March 13, 2005
My mother is Australian, but I wasn’t raised with much awareness of Australian culture. My mom occasionally served us Vegemite when we were kids, but that’s about it. (If you’ve never tasted Vegemite, it’s about as gross as you’d think: It has the color and consistency of smooshed ants, and probably tastes about as good. But I remember liking it fine as a kid.)
I still possess one hyper-Australian cultural artifact from my childhood: a mid-’60s album called Join Rolf Harris Singing “The Court of King Caractacus” and Other Fun Songs. The cover is sublime:
Rolf Harris is a household name in Australia, and I think he’s also pretty well known in the U.K. But I’d be surprised if many people here in the United States have heard of him. He sings, he does comedy, he paints, he hosts goofy TV shows for children. His official site has loads of info about his long, oddball career.
I haven’t owned a turntable since about 1991, so it’s been at least that long since I last played my copy of Join Rolf Harris. But a couple of years ago I discovered that an audiophile friend on Echo owns a copy of it, and he was nice enough to digitize it and send me a CD. My desire to hear the record was motivated primarily by nostalgia, but I was amazed to discover that it’s actually a great album. Seriously. He’s a great singer (or he was 40 years ago) and a charming, funny showman. Join Rolf Harris is mostly a collection of Australian and English music hall songs, some of them classics and some of them Harris originals. I loved all of these songs and often sang along to them with great brio. I loved “Gosport Nancy” without having any idea it was about a prostitute (or at least a very, very friendly gal):
Now Gosport Nancy keeps a parlour
Where the lads can take their ease
She’ll wake you, she’ll shake you
She will do whate’er you please
Now all the Gosport ladies
They does the best they can
But at makin’ a bed for a sailor’s head
There’s none like Gosport Nan
The album contains the single best version of “Waltzing Matilda” I’ve ever heard. Because I aim to please, I’m posting it here:
There’s crowd noise on the recording, so it must be from a concert, but it also sounds like some overdubs were added later. Before the song starts, Harris spends a couple of minutes outlining a glossary of some of the terms used in the song.
Join Rolf Harris Singing “The Court of King Caractacus” and Other Fun Songs isn’t mentioned on Harris’s official site, and a Google search only pulls up a handful of references to it. It was probably a compilation assembled specifically for the American market. (My copy says “Printed in the U.S.A.” on the back.)
Here are the liner notes, which are credited to someone named Bob Goldstein:
Rolf Harris is a troublemaker. He makes people nervous. Well, not all people—just the bunch that gets edgy when they see or hear something they cannot easily label. You know the type: they’re the ones who call all popular music “rock and roll,” who dismiss all Broadway shows as “loud and brassy,” and who brand all wearers of shaggy haircuts “Beatles fans.” Well, this bunch is very upset because the only name that fits Rolf Harris is his own, and the only label he’ll readily wear is Epic’s.
When I first received this album, I too tried to play that living room game of categorizing everything. After hearing “Waltzing Matilda” and “Click Go the Shears,” I said, “It’s easy. They’re songs of the Australian Outback. That’s what he sings!” I was sure I had him down pat and I was triumphant over my easy victory.
Then I played “Botany Bay” and “Gosport Nancy.” “Wait a minute. There’s a little problem now,” I said. “I guess I’ll have to enlarge the phrase to read ‘Ribald Songs of Australian Outbackers and English Mariners.’”
Then into my living room marched “The Farmer Went Out for Some Beer,” “The Wild Rover,” and a “Little Robin” who died on my rug singing “tu-ra-loo, tu-ra-loo.” I now had to juggle my words around to read: “Ribald Music Hall Songs of Australian Outbackers, English Mariners, Scottish Robins and Others.” Next came “The Overlanders,” and that “Wild Colonial Boy.” What a relief! They fit in—kind of.
Now what the devil is Rolf doing? What does he mean singing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”? That doesn’t fit into my phrase. I don’t care if I like it—it just doesn’t fit!
And what’s that? “I’ll Be Hanged” sounds like an American cowboy song with a touch of “Eefin’.” Well, I’ll just have to squeeze it into my poor bloated phrase to now read: “Ribald Music Hall Songs of Australian Outbackers, English Mariners, Scottish Robins, American Cowboys and Others.” The category is so large, it’s starting to hang over the edge of my typewriter.
“The Court of King WHO?” King Caractacus? Now what kind of a song is that? Oh, of course. “The fascinating witches who put the scintillating stitches in the britches of the boys who put the powder on the noses of the faces of the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caractacus” is a “Ribald Music Hall Song of Australian Outbackers, English Mariners, Scottish Robins, American Cowboys, Arabian Potentates and Others.” And a group-sing to boot.
You know, those people are right. Rolf Harris is a troublemaker. And, like all troublemakers, you better not take your eyes or your ears off him. Have fun.