Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Waltzing Matilda

Now close your eyes and imagine with me. OK, don't close your's kinda hard to read with one's eyes closed. Anyway, picture a large sports stadium, where everyone is gathered to enjoy a rousing game of rugby. Before the game starts, a voice over the loudspeaker says in an Aussie accent, "G'day, mates! Everyone please rise for the national anthem!" A renowned opera singer steps up to the mic and begins to sing. Everyone swells with patriotic pride as the diva belts out the notes of a song telling the story of one lone poor man who stops for a break by a watering hole, steals a sheep, and is getting ready to eat it when he is nearly arrested for sheep stealing. To add to everyone's national pride, the man then decides that, rather than go to jail (or be hanged), he'll just commit suicide. Then for all time, his ghost haunts said watering hole. As the opera singer belts out the final notes, there is not a dry eye in the stadium, as everyone is so inspired.

Does that sound as absurd to you as it does to me?

That's because, contrary to popular belief, Waltzing Matilda is not, and never has been, the national anthem of Australia. (In fact, that claim would be akin to calling Clementine the national anthem of the US.) That honor goes to Advance Australia Fair.

Interestingly, the above scenario came close to being a reality. In a vote on May 21, 1977 (coincidentally, exactly 6 months before I was born), a group of Aussies decided to make Advance Australia Fair the national anthem, winning at only 43%. Second place was Waltzing Matilda at 28%, followed by God Save the Queen (19%) and Song of Australia (10%). Personally, I think Advance Australia Fair was a much better choice of national anthem.

I learned Waltzing Matilda when I attended Faith Academy in the Philippines in the '80s. Several of my classmates were even from Australia. Once, I played the swagman in a dramatization of the song (that's me sitting by the billabong in the picture above, with the squatter and troopers mounted on their thoroughbreds coming to get me). As we learned the song, we learned the definitions of the words.

A swagman is a poor homeless man. According to Wikipedia, swagmen traveled from farm to farm searching for jobs. They carried big packs on their backs containing all their earthly belongings.

A billabong is a watering hole, or a small lake formed by being cut off from a nearby river. When they have water in them, it is stagnant.

A coolibah tree is a kind of eucalyptus. (Good thing the song isn't about me. Eucalyptus and I don't agree.)

In school, we learned that a jumbuck is a sheep. I didn't know until now that there's more to it than that. Jumbucks are generally large sheep that are wild and hard to shear. Makes me think his tucker bag must have been huge.

A billy is a can used for boiling water. As you'll notice in the article linked in this paragraph, they've become more modern and advanced since the days of swagmen.

A tucker bag is a bag for carrying food ("tucker"). It could often be closed by means of a drawstring. These days, the term also refers to reusable shopping bags, although I'm sure that was not what the swagman had. :-)

Troopers are policemen.

In the Philippines, we knew squatters to be poor people who live in huts made of cardboard, plywood, whatever they can find to build a house with. However, as we learned, the word has a different meaning in Australia. An Aussie squatter is a farmer and shepherd, who may or may not have a legal right to the land they are using to herd their sheep.

As for the title, waltzing refers to the practice of traveling around and doing jobs in different places, often for 3 years and one day at a time. According to Wikipedia, some carpenters still do this. A Matilda is the large pack that the swagmen carried. To waltz Matilda is to travel around from job to job, carrying a Matilda containing one's personal belongings.


The Aussie poet Banjo Paterson wrote the words to the song in 1895. (He is also known for his poem "The Man from Snowy River", which would later inspire an excellent movie.) The music was written by Christina Macpherson, based on a folk song that she somewhat remembered. She was probably remembering the Scottish song "Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielee", written by Robert Tannahill in 1805 and set to music by James Barr in 1818.

In other news, today is January 26, Australia Day. Thus this blog post about Australia's most famous song.

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