The Story of "Waltzing Matilda"

February 17: On this day in 1864, A. B. ("Banjo") Paterson, the Australian bush poet, was born in New South Wales. Paterson's "Waltzing Matilda" apparently retains its popularity as Australia's unofficial national anthem, and its ode to the itinerant life: Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country (2000) describes a train full of Aussies spontaneously breaking into a few enthusiastic choruses after news of the country winning an Olympic gold medal. Bryson then speculates that Paterson must have had a few pints during the writing, given that the song's "main distinguishing feature … is that it makes no sense." 

 

The story of "Waltzing Matilda" is an engaging one, a convergence of history, politics, biography, and etymology that makes sense from almost too many directions. In 1894 Paterson was a thirty-year-old city lawyer with a distaste for both cities and the practice of law. During a tour of Dagworth Station (stations are large ranches, originally run by the government on convict labor) in Queensland, he heard a description of the events surrounding the Shearers' Strike several months earlier. The "swagman [a drifter or itinerant sheep-shearer, carrying his swag or blanket-roll] camped by a billabong [waterhole]" was Samuel "Frenchy" Hoffmeister. He was a militant member of the Shearers' Union, thought to have been the one responsible for burning down the Dagworth woolshed, killing 140 sheep. He was not relaxing "under the shade of a coolibah [eucalyptus] tree" but on the run, pausing as "his billy [tin can of water] boiled." When the swagman "stowed that jumbuck [sheep] in his tucker [food] bag" he was adding the fuel of poaching to the fire of political and class war. When "up rode the squatter [wealthy landowner], mounted on his thoroughbred," backed by "the troopers, one, two, three," it was a contest no swagman-unionist-arsonist-poacher could win. When he "leapt into the billabong," crying "You'll never catch me alive," it was the suicidal leap of a cornered, outback, underclass, convict-bred martyr, to the cry of "up yours, mate."

 

"Frenchy" Hoffmeister was from German stock, as is the expression "waltzing Matilda." Auf der walz means to "go on the tramp" or hit the road, used in Germany to describe traveling workers or soldiers on the march; a Matilda came to mean those women who followed the soldiers, to "keep them warm." Eventually the soldier's greatcoat or blanket was a Matilda. Thus Paterson's swagman-hero was not only without justice, or food, or a way out, but a woman's warmth.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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