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Waltzing Matilda

Walzing Matilda is probably the best known and best loved song in Australia and played at about every large event. There are 4 main versions of the song, but the original was written at old Dagworth Homestead, Queensland in January 1895 by Andrew Barton "Banjo" Paterson (1864 - 1941).

A guy named Harry Nathan claimed that he wrote the music and edited lyrics in 1900, but he didn't apply for copyright until 1903 and again in 1903 Marie Cowan altered the lyrics to promote Billy Tea. The last version is by Thomas Wood and the one best known outside of Australia.

The original song contains quite a few Australian slang words and if you are not familiar with these, you can find an explanation in the box to the right.

Walzing Matilda (original Version by "Banjo" Paterson)

Oh there once was a swagman1 camped in the billabongs2,
Under the shade of a Coolibah3 tree;
And he sang as he looked at the old billy4 boiling
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me."Photo of Andrew Barton "Banjo" PatersonPhotograph of Andrew Barton "Banjo" Paterson
Australian National Library

Who'll come a-waltzing5 Matilda6, my darling.
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag.
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.

Up came the jumbuck7 to drink at the waterhole,
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee;
And he sang as he put him away in his tucker-bag8,
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me."

Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling.
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag.
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.

Up came the squatter9 a-riding his thoroughbred;
Up came the policemen - one, two, and three.
"Whose is the jumbuck you've got in the tucker-bag?
You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with we."

Listen to audio

Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling.
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag.
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.

Up sprang the swagman and jumped into the waterhole,
Drowning himself by the Coolibah tree;
And his voice can be heard as it sings in the billabongs,
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me."

Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling.
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag.
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.

Historical ContextEvents that inspired Waltzing Matilda

Dagworth Station, the place where Waltzing Matilda was written, is located north-west of Winton, in central west Queensland. In 1894 sheep shearers burned down 7 shearing sheds in the district in a violent protest over wages. One of those sheds belonged to Dagworth Station.

A guy called Samuel Hoffmeister was implicated in these events and later found dead at a nearby billabong. Given the parallels, it is likely that Patterson was inspired by the story when he visited Dagworth Station only a few months later in January 1895 and wrote Waltzing Matilda.

ExplanationUnderstanding Australian Expressions

Sometimes the exact meaning is not clear and even experts argue about the correct interpretation. I have put together what I think is the most creditable translation / explanation of the terms.

1 A swag is a portable bed that can be rolled up for easy transport. The term swagman refers to an underclass worker that travelled by foot from farm to farm, carrying his swag.

2 Billabong refers to a small lake. More specifically a former part of a creek that got cut off the course of the creek changed. In arid Australian outback billabongs are often dry but fill up with water after rain and provide a valuable water source for animals.

3 Also known as Eucalyptus coolabah, a wide-spreading tree that is often more wide than tall. It provides much needed shade in the hot Australian outback. The word is loaned from 'gulabaa' a word taken from the language of the Indigenous Australian Yuwaaliyaay people.

4 Billy is short for billy can or billy tin (depending on where you are from), a leightweight cooking pot used on campfires. Regarding the origin of the word there are two explanations. One is that it is derived from the Aboriginal word 'billa' meaning water. The other is, that is comes from the cans used for transporting bully beef on exploring the outback and which - after the beef was eaten - were modified and put to use as pots.

5 Waltzing is derived from the German word 'Waltz', which originally meant the time apprentices had to spend away from home - typically travelling on foot - and learning their trade from a number of different masters. Here it probably means just the "travelling on foot" part.

6 Matilda was the name that apprentices used for their food bag when they had to undertake their 'waltz' (see above).

7 A jumbuck is a (untamed) sheep.

8 Tucker means food. As food is not readily available in the arid outback of Australia, whoever travelled the land had to gathered what was available when and where they found it. The bag used for carrying the food is the tucker-bag.

9 Squatter means a land holder - often of a very large property - who got his right to the land by living on it. In the early years of Australian settlement this was a common way to acquire land.

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