As background information on Australia during the 2000 Olympics, Allen Abel wrote what struck me as a very nice summary of the history of Waltzing Matilda for non-Australians. The National Post is a Canadian newspaper, hence the use of non-Australian words like "ranch" and "cowpoke" ("station", "stockman"). Thanks to Allen for permission to reproduce it here. (The National Post only keeps their stories on-line for 60 days.)
First appeared in the National Post, September 11, 2000
Used by permission.
WINTON, Queensland - It is their Danny Boy, their Gens du Pays, their Hatikvah, their Shenandoah. The battle hymn of an obstinate republic. Next Friday night, in a stadium 2,000 kilometres south of this dusty little Outback town, it will resound from the throats -- and the hearts -- of 100,000 patriots.
You will hear the strange words dozens of times before these Olympic Games are over: billabong, swagman, coolibah, jumbuck, tuckerbag. The squatter and his troopers; one, two, three. The self-destruction of a mutinous, desperate man: "'You'll never catch me alive!' cried he."
This is the village where the anthem that encapsulates the soul of our Olympic host nation was written -- by a playboy lawyer from Sydney -- and set by a grazier's daughter to an old Scottish tune. It was 1895. The swagman was far from jolly, but his tale is true.
I've driven 16 hours over two sun-scorched prairie days to come here from New South Wales. My goal is partly touristic -- tiny Winton (population: 1,200) recently opened a superb museum dedicated to the history and import of the song -- and partly sentimental. It is not possible to spend time in Australia without sensing the country's intense attachment to a dead poet's scribble on a yellowed page. And this is where it began.
"We must be the only nation on Earth that made a hero of a fictitious suicidal itinerant worker," reads a display in the Waltzing Matilda Centre. "Why did we do that?"
Guiding visitors around the exhibition is a man named Allen Stockham, a former rodeo champion, cattle drover and sheep stealer. Like the hero of the song, Mr. Stockham, now 67, has spent many nights beneath the Southern Cross, wrapped in the thick canvas bedroll the Australians call a swag.
Weathered and wise, dressed all in denim, under a 10-gallon felt Akubra, the world famous bushman's headgear that has become a synonym for hat, he walks me through the displays and says: "You can hear it a thousand times, and it still means what it says -- defiance. Those old bushmen, that was their attitude. When the Boer War came, and then the First World War, the military took it overseas. The troops sang it everywhere they went. It was the same idea -- they were defyin' the Germans.
"It should be the national anthem, but the British colonials, they couldn't let us have a song about a bushranger as our national anthem. Most of the bloomin' Australians were bloomin' convicts anyway -- they were defiant right from the start and they picked it right up. And we still are."
The hero of Waltzing Matilda is a migrant farm labourer ("swagman") who is cornered under a eucalyptus tree ("coolibah") beside a waterhole ("billabong") by a landowner ("squatter") and his hired policemen after stealing a sheep ("jumbuck," from the Aboriginal word jimbuc) for his dinner ("tucker").
He escapes arrest -- and certain hanging -- by leaping into the billabong, where his ghost may be heard by all who pass by.
The actual story is more convoluted. For decades, swagmen had roamed the sheep stations of Queensland, shearing the fine merino wool in season, begging and starving without. They were, at first, a merry lot of hobos. In 1877, they formed a bogus brotherhood whose rules included:
1. No member to be older than 100.
2. Members who don't care about paying will be admitted free.
13. Members found working will be expelled.
But their jocularity soon dissipated. In 1894, the shearers, believing themselves to be cruelly exploited by the ranch owners, many of whom were absentee British millionaires, declared a strike that quickly turned violent.
On a station called Dagworth, a day's ride north of Winton, the strikers fired off their rifles and pistols, causing and suffering no casualties, then set fire to the barns, killing dozens of precious sheep.
One of the ringleaders of the uprising, a man named Samuel "French" Hoffmeister, was found by troopers the next day, beside a billabong off the Winton track, still in his swag, shot dead by his own hand.
About four months after this, a 30-year-old Sydneysider named Andrew Barton Paterson, who had adopted the nickname "Banjo" (after his favourite horse) because it sounded more authentically Outback-ish, came to Dagworth to romance one young lady and wound up falling for another.
Banjo Paterson had been raised in the ranchlands of New South Wales before being educated, and admitted to the bar, in the metropolis by the sea. He already was one of Australia's leading frontier poets, in the masculine style of Rudyard Kipling and Robert S. Service, having published such stirring stanzas as:
The man from Snowy River let the pony have his head,
And he swung his stockwhip round and gave a cheer,
And he raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed,
While the others stood and watched in very fear ...
At Dagworth, where memories of the strike and Mr. Hoffmeister's death still were fresh and raw -- and where two other swagmen had drowned in billabongs in 1891 -- Mr. Paterson began to compose a poem. He ostensibly was in the district to court the daughter of a neighbouring squire, but found himself keeping company with a Miss Christina MacPherson.
Miss MacPherson, it happened, recently had been to the horse races in the colony of Victoria, where she heard, danced to, and memorized a Scottish melody called Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea.
"Let's set your new poem to music!" she declared to Banjo Paterson, sitting down to her harmonium. Their song was performed at the North Gregory Hotel in Winton a few weeks later, was relayed from farm to farm and swagman to swagman, and went to war in South Africa and Europe. By the time of its centenary, it had been recorded by everyone from Chubby Checker to the Coldstream Guards.
It is not the national anthem, although a poll conducted during the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 revealed that nine out of 10 Aussies wanted it to be. (In Helsinki in 1952, the Finns played it during a gold-medal ceremony, assuming that it was.)
That honour goes, instead, to Advance Australia Fair, a reasonably rousing tune we are likely to hear far more often than O Canada on the podium at Homebush Bay. And the word "jolly" was not in Paterson's original manuscript, which begins with "Oh! there once was a Swagman camped in a Billabong ...")
Australia fell in love with the song, but, alas, Miss MacPherson did not fall in love with Andrew Barton Paterson. She died, unmarried, in 1936.
Mr. Paterson became a war correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald, published hundreds of other poems and essays on Outback life and lore, and maintained his legal practice. He sold the publishing rights for Waltzing Matilda, along with what he called " a lot of old junk," to a firm in Sydney for £5.
He passed away on Feb. 5, 1941, -- Allen Stockham' s eighth birthday.
"I'd have been on the strikers' side," the old cowpoke says. We're sitting quietly now, in the archives of the Waltzing Matilda Centre, which contain thousands of books and articles pertaining to Banjo Paterson, the shearers' strike and the hallowed verse.
"Most of 'em carried their swags and that's all they had and they were gettin' it tough. They were prepared to fight for what they wanted -- that's still the attitude of the bloomin' bushman, I guess.
"The shearers today, they have a set of union rules. But now, we have shearers coming in from New Zealand, and they work seven days a week over there and they try to do the same thing over here, whereas we don't shear on Sundays, see? There's still friction over these things."
His sympathies for the swagman are well-grounded; he spent most of his life in the saddle on these unforgiving yellow plains. On cattle drives, he was responsible for feeding the cowboys --they call them "ringers" here --and that often meant "borrowing" the odd jumbuck.
"It was part of the business," he says with a wink. "You had to know how to do it and not get caught."
But years on the range take their toll, north of the Tropic of Capricorn -- Queensland is the melanoma capital of the world. Mr. Stockham's arms are scar-spangled, where dozens of little cancers have been frozen and removed.
The broad-brimmed Akubra protected his face.
"Look how clear it is," he says, lifting his hat.
So, who was Matilda and where did she waltz?
According to the history books at the museum in Winton, she was a rolled-up soldier's greatcoat from the Prussian wars of the 19th century, the closest thing to a soft, warm woman, far from home, they could embrace. They gave the garment a woman's name -- as B. B. King would call his guitar, in another century, "Lucille" -- and danced her down the front lines to their graves.
By 1894, the expression "Waltzing Matilda," meaning to carry a coat or bedroll on the trail, imported by European immigrants, had caught on with the swagmen of Queensland, though they more commonly used the expression "humping the bluey" to refer to life on the road.
It was picked up by Banjo Paterson, set to music by Christina MacPherson, and melded with a real tale from Australia's wild West into a verse that equally thrilled the swells of Sydney and touched the hardened men who lived a life of toil, hunger and solitude in a rolled-out swag.
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?" the swagman asks, a century later. And a warm, dry wind from the grasslands of Australia bears the burden of his sorrow to the world.
One comment on the above article: there are two tunes to which Waltzing Matilda is sung. Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea is the source of the original or "Queensland" version (or versions). The modern or "Cowan" tune derives from an English folk song, Who'll Be a Soldier for Rochester.
Go to the traditional song index page.
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