Maori Battalion Marching Song a cultural ripoff?

Back in the 1960s when I realised there was money to be made from my modest talents at the piano, I still needed a repertoire that would let me play at social events – 21sts, wedding celebrations, dances etc. I got taken in hand by Alf ‘Screaming Skull’ Ganderton, who was secretary of the Palmerston North branch of the Musicians’ Union. Alf also happened to be boss of the smallgoods department at Longburn Freezing Works, where I worked with livers, lungs and brains for several years during university summer holidays.

The Maori Battalion Marching Song, published in 1940 by Charles Begg & Co.

One area Alf sorted out was music for the Gay Gordons dance. This dance was relatively unknown to me, as I’d not long before moved up from North Otago where I’d never encountered the Gay Gordons. (Which was curious, because it was a Scottish dance and North Otago was more ‘Scottish’ than the Manawatu.) Alf, who played solo gigs with a primitive Clavionet electronic keyboard attached to his piano, led off his Gay Gordons medley with Maori Battalion Marching Song. I was happy to follow his lead because Maori Battalion, as musos called it, had a rousing melody and rhythm that never failed to get people onto the dancefloor.

It indelibly installed itself into my brain – this morning I went to the piano and played it faultlessly without music. It was the first time I’d played it for 30 years or more.

Yesterday I was reminded of gigs bashing out Maori Battalion when I got an email from fellow veteran pianist Kevin Clark. Kevin had discovered that the famous song, as written by Maori Battalion corporal Anania Amohau and a Begg’s music publishing hit in 1940, was a ripoff. Kevin was right. In a kind of cultural appropriation in reverse, it was about 90% the same as The Washington and Lee Swing.

Here’s a YouTube clip showing Maori Battalion soldiers with the song in the background:

Perhaps Anania Amohau shouldn’t take most of the blame. While Begg’s sheet music credited him for both the music and the lyrics, it has been suggested that the melody was actually supplied by Trentham Military Camp’s bandmaster, whose marching music library may well have included Washington and Lee Swing.

Here’s what Kevin sent me:

The Washington and Lee Swing dates back to 1910 and is the official ‘fight song’ of Washington & Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia. It later became a football march at many other colleges and morphed into a swing, dixieland and bluegrass standard. Those recording it included Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Red Nicholls and Pete Fountain.

But wait…there’s more! According to Wikpedia, Washington and Lee Swing itself was “heavily influenced by (or even originally outright borrowed from)” an earlier Mexican march, written in 1891 by Genaro Codino.

‘Maori Battalion’ was a double rip-off that gave pleasure and pride to a lot of New Zealanders, so thanks anyway, Anania and the bandmaster. (Now if only I could get that bloody song out of my brain…)

This entry was posted in Jazz, Music, New Zealand recorded music, Nostalgia and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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