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Waltzing Matilda - What's it all about?

Waltzing Matilda – What’s it all about?

People the world over have heard the tune Waltzing Matilda, and have sometimes mistakenly taken it to be the nation anthem of Australia. It is considered the “unofficial” national anthem of Australia, and is sung proudly by Aussies, especially when a summoning of strength is required (ie at World Rugby tests etc).
The words to Waltzing Matilda can be a little confusing to those who don’t fully understand the Australian vernacular.

Firstly, a little history about Waltzing Matilda. The words to Waltzing Matilda were written by one of Australia’s most eminent and loved poets – Andrew “Banjo” Paterson in 1895. A large amount of legend surrounds the originality of the tune, but it is widely agreed that the tune was an old Scottish song, brought to Australia by convicts.

Even though the song Waltzing Matilda is played and sung at spirit rousing events, it actually tells the story of a thief who escapes the consequences of his theft and capture by the local police. But that’s not all the song is about. I will take you through the first verse, line by line and explain some idiosyncrasies that exist, almost in every line!

Here in its entirety is the song Waltzing Matilda

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 the troopers, one, two, three.
"Whose that jolly 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 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."


And here is an explanation of the slang terms used in the first verse.

(Verse 1)
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong

a swagman is a man who wandered in the outback and regional areas of Australia looking for work in the late 1800’s and up to the beginning of the second world war;

a billabong is a closed body of water that runs adjacent to a meandering creek or river

Under the shade of a coolibah tree,

A coolibah tree is a species of eucalyptus or gum tree that is found growing on the edges of billabongs

And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:

A billy is a tin container with a wire handle that is used for boiling water for a cup of tea on an open fire

"You'll come a waltzing Matilda, with me."

Waltzing Matilda is a term used who’s meaning is disputed to this very day.

One of the most accepted meanings of the word Waltzing, is to walk, wander, ramble.

The National Library of Australia states:

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". (Letter to Rt. Hon. Sir Winston Churchill, KG from Harry Hastings Pearce, 19 February 1958. Harry Pearce Papers, NLA Manuscript Collection, MS2765)

Stay tuned for the next installment, looking at the second and third verse of Waltzing Matilda.
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Content copyright © 2015 by Judie Bellingham. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Judie Bellingham. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Judie Bellingham for details.


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