It’s remarkable and amusing to me that my country, Australia, took 83 years after gaining sovereignty to adopt its own national anthem. And even now many people born and bred in Australia don’t know the words of that song. It says something very significant about our national character.
For we are young and free
Some years ago, as a music teacher in a school, I took my Year 7 students (all boys aged eleven or twelve) through a unit about national anthems. Discussion turned quite lively when considering Australia’s anthem, so I formalised it into an adversarial debate involving students from several classes. ‘You’re free to think and speak,’ I said. ‘Should Australia’s national anthem be changed and, if so, how?’
There was a lot of support for change and the students came up with suggestions for a replacement. Contemporary pop/rock songs were often mentioned, one of which, I Come from a Land Down Under (recorded by Men at Work), had a lot of enthusiastic backers. Reasoned argument in support of choices was rather thin overall, with a song’s popularity among young people carrying a lot of weight.
The best-supported was I Am Australian, that modern classic first performed by The Seekers. In my experience it’s one of the songs that both boys and girls will sing with equal sincerity and enjoyment. (If it were to become the nation’s anthem, would that status eventually make it staid and boring to the people as a whole?) Over several decades I’ve had many of my choirs and soloists perform Bruce Woodley’s beautiful song in various arrangements. It still brings on tears now and then. Listen to The Seekers sing it here.
In the debates of these young Australians, the official anthem, Advance Australia Fair, was one of the least favoured.
A Fair Go for the Anthem
One free-thinker scored well in the debate with his ultra-radical proposal. He was obviously a budding advocate for proportional representation at the national level. He pointed out that it had taken the country many years of heated argument to reach a decision on what would replace the old British Empire anthem, God Save the Queen, and many people were still not satisfied with the resultant choice. To be fair to everyone, he said, why don’t we have a number of anthems and use them all on a rotating roster basis? The audience liked that one!
Can’t you hear it now as our Olympic gold medallists stand on the dais? “… In joyful strains then let us sing, rotate Australia Fair!”
Lose the Lyrics!
But reflect on this: these debates are always about the words of the anthem, not the music.
An anthem is generally assumed to be a text sung to a set tune. So suppose our anthem was wordless. What if we could hear no lyrics, simply a great melody performed with great harmonies and great instrumentation? Perhaps voices could sing this melody without words. What effect would this have on the sense of community, the love of country, the aspirations of Australians?