Most countries have a piece of music that means something special to its people. For Australians, it’s a song called ‘Waltzing Matilda’, written in 1895 by songwriter and poet ‘Banjo’ Paterson.

Magazine - Waltzing Matilda

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Waltzing Matilda

by Paul Millard

Most countries have a unique piece of music that means something special to its people. For many of those celebrating Australia Day this week, it’s a song called ‘Waltzing Matilda’, written in 1895 by a song-writer and poet known as ‘Banjo’ Paterson. It’s a song that, for many, evokes the unique feel of the country, yet tells a very simple story.

The song

Before we go any further, read the lyrics. You can also hear the song at http://www.nla.gov.au/epubs/waltzingmatilda. Can you tell what the song is about?

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree
And he sang as he watched and waited ‘til his billy boiled
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

Chorus;
Waltzing Matilda , Matilda my darling
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me
And he sang as he watched and waited ‘til his billy boiled
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

Down came a jumbuck to drink at the billabong
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me

(Chorus)

Down came the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred
Down came the troopers, one, two, three
'Whose is that jumbuck that you’ve got in your tucker-bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me!’

(Chorus)

Up jumped the swagman and jumped into the billabong
‘You’ll never take me alive!’ said he
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me

(Chorus)

If you are a little confused, don’t worry! Some of the most important words are only used in Australia and the story isn’t obvious to many speakers of English. In short, a travelling worker camps next to a lake and heats some water. A sheep comes for a drink at the lake and the man catches it and puts it in a bag. Then the sheep farmer arrives on his horse, with three policemen. Instead of being captured and sent to prison, the man jumps into the lake and dies.

By the way, the ‘Matilda’ is the swagman’s sleeping blanket, rolled up for carrying. ‘ Waltzing Matilda’ probably refers to the act of carrying it around the country. Alternatively, the swagman was dancing with his blanket!

So, the story is a universal one – a conflict between poor and rich, in which the poor man loses but defiantly keeps his pride. It may have gained extra significance and popularity because of the things that were happening in Australia at that time.

The writing of Waltzing Matilda

Although Banjo Paterson lived in Sydney, the song was written while he was visiting the interior of the country – known as the Outback, a tough place where only a few people lived, mostly by farming sheep and cows. Paterson went to Queensland in the north of the country, where, a few months earlier, there had been a lot of tension and conflict. The shearers – workers who travelled around the farms, cutting the wool from the sheep – wanted more money from the sheep farmers. The shearers went on strike, meaning that they stopped working. There had been a lot of anger and violence.

In January 1895, Paterson was staying with the Macpherson family on their sheep farm near Winton in Queensland. Some people say that during the strike a building on the farm had been burned down and many sheep had died. Guns were fired during the incident. The next day, the leader of the workers was found dead near a lake.

Yet it was here, among the owners of the land, that Banjo Paterson wrote this song in apparent sympathy with the poor workers. He gave the song its words, but the music was probably provided by Christina Macpherson, the sister of the sheep farmer. She didn’t write it, but she had remembered the tune, called ‘Craigielee’ being played in the south of Australia the year before.

Waltzing Matilda – Australia’s anthem?

The song became very popular in Australia, although it existed in three different forms. In the 1970s, it nearly became Australia’s official national anthem, to be played at major events like the opening of parliament and international matches in football and rugby. Until 1974, Australia’s anthem was the same as Britain’s – God Save the Queen. Many people were dissatisfied with this and votes were held in 1974 and 1977. Waltzing Matilda came in second, with nearly 30% of the vote. Popular, but not as popular as ‘Advance Australia Fair’, a song dating from 1878. This begins with the line, ‘Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free’, and goes on to praise Australia as a nation. It is more typical of a national anthem than a story of a man who takes a sheep and then jumps in a lake, but perhaps it is less typically Australian.

Whatever the official anthem is, for many Australians ‘Waltzing Matilda’ will continue to be their real national song.

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Hello all,

I'm a Pakistani and we do have our splendid national hymn, it depicts a pray for the prosperity, a believe to get more success and patriotic obsession to perform our duties for this land sincerely, honestly and loyally indeed.

For every country, I think it is very essential to have a suitable national anthem because It just doesn't remain as a national song in future where nation could listen to get super-excitement and sentimental nationalistic feelings! In fact It has to predominately symbolizes to a country as well as it also has to confidently states that how much do we proud and care for our motherland among all the other nations...

best wishes...

I was born Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has an own national patriotic anthem. Who all people live in Kazakhstan like and respect your governmental anthem very much. The author of lovely anthem is Shamshy Kaldayakov. He was a famous composer. We will always remember him, respect his talented path and your valuable labor.
I think that every country must have your own song and with help that give a spirit and appear patriotic feeling towards your country and listening abroad an anthem to help always everywhere, it is as a medicine for soul.

Your texts
 
Trini Plaza writes “I’m from Catalonia, an autonomous region of Spain. Catalonia, the same as Australia, has a national anthem and a national song that is like a second national anthem. All people know both of them.The lyrics of the national anthem tell you about agricultural life in the 17th century and the fight against the Spanish invaders. The lyrics call farmers to defend their native land, Catalonian’s pride: it’s very patriotic.The national song is a religious song, known as “Virulai”, and its lyrics tell you about “Moreneta Virgin”, a virgin who was found at Montserrat Mountain.  The Virulai sings the beauty and goodness of this virgin, and also it calls Catalonian’s people to love other people.This virgin is in Montserrat Church, which is located on the mountain and it’s a place where people go on pilgrimages or other trips, to climb the mountain, to walk, and also a place where many couples want to get married.”
 
Elena from Spain writes “I don’t know the lyrics of the anthem of Spain. Sometimes I listen to the music but not the lyrics. But, if I am sincere, I think that is really difficult to find a song for all the people of a country because in Spain, many communities don’t feel part of Spain. Firstly, we have a lot of languages, and secondly, every community has its own history and its own anthem. We can appreciate this in regions like the Basque Country, Galicia, Catalonia, Mallorca, Valencia, and Asturias.”
 
Рита Красносельская writes "Wonderful! I used to think that an anthem is something serious and boring, something pompous and senseless. A song where the text means nothing. That's why I liked this article and this song very much. It's a great idea to choose something domestic, the most authentic, and the most unlikely.The anthem of Russia has lovely music. It's inherited from the times of the Soviet Union. But it's difficult to sing new words with the old music because all of us know the old text. I cannot write a poem in English so I'll try to translate it word by word.
Russia is our sacred power.Russia is our sacred country.It has powerful will, and great glory.It is the one for all times.
ChorusBe famous, our free Motherland!Be famous, age-long union of brotherly peoples.Be famous, people's wisdom which was given by our ancestors.Be famous, country! We are proud of you.
Our forests and dales spreadFrom the southern seas to the polar rim.You are the only one on Earth; you are the one such country.Native land which is kept by God.
Fore coming years show usWide freedom for dreaming and life.Our loyalty to the homeland gives us strength,It was so, It is now so, It will be so forever.
The old (Soviet) chorus was:Be famous, our free Motherland!The reliable stronghold of people's friendship.Lenin's party and people's forceLead us to the communism’s victory.
If I could make a choice, I would elect Yuri Vizbor's song "Polyphony".