Waltzing Matilda - Australia's Favourite Song

This web page has been arranged to walk the reader through Waltzing Matilda, Australia's most famous song. We start with the lyrics. Then a description of some of the unique Australian words used. This is followed by an explanation of the meaning of the phrase 'Waltzing Matilda'. Then the story is explained. Subsequent sections provided extensive background to the song. We have even provided sample versions of Waltzing Matilda to listen to. We hope you find our site informative and fun.

Waltzing Matilda Lyrics

 

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 


Meaning of Waltzing Matilda Words

 

Waltzing Matilda has many uniquely Australian words referred to as Strine. Their meaning is explained below.

Jolly - means happy.

Swagman - a hobo, an itinerant worker, who travelled from place to place in search of work, who carried all his belongings wrapped up in a blanket called a swag.

Billabong - a waterhole or pond. It is an aboriginal word that originally meant little or no water.

Coolibah Tree - a eucalyptus tree which usually grows near water. The name coolibah is derived from the aboriginal word gulabaa.

Billy - a tin can with a wire handle used to boil water. If the swagman was fortunate he may have boiled some tea in it.

Jumbuck - a sheep. The origin of the word is uncertain. It's most likely derived from two words jumping buck.

Tucker Bag - a bag for storing food. It was usually an old sugar or flour sack. Tucker is a slang word for food.

Squatter - a wealthy landowner, a rancher.

Thoroughbred - The best pure-bred or pedigreed horse. The Mercedes Benz equivalent of its day.

Trooper - a policeman, a mounted militia-man.

Meaning of the phrase Waltzing the Matilda What does the Phrase Waltzing Matilda Mean?

The title of the song Waltzing Matilda is derived from an Australian phrase "waltzing the matilda' which is no longer in use today. It is believed to have originated from German immigrants who started settling in Australia from around 1838.

Waltzing is from the German term auf der walz which meant to travel while learning a trade. Young German apprentices in those days travelled from place to place working under a master craftsman earning a living as they went and sleeping wherever they could. The German word 'walz' became 'waltz' in Australia. The Waltz was a fashionable dance at the time that Australians were familiar with.

Matilda has German origins too and means Mighty Battle Maiden. It is believed to have been given to female camp followers who accompanied soldiers during the Thirty Year wars in Europe. This came to mean "to be kept warm at night" and later to mean the great army coats or blankets that soldiers wrapped themselves with. These were rolled into a swag and carried behind their shoulders while marching.

So waltzing the matilda came to mean to travel from place to place in search of work with all your belongings on your back, wrapped in a blanket or cloth. This is what Swagmen did in outback Australia. When the song was written the word "the" was dropped from the title becoming Waltzing Matilda.

Waltzing Matilda Story? The Story Waltzing Matilda Tells

Waltzing Matilda tells the tale of a swagman in outback Queensland, Australia in the mid-1890s.

1st Verse

A swagman is resting under a eucalyptus tree on the banks of a watering-hole. He is singing and passing the time. He 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 watering-hole for a drink. The swagman catches the sheep, kills it, probably eats what he can and stows the rest in his backpack. (Swagmen were disadvantaged workers who were so poor they didn't know where their next meal would come from. So this sheep was an opportunity too good to miss).

3rd Verse

Unfortunately for the swagman, the wealthy landowner comes by the water-hole. 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

In absolute terror and not wanting to go to prison the swagman leaps up and jumps into the watering-hole hoping to escape. Unfortunately, he drowns in the waterhole. Ever since that day his ghost still haunts the waterhole and can be heard singing his song.

How Waltzing Matilda Came to be Written Events Behind the Waltzing Matilda Story

Dagworth Station

In 1895 Banjo Paterson and his fiancée, Sarah Riley, visited the Dagworth Station in outback Queensland. This huge property, of over a quarter of a million acres, was owned by the family of Sarah's school friend, Christina Macpherson. Christina's brother, Bob, managed this vast property.

While riding in a coach to Dagworth they saw a swagman walking along the dusty road. Bob Macpherson turned to Banjo and said "that's what they call Waltzing Matilda".

During his stay at Dagworth, Bob Macpherson and Banjo frequently went for long rides around the station. One day they stopped at a billabong, the Combo Waterhole, where they found the remains of a recently slaughtered sheep. At this time there were thousands unemployed swagmen roaming the outback in search of work. Obviously one of these men had killed the sheep.

Shearers Strike

Bob Macpherson also told Banjo about the Sheep Shearers' Strike of September 1894. This was a major revolt by the workers who sheared sheep. They were demanding better wages from the rich graziers known as squatters who owned these huge properties. This unrest also spilled over to Dagworth where a group of 16 shearers set fire to the Dagworth Shearing Shed killing over a hundred and forty lambs.

Macpherson and three policemen had given chase to one of them, a man named Samuel Hoffmeister, who was said to be responsible for starting the fire. They didn't catch Hoffmeister, but he was found dead a day later at the Four Mile Billabong near Kynun with a gunshot wound which appeared to be a case of suicide. In a radio interview in 1936 Banjo is quoted as saying "The shearers staged a strike by way of expressing themselves, and Macpherson's woolshed was burnt down and a man was picked up dead". There was also a story doing the rounds at that time about a police posse on the lookout for Harry Wood, a man accused of beating an Aboriginal boy to death. They didn't find Harry but they did come across a hapless swagman camped by a billabong (possibly the Como billabong) who took fright at the sight of the approaching police and jumped into the billabong and drowned.

Hearing a Tune

While at the station Banjo frequently heard Christina play a tune on her zither (sometimes also called an autoharp). Banjo liked the "whimsicality and dreaminess" of the tune and thought it would be nice to set some words to it.

Click on the image to hear an Zither

Banjo a lawyer by trade and a journalist by profession was also an accomplished poet. Naturally he would have stored away a wealth of knowledge; stories and other titbits about life in the outback and the people who lived there. When the opportunity came he was quick to piece together a "case" - a story to produce a light-hearted ditty as part of an evening's entertainment. So it appears that Banjo linked up all these events to create the story line and the lyrics for the song. Christina played the tune on her zither and later wrote down the musical score.

In the same radio interview in 1936 Banjo goes on to say "Miss Macpherson used to play a little Scottish tune on a zither and I put words to it and called it 'Waltzing Matilda'.

First Recital of Waltzing Matilda

On a visit to Winton town, Banjo and Christina polished the song up using a piano in the parlour of the North Gregory Hotel in Winton. Soon after it was sung for the first time by Herbert Ramsay who lived at Oondooroo Station close by and was one of the best tenors in the district. Herbert sang the song either at Sarah's brother's house or the Post Office Hotel in Winton.

The song spread rapidly by word of mouth throughout the district and was an instant hit. On 25 September 1900 the Governor of Queensland, Lord Charles Lamington, visited Winton and Herbert Ramsey sang the song again at a banquet held in the governor's honour at the North Gregory Hotel.

Who Wrote the Waltzing Matilda Lyrics? Banjo Paterson Wrote the Lyrics to Waltzing Matilda

The lyrics to the song were written by Andrew Barton (Banjo) Paterson (1864-1941).

Banjo Paterson was born on 17 February 1864 at Narrambla near Orange, New South Wales. He was the eldest of seven children. Banjo's early childhood was spent in Australian outback. He used his early childhood experiences frequently in his poems and writing. In 1874 he was sent to Sydney Grammar School and then went on to became a lawyer in 1886. It was while a law student that he began writing poetry and adopted the nickname "Banjo". His first poem, 'El Mahdi to the Australian Troops', was published in the Bulletin newspaper in February 1885. A string of other poems and Waltzing Matilda soon followed. These were very popular with the public and he was soon a local celebrity. Banjo served as a war correspondent in South Africa during the Boer War. In 1902 he gave up his legal practice to concentrate on his writing. In 1903 he was appointed editor of the Sydney Evening News. On 8 April 1903 he married Alice Emily. They had two children. In World War I he drove an ambulance and later served in the Middle East. He was wounded in 1916 but served until the end of the war. After the war Banjo resumed journalism. He retired from active journalism in 1930 to devote his leisure to creative writing. He died on 5 February 1941.

Banjo Paterson, while acknowledging authorship of Waltzing Matilda, never considered it one of his better works. He was rather bemused by its popularity and never set out to profit from it.

Some other great poems by Banjo Patterson:

Mulga Bill's Bicycle — Kids and adults alike will love it.
The Man from Snowy River — Acclaimed as Australia's greatest poem.
Clancy of The Overflow — The story of a city-folk's yearning for the wide open spaces.

Who Wrote the Music for Waltzing Matilda? Waltzing Matilda Music was Composed by Christina Macpherson

Christina Macpherson inspired Banjo Paterson to write Waltzing Matilda. She also played and arranged the original music for the song.

Christina was 31 years old when she visited the family property of Dagworth in 1995. While at Winton , a town close to the property, she happened a chance meeting with an old school friend Sarah Riley. Sarah was visiting her family with her fiancée Banjo Paterson. Christina and her family invited Sarah and Banjo to come visit them at Dagworth.

As part of an evening's entertainment at Dagworth Homestead (ranch house) Christina played a tune on her zither. Banjo asked her what the tune was and she told him she didn't know. (The tune in question is the Scottish song "Bonnie Wood O' Craigielea") Banjo liked the tune and immediately started to put down some words to it. Christina and Banjo worked though the score, Christina playing the tune on her zither and Banjo penning the words as they came to mind.

Click here for the fascinating story of Christina Macpherson

 

 

DID YOU KNOW
It was only in the 1990's that a letter and music sheet in Christina's personal handwriting were discovered and presented to the National Library of Australia. These documents provided clear evidence of Christina's contribution to this iconic song. In the letter, written in 1934, Christina describes how she and Banjo Paterson came to write Waltzing Matilda. Also in this collection is an original music sheet by her for the song.

Waltzing Matilda Becomes Australia's Favorite Song How it evolved to what we know today

Banjo Paterson Sells the Rights to Waltzing Matilda

The story of Waltzing Matilda didn't end with Banjo and Christina writing the song and gaining popularity as a bush ballad in the Australian outback. In 1900 Paterson sold the lyrics, to what he considered to be a minor ditty, together with a number of other works to Angus and Robertson publishers for the princely sum of "five quid" (about A$670).

Rights to the Song Bought by the Billy Tea Company

According to records held by the State Library of New South Wales, James Inglis & Co bought a bundle of lyrics from Angus & Robertson in 1902. In this bundle were the lyrics for Waltzing Matilda. James Inglis & Co was a major importer of tea and sold over 680,000 kilos (1.5 million lbs) of tea an year under the "Billy Tea" trademark. They were in search of a catchy tune to promote their tea. Waltzing Matilda, they thought, with a little improvement, would surely fit the bill.

Waltzing Matilda Rearranged by Marie Cowan

Marie Cowan, the wife of one of the managers at James Inglis & Co and a gifted musician, was entrusted with the task of writing a tune to the lyrics. Serendipitously, Marie had heard the original musical tune Christina had written. So she set about recomposing the tune and also changing some of the lyrics of the song to better fit the melody. The sheet music and lyrics were then printed and wrapped around the containers of Billy Tea and as a promotional gimmick.

TripAdvisor

In 1907 the Student's Songbook Board of Sydney University requested permission to use the song and received a letter on 11 October 1907 from James Inglis & Co claiming sole ownership of the song but giving permission for its usage provided there was an acknowledgment that the song is published "with the permission of the proprietors of James Inglis & Co." The letter was signed by a Mr W. Cowan, director, and included a copy of the lyrics and music, with a note that the music was arranged by Marie Cowan. It wasn't long before the song gained widespread Australia-wide popularity. This version of the song, known as the Marie Cowan version, is the one we hear today.

Waltzing Matilda Goes to War

Waltzing Matilda travelled with Australian troopers to the Boer War, then the First World War where it was sung boisterous by Australian soldiers and picked up by troops of other nationalities such as the British and Americans. Before long it was known throughout the world even though, in most instances, those singing it had no idea where the song originated. For over a century now, Waltzing Matilda has been a favourite with Australian troops whenever they travel overseas.

Waltzing Matilda is Over a Century Old and Still a Favorite

Waltzing Matilda is one of those rare songs that hasn't aged. It has been with us for over a century as is still popular today. It is frequently used in major public events. More Australian know the words to Waltzing Matilda than possibly even their national anthem.

What does Waltzing Matilda Sound Like?

There are over 700 different versions of Waltzing Matilda. These have been recorded by such famous singers as Rod Stewart, Jonny Cash, The Seekers, Slim Dusty and Bill Haley & Comets. Below are a a selection you may like to hear.

Nursery Rhyme Version of Waltzing Matilda

This version of Waltzing Matilda has a nice beat to it and also has "sing-a-long" words.

Waltzing Matilda by Bachelor Girl

This is a beautiful rendition of Waltzing Matilda sung by Tania Doko of the group Bachelor Girl.

Country and Western Style Version of Waltzing Matilda

This country and western version of Waltzing Matilda is sung by Slim Dusty a famous Australian country and western singer.

Aboriginal Version of Waltzing Matilda

Here is an interesting Aborigine version of the song by Ali Mills in the Kriol, the Gurindji-Kungarakan Aboriginal tribal language.

First Recording of Waltzing Matilda

Click image to hear the first
recording of Waltzing Matilda

The first known recording of the song was made in 1926 in London, England by a singer named John Collinson. The recording is barely two minutes long. It almost seems like the singer was rushing through the song to make sure it all fitted in the old-fashioned wax recording disc which only had a recording capacity of about two and a half minutes.

While it can clearly be recognized as Waltzing Matilda, it is interesting to note that this version is different from the one we are familiar with today. There is a subtle but noticeable difference in the melody.

"Craigielea" the song that inspired Waltzing Matilda

The tune that Christina Macpherson heard that day in 1994 was the "Bonnie Wood O' Craigielea". It is a Scottish song written by Robert Tannahill. The music was written by James Barr sometime between 1808 and 1810. The song was first published in 1818.

In 1894 Godfrey Parker converted the music into a marching tune. It was this march that was being played by the Garrison Artillery band at Warnambool Races in 1894. Christina Macpherson heard this while she was at the races with her family. In 1895 Christina played what she remembered of the tune on a zither to Banjo Paterson.

Click here to hear Craigielea being sung

Other Versions of the Song Versions Waltzing Matilda

There are no definitive lyrics to this iconic Australian song. A number of variations from the original written by Banjo Patterson now exist. The three that are the most credible versions of the song are discussed below.

Banjo Patterson

Banjo Patterson wrote the original lyrics for Waltzing Matilda 1895. He subsequently sold it together with a number of other works to to Angus and Robertson publishers sometime between 1995 and 1900 fro the princely sum of "five quid" (about A$670 in today's currency). This version is rarely sung.

Harry Nathan

Harry Nathan, a well-known Sydney composer "rewrote" the music for Waltzing Matilda in about 1900. He copyrighted his version in 1903, attributing the words to A. B. Patterson and the music to himself. There is some credence in this because Christiana Macpherson mentions in one of her letters that Banjo had written to her and asked her for the words and music because he wanted to give it to a composer friend of his. Banjo and Harry would probably have known each other are they were both in the 'literati' society of Sydney at the turn of the century. Nathan died of alcoholism in 1906. This version is now lost.

Marie Cowan

Marie Cowan altered some of the lyrics and created a version that was used by Billy Tea Company as an advertising gimmick. They either purchased the rights or licensed it from Allans Music Company which had acquired the work from Angus and Robertson. This version of the song became very popular and is the version most likely to be heard today.

 

Click here for the lyrics to other versions of Waltzing Matilda

Who Owns the Copyright to Waltzing Matilda Waltzing Matilda Copyright Status

There is some controversy and angst in Australia about the copyright status of Waltzing Matilda. Whilst the general public would mostly like be of the view that the belongs to the people in actual fact it isn't that simple.

Australian and World-wide Copyright (except USA)

Copyright in Australia lasts for 50 years after the death of creator of the work.  

The original version of Waltzing Matilda was written in 1895 by Banjo Paterson.  Banjo never claimed a copyright for it. He died in 1941. So his original words of the song came out of copyright in 1991.  Christina Macpherson also never claimed copyright for the music. She died in 1936. So any copyright on the music would have expired in 1986.

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. Marie Cowan the wife of one of the managers of the Billy Tea Company rewrote the lyric and set it again to music using the original Christian Macpherson version as her inspiration. This was freely distributed by the Billy Tea Company with their products. In 1907 the Sydney University got permission from the Billy Tea Company to use Waltzing Matilda in a song book. They were allowed to do so on proviso that they acknowledge that James Inglis & Co owned the song. In effect this implied de-facto rights to the song. No formal copyright request was lodged. So this too would be out of copyright.

It appears that at some time Allans Music Company started publishing music sheets for Marie Cowan's version of Waltzing Matilda. They too never claimed copyright in Australia or overseas. However there is a twist when it comes to the USA.

USA Copyright

It appears that Carl Fischer Music falsely copyrighted the Marie Cowan version of 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 (renewed: RE0000405861 / 1988-12-14). When the Australians used Waltzing Matilda in the closing ceremonies of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 they had to pay royalties to Carl Fischer Music. It just so happens that Carl Fischer Music is only acting as an agent for Allans Music in Australia and the royalties collected in the United States were remitted back to Allans Music in Australia. Allans Music went into liquidation in 2012. The US Copyright Office holds hundreds of copyright registrations for various other versions of Waltzing Matilda.

Conclusion

There is no copyright for Waltzing Matilda except the United States. There the copyright of the Marie Cowan version is registered by Carl Fischer Music. There are also hundred of other versions of the song copyrighted in the US.

A Note About This Web Page

This page was originally written in 1997 by Trishan, an eleven year old Australian boy and his dad. Over the years this page continued to rate in the top 10 sites in Google's ranking on the subject. We have now given the page a long overdue face-lift with new video clips (which didn't exist at the time the page was originally written) and lots of additional content. We have, however, decided to maintain some of the "look and feel" of the original website. So you will still see Trishan's artwork and explanation of the song as it appeared on the original website.

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