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Australia's most popular song prompts some troubling questions

Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Australia's most popular song prompts some troubling questions
'Who is this Matilda? And how is waltzing with her going to help the jolly swagman?'

By TOM ZUCCO
Globe and Mail (Scripps Howard News Service)


Waltzing Matilda is so popular it was performed at the opening ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics before the Australian national anthem was played.Why is it such an icon down under?

  Clearly, it's the 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?

(there's more)

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."

(chorus)

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."

(there's still more)

(chorus)

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?"

(chorus)

What a story. But there are some troubling questions, and first on the list is: What on earth drove this guy to boil his billy?
And how could he possibly sing while he was boiling it?
Also, who is this Matilda person? And how is waltzing with her going to help the jolly swagman? (Again, assuming we're talking about dancing here.)

To clear up this mess, here's some history.

A.B. Banjo Patterson, a Sydney lawyer, wrote the song in 1895. At the time, there were severe labour problems between sheep shearers and farmers. In one incident, shearers set a barn on fire and were chased by police. One shearer, a man named Hoffmeister, shot and killed himself rather than be captured.

Duly influenced by that event, Patterson wrote the lyrics and matched the words to an old folk tune called Craigeelee.

Now, about those lyrics. The word "waltzing" comes from a German phrase meaning to travel from place to place while learning a trade. A Matilda is the nickname for a blanket or wrap used to keep you warm at night.

So the term "Waltzing Matilda" means travelling from place to place in search of work with all of one's belongings wrapped in a blanket.

Like what Bill Clinton will be doing soon.

A swagman is a drifter or a hobo, a billabong is a water hole, a coolibah tree is a eucalyptus tree, a billy is a makeshift kettle (whew, glad that's settled), a jumbuck is a sheep, a tucker bag is a knapsack and a squatter is a wealthy landowner.

After careful analysis, two things become clear.

First, Australians dig songs about suicidal sheep rustlers. This is somewhat troubling and could explain why they all carry huge knives and wear goofy hats.

Second, the song would be 10 times better if waltzing meant something dirty.

As an American, I'm thankful that our most favourite song is far more dignified than Waltzing Matilda. It taps into our sense of national pride and does a wonderful job of telling the world who we really are.

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale.
A tale of a fateful trip,
That started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny
ship.
The mate was a mighty sailin' man, the skipper brave and sure.
Five passengers set sail that day for a three hour tour.
A three hour tour.

You know the rest.


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