Eric Bogle interview: And the man sang Waltzing Matilda

FORTY years ago next month, as a train drew out of Waverley, a 24-year-old Peebles lad leaned out of a compartment window to hold hands with his tearful mother until it gathered speed, bearing him off to Southampton and a ship bound for Australia.

The young emigrant, Eric Bogle, would later immortalise his emotional departure in a song called Leaving Nancy, which has since entered into the folk repertoire, although his most internationally acclaimed songs were still to come.

Four decades on, and with his 15th album, The Dreamer , and a DVD, Live At Stonyfell Winery, just out, the man who wrote The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, No Man's Land and much else is preparing to make what he insists will be his last UK tour. He'll be accompanied by his long-standing sideman and fellow Australian Scot, instrumentalist John Munro and they are, of course, calling it "The Waltzing Matilda No More Tour".

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Prolific songwriter and inveterate long-distance troubadour, Bogle has been doing mighty annual tours every year for the past two decades, and, as he approaches 65, enough is enough, he says. "I'm just a wee bit tired of it all," he tells me from his home in Adelaide. "It's the travelling, not the music. I'll keep doing a wee bit of stuff in Australia and New Zealand."

Kicking off in Biggar a week tomorrow and cramming in gigs throughout the UK and Ireland until he finishes in his hometown of Peebles on 11 September, the tour is a gruelling one, even by Bogle's standards. When he's next back in Scotland, he says, it will be as a tourist.

The inevitable question, of course, is whether he would have written the songs which made his reputation, many of which have been covered by the likes of Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, Donovan and the Pogues, if he'd never caught that train. "No," he replies unhesitatingly. "I've always been interested in life's 'ifs', but part of the reason I left Scotland was that I could almost see the future. I was working in a mill in the Borders, I was engaged to a lassie from Milngavie and we broke up… I could see myself turning into a middle-aged drunk at an early stage."

He had pursued a brief and disillusioning flirtation with pop, playing in a local band, then, partly fuelled by growing political awareness, turned to the folk scene. He'd written "wee pieces of doggerel" since childhood, but once in Australia, the song-smithing began in earnest. "I'd written a couple of political satire things, but the first serious attempt was Leaving Nancy.

Just a couple of years after arriving, Bogle found himself at a Remembrance Day parade in Canberra. The result was The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. "I wrote it as an oblique comment on the Vietnam war which was in full swing… but while boys from Australia were dying there, people had hardly any idea where Vietnam was. Gallipoli was a lot closer to the Australian ethos – every schoolkid knew the story, so I set the song there."

Initially, his quiet musings of a legless ex-soldier didn't go down well with the establishment. "At first the Returned Service League and all these people didn't accept it at all; they thought it was anti-soldier, but they've come full circle now and they see it's certainly anti-war but not anti-soldier."

The song has actually been sung at Gallipoli. "This ex-squaddie from Vietnam told me he travelled over to Gallipoli almost specifically to sing it there. He sang it at the Dawn Service to a crowd of stunned Australians."

It may have become an institution – like Bogle himself – but he harbours mixed feelings about it: "I was just learning my trade then and it's a careless song in places, but it's now a question in the Australian Trivial Pursuit," he marvels.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Bogle's protest style is not that of the strident drum-beater. Rather, he tends to spell things out quietly and clearly, perhaps never more so than in his other great anti-war penning, No Man's Land, a song which rings so true that the Times once reliably assured its readers that its writer had perished in the First World War trenches.

Other successes have included Shelter, If Wishes Were Fishes and Now I'm Easy, his lyrics frequently pointing up the human condition, injustice or sheer inhumanity – possibly the strongest song from his new album concerns the iniquitous treatment of some of south Australia's Ngarrindjeri people who served during the First World War, only to have their expediently granted citizenship revoked on their return.

An open-hearted writer and performer with a self-deprecating side, his songs can be blatantly dewy-eyed. "I certainly don't regard sentiment as a dirty word, although it often is in the 21st century," he says, laughing – he still retains his native accent: "I'm Scottish for God's sake, of course I'm sentimental."

It's not all wry poignancy – an incorrigibly irreverent streak leers out from time to time with ditties like Nobody's Moggie Now, about a terminally flat cat, or his gloriously incorrect, ragtime-ish lament for "the middle-aged ineffectual, unfashionably heterosexual White Anglo Saxon Male", Endangered Species, with its enjoinder, "Put your head between your legs and kiss your a*** goodbye…"

Any offended sensibilities haven't come between him and a caseful of awards, including the Order of Australia, Australian Humanist of the Year and a UN Peace Medal. He is also an honorary Peebles Callant – a status which would probably give him leave to parade around his hame toun on a horse, "except horses scare the s*** out of me."

Things come full circle, though, when he ends his farewell tour at Peebles High School in September. "There won't be a dry seat in the house," as he puts it, adding that it's already sold out.

"There's a lot of people in the town who knew my Mum and Dad, so it will be an emotional occasion." Not that his memories of his alma mater are particularly rosy hued. "I was suspended for a week because I was caught with a flick knife," he chuckles. Had it been a century or so earlier, he might just have found himself Australia-bound under rather different circumstances.

• Eric Bogle's UK and Ireland tour stars at the Gillespie Centre, Biggar on 28 May. For full details see www.

• The Dreamer CD and the DVD Live at Stoneyfell Winery are on the Greentrax Records label.

Related topics: