Waltzing Matilda – Australia's Favourite Song Lyrics, Meaning, Analysis, History

Waltzing Matilda is an Australian icon. More Australian people know the words to this song than even their national anthem. There is probably no other song that is more easily recognised by a populace: young or old: native or a newly arrived immigrant.

Waltzing Matilda tells the story of a swagman, resting by a waterhole who steals a sheep and makes a meal of it, and is caught red-handed by a wealthy landowner. Fearing for his life, the swagman jumps into the waterhole and drowns. The lyrics to the song were written in 1895 by Banjo Paterson. The music was composed by Christina Macpherson. This lighthearted ditty uses many uniquely Australian words referred to as Strine.

Waltzing Matilda — Lyrics Words to the Waltzing Matilda Song

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?

Waltzing Matilda — Analysis Waltzing Matilda Explained - Meaning of the Song

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

1st Verse

A destitute 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. He is hungry, so the swagman catches the sheep, kills it, eats what he can, and stows the rest in his backpack. (Swagmen 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 swagman red-handed with the remains of the sheep in his tucker bag and try to arrest him for stealing and killing the sheep.

4th Verse

Absolutely terrified 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.

Meaning of Words In Waltzing Matilda"Strine" Words Used In Waltzing Matilda

Waltzing Matilda uses many uniquely Australian words referred to as Strine. They are explained below.

Jolly – means happy (Not in common usage today).
Swagman – a hobo, an itinerant worker, who travelled from place to place in search of work. A swagman was usually extremely poor and carried all his belongings wrapped up in a blanket slung over his shoulder called a swag.
Billabong – a waterhole or pond. It is an aboriginal word meaning little or no water.
Coolibah Tree – a eucalyptus tree which usually grows near water. Derived from the aboriginal word gulabaa.
Billy – a tin can with a wire handle used to boil water.
Jumbuck – a sheep. It is most likely derived from the two words jumping buck.
Waltzing Matilda – see detailed explaination below.
Tucker Bag – a bag for storing food (tucker). It was usually an old sugar or flour sack.
Squatter – a wealthy landowner, a rancher.
Thoroughbred – An expensive pedigreed horse. The Mercedes Benz equivalent of its day.
Trooper – a policeman, a mounted militia-man.

Meaning of the Title 'Waltzing Matilda' What Does the Phrase 'Waltzing Matilda' Mean?

The title of the song is derived from a 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 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, and Australians were familiar with it.

Matilda has German origins too and means Mighty Battle Maiden. It is believed to have been given to females 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. When the song was written the word "the" was dropped from the title becoming Waltzing Matilda.

History of Waltzing MatildaHow Waltzing Matilda was Written

Dagworth Station

In 1895 Banjo Paterson and his fiancée, Sarah Riley, visited the Dagworth Station in Outback Queensland. This huge sheep station (ranch), 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 Paterson 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

Listen to Waltzing Matilda on a Zither

Click on the image to hear the Waltzing Matilda tune being played in a Zither (Autoharp).

What Waltzing Matilda Originally Sounded Like

Click on the image to listen to Waltzing Matilda as it sounded with the original words and music.

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, 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 wrote 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.

How Waltzing Matilda Became Australia's Favourite Song Evolution into Today's Iconic Song

The story of Waltzing Matilda didn't end with Banjo Paterson and Christina Macpherson writing the song and gaining popularity as a bush ballad in the Australian outback. In 1900 Paterson sold the lyrics, to what he considered just a minor little ditty, bundled together with a number of other works to Angus and Robertson publishers for the princely sum of "five quid" (about A$670). We can only guess that he probably valued the song for about $20.

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 a 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 be just perfect.

Waltzing Matilda Rearranged by Marie Cowan

Marie Cowan, the wife of one of the managers working at James Inglis & Co and a gifted musician, was entrusted with the task of writing a tune to the lyrics. Fortunately, Marie had heard the original musical tune composed by Christina. So she set about recomposing the tune and changing some of the lyrics of the song to better fit the melody. The sheet music and lyrics were then printed and wrapped around containers of Billy Tea and as a promotional gimmick. It wasn't long before the song gained widespread 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, it has been a favourite with Australian troops whenever they travel overseas.

Waltzing Matilda is Over a Century Old and Still a Favourite

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. Some say that more Australian know the words to this song than possibly even their national anthem.

Related Article: What does Waltzing Matilda Sound Like?

Click image to hear the first recording of Waltzing Matilda

First Recording of Waltzing Matilda Oldest Surviving 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.

Versions of Waltzing Matilda There are Over 700 Versions of the Song

There are no definitive version of lyrics to the song Waltzing Matilda. The Queensland / Banjo Patterson version is believe to be the original written by Banjo Paterson and has a definite bush ballad tone to it. Another version, known as the Harry Nathen version, is now lost. The most popular version heard today is the Marie Cowan version, which has a merry sing-a-long tone to it. There are over 700 different recorded versions of this song by local and international artists.

Related Article: Versions of Waltzing Matilda

Other Poems by Banjo Paterson Australia’s Foremost Bush Poet

The Man from Snowy River — describes the story of the recapture of a valuable colt that was living with wild horses.
Clancy of The Overflow
— is the story of a city dweller's yearning for the carefree life of an Outback Australian drover.
Mulga Bill's Bicycle — Mulga Bill buys himself a bicycle and boasts he can ride this machine with ease. He is in for the ride of his life.

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.