy feet,
In the bonds of love we meet,
Hear our voices, we entreat,
God defend our free land.
Guard Pacific’s triple star
From the shafts of strife and war,
Make her praises heard afar,
God defend New Zealand.

God’s doing all the work here, as he is in God Save the Queen. All New Zealanders want is praise “heard afar”. No imperial destiny here.

5 francis scott key

Even the United States of America has a humble anthem, a poem written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key, a cousin of the writer Scott Fitzgerald, during war with England. It celebrates a battle in which the British failed to take an American fort, over which the flag flew victoriously.

O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Key was lucky the British didn’t shoot down the flag, it would have taken the wind from his sails. The song has just a touch of xenophobia, “then conquer we must when our cause it is just”. Here for the first time so far I noticed the curious fact that the singers’ country is somehow “free” (other countries somehow were not). Strange to find it in an American song, a place where there were as many as four million slaves. “Land of the free” didn’t go down well with the black people being forcibly emigrated from Africa.

Other countries had a real battle for liberty. Greece for example, whose anthem is called Hail Liberty Hail. It was written by Dionýsios Solomós in 1823, and, according to essayist Charmian Clift, the tune by Nikolaos Mantzaros would regularly send shivers up her spine. The song celebrates freedom from the Ottoman Empire, after centuries of submission, during the War of Independence. It has 158 verses, so it must have been a long struggle. The words were set to English by Rudyard Kipling in 1918.

We knew thee of old,
O, divinely restored,
By the lights of thine eyes,
And the light of thy Sword.
From the graves of our slain,
Shall thy valour prevail,
As we greet thee again,
Hail, Liberty! Hail!

Of course for centuries Greek and Turk lived together in the two countries and got along as well as people usually do, lying and cheating, helping and loving. But some so love a good fight.

6 delacroix

The French are widely regarded as having the most stirring national anthem of all, which dates from the revolutionary wars of 1792 when the Holy Roman Empire did its best to crush the revolutionary armies of France.

Ye sons of France, awake to glory,
Hark, hark! what myriads bid you rise!
Your children, wives and white-haired grandsires.
Behold their tears and hear their cries!
Shall hateful tyrants, mischiefs breeding,
With hireling hosts, a ruffian band,
Affright and desolate the land,
While peace and liberty lie bleeding?

To arms, to arms, you citizens!
The avenging sword unsheath,
March on, march on!
All hearts resolv’d
On victory or death!

I first heard this while watching Casablanca and it was indeed stirring. I don’t know if it would have made me go out and actually kill somebody but you never know. Depends on how good the wine is.

Here is the origin of national anthems. They were written when the traditional multi racial empires of Europe were slowly disintegrating and new nation states arose. They were written often during wars fought to free these states from imperial rule. WWI was largely about breaking up the Ottoman Empire, and WWII about stopping the formation of the Third Reich. The freedom sung so often about was relative, as older forms of exploitation were replaced by newer forms. Mankind has rarely ever been free.

Getting up and singing these songs is traditional, and certainly not appropriate for modern political realities. They celebrate a world not only free of imperial empires, but a world of nation states that practised colonialism and enforced slavery.

Now, slowly, nation states are being controlled by multinational corporations that own outright many third world countries, and many first world countries are starting the slide to third nation status.

The unknown swagman should have the last word after all.

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong.
“You’ll never take me alive!” said he
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”

Must have been as game as Ned Kelly!

©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.



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