National Treasures: Waltzing Matilda

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The Combo Waterhole, the setting of Banjo Paterson's classic Australian ballad, "Waltzing Matilda."

Every nation has its store of national songs, treasuries that unite people of a nation with a cultural identity and songs that tell the story of people united by something larger than themselves.

For Australians, “Waltzing Matilda” is such a song. Often referred to as the “unofficial national anthem of Australia,” “Waltzing Matilda” is Australia’s most widely known and loved folk song.


A photograph of a swagman, c. 1900.

“Waltzing Matilda” was written by the Australian poet Banjo Paterson in 1895, during a stay at a bush station in western Queensland. The song tells the story of an Australian “swagman” who sees a sheep (“jumpbuck”) while resting under the shade of a coolibah tree. The hungry swagman grabs the sheep and stuffs it into his pack, only to be found by the sheep’s owner and three policemen who try to arrest him.  Instead of allowing himself to be arrested, the swagman drowns himself in the billabong, which his ghost still haunts.

The song is thought to have its root in both the Australian Depression of the 1890s, as well as the Great Shearers’ Strike of that decade. The strike between unionized and non-unionized sheep shearers left many of the unionized workers poor and penniless, causing many of them to pack up their few belongings into a pack and lead an itinerant lifestyle, looking for any work that they could get. During this time, a number of unionized shearers raided shearing sheds and stole sheep. One of the more famous characters of this strike was a man by the name of Samuel Hoffmeister, who was allegedly involved in setting fire to the woolshed at Dagworth Homestead, killing over 100 sheep. According to legend, when the police pursued Hoffmeister, he shot himself at the Combo Waterhole in Kynuna, Queensland; most historians now agree that this incident served as Paterson’s inspiration for penning “Waltzing Matilda.”


“Waltzing Matilda” has long been associated with both Australian bush culture as well as Australian national identity.  The historical basis for the song – the sheep shearers’ strike – tells of a time when Australia was struggling for independence.  Although it had been given self-governance in the 1890s, Australia was not yet a free nation; the strike is often viewed as a sort of rebellion against the British class system. However, unlike other songs containing a message of freedom, “Waltzing Matilda” has a different sort of tone about it.

The dominant tone of the song is one of ardent yet carefree independent spirit. The swagman in the song is somewhat of a social outcast, someone who bounces between jobs and towns constantly. While he fits the lone wolf archetype, he is also a jolly fellow, but ultimately would rather die than have his freedom compromised.

It is not hard to see why this song gives Australians a sense of unity; the carefree spirit of a people with a great sense of humor meets a fierce desire for freedom in an agrarian setting that invites every listener to take a rest by a billabong and listen to an old swagman tell you his tale.


          February 10, 2018