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Paying the Tune

July 10, 2013

We are the Boys from Way Down UnderEvery time a gym, a hairdresser, a dance hall, a radio station, cafe or any other public place plays music while making money, a small royalty is supposed to be paid to the songwriters who help make their premises an attractive place to visit. Collection societies such as BMI, ASCAP and – in New Zealand and Australia – APRA are paid a small annual fee, and this is passed on to the composers in proportion to the airplay they receive during sample monitoring periods.

Legendary Mosgiel promoter Joe Brown ran his first his first dance aged just just nine, and during the 1940s and 1950s his Saturday night dance at the Dunedin Town Hall was so successful – as and event and an opportunity for couples to mingle – it became known as “The Marriage Bureau”.

So it was a surprise to find an item in the 1 October 1946 issue of Maestro magazine, just after the Second World War, reporting that Brown lost a case in the Dunedin Supreme Court for infringing copyright at those Saturday night dances. Maestro reported:

It was claimed that at the Town Hall Dance on April 13, 1946, one performance of ‘We Are the Boys From Way Down Under’ and three performances of the ‘Maxina’ were given without the consent of the plaintiffs, and defendant had thereby infringed the plaintiff’s copyright in the said music works.

In reply, the Brown’s counsel said the action had been settled, and that the future had been placed on a proper basis. Mr Justice Kennedy then made an order by consent which restrained the defendant, his servants, and his agents from infringing copyright of the various plaintiffs in the two musical works.

As the song was published in 1940 by Boosey & Hawkes in Sydney, it’s a good bet that JE Pyke was an Australian, not a New Zealander. Nevertheless it became a hit among New Zealand soldiers during the Second World War. Members of the Maori Battalion recorded it with the 1ZB Salon Orchestra, presumably after their return. But it was also heard at the front: to give just a couple of examples, in the official history of the 2NZEF’s 24 Battalion, author R M Burdon describes the troops singing it just after the battle of Cassino:

Later in the evening I got a few of the Italians to dance a Tarantella, which was loudly applauded, and later we got in the centre and sang ‘We are the boys from way down under’, which also went down well. We stopped at 11 p.m., of course when it was really going at full swing, but that is the best time to stop when everyone is happy. The boys were all very thrilled, and I bet it is a bit of a rarity, a dance in the front line.

And in Stepping Stones to the Solomons a history of 29 Battalion – the song has become popular enough by 1941 to have already inspired a parody:

We are the boys just drawn by ballot, sailing for Fiji,
Eighth Infantry Brigade they call us, sounds bloody awful to me;
BP’s, Brigade and Samambula, too, we know we’re mugs for coming here to you.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Annette Grupen-Hall permalink
    March 27, 2014 1:40 pm

    J E Pyke was my grandfather. He was a New Zealander from Auckland. He died in 1956.

    • March 27, 2014 1:51 pm

      Thanks for letting me know, Annette. It’s often hard to tell with war songs whether the authors are New Zealanders or Australians, as there were so few songs published here. Many songwriters sent their material to Australia and were lucky to get published, sometimes with the words changed to suit the new locale.

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