Saturday, March 19, 2011

"And her ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong ..."

If you were to ask the average person what they know about the Australian woman, Christina Rutherford Macpherson, most likely you will be met with a blank stare or - at best in this day and age - "Is that the real name of Elle Macpherson?" - ie the fashion model.
Christina Macpherson c. 1900. National Library of Australia
Christina has an unkind fame that has been obscured by varying degrees of hysteria and legend and, not least, the self-importance of others, from hack journalists to radical unionists and from music theorists to academic historians. My attempt to find out more about her has been both intriguing and frustrating.
Christina Macpherson was buried in Melbourne's St Kilda Cemetery in 1936 and her grave remained unmarked until the mid-1980s when a TV documentary team rediscovered it and a niece of hers arranged for this plaque to be placed on her grave.

Image: Iain Macfarlane.
 Waltzing Matilda is one of the world's most recognisable songs, and there have been numerous theories, debate and controversy about its real origins. There is no doubt that Christina was connected with its first outing - using an autoharp she played the first sketchy score to the poet A B (Banjo) Paterson to which he penned the words. That first score has now become a National Treasure, even if it is obvious that the original melody Craigilea bears little resemblance (at least to my non-muscial ear) to the Waltzing Matilda now known world-wide, with this latter being apparently the invention of Marie Cowan although that, too, has its origins elsewhere in British folk tunes. Marie's name usually appears on all sheet music as the composer and/or arranger of that version. To complicate matters further, there is another version called the "Queensland", as sung here by The Seekers.
For anyone wishing to read more, the National Library of Australia has a complete web section devoted to the history of Waltzing Matilda and its myths. The website of Roger Clarke also dazzles and confounds with even more information.
There is no intention of adding to the fantasies or theories in this blog as it is the woman Christina Macpherson herself who interests me and is a prime example of late 19th Century fifteen minutes of fame factor.
What else did she do in life apart from crying at an opportune moment as a baby resulting in the shooting of the notorious bushranger Mad Dog Morgan and later scribbling down a tune for a visiting journalist? See her brief biography in this Friends of St Kilda Cemetery newsletter.
Obviously, she never married. Did she remain an isolated spinster and pine away, still carrying a torch for Banjo Paterson - as some have suggested? Or did she busy herself with the usual charity and family care duties that was the fate of so many single women from that era? In the Australian Electoral Roll between 1914 and 1933, she was simply listed as "home duties, F [female]" which suggests she didn't do much at all and probably had a small private family income.
Newspapers of the era are mostly silent on her (apart from Waltzing Matilda connections) and just about the only record of her in a personal way is a brief mention of her death in the Wills and Estates column of The Age in June 1936 in which she was described as a spinster who lived in Avoca Street, South Yarra, and who left the sum of £3,624 to her sister, who is unamed but is probably the Lady McArthur who found among her effects the letters that passed between Christina and Banjo Paterson relating to Waltzing Matilda (Melbourne Sun, 14 April 1941) and thus confirming her connection to the music.
Rather surprisingly, neither Christina Macpherson nor Marie Cowan rates her own entry in the online Australian Dictionary of Biography. It is even more disappointing that they are not considered noteworthy for entry in the Australian Women's Register or the Australian Women's History forum either.
As can be see from searching the Music Australia archive, Marie Cowan (died 1919) is linked to numerous versions and possibly other music compositions, but her biographical details are even more sketchy than those of Christina and there does not seem to be any accessible image of her.
Is the music to Australia's "unofficial national anthem" less important than Banjo's famous words?
When one considers how much of Australia and its history, both at home and abroad through two World Wars and all subsequent ones, as well as its national pride, culture and identity have been associated with the melody/melodies of Waltzing Matilda, it would be fitting if the women who were involved in its creation are given greater recognition for their contributions!
It is ironic also that the murky history of Waltzing Matilda continues to this day and despite its creator/s being dead for more than the requisite 50 years, it seems that copyright still belongs to the Americans and thus Australians are unable to play it professionally without first obtaining permission from the copyright holder in the United States to do so. 

Image: National Library of Australia

No comments: