Paterson’s Insight into the National Character
“Waltzing Matilda” is widely considered Australia’s unofficial national anthem, and this ballad by Banjo Paterson provides insight into foundational elements of the country’s cultural ethos and history.
The vivid rural imagery of the swagman, billabong, jumbuck, and squatter evokes the frontier experience of European settlers in the bush. This romanticized view of the outback became central to Australian identity.
However, underlying the folksy lyricism is a strain of rebellion – the swaggering defiance of the underdog swagman stealing a squatter’s sheep and then taking his own life rather than submit to the authorities. This exemplifies the anti-authoritarian streak in Australia’s origins as a penal colony.
The enduring popularity of “Waltzing Matilda” lies in its blending of the grit, individualism, mystery and melancholic beauty that characterize the Australian landscape and psyche. Paterson eloquently mythologizes the stoic, tragic heroism seen as integral to the national spirit.
The Origins of “Waltzing Matilda” at Combo Waterhole
In the dry Australian outback, Combo Waterhole offers a pleasant oasis for travelers, located just off the Landsborough Highway south of Kynuna. In the 1890s, stone walls were built to transform the wet season watering hole into a permanent haven for wildlife.
The story goes that it was here in 1895 that poet Banjo Paterson found inspiration for his iconic song “Waltzing Matilda.” Visiting Combo Waterhole with his then fiancée (Sarah Riley) while staying at nearby Dagworth Station, Paterson heard the captivating Scottish tune “Thou Bonnie Wood o’ Craigielea” played on zither.
‘THE BANJO’Cootamundra Herald Wed 11 Dec 1946
Miss Gwendoline Paterson, sister of the late A. B. (‘Banjo’) Paterson, says ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is a piece of doggerel Barty wrote to amuse a house party in Queensland. ‘Excellent doggrel,’ she said. ‘I love it, but just that. It is also an excellent and most stirring tune; but no one knows who composed it, so let’s leave it at that.
What does it matter just how, when, or where Barty wrote the thing? It makes me nearly burst with rage that his name and claim to glory seem to depend entirely on that effort, when he wrote ‘Black Swans,’ ‘Riley’s Run,’ and other real poetry.’
Incidentally, Miss Paterson says there was never any original ‘Man From Snowy River.‘ About twenty intrepid horsemen have claimed that distinction
Seeking to put Australian words to the melody, Paterson drew from local legends of bitter shearers’ strikes and troopers chasing down swagmen who stole sheep. When station owner Bob Macpherson called a swagman “a waltzing matilda,” the song’s name was born.
The Backstory Behind Waltzing Matilda
While “Waltzing Matilda” has become ingrained in Australian culture, the actual specific events and inspirations that spurred Banjo Paterson to write the iconic song remain intriguingly ambiguous.
Several theories exist about what initially prompted Paterson to pen the famous ballad during his 1895 visit to Dagworth Station. Some point to a newspaper report of a unionist worker’s disputed suicide after a violent shearers’ strike.
German shearer Samuel ‘Frenchy’ Hoffmeister, whose body was found at the Billabong during the strike, is thought to have been the swagman in the song. He was a union leader who burnt down a shearing shed at the Macpherson’s Dagworth Station the night before his body was found.
Police reports from the time say Hoffmeister shot himself in the mouth to kill himself and avoid capture… or he could have been murdered.
Others suggest Paterson blended details from the story he heard at Dagworth about the strike with accounts of troopers chasing a swagman at nearby Combo Waterhole. The name “Waltzing Matilda” itself may have come from a jackeroo at Dagworth.
‘One day I played (from ear) a tune which I had heard played by a band at the races in Warrnambool, a country town in the Western District of Victoria. Mr Paterson asked what it was – I could not tell him, and he then said he thought he could write some lines to it. He then and there wrote the first verse.’Christina MacPherson (1864 – 1936) was born at Peechelba Station, in north-eastern Victoria, into a wealthy landowning family.
The tune was ‘The Craiglee March’. It is believed she and Patterson met said at Dagworth Station in far north Queensland and worked together for many hours (perhaps this caused resentment from Sarah) to create ‘Waltzing Matilda’. The sheet music, in Christina’s handwriting, is in the National Gallery of Australia.
What is undisputed is that Paterson crafted the lyrics after hearing Christina Macpherson play the Scottish folk tune “Thou Bonnie Wood o’ Craigielea” on said autoharp at the station (there was no piano). The poet may have had an affair with Christina that lead to Sarah’s engagement to Banjo being called off shortly after – she then moved to London where she never married. Christina Macpherson also never married. While both relationships turned sour, the tune stuck in his imagination.
While the exact origins remain murky, Paterson synthesized details from the Jandra sheep station strike, local legends, and bush archetypes into a powerful folk ballad. The song was first performed at Winton’s North Gregory Hotel just months after the pivotal Dagworth visit.
An Unofficial Anthem
Paterson’s lyrics brought these tales together into one folk ballad that after it premiered at the North Gregory Hotel in Winton “Waltzing Matilda” quickly swept the nation, becoming beloved by WW1 diggers.
Though the song is so strongly tied to Winton, the core stories that inspired Paterson were born at Combo Waterhole. So while Winton boasts the Waltzing Matilda Centre, it was the billabong 160km north where this treasured anthem originated.
Over a century later, this ballad remains a poetic touchstone for what makes Australia unique. It sings the stark wonder and grandeur of the continent’s interior at the frontier’s twilight.
The enduring spirit of “Waltzing Matilda” owes much to the interplay between real events and mythic outback imagery. Whether based on truth or legend, the song continues to resonate as a poetic epitome of the Australian spirit for audiences worldwide.
Decoding the Iconic Language of Australia’s Unofficial Anthem
“Waltzing Matilda” beautifully encapsulates the spirit of Australian culture, people, and landscape through its distinct vocabulary depicting life in the bush.
“Waltzing Matilda” refers to travellers wandering the country while carrying their belongings in swags. “Matilda” is slang for a bedroll or knapsack.
The swagman boiled water for tea in a “billy can” by a waterhole or “billabong” – a cut-off river bend. He illegally hunted a “jumbuck” (sheep) for food.
When confronted by a mounted police officer or “trooper,” rather than surrender, the defiant swagman drowned himself in the billabong.
The lyrics also feature iconic Aussie terms like “squatter” for a wealthy landowner and “tucker bag” for a bag carrying food.
Paterson brilliantly incorporated the vernacular of Australian bush life to create an egalitarian folk hero in the rebellious underdog swagman. For generations, the songs uniquely Australian images and archetypes have resonated as a poetic emblem of the free-spirited national character.
Oh! there once was a swagman camped in the Billabong,
Under the shade of a Coolabah tree;
And he sang as he looked at his 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 and leading a water-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 sang as he put him away in his tucker-bag,
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me!”
Down came the Squatter a-riding his thorough-bred;
Down came Policemen—one, two, and three.
“Whose is the jumbuck you’ve got in the tucker-bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.”
But the swagman, he up and he 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?”
Set to music 1895 by Christina Rutherford Macpherson