Sunday, November 5, 2017

Australian Folk Songs, Part 1


I was humming and singing an Australian folk song (“Bluey Brink”) to myself a couple of days ago and it struck me that many overseas people, as well as a lot of the younger generations, wouldn’t understand many of the terms and references. This post therefore starts a continuing series of a look at Oz folk songs, starting with the most widely known and often regarded as Australia’s unofficial national anthem . . .



Hear and see Slim Dusty sing it at: 

There is an alternative Queensland version, one that I actually prefer. Hear The Seekers sing it at:

  • Famed Australian bush poet Andrew “Banjo” Paterson (1864-1941) in 1895 whilst staying at Dagworth sheep station (sheep ranch for overseas readers) near Winton, Queensland. Banjo heard Christina Macpherson (1864-1936), a member of the family who owned the station, play a tune on the zither or autoharp. She had heard it played by a military band at a horse racing event the previous year, the tune being that of a Scottish folksong. Banjo decided to add Australian lyrics to the tune and based his lyrics on a story he had heard about an incident at Dagworth Station in 1891.
Banjo Paterson

Christina Macpherson
  • In that year there had been a widespread and nasty strike of shearers resulting from disputes between unionised and non-unionised labour. It was known as the Great Shearers’ Strike, ending when the union workers ran out of money and food and only after the Qld Premier called in the military. It brought the colony close to civil war and the outcome is credited as being one of the factors for the formation of the Australian Labor Party.
  • At Dagworth Station, the strike resulted in firearms being discharged and the woolshed being set alight by striking shearers, killing over 140 lambs. The owner of Dagworth Station, Bob Macpherson (the brother of Christina) and 3 policemen gave chase to a man named Samuel Hoffmeister, who had been one of the shearers who torched the woolshed. Rather than be captured, Hoffmeister shot and killed himself at the Combo Waterhole. Bob Macpherson and Paterson are said to have taken rides together at Dagworth and that they found the skin of a slaughtered sheep at the waterhole. Macpherson then told Paterson the story of the shearer who had suicided there.
  • There has been speculation by some historians and researchers that Hoffmeister had been shot dead by Bob Macpherson and his body left at the waterhole, also that it is a political allegory about workers’ rights.
The Combo Waterhole, thought to be the location of the story that inspired "Waltzing Matilda".

A fortified temporary shearing shed at Dagworth Station following the 1894 arson of the main shed. The three troopers at left are thought to be those referred to in "Waltzing Matilda", while the squatter was Bob Macpherson, fourth from right
  • Although there is no evidence to support that Banjo Paterson and Christina Macpherson entered into a relationship, nonetheless there is speculation that they were infatuated with each other. Paterson's engagement of 8 years to Sarah Riley, who attended Dagworth Station with Banjo, ended soon after this time.
  • Christina Macpherson remained single all her life and died in obscurity, her grave not even having a marker. 
  • Copyright in Australia lasts for 50 years after the death of creator of the work. Paterson died in 1941 so that the song came out of copyright in 1991. Christina Macpherson never claimed copyright on the music. Banjo Paterson sold the lyrics to Waltzing Matilda to Angus and Robertson, publishers, in 1895 and they in turn sold it in 1902 to James Inglis & Co, the owners of the "Billy Tea" trademark. 
  • Carl Fischer Music falsely copyrighted the song in the United States as on original composition in 1941. Since there was no challenge to this by anybody this copyright in the United States stands and has subsequently been renewed. When Australia used Waltzing Matilda in the closing ceremonies of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 it had to pay royalties to Carl Fischer Music. That company however maintains that it was only acting as an agent for Allans Music in Australia and that the royalties collected in the United States were remitted back to Allans Music. Allans Music went into liquidation in 2012 and was bought by Australian Musical Imports.


Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled,
Who'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me?

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda,
Who'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me?
And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled,
Who'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me?

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

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda,
Who'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me?
And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled,
Who'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me?

Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred,
Down came the troopers, one, two, three,
Whose is that jumbuck you've got in your tucker bag? 
You'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda,
Who'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me?
And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled, 
Who'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me?

Up jumped the swagman, leapt into the billabong,
You'll never catch me alive, said he,
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by the billabong,
Who'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda,
Who'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me?
And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled,
Who'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me?


1st Verse
A swagman is resting under a eucalyptus tree on the banks of a wateriole. He is singing and passing the time, has lit a fire and is boiling something in a tin can (most likely tea).

2nd Verse
While there, he notices a sheep wandering down to the waterhole for a drink. The swagman catches the sheep, kills it, probably eats what he can and stows the rest in his food pack.

3rd Verse
Unfortunately for the swagman, the wealthy landowner comes by the waterhole. He is mounted on his fine, expensive horse and is accompanied by three policemen. They catch the hapless swagman red-handed with the remains of the sheep, telling him that he is under arrest for stealing and killing the sheep.

4th Verse
The swagman jumps into the waterhole, declaring that he will not be caught alive. He drowns in the waterhole and, ever since that day, his ghost still haunts the waterhole and can be heard singing his song.


The lyrics contain many distinctively Australian English words, some now rarely used outside the song. 

Derived from the German term “auf der Walz”, which means to travel while working as a craftsman and learn new techniques from other masters.

According to a letter to Rt. Hon. Sir Winston Churchill, KG from Harry Hastings Pearce, 19 February 1958. Harry Pearce Papers, NLA Manuscript Collection, MS2765)[24, National Library of Australia:
Matilda is an old Teutonic female name meaning "mighty battle maid". This may have informed the use of "Matilda" as a slang term to mean a de facto wife who accompanied a wanderer. In the Australian bush a man's swag was regarded as a sleeping partner, hence his "Matilda". 
Waltzing Matilda:
To “waltz Matilda" is to travel with a swag, that is, with all one's belongings on one's back wrapped in a blanket or cloth. 

A swagman or “swaggie” was a man who travelled the country looking for work. The swagman's "swag" was a bed roll that bundled his belongings.

A cut-off river bend found alongside a meandering river

Coolibah tree:
A kind of eucalyptus tree which grows near billabongs

An aboriginal word for sheep.

A billycan is a lightweight cooking pot in the form of a metal bucket commonly used for boiling water, making tea or cooking over a campfire[ or to carry water. More commonly known simply as a billy or occasionally as a billy can/billycan, the term derived from the large cans used for transporting bouilli or bully beef on Australia-bound ships or during exploration of the outback, which after use were modified for boiling water over a fire.

Tucker bag:
Tucker means food, the term tucker bag therefore meaning a bag for carrying food.

Mounted policemen

Australian squatters started as early farmers who raised livestock on land which they did not legally have the legal title to use; in many cases they later gained legal use of the land even though they did not have full possession, and became wealthy thanks to these large land holdings. It has been said that in the context of the song, the squatter's claim to the land may be as uncertain as the swagman's claim to the jumbuck.

Waltzing Matilda mural on the side of an Ansett Boeing 737-300 in the mid-1990s

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