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The Executioner's Song: ...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

(Today, On Violence continues its second annual(ish) “Executioner’s Song: The On Violence Epic Song Battle!" Click here to read our introduction. Click here to check out the first one here.)

Don Hewitt had a simple rule for 60 Minutes, “Tell me a story.” According to the reporters on the show, on every topic, Hewitt asked them to tell a story. And this approach works. Think about the moral lessons of Jesus; his parables are stories. Think about Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa; a tragic, epic story told in two dimensions.

So when it comes to war songs--either anti-war or pro-soldier--the best songs tell stories. The best stories don’t have ulterior motives. They tell their story, and tell it honestly.

In our last debate, I thought I choose the song with the best story--a general struggling with the decision to go to battle--though it was fantastic and impossible. But “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, sung by the Pogues and written by Eric Bogle, takes the great storytelling of “The General” and grounds it in reality. (Read the lyrics here.)

I could argue “...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” wins this debate because it tells a story about the neglected casualties of every war--the wounded and the maimed. I could argue that the motif of “waltzing Matilda” floats through the entire song with a different meaning each time. I could argue that Robert Christgau agrees with me. But the reason this song is my favorite war song is because it tells the most honest tale about war in this debate.

Whether or not the original author had been to war--or World War I specifically--it feels like he has. The song doesn’t stop at the end of the war, when the narrator looks down to see he lost both of his legs. It continues to tell the story of aging veterans in society. The cost of war is forgotten as they are forgotten, and the cycle of warfare begins all over again.

“...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” also does all this in under four minutes (depending on the version), telling the story of a war most Americans, Europeans and Australians have forgotten. It is moving, memorable, and the best song in this debate.

three comments

And Michael’s title is way longer than “Buffalo Soldier”…

It’s a great song & Shane M. & the Pogues have a great take on it. Anyone interested in the traumatic effects of WWI on its soldiers should read Pat Barker’s trilogy of novels, starting with “Regeneration.”

I agree with OWD’s recommendation of the regeneration trilogy. I read the books many years ago but was later reminded of it as American troops began falling victim to IED’s in Iraq. As the vehicle replaced the trench as the location of impotent fear I found an eerie harking back to the horrors of WW1.