And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

It’s a hot, summer night, as the song goes, and I’m playing a bar in Bay Ridge, NewYork, called – improbably – The Jolly Sparrow. It’s what we in Ireland would call an ‘old man’s bar’, but it’s just been taken over by a couple of young guys trying to make it into a live music venue. I like the guys and what they’re trying to do, which is why I’m here. Unfortunately, the best laid plans, and all that …

Despite the new owner’s noble ideas, the rest of the regulars haven’t quite gotten the news. Which is why I’m singing ‘Wish You Were Here’ to three drunken geriatrics who look like they’re wishing I wasn’t.

So, one night, a guy sits in with me on guitar for a few songs. This starts a whole scene going. Before long, I’ve got a Jamaican playing harmonica with me on occasion, as well as a painfully shy girl – whose name I don’t even know – with a voice like Billie Holliday, who gets up every now and then to do a heartbreaking version of ‘My Funny Valentine’, before skulking off into the shadows again.

I’m suddenly starting to realise that this is why I came to New York – this is what I’ve been waiting for.

This is reason I started playing music.

And it becomes clear to me like never before one night in the bar when I play ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’.

When I first started playing music and would think about what I wanted to be as a musician, it usually involved standing on stage at Madison Square Garden playing my own music. It certainly wouldn’t have involved standing on stage in a bar playing cover songs. The main reason for this was because all the cover bands I saw around me were usually middle-aged plumbers, who played a bit of music on the side. They were guys who played covers because they’d long ago given up their dream of playing original music. And, at the same time, the reason I wanted to be on stage in the Garden was because I wanted to get the reaction from people that Springsteen or U2 got when they performed. I wanted to move people in the same way that these singers moved me. I never thought I could do that in a bar playing cover songs. I was wrong.

So, this particular night in The Jolly Sparrow, I play ‘Waltzing Matilda’. At the end of my set, I go to the bar to get a drink and the barman nods in the direction of a fifty-something guy who’s another one of the regulars.

“You really got to John tonight,” the barman says.

I say, how come?

“He was in tears when you played that ‘Waltzing Matilda’ song. Something to do with Vietnam.”

Later that night, when I’m finished, I end up sitting beside John.

“You know that song you played,” he says. “‘Waltzing Matilda?’ The last time I heard that, me and a friend of mine were on a plane from Vietnam to Australia.” I can see him welling up again as he tells me. “We were going to Melbourne for two weeks R & R and there was a bunch of Aussie soldiers on their way home after finishing their tours. They were all singing that song and it was the first time I’d ever heard it. I thought it was a beautiful song. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it since … until now.”

With that, he turns back to his beer and doesn’t say another word for the rest of the night. When I get home, I’m lying in bed and I can’t stop thinking about what he said. And I think about the fifteen-year-old boy sitting in his room wanting to make a difference – however small – to someone’s life with music.


‘And the Band played Waltzing Matilda’ is an extremely moving anti-war song, written by Eric Bogle. The lyrics can be found here:

34 thoughts on “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

  1. You got it in one boy – if you can move people you can move the world, cover song or no cover song. Great post, great story, and also great song! Really enjoyed reading it, and hearing about all the strange characters who came into this memory.

  2. Very moving. I never knew Waltzing Matilda was a war song. I thought that I learned it in school, but it just occurred to me that my father sang it. That’s why I don’t know all the words. ‘Once a jolly swagman came upon a billybong…. and he sang and he danced and he waited while his billly boiled, You come awaltzing, Matilda with me…’ It’ll never sound the same to me again. If you hadn’t written this and posted it on twitter, I’d have never known. ❤

  3. You didn’t have to play a single note, you moved us with this post. I sometimes wonder if musicians realize the power they have (and am probably glad they don’t) to sing a few lines, play a few bars and utterly reconstruct the inner landscape of those sitting nearby. I’m thinking it was not just the song you sang, but your particular performance that so moved the man. Such mysterious magic.

  4. And making a difference didn’t stop there. Think of how many people you’ve reached since then. Whether it be your singing or your writing or even your twittering–you have a way of moving people.

    Great post, Derek.

  5. What a beautiful story. You can totally touch people’s hearts singing cover songs. It takes a while for a song to sink in and become part of who “you” are. Cover songs are familiar, so all the feelings associated with are already there.

    One of my favorite songs is “Loretta” by Townes Van Zandt. A lot of people have recorded it, including Ray Lamontagne (who does my favorite cover version). “Loretta” reminds me of a period of my life that had extreme highs and lows. I listen to it all the time at home. Pretty recently, I was listening to some live music, and this guy played “Loretta.” I sat there and almost cried.

    There’s just something about music. It’s our anthem, our soundtrack, and the story of our life. Thanks for sharing this. 😀

  6. Wow this was so moving. I don’t feel moved often but like the others it gave me shivers down my spine. So sad thinking of that man and his friends. I never knew that it was an anti war song, suppose I’ve never really listened to it properly but I will now. I knew u were a Little pub player at heart ;). Beautiful story x

  7. Great post and beautifully written. I would love to heat Waltzing Matilda on one of your New Music Mondays 🙂

  8. Beautiful post. Made my eyes well up a little, too. I’ve always thought of art that way, as something to connect with other people.

  9. Beautiful. One of the best performances Ive ever witnessed wasnt Madonna, U2 or Prince, it was last year, after a simple sit down meal with my villagers, in honour of a little statue which was inaugurated. There were about 25 of us, if that, and laden with wine, they began to sing; each taking turns. Those voices which had been trained from young, while doing their washing, cleaning pigtripe or in church during mass; it makes me well up every time just thinking about it.

  10. The power of music is amazing. It’s like singing the National Anthem. Music has a way of making us remember, making us forget, instilling loyalty, creating emotion of such depth it can last a lifetime and beyond. I can’t help it, but it reminds me of Casablanca’s “As Time Goes By.” Cheesy, I know.

  11. Music touches everyone in the most incredible way & recalls with poignant clarity moments once forgotten. Music can revisit lost loves, old friends, heartbreak & and love.

    Keep playing Derek, making a difference to even one person is a wondrous achievement.
    Powerful 🙂

  12. To be able to connect with someone’s heart, by story or song, is a rare and beautiful talent which you have in abundance, Derek.

  13. First thing I read this morning was your post as I bookmarked it before sleeping last night. Very powerful telling of what it is that connects us all. Music and words are the most powerful of ways to reach out and connect with people and soooth souls.

    I look forward to reading more of your writing Derek.

    Patrick aka Mac

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