Saturday, May 11, 2013

You'll Come A-Waltzing Matilda With Me

Sean and I were talking about something the other day and "Billabong" came up.  "Yeah, like the surf company," Sean said.  I said, "that's funny I think of 'Waltzing Matlida'."  "A waltzing what?"    "No way," I say completely stunned.  "There is no way you don't know Waltzing Matlida.  You know, 'once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong," I sang.   He looked at me with a blank face.  "Nope don't think I've heard it.  What's a billabong?"

That is how this post came to be.  Waltzing Matilda is not only my favorite Australian folk song, it has a fascinating history behind it!  Of course, Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport and Kookaburra are favorites with the kids but Waltzing Matilda has everything; theft, tea, police standoffs, death by drowning, fun Aussie terms, and more!

So, with a little help from the National Library of Australia (they have a great website with archived collections and more so check it out, here is the story of Waltzing Matilda.

First of all we need a little reminder of how the song goes

Okay, before I get into the terms let me just say that I didn't really understand all of them until I got here.  I always thought it was funny that "waltzing" Matilda wasn't even in 3/4 time.  Ah, but waltzing doesn't mean dancing.  It is a poetic term for the way the hobo hero of the story wanders through the bush.

The song was written by Andrew Barton Paterson, affectionately known as "Banjo" after his favorite horse. Banjo wrote a lot of poems about Australian life but none more popular than the unofficial Australian anthem of Waltzing Matilda.  But did you know he also was the writer of "The Man from Snowy River" and "Clancy of the Overflow" which became the basis for one of the most awesome movies ever, "The Man From Snowy River"?

Banjo is on the tenner!

Well, good ol' Banjo was staying with the Macpherson family at Dagsworth Station, near the town of Winton in Queensland.  He must have told the poem there because that led Christan Macpherson to adapt a song she had heard by a brass band and put the words to it. They thought that would make a good bush song.  They were right.

Plus, how funny is it that the hero of the story dies by drowning in a country that prides itself on its swimming prowess?  Heads have been rolling after their poor performance in the last Olympics.  They have no time for such nonsense.  If you're not first, you're last.

Here are some of the terms used in the song:
  • Waltzing Matilda:  the act of carrying 'swag', a bush man's swag was regarded as his sleeping partner hence his 'Matilda'
  • Billabong:  a small oxbow lake
  • Coolibah:  Type of Gum/Eucalyptus Tree
  • Swagman:  an Australian itinerant worker, a hobo
  • Billy:  an open topped tin can, with a wire carrying handle, used for boiling water for tea
  • Tucker Bag:  bag for food aka tucker/tuck
  • Jumbuck:  sheep
  • Squatter: Station (ranch) owner NOT someone who occupied a residence illegally

Swag man, not really sure if he's jolly

Coolibah tree

Billy boiling
James Inglis, born in Scotland, moved to Australia in 1877 and was determined to establish his own Indian tea company in Australia.  He trademarked 'Billy Tea' and advertised with an image of a swagman boiling his billy.  He bought the Banjo Paterson poem along with "a lot of other old junk" in 1900. In 1903, he began giving away free copies of sheet music if you bought the tea. Marie Cowan was hired to 'tweak' it for commercial use and the version we now know was born. 

Here are the lyrics for the Marie Cowan version we all know and love:

Once a jolly swagman camped by a Billabong
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree
And he sang as he watched and waited till his “Billy” boiled
You'll come a‐waltzing Matilda with me

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You'll come a‐waltzing Matilda with me
And he sang as he watched and waited till his“Billy” boiled
You'll come a‐waltzing Matilda with me

Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag
You'll come a‐waltzing Matilda with me


Up rode the squatter mounted on his thoroughbred
Down came troopers one two three
Whose that jumbuck you've got in the tuckerbag?
You'll come a‐waltzing Matilda with me


Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the Billabong
You'll never catch me alive said he
And his Ghost may be heard as you pass by that Billabong
You’ll come a‐waltzing Matilda with me.


1 comment:

  1. As they say Down Under, "Good on ya, mate!" I've been looking for pictures to go with "Waltzing Matilda," because this week I've been sending the lyrics, line by line, a day at a time, to a friend of mine who's working spring vacation at the San Diego Zoo with a group called The Outback Boys (aka the Jackstraws, a local entertainment ensemble), which performs as Australians (minus the accents, I'm afraid) from time to time at that location. (I'm part of that outfit as well, though apparently not this time, -)

    Anyway, thank you for putting this resource online. You just never know when someone might need something you created,


    Richard Tibbitts