Waltzing Matilda. A tale of love and murder?

A small village in the north-west corner of Ireland, the U.S  Marines, a dead sheep, mighty battle maidens! An unlikely combination, yet they are inextricably linked in the oddest of forms – an Australian bush ‘ditty’ that has become known and recognized the world over. The ‘ditty’ is Waltzing Matilda,the unofficial National Anthem of Australia, sung very proudly on many occasions, and one of the most recorded songs worldwide.

Banjo_Paterson

Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson

Waltzing Matilda was written by Andrew Barton Paterson, (1864–1941). Otherwise known as ”Banjo” Paterson, he was a prolific Australian poet, journalist and author.The nickname ‘Banjo’ came from one of  his favourite horses – he wrote bush poems under the pseudonym ‘The Banjo’ for some time. Banjo’s great-great grandfather was General Charles Barton of Waterfoot, near the small village of Pettigo, Co Donegal, Ireland. The Bartons were a well-to-do family with a record of military service. General Charles Barton’s son Robert, had a daughter Rose Isabella who married Andrew Paterson and Banjo was their son, the ‘Barton’ part  of his name coming from his mother’s family.

Banjo Patterson was engaged to Sarah Riley for about 8 years. On a visit to the Dagworth sheep farm in Western Queensland  in January 1895, Banjo met Sarah’s friend, Christina MacPherson. Christina introduced Banjo to the tune ‘The Craigielee March’ which was a variant of a Scottish song , and he then wrote the lyrics to Waltzing Matilda to fit the tune.

The song that is familiar to us is something like this:

”Once a jolly swagman (a travelling worker who carried his possessions in a swag, or cloth) camped by a billabong (a water hole)
Under the shade of a coolibah tree, (a type of  Eucalyptus tree)
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy (a tin can) boiled:
“Who’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 (sheep) 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 (food) bag:
“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 shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag:
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

Up rode the squatter (land holder), mounted on his thoroughbred.
Down came the troopers (police), one, two, and three.
“Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me”,
“Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong.
“You’ll never take me alive!” said he
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me”,
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”

‘Swagman’, ‘billabong’  ‘coolibah’ ‘jumbuck’ – such strange words yet they trip off our tongues the world over. ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is probably derived from the German ‘auf der walz’ which means ‘to take to the road’, while ‘Matilda’ was the name  given to female camp followers who accompanied soldiers during the Thirty Year wars in Europe. ‘Matilda’ came to mean ‘to be kept warm at night’ and later to refer to great army coats or blankets that soldiers used. These were rolled into a swag and tossed over a shoulder while marching. The meaning of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ evolved into going  walkabout with the tools of your trade.

The song ‘Waltzing Matilda’ tells the tale of a swagman and petty thief  who stole a young sheep and to avoid capture  jumped  into a billabong.  In the 1890s there was widespread industrial unrest among Australian sheep shearers,reportedly akin to civil war in some places. Having no fixed abode and  unable to vote, trade union membership  gave the shearers a voice. When improved pay rates were demanded, sheepowners  brought  non-union labour in to replace them and widespread trouble erupted, with shootings and burning of buildings. In 1894 at Dagworth Station in Queensland, sheds were burned down and sheep were burned alive. Hoffmesiter was found dead and the story was that he had committed suicide. Some months later, in January 1895, Banjo Patterson visited Dagworth Station, owned by the MacPherson family . His fiancée Sarah accompanied him – she was a close friend of Christina MacPherson.

In his book, ‘Waltzing Matilda – the secret history of Australia’s favourite song‘ author and songster Dennis O’Keeffe tells us that 20 years of research have led him to believe that Waltzing Matilda is a song with 2 stories: political comment on the Shearers strike on one hand, while  the chorus is a flirtatious reference to Christine as the pair had become romantically involved during the visit.

Waltzing_Matilda_Manuscript_-_Taken_in_National_Library_of_Australia_Gallery

Waltzing Matilda manuscript. Image Wikimedia Commons.

In this manuscript, the lyrics  have ”Matilda, my darling.” O’Keeffe says that this is a reference to Christina. Another manuscript he has inspected has the line ‘Who’ll come roving Australia with me’, and the words  ‘roving Australia’ have been crossed out and replaced with ‘waltzing Matilda’. The love affair between Banjo and Paterson, in the presence of Sarah,caused a great scandal and caused heartache and deep embarrassment to all three of them. Paterson  had to leave Dagworth in disgrace. O’Keeffe goes so far as to say that it  ‘ruined the lives’ of the two women, who never married. The scandal also caused Paterson to distance himself from the song for many years afterwards.

O’Keeffe has researched the events at the billabong on the Dagworth sheep farm and has discovered that  Hoffmeister , who was a union shearer, torched a sheep shed at Dagworth resulting in the deaths of about 150 sheep.  The following day Hoffmesister’s body was found near a billabong. He had gunshot wounds. The inquest brought in a verdict of suicide  but O’ Keeffe  thinks that he was  more than likely murdered by policemen and that  there was a cover-up.  The theory is contested, but in general there seems to be agreement that the song is a political commentary on the shearers strike at that time.

Notwithstanding the darker side of the story of Waltzing Matilda it is a rousing song  that is sung with great gusto.  The lyrics were altered in 1903 when it was used in an advertising campaign for Billy’s Tea. It was this advertising campaign that led to it becoming widely known.

Waltzing Matilda became an anthem and battle cry in  the 2nd world war . The story is told of a platoon of Australian soldiers who were pinned down by the Japanese, but in a last corageous act he Australian soldiers sand Waltzing Matilda as they charged to their deaths. After  a 6 month-long struggle against the Japanese at Guadalcanal and Tulagi, and after taking over 3,000 casualties, the 1st Division  US Marines were sent to Australia for rest and recovery. It was here that they heard ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and immediately adopted it as their marching song. To this day ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is  played as the US marines are being shipped out.

A jolly ditty, a stirring marching song, a national anthem, a tragic love story, industrial turmoil,  a political comment, a murder story or a suicide, – regardless of  its origins Banjo Patterson’s Waltzing Matilda is loved the world over and its true meaning has probably been lost in the mists of time.

References :

Waltzing Matilda – the secret history of Australia’s favourite songby Dennis O’Keeffe.

http://www.waltzing matilda.com/wmbirth.html

Wikipedia. 

9 Comments

Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Ireland, Ireland and the World, Irish Australian

9 responses to “Waltzing Matilda. A tale of love and murder?

  1. Great historical piece SV, love it. Amazing how from small acorns etc.

    Best to draw a veil over the Barmy Army’s (English cricket fans) interpretation!

  2. Dennis Flynn

    Is there more than one version of Waltzing Matilda? The one I hear on You Tube is about Fighting the Turks In WW1.

  3. MB

    On the outer barcoo, where churches are few,
    And men of religion are scanty,
    On a road never crossed, ‘cept by folks that are lost,
    One Michael McGee had a shanty.

    Thanks for the Matilda post. Good read!

  4. Pingback: Waltzing Matilda – history of a song | Flickr Comments

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