“What country do you come from?” someone asks me during an overseas trip.
I rise from my chair and stand erect. Eyes gazing to the far horizon, I place hand firmly over heart and announce in tremulous voice: “I come from Girt-by-Sea.” And walk off before the obvious question comes.
Advance Australia Fair, our Australian anthem, is wide open for criticism on the grounds of anachronistic language. “Our land is girt by sea” is the most glaring example. (Although I must say that “girt” is a crisp, concise monosyllable with a lovely ring.) I daresay some other anthems could also be derided in the same ruthless way.
Words and music
But why, when people discuss a national anthem, do they almost invariably talk about the words rather than the music? Oh yes, there may be a brief comment on the tune, calling it “stirring”, or “dull”, or whatever. But the commentary on the text tends to be much more elaborate and analytical.
I suppose one could blame our education system, in part, for not equipping the populace with the skills, concepts and vocabulary to appraise music and explain why the listener considers it good, bad or indifferent. (Learning to actually make music gets even less priority.) Going further, it seems clear that the curriculum of the education system is largely a reflection of the prevailing values of society—or at least of those society places in authority. Literacy and numeracy hold sway, with some recent emphasis going to science—and now history, by which hangs another tale or two.
If my country could conduct an informed public debate about alternatives to our current anthem, I would urge attention to questions about how the music might induce a better attitude towards life within our community.
For instance, why do nations always assume that their anthems must have the beat of a walk or march? Musically speaking, we are talking here about 4/4 or 2/4 time. There seems to be an unwritten rule that the song must suggest military discipline (through marching) or stately pomp (as in a slow procession). Sometimes this feels to me like humourless authoritarianism.
Let the nation dance!
Surely there’s another way of loving one’s country and caring for it? A more light-hearted way that might even be fun. A way of feeling free within social relationships. Such an attitude might be better expressed and encouraged with a 3/4 or 6/8 rhythm, as in a waltz. Why not have a national anthem sung with the joie-de-vivre of Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube? You laugh perhaps, but I’m serious!
All of this leads us to the question of what a nation is. Do we want it to be a fortress, perhaps a base for campaigns of conquest, whether military or economic? Or can we conceive of a nation as a fertile ground for joyful cooperation and creative freedom?
Put it another way: should we have an anthem whose tune imparts a message of not “advance Australia”, but “dance Australia”? Really.
A book for our time
Matters like these—the State and freedom, language and music—preoccupy the minds of the battling characters in my book, Song of Australia. They are living during the First World War when Australia was only fourteen or so years old and confusion about national identity was huge. The themes still echo in today’s society. This is a book for our times.