What does Waltzing Matilda Mean?
Waltzing is from the German term auf der walz which meant to travel while learning a trade. Young apprentices in those days travelled the country working under a master craftsman earning their living as they went - sleeping where they could.
Matilda has Teutonic (German and Norwegian) origins 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 tossed over their shoulder while marching.
So Waltzing Matilda means to travel from place to place in search of work with all one's belongings on one's back, wrapped in a blanket or cloth. This is what Swagmen did in outback Australia.
Who Wrote 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 studied law. He became a lawyer in 1886. It was while a law student that he began writing poetry. It was also at this time that he 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 also became a successful broadcaster with the Australian Broadcasting Commission He died on 5 February 1941.
How Waltzing Matilda was Written?
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 a drag coach to Dagworth they saw a swagman walking along the dusty road. Bob Macpherson pointed this out 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 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.
Bob Macpherson also told Banjo about the Sheep Shearers' Strike of September 1894. This was a major revolt in the area. These troubles also spilled over to Dagworth where a group of 16 shearers set fire to the Dagworth Shearing Shed killing over a hundred forty lambs. Macpherson and three policemen had given chase and one of them, a man named Samuel Hoffmeister who was said to be responsible for starting the fire. They didn't catch him but he was found dead a day later at the Four Mile Billabong near Kynun with a gunshot wound which appeared to be clear 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 who took fright at the sight of the approaching police and jumped into the billabong and drowned.
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.
Banjo was a lawyer by trade and a journalist by profession and 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'.
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 town. Soon after it was sung for the first time by Herbert Ramsay who lived at Oondooroo Station close by and was said to be the best tenor 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. Herbert Ramsey sang the song again at a banquet held in the governor's honour at the North Gregory Hotel.
The song was picked up by the "Billy Tea" company to advertise their product. Paterson sold the rights to the song and "some other pieces" to Angus & Robertson Publishers for "five quid".
By the end of World War 1 it was Australia's favourite song and has been ever since.
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.
DID YOU KNOW.
It was only in the 1990's that a letter and music sheet in Christina's personal handwriting was presented to the National Library of Australia. These documents provided irrefutable evidence to validate Christina's contribution to this iconic song. The records clearly demonstrate that Christina played a vital part in the composition of Waltzing Matilda. In the letter, written in 1934, Christina describes how she and Banjo Paterson came to write Waltzing Matilda.
the song that inspired Waltzing Matilda
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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 ensuring 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. We hope you find our site informative and fun.