ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

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

Updated on February 4, 2018
'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The heavy use of obscure and outdated slang can make Waltzing Matilda difficult to understand for anyone outside of Australia - though, even the greater majority of modern Australians might still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

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Dallas Matier profile imageAUTHOR

      Dallas Matier 

      4 years ago from Australia

      You're welcome. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      4 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!

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)