Waltzing Matilda

“Waltzing Matilda”, an Australian unofficial national anthem that graced the world with its Aussie charm. This song is Australia’s most popular bush ballad (a style of folk music and poetry that depicts the life, scenery, and character of Australian bush), released in January 1895. Australians know this patriotic song by heart and several versions of this iconic song have been released over years. Are you excited to know more about “Waltzing Matilda”!? Then follow me by reading this article completely, you will find some more interesting facts about this classic song till the end. Well, let us begin.

Waltzing Matilda

Now a days, we get to hear many versions of Waltzing Matilda but they all are not the original versions. The original version of Waltzing Matilda was released in 1895 and true story behind this song involves a complicated love triangle, and the rumoured murder of a striking shearer which took place during the period where Australia was close to a civilian war in the outback.

Here is the original version of Australia’s most iconic patriotic and unofficial national anthem from Andrew Barton Banjo Peterson.

Oh there once was a swagman camped in the billabong
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree
And he sang as he looked at the old billy boiling
Who’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me

Who’ll come a waltzing Matilda my darling
Who’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me
Waltzing Matilda leading a tucker bag
Who’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me

Down came a jumbuck to drink at the water hole
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him in glee
And he said as he put him away in the tucker bag
You’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me

You’ll come a waltzing Matilda my darling
You’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me
Waltzing Matilda leading a tucker bag
You’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me

Down came the squatter a riding on his thoroughbred
Down came policemen one, two and three
Where is the jumbuck you’ve got in the tucker bag
You’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me

You’ll come a waltzing Matilda my darling
You’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me
Waltzing Matilda leading a tucker bag
You’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me

But the swagman he ups and he jumps in the water hole
Drowning himself by the Coolibah tree
And his ghost can be heard as it sings in the billabong
Who’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me

You can get the tune from YouTube here:

The lyrics of Waltzing Matilda were written by “Andrew Barton Banjo Peterson” (17 February 1864 – 5 February 1941), a famous Australian journalist, bush poet, as well as author. He worked on many Australian life ballads and poems, focussing especially on outback and rural areas in Australia. The song was first published as sheet music in 1903. Banjo Peterson wrote the lyrics in Australian slang and according to the tune “The Craigielee March”. Overs years of decade, many other versions to the lyrics have been merged but in 1972 the original manuscript was found along with the tune. Let us discuss about the author later in detail.

This Australian bush ballad, Waltzing Matilda, relates the story of a swagman (itinerant worker) who is a wealthy landowner steals the sheep and caught red handed. Later, the swagman receives the punishment of death over imprisonment, for which he was not happy and commits suicide by jumping into a water hole.

Why and for whom was it created?

The true story behind Waltzing Matilda is quite remarkable! 1894, a year holding a significance of sheep shearers strike that was violent and sabotaged. This strike was Australia’s one of the earliest and most important industrial disputes. Initially the dispute was happened only between unionised and non-unionised workers but eventually resulted in violent and sabotaged dispute with the formation of large strike camps by workers.

During the same time, a woolshed at the Dagworth Homestead was set to fire, where over a hundred sheep were killed. The owner of Dagworth Homestead, Bob Macpherson along with three police men chased Hoffmeister, arsonist convicting him for the murder of sheeps. Instead of getting death over imprisonment, Hoffmeister killed himself by jumping into a water hole at Combo. A few months later, Andrew Barton Banjo Peterson got to visit Macpherson family and Dagworth Homestead. During his stay at Dagworth homestead, Macpherson and Banjo went for a trip around the place where Hoffmeister committed suicide, where they both found remains of freshly killed sheep. Bob Macpherson also shared the previous incident related to the sheep’s happened over there to Banjo.

One fine evening, Banjo got to hear the tune “The Craigielee March” playing Macpherson’s daughter, Christiana on a zither. She was playing just to recall the tune which she heard at the Warrnambool Race Meeting, played by the military band during “The Craigielee March”. While listening to the tune playing by Christiana, Banjo started writing beautiful lyrics to “Waltzing Matilda” in Australian slang thinking that it would be good to give meaningful lyrics to the tune and the music would be a good piece. That is how Banjo Peterson got inspired to give a nice subject to “Waltzing Matilda” that relates two incidents of Hoffmeister suicide and found skin of newly killed sheep at Combo water hole.

The March as a musical genre (is a piece of music with a strong regular rhythm which is frequently performed by military) was composed by James Barr, a Scottish Composer in 1818 for the 1806 poem of Robert Tannahill’s i.e. “Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielee”. Eventually in early 1890’s it was declared as the official music played during “The Craigielee March” for brass band by Australian composer Thomas Bulch.

What is being expressed in the song by Banjo Peterson?

The author used ‘to and fro’ dialogue, and ABCB rhyming scheme to generate lively and free flowing melody tune in a poetic form. These poetic devices are very much helpful to the readers to remember the song and lyrics easily. The lyrics contains instances of Australian uniquely designed strine words and idioms of Australian slang. The most obvious phrases used in Waltzing Matilda refers to the story of a swagman. A swagman refers to a person who waltzes or drifts from one place to another place carrying a blanket roll, Matilda. The term Matilda is believed to be originated from the ‘Tuetonic Origins’ holding a meaning of Mighty Battle Maiden. Also, it is believed that the Matilda is given to the female camp followers who accompanied Thirty Year Wars in Europe for the purpose of keeping them warm at night and later the blankets are mean to consider as great army blankets and coats which soldiers wrapped themselves in the battle fields. These were rolled as their backpack over the shoulders while marching.

Australia’s most favourite song ‘Waltzing Matilda’ has gained some notoriety when it was sold to Billy Tea Company, which used the song to advertise their product during early 1900’s. But still it has gained enough popularity in later days. However, all the Australians including young and old attracted to this song and are able to sing its lyrics so perfectly and easily. The song even gained more historical importance and Australians believe that this should be their national anthem. In fact, Australia got a constitution in 1897 and 1898 by federal convention and in 1900 Britain declared that Australia is free as a country that means they gave Australia Independence. During that period, Australians believed that ‘waltzing Matilda’ kept the social cause of Australian Independence in front of public’s mind as the song became so popular through its lyrics and tune.

The song was originally composed by Macpherson’s daughter Christiana Macpherson. But the version which we are often listening to is the re-composition done by Maria Cowan.

1st Verse

A destitute itinerant worker (swagman) is resting under a eucalyptus tree (coolibah) on the banks of a watering-hole (billabong). He has lit a fire and is boiling tea in a tin can (billy). He is singing and passing the time.

2nd Verse

While there, he notices a sheep (jumbuck) wandering down to the watering-hole for a drink. He is starving, so the swagman catches the sheep, kills it, eats what he can, and stows the rest in his backpack (tucker bag).

3rd Verse

Unfortunately for the swagman, the wealthy landowner (squatter) comes by the water-hole. He is mounted on his fine, expensive horse (thoroughbred) and is accompanied by three policemen (troopers). They catch the swagman red-handed with the remains of the sheep in his backpack and try to arrest him for killing the sheep.

4th Verse

Preferring death over imprisonment for his crime, the swagman jumps into a waterhole and commits suicide. Ever since that day, his ghost still haunts the waterhole and can be heard singing his song.

Slim Dusty-Waltzing Matilda

Meaning of Australian Slang Strine Words Used in Waltzing Matilda

The Australian slang words and idioms uniquely used in Waltzing Matilda are referred as Strine Words. Here we can have a look at some of those which are not in common usage now-a-days.

Jolly- Unhappy

Coolibah Tree- Coolibah is a word derived from aboriginal word ‘gulabaa’ and meaning a ‘eucalyptus tree’ that commonly grows near water.

Billabong– It is again an aboriginal word meaning little or no water. A waterhole or Pond or a dead-end channel extending from the main stream of a river filled with water only in the rainy season.

Swagman- An itinerant worker travelling from one place to another place in search of work also referred as a hobo. A swagman is generally described as carrying all his belongings wrapped in a blanket and holding at his back over the shoulders called a swag.

Billy: A tin can with a wire handle used to boil water

Tucker Bag: A bag commonly used for storing food usually a flour sack or old sugar

Jumbuck: A Sheep. The word is derived from the two words ‘Jumping Buck’

Squatter: A Rancher or A healthy Land Owner especially with a large land holding. Today squatter means a person illegally occupying a property.

Waltzing Matilda: To go walkabout carrying your swag

Swag: A pack or bundle containing the personal belongings of a swagman

Walkabout: Walking in the bush for an extended period of time

Thoroughbred: An expensive pedigreed horse. The Mercedes Benz equivalent of its day

Note: when reading Paterson’s hand written manuscript, it is difficult to determine the correct words for two parts of his poem:

  • “Leading a tucker bag” could also be “heaving a tucker bag” or “leading a water bag” or “heaving a water bag”.
  • “Where is the jumbuck” could also be “Whose is the jumbuck”

The most significant linguistic feature of “Waltzing Matilda” is the colloquial language. We observe repetition of Australian slang words and idioms especially the title, “Waltzing Matilda”. The often repetition of Waltzing Matilda in the chorus make the lines of the song easier to sing, understand, and remember. The repetition of words helps to impress the melody music and rhythm and makes it more memorable.

Australia’s Unofficial Anthem

In 1977, there happened a national vote to decide the Australia’s Official National Anthem and results were like this: ‘Advance Australia Fair’, Winner scored 43% of the votes followed by ‘Waltzing Matilda’ scored 23% of votes, then ‘God Save the Queen’ scored 19%, and ‘song of Australia’ with the score of 10%.

The Waltzing Matilda was first performed by Sir Herbert Ramsay in 1895. First recording was done by John Collinson and Russell Callow in 1926. In 1974 World Cup and the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, Waltzing Matilda was a special attraction and also holds special popularity as the Australian National Rugby Union team’s anthem in response to New Zealand All Blacks’ haka. In addition, this son is performed even to this day at the annual AFL Grand Final along with ‘Australia Advance Fair’.

This is the great significance of Waltzing Matilda in Australian culture. You can observe more and more versions and recordings of Australia’s most iconic song, Waltzing Matilda (than any other song in the nation) registered on the Sounds of Australia registry in the National Film and Sound Archive.

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