Waltzing Matilda: An Australian Bush Ballad

Waltzing Matilda, written by Banjo Patterson in 1895, is one of Australia’s most endearing bush ballads, considered by many as an unofficial national anthem. It has been recorded many times, but the original song lyrics are:

Oh there once was a swagman camped in the billabong
Under the shade of a Coolabah 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 Coolabah tree
And his ghost can be heard as it sings in the billabong
Who’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me

Waltzing Matilda actually comes from the German term, au der waltz, which meant to travel while learning a trade, as many journeymen did. Matilda is Australian slang for a swag, or the rolled-up bundle of possessions that these men would carry on their backs while seeking work, so the phrase refers to the journeying of these swagmen.

The poem tells the tale of a swagman, who has camped under a tree by a waterhole, and is happily waiting for his tea to boil. As he waits for it to boil he notices a sheep that has wandered down to drink from the water. The swagman, seeing a golden opportunity, grabs the sheep and kills it, putting it in his bundle for a later meal.

Unfortunately for the swagman, the wealthy land-owner comes riding down to the watering hole with three policemen in tow, and finds him with the sheep stuffed into his bag. As the land-owner, the sheep is rightfully his, and so he demands the swagman to open the contents of his bag. The swagman decides to make a run (or swim) for it, and jumps into the watering hole (the billabong) to evade capture; alas, he drowns instead. He leaves behind only his ghost, a specter left to wonder who will wander with him.

Like the spirit of the drowned swagman, the song itself has refused to die; in many ways, it still haunts the psyche of Australia, a country that has borne witness to the conflict between law and order and outback wildness, similar to the conflicts of the American Old West.

Like the Old West, these conflicts produced their fair share of folk heroes, outlaws and anti-establishment legends. In Australia, Waltzing Matilda remains their unofficial theme song.

Over 120 years later, this song has been reinvented multiple times, first as a large scale commercial song to sell tea, and later as a patriotic ditty that traveled with the troops during World War 1. It taps into  the mythology of the Aussie Battler, those who are forced to work for the wealthy, struggle to make ends meet, and survive out of sheer determination and tenacity.

The ballad was loosely based on events Banjo Patterson witnessed while visiting a friend’s sheep station. He was inspired by the plight of thousands of itinerant shearers who were trying to find work, and like the works of American folk singer Woody Guthrie, it is no wonder that this ballad has remained a song of the people, for the people; those fighting the oppression of the establishment and the class systems.

As we enter a bold new era of economic disparity and social  injustice, perhaps we can find some solace: somewhere, out there, the ghost of the swagman is watching over us, even if he is helpless to right our wrongs.

Watching over us, singing Waltzing Matilda.

Image: Wikipedia

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