The Meaning of the Australian Folk Song, 'Waltzing Matilda'

'On A Hungry Track', 1896, Frank P. Mahony
'On A Hungry Track', 1896, Frank P. Mahony | Source

Waltzing Matilda is an important song for the people of Australia. So much so, in fact, that it is not at all uncommon to hear it referred to as the 'unofficial anthem' of the country - and, one that many may actually prefer to Australia's actual anthem, Advance Australia Fair. It is, perhaps, the most recognizable representation of a particular point in Australian history - that point when the country was still largely 'untamed', when bush-rangers were as infamous as the outlaws of the American wild west, and when drifters could make a living moving from place to place, looking for whatever work they could find.

The lyrics of the song were written by Australian poet, Andrew Barton 'Banjo' Patterson, in 1895. The music to which the lyrics were set came from Christina Macpherson (whose family 'Banjo' Patterson was staying with at the time), who played a piece of music from memory that she had hears years earlier - though, by her own admission, she could not remember what that piece was. 'Banjo' thought that the piece had promise, though, and the two worked together on the song - 'Waltzing Matilda' was the result of their efforts. It is believed now, though, that the piece of music in question was actually a Scottish folk tune called 'Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea.'

The heavy use of obscure and outdated slang can make Waltzing Matilda difficult to understand for anyone outside of Australia - though, even the greater majority of modern Australians might still struggle with it. Yet, despite the veneer of complexity given to the song by its use of old-fashioned Australian slang, Waltzing Matilda actually tells a fairly simple and straightforward story. The 'jolly swag-man' (a traveling laborer) sets up camp next to a 'billabong' (a large pond, or a lake). While waiting for his 'billy' (a small pot, used to boil water) to boil so that he could make himself tea, a 'jumbuck' (a sheep) happens by, and the swag-man promptly catches it, figuring that it would make a good meal. The squatter, who happens to have settled on this particular bit of land and who owns the jumbuck, arrives in the company of three troopers - catching the swag-man in the act. Realizing that he is likely to be hanged (or, at the very least, imprisoned for quite some time), the swag-man decides that he would rather die on his own terms - declaring they will never take him alive, he jumps into the billabong, and drowns. And, now, anyone who happens to pass by that particular billabong can still hear the ghost of the swag-man, singing 'you'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.'

Of all the slang used in the song, it is probably its very title, the phrase 'waltzing Matilda' (also repeated in the song's chorus) which is likely to cause the most confusion. Yet, even here, the obscure and old-fashioned phrase actually has a relatively straight-forward meaning. 'Matilda' was an affectionate nickname that swag-men often gave to their swags (the packs in which they carried their belongings). There are many theories about why this name, in particular, was the one most commonly used - ranging from it being the name of the wife of a particular swag-man (who likely met a tragic end), to it simply being a common female name that caught on among the traveling swag-men. But, there is little in the way of evidence to point to any true origin - leaving the prevalence of the phrase as an odd historical quirk.

To 'waltz', despite giving the impression of the dance, in this context simply means to walk - here, it is commonly accepted this use of the word 'waltz' was drawn from the German phrase 'auf der Walz', referring to a tradition for journeymen craftsman to travel for a few years after completing their apprenticeships. To 'waltz Matilda,' therefore, simply referred to the act of traveling itself - walking from place to place, with their swag slung over their shoulder, in the search for work.

So, there you go. The unofficial anthem of Australia is, essentially, a song about a criminal killing himself to escape justice. Or, perhaps, it's a song about a poor man escaping the cruelty of a rich land-owner. Either way, all the jokes about what this says about Australia have probably already been made.

© 2014 Dallas Matier

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Comments 2 comments

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

I've been singing this song since childhood. Thank you for this interesting and enjoyable explanation about its meaning!


Dallas Matier profile image

Dallas Matier 2 years ago from Australia Author

You're welcome. Glad you enjoyed it.

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