Standing up for it, Redmer Yska

God Defend New Zealand: A History of the National Anthem
Ashley Heenan
School of Music and University of Canterbury, $29.95,
ISBN 0908718098

Hear Our Voices We Entreat: The Extraordinary Story of New Zealand’s National Anthems
Max Cryer
Exisle Publishing, $29.99,
ISBN 0908988354

When my nine-year-old’s soccer team won its final recently, the boys capped off the presentation of plastic trophies by belting out the national anthem. The same thing happened during a New Year’s Eve bonfire at Makara beach as the kids sat back after a gorge of marshmallow. It’s what they sing at school these days. As Ashley Heenan makes clear in the first of these two books, Otago composer John Woods tailored his “hymn” for performance by schoolchildren. George Grey, one of its early champions, suggested in the late 1870s it was something a two-year-old could sing. The Governor became a convert after hearing a performance by 600 kids in a wool store in Wood’s hometown of Lawrence.

Puerile or not, Wood’s music helped elevate Tom Bracken’s wooden verses into an evergreen. A clothing store TV commercial screening at the moment bears this out. Here, a teen on a rooftop picks out GDNZ on an electric guitar, recalling the Jimi Hendrix performance of “The Star-spangled Banner”. The tune snaps us to attention; takes us back to the sports grounds and draughty assembly halls of childhood.

Sanctifying GDNZ took a century, starting with the Victorian equivalent of a PR campaign. First, Bracken boldly announced “New Zealand’s National Anthem” on the first edition of the sheet music in 1878. Then he dedicated the piece to the Marquis of Normanby, flattering the Governor of the day for whom the only national anthem was “God Save the Queen”. The sheet music was then direct-mailed to scores of local and overseas newspapers and luminaries of the day such as Julius Vogel, Grey and, later, Seddon. A constituency of support was thus marshalled.

By the early 20th century, the song was a fixture at Boy Scout jamborees, but retained a kind of maverick quality. Cryer points out that during the 1920s, one of Normanby’s vice-regal successors even boycotted a function when the advance programme showed that GDNZ – not “God Save the King” – was to be sung.

It was time for a new round of champions. In the 1930s, James McDermott, an engineer from the Post and Telegraph Department, took over. Keen to have GDNZ included in the 1940 Centennial celebrations, McDermott stalked the organisers, including Internal Affairs under-secretary Joe Heenan, penning lines like “I know I am a pest but you are the hope of the white race”. McDermott’s mission began as sparks of emerging Kiwi nationalism were getting stirred up. Journalist James Cowan made his contribution in 1938, stomping all over “God Save the King”, calling it “the world’s worst national anthem, trite and a burden to the ear. ‘God Defend New Zealand’ is brisk and heart-lifting.” These efforts paid off when the Labour Government announced in 1940 that it now owned copyright on the song, and New Zealanders were free to sing it.

“God Save the King/Queen” remained the official anthem until the 1960s, and our parents continued to rise in salute before every cinema screening (though at Saturday matinees at the Regal, we misled types stayed in our seats). One day in the early 1960s, cinema managers ended the practice, and another appendage of Empire fell away. The Governors still held the line: the preposterously monocled Bernard Fergusson spoke of his pain in 1967 when the “wrong” national anthem (“God Defend New Zealand”) was played at the unveiling of a cairn.

New champions kept up the pressure. From the mid- 1960s Jaycees campaigned for GDNZ to be played at the Olympics. And then at Munich in 1972 the song was baptised on television, transforming the rowing eight’s golden victory into tear-streaked, chest-thumping ecstasy. GDNZ immediately became the official signature tune to moments of national glory.

Neither book quite explains how on a good day GDNZ passes the backbone test, offers a taste of the mad moment in Casablanca when the crowd breaks into “La Marseillaise”. Cryer gets closest: good editorial slicing and dicing, fabulous graphics and the best of the author’s sheet music and print collection help ensure it is a shiny package. But he does go on, and I got terrified at the thought of him reading bits out over the wireless. And no, I didn’t want to know that Woods cultivated 300 varieties of daffodils.

But Cryer is good on the song’s cultural and social context. The chapter on the elusive “Pacific’s triple star” is fresh and timely. He has also out-Googled himself, gathering together just about everything ever written about the song. Cryer’s own take on Bracken’s “passive” lyrics is hilarious, with New Zealanders “lying back and expecting someone else to come to their aid”.

Ashley Heenan’s book looks like a labour of love. The product of a university music department, it is a volume in need of a cold editor. Son of the bureaucrat who helped bring GDNZ back to life, the author reproduces a sheaf of departmental correspondence, some of it fascinating. On the eve of WWII, Wellington music critic L D Austin campaigned against the song’s inclusion in the 1940 Centennial celebrations: “The very title is unfortunate and ambiguous, since it voices a distinct note of despair.”

The parallel translation of Bracken’s verses into Maori is also well covered here. The suggestion that GDNZ go into what a 1878 newspaper termed “Maori dress” was a further tactic to win over George Grey. His eventual choice was a judge in the Maori Land Court, Thomas Smith. Much was made at the time of the word “Aotearoa” in the title. In 1878, the term was largely unknown, prompting one newspaper to describe it as “the old and poetic name given to New Zealand by those who first saw it, when coming from the distant isles of the Pacific”. Call me sentimental, but it is always the Maori version that fogs up the specs. On the threshold of another century, GDNZ is fully commodified, a slab of Kiwi. And with today’s nine-year olds working for the cause, our sacred song should keep blazing away.


Redmer Yska is writing a civic history of Wellington.   


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Posted in History, Music, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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