Tuesday, November 25, 2008



I will never forget the first time I heard one of the greatest anti-war song ever written. The memory floods in every time I hear John McDermott sing And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda as if he was looking into the face of a mother yearning for her fallen soldier.
So when I heard McDermott sing it the other night, with its composer Eric Bogle sitting off to one side staring at the floor, it was a magic moment. Bogle had never heard McDermott sing it live before, for various reasons, and tried to shrug away the emotion it must have stirred in his soul by saying the experience was "better than sex."
Then he added "more profitable too." Of course it has been recorded by at least 80 singers, although the best of them can only tie McDermott.I first heard it on a downtown trip to celebrate a family birthday. I missed the start on the car radio but insisted everyone wait in the car until it finished. But I didn't know who was singing it and who had written it. Joe Lewis had played it on his Saturday show on CJRT and when Lewis came to the Sun office on his rounds as a ballet publicist, he filled in the blanks. It had been sung by an Aussie group the Bushwackers and composed by an Aussie named Bogle.
( Bogle grew up in Scotland and still sounds like it despite decades of living in Australia. But Australia and its pubs have given him a certain bawdy charm when he sings and yarns. )
Of course I immediately told McDermott, at that point the Sun's staff troubador, about this great song. But I didn't know any more. So he searched and asked and finally a CBC producer gave him a copy, and the song became almost as much of his program as Danny Boy.
Bogle also wrote another great war song to tug out your tears called The Green Fields of France. And soon, I predict, we also will be listening to a new song called "Buddy's never coming home" which McDermott and Bogle will be singing to all the American troops overseas on a simulcast from Boston on Dec. 12.
And that will complete a musical trilogy. Bogle didn't want to denigrate the soldiers from the States and Australia who fought and died in Vietnam when he was writing a song about war. So he set the message from And the Bands Played Waltzing Matilda around the great Australian slaughter in Turkey in the Great War. The Green Fields of France is set in World War Two. And the new song, Buddy, which has not yet been recorded, is about the grim American toll in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bogle and McDermott are touring and did two nights at Hugh's Room on Dundas St. W, which is a great place in its acoustics and sight lines to watch music. (And the food's good too. Have the steak.)
This is a warm-up for McDermott's annual Christmas concerts in Toronto. (This year at Roy Thomson Hall on Dec. 22 and 23.) Bogle is busy writing for the concert because McDermott explains that the Christmas songs that Bogle has already composed are decidedly too risque. It must be all those years in the pubs.
McDermott now has 20 CDs out for his fans. I love Christmas music and when McDermott sings the queen of carols, Silent Night, I am carried back to my childhood and the charms of Christmas even if you were living in modest circumstances. I'm still playing his music on Boxing Day.
Yet it's the CD that doesn't have his signature song Danny Boy that has a special place on my shelf. There are 17 songs of war on this CD titled Buy Victory Bonds. And I studied the history carefully of each one before I wrote the liner notes. It was a frustrating experience because how can mere written words match the nostalgia, passion and pathos as a great singer doesn't glorify war but makes its wistful waste a trifle more tolerable.

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