The Story of "Waltzing Matilda"

February 17: On this day in 1864, A. B. (“Banjo”) Paterson, theAustralian bush poet, was born in New South Wales. Paterson’s “WaltzingMatilda” apparently retains its popularity as Australia’s unofficialnational anthem, and its ode to the itinerant life: Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country (2000) describesa train full of Aussies spontaneously breaking into a few enthusiastic chorusesafter news of the country winning an Olympic gold medal. Bryson then speculatesthat Paterson must have had a few pints during the writing, given that the song’s”main distinguishing feature … is that it makes no sense.” 

The story of “WaltzingMatilda” is an engaging one, a convergence of history, politics, biography,and etymology that makes sense from almost too many directions. In 1894Paterson was a thirty-year-old city lawyer with a distaste for both cities andthe practice of law. During a tour of Dagworth Station (stations are largeranches, originally run by the government on convict labor) in Queensland, heheard a description of the events surrounding the Shearers’ Strike severalmonths earlier. The “swagman [a drifter or itinerant sheep-shearer,carrying his swag or blanket-roll] camped by a billabong [waterhole]” wasSamuel “Frenchy” Hoffmeister. He was a militant member of theShearers’ Union, thought to have been the one responsible for burning down theDagworth woolshed, killing 140 sheep. He was not relaxing “under the shadeof a coolibah [eucalyptus] tree” but on the run, pausing as “hisbilly [tin can of water] boiled.” When the swagman “stowed thatjumbuck [sheep] in his tucker [food] bag” he was adding the fuel ofpoaching to the fire of political and class war. When “up rode thesquatter [wealthy landowner], mounted on his thoroughbred,” backed by”the troopers, one, two, three,” it was a contest noswagman-unionist-arsonist-poacher could win. When he “leapt into thebillabong,” crying “You’ll never catch me alive,” it was thesuicidal leap of a cornered, outback, underclass, convict-bred martyr, to thecry of “up yours, mate.”

“Frenchy”Hoffmeister was from German stock, as is the expression “waltzingMatilda.” Auf der walz means to”go on the tramp” or hit the road, used in Germany to describetraveling workers or soldiers on the march; a Matilda came to mean those womenwho followed the soldiers, to “keep them warm.” Eventually thesoldier’s greatcoat or blanket was a Matilda. Thus Paterson’s swagman-hero wasnot only without justice, or food, or a way out, but a woman’s warmth.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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