Waltz With Matilda

Inexplicably, driving with Akari out to Moliagul, photographing an old thunder box (outdoor toilet) and a long abandoned house, filled me with the urge to wander further with my dogs sniff mapping. It made me think of swagmen and the much loved Waltzing Matilda.

Once a jolly swagman camped by a Billabong
Under the shade of a Coolabah tree
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?”

Down come a jumbuck to drink at the water hole
Up jumped a swagman and grabbed him in glee
And he sang as he stowed him away in his tucker bag
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.”

Up rode the Squatter a riding his thoroughbred
Up rode the Trooper–one, two, three
“Where’s that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?”
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.”

But the swagman he up and jumped in the water hole
Drowning himself by the Coolabah tree,
And his ghost may be heard as it sings in the Billabong,
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?”

–from “Waltzing Matilda” by Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson, 1895.

“Advance Australia Fair” was proclaimed as Australia’s national anthem, replacing “God Save the Queen,” on 19 April 1984. If you ask an average Australian to sing the national anthem chances are that they will recite only the opening lines. However, if you ask an average Australian to sing “Waltzing Matilda” it is almost certain that they will sing about the swagman [1] who stole a jumbuck [2] and fled from the troopers [3] with some flourish.

“Waltzing Matilda,” Australia’s unofficial anthem, is known and loved all over the world and, arguably stands alongside” The Star-Spangled Banner” or ” La Marseillaise” as a song capable of arousing deep national pride. The strains of “Waltzing Matilda” consistently bring a tear to the eyes of Australians far from home, Australians who, like the late Peter Allen, still like to call Australia home.

Where did the song originate? Why do Australians find “Waltzing Matilda” so unutterably poignant? What do the words mean? Why are Australians moved by the escapades of a petty criminal?

‘Waltzing Matilda’ is credited to Andrew Barton (Banjo) Paterson (1864 -1941). Banjo Paterson was a lawyer by profession and lived and worked in Sydney Australia. Although Paterson was a city slicker who hailed from the urban fringes of Australia, he was, like so many of his ilk, enchanted by the Australian bush and outback. Paterson is purported to have been travelling with his fiancée in central Queensland, about 1,500 km north of Sydney when he wrote the song. The couple are said to have spent a few weeks at Dagworth Station, a vast outback station near Winton in Queensland. It was at Dagworth that Paterson is said to have met Christina MacPherson, whose brother managed the station at the time. One yarn [4] suggests that it was Christina who inspired Banjo with a whimsical, dreamy rendition of the tune ‘Craigeelee’, a score which provided the basis for ‘Waltzing Matilda’

The expression ‘waltzing matilda’ is believed to have German origins. Handolf, near Adelaide was just one of the many German settlements that sprang up in Australia once free immigrants began to arrive and German expressions quickly made their way into the vocabulary. It is almost certain that the title of Paterson’s ballad came from the expression Auf die Waltz gehen, that means to take to the road. The term harks back to the Middle Ages when apprentices were required by their master to visit other masters before their release could be secured. Later a ‘matilda’ was given to female camp followers who accompanied soldiers during the Thirty Year War in Europe and was common place during World War One.In the context of the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’ the ‘matilda’ was a pack that swagmen carried, filled with things tho keep them warm at night. To waltz with matilda literally meant to travel, to dance from place to place in search of work, with one’s belongings wrapped in a grey blanket. [5]

Paterson, like most Australians who lived in the cities, was fascinated by stories of the hostile, arid outback. Deaths in the outback were well publicized. Deaths on the track were a common occurrence and it is likely that the fate of travelers would have been a subject of conversation of an evening while Paterson was at Dagworth. Stories of those that perished would have been told along the bush telegraph, shared over dinner, acting as a cautionary tale for the foolhardy. For example, one story that drifted down the bush telegraph told of the fate of Seymour Hamilton, a nineteen-year-old, two years out from England. He left Tinga Tinagans for Coongie but never arrived. Subsequent searches found his packsaddle and swag. He was believed to have died of thirst and, when his bones were finally found, they had been scattered and gnawed by dingoes.

Another formative influence on Paterson may have been the story of an incident that actually occurred at Dagworth. an incident on the property that must have become known to him during his stay. On 1 September 1894, a mere four months earlier, shearers had set the Dagworth woolshed ablaze, cremating a hundred sheep. MacPherson and three police troopers had pursued the shearers. [6]

It is almost certain that Banjo Paterson threaded together events such as these when he conjured up “Waltzing Matilda”. But why has the story endured? How has “Waltzing Matilda” made its way into the Australian psyche?

Modern Australians may live predominantly in urban zones but this does not lessen the call of the outback, the lure of the bush, or lessen their need to hear yarns of pioneering ancestors who left Old England’s shore, picked up lumps of gold [7] and went on to build a nation on the back of the sheep. Australian stories and art that have endured are invariably set in the bush and involve the triumph of the underdog.

The setting of “Waltzing Matilda” is enough to fuel a deep yearning within Australians to escape from the concrete cities of the urban fringes. To travel the outback, with my swag all on my shoulder, to witness the stark beauty and isolation of this most ancient of lands, to lie beneath the Southern Cross, to smell the unique perfume of the eucalypt, is a dream, a quest that sends thousands of wanderers towards the red centre each year, in search of just such a place. To lie while the billy [8] boils, to dream by a billabong [9], under the shade of a Coolabah tree is akin to finding the eternal Garden of Eden.

Moreover, “Waltzing Matilda” builds support for the underdog and creates a hero out of a gutsy, destitute man. The hapless swagman in this story was one of thousands of unemployed men who tramped around the Australian bush during the mid nineteen eighties, usually coming to sheep stations at sunset to ask for supper and a bed, when it was too late to work. (Sometimes called a Sundowner because they arrived at sundown when it was too late to be expected to work.)

We can only speculate, but it is more than likely that, having been refused supper or a bed, the swagman of “Waltzing Matilda” fame, camped for the night by a billabong, under the shade of a Coolabah tree [10] meditating upon where his next meal was to come from. The squatter and troopers, who swooped down upon this swaggie, demanding that he give up the jumbuck, represent despised wealth and authority. It is no coincidence that the Squatter is riding a thoroughbred horse and that he brings not one, but three troopers to help retrieve his stock. The swagman’s defiance touches a deep anti-authoritarian archetype that springs from the days of the Eureka Stockade, The First Fleet, the Rum Corps and the personal history of those early convicts who were transported to Australia for petty crimes.

The early Australian settlement was confined within the curves of the Blue Mountains and as the settlement grew, free settlers arrived explorers sought new land for grazing. People ‘squatted’ on patches of land, grazed their animals, grew their crops and built their houses and fences. In good quality grazing country squatters claimed vast areas and became wealthy. The term ‘squattocracy’, a term blended from the word ‘squatter’ came to be associated with ‘aristocracy’. The police worked with them to maintain law and order and to protect their holdings. Consequently, squatters were an object of resentment.

The pastoralist/squatter’s reluctance to mete out food, his need to protect his flock is understandable given the swarms of penniless, badly clothed men wandering discontentedly from hut to hut and station to station, but the crime of the swagman in this story seems petty! A hungry, destitute man, down on his luck, steals one sheep on a sheep station with a flock of thousands. This is hardly a hanging offence, any more than stealing a loaf of bread warranted transportation.

Apart from the anti-authoritarian overtones there is no doubt that “Waltzing Matilda” romanticizes the larrikin quality of the jolly swaggie, jumping with glee. Who can resist this rascal’s charm? A character, unique, fiercely independent, the swagman is not to be patronized. It is his free spirit that sends him to a watery death and haunts Australians as his ghost may be heard, singing in the Billabong. The swagman, like Joan of Arc, never dies. They cut out Joan’s heart and thought that this was the end of her but she lives on. Similarly the ghostly figure of the unnamed Swagman has eternal life, representing a freedom of movement and thought that many Australians now take for granted.

At day’s end, “Waltzing Matilda” is poignant because of the combination of characteristics that sum up so much of Australian spirit and life. “Waltzing Matilda” reminds us of our ancestral history, defines nationhood and fills Australians with a sense of pride that the country was built by people who had been deemed dregs, but who were courageous and innovative and built something from nothing. The ghost of the swagman may be found in the faces of the pioneers who settled the Never Never; in the eyes of the hardened shearing unionist who paved the way for Unionism in Australia; within the defiance of the Anzac storming the beaches of Gallipoli; in the stride of the Bondi life-saver and in the face of the determined protestor thumbing his nose at government officials and bureaucracy.

Australians will never fully accept “Advance Australia Fair” as their national anthem because it is the song of a city-based intellectual, full of stilted language that paints Australians as something they are not. Australians will always respond to “Waltzing Matilda” because “Waltzing Matilda” has moved from being a bush ballad to a creation myth, a yarn told in a language now almost as unfamiliar as Latin, a glorious romantic tale that helps to identify and separate Australia and Australians from every other country, every other people on the globe.

[1] A gentleman of the road, an itinerant roaming country roads, a drifter, a tramp, a hobo. Carried his few belongings slung in a cloth, which was called by a wide variety of names, including ‘swag’, ‘shiralee’ and ‘bluey’.

[2] A sheep: aboriginal word meaning white cloud.

[3] A cavalry soldier, or perhaps a mounted militia-man or policeman.

[4] an Australian story.

[5] From the Web site: About Waltzing Matilda, Senani Ponnamperuma, 1996, 1997.

[6] From the Web site: About Waltzing Matilda, Senani Ponnamperuma, 1996, 1997.

[7] This is in reference to the Gold Rush which saw an influx of gold seekers to towns like Ballarat.

[8] A can or small kettle used to boil water for tea.

[9] Billabong: a waterhole near a river.

[10] A kind of eucalyptus tree.

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