Waltzing Matilda

The Work:
"Walting Matilda" is an Australian ballad that was written in 1894.

Who created it?

Andrew Barton (Banjo) Patterson (1864-1941) wrote the lyrics to the tune "The Craigielee March." Over the yars, several versions of the lyrics have emerged. However, in 1972 the original manuscript was found together with the tune.

When and where was it created?

Banjo Patterson wrote the lyrics at Dagworth Station in the outback in Australia in January 1895. The tune is called "The Craigielee March."

Why and for whom was it created?

The story behind "Waltzing Matilda" is quite remarkable. In 1894 there was a sheep shearers strike that had become violent. During the course of the strike, the woolshed at the Dagworth Homestead was set fire killing over a hundred sheep. Bob Macpherson, the owner of Dagworth Homestead, and three policemen gave chase to one of the arsonists named Hoffmeister. Rather than be captured, Hoffmeister shot and killed himself at the Combo Waterhole. A few months later, Andrew Barton (Banjo) Patterson was visiting the Dagworth Homestead and the Macpherson family. "During his stay, Bob Macpherson took Banjo around the station where they stopped at the Combo Waterhole where they found the skin of a newly killed sheep. Obviously someone had made a meal of it. Bob Macpherson may also have told Banfo about the previous incident" (William Birth).

One evening at the Dagworth Homestead, Macpherson's daughter, Christina was playing on a zitther remembering a tune she had heard at the Warrnambool Race Meeting called "the Craigielee March." While she was playing, Banjo came up with the lyrics of "Waltzing Matilda."

What is the subject?

"Waltzing Matilda" comines the two previous incidents at the Combo Waterhole, i.e., the suicide of Hoffmeister and the found skin of the newly killed sheep.

What is being expressed?

"Waltzing Matilda" tells the story of a swagman in the outback. A swagman is a man that drifts or waltzes from one job to another carrying a blanket roll known as Matilda. It is believed that the slang term Matilda had "Teutonic origins and means Mighty Battle Maiden. It is believed to have been given to female camp followers who accompanied soldiers during the Thirty Year wars in Europe. This came to mean 'to be kept warm at night' and later to mean the great army coats or blankets that soldiers wrapped themselves with. These were rolled into a swag tossed over their shoulder while marching" (William Birth). The swagman was camped under a tree waiting for his water to boil when along came a lamb. He steels the lamb and puts it in his knapsack. Soon the stockman or owner comes with three policemen. They ask him what's in the knapsack. Rather than be caught, the swagman jmumps into the waterhole and drowns.

The song gained notriety when it was sold to the Billy Tea Company and used to advertise their product. However, this song came to have more historical importance. In fact, some Australians believe that is should be their national anthem. The sheep shearers strike in 1894 was a time of social unrest. England had given Australia self-government by the 1890's. "However, a growing number of Australians believed that the colonies would be better off if they became a single nation and had their own unified government" (World Book). The sheep shearers strike caused internal strife. Basically, the sheep shearers were rebelling against the prevalent British class system. It was the wealthy land owners vs. the peasants. Public opinion rallied on the side of the sheep shearers. And the wealthy lost their social significance. "In 1897 and 1898, a federal convention drew up a constitution for Australia (and) in 1900 Britain gave Australia independence" (World Book). It is believed by some Australians that because "Waltzing Matilda" was so popular, it kept the cause for social justice in front of the public's mind.

What techniques did its creator use to help us understand what is being expressed?

I think that when Banjo Patterson wrote the song, his intent was to tell a simple story of a swagman who had fallen on hard times. I think that the repeated chorus, "waltzing Matilda" emphasized that the only comfort that the swagman had was when he was drifting or waltzing with his Matilda or bedroll.

What kind of structure or form does it have?

The sing-song quality encourages singing and movement. You can easily dance or skip to the song. The melodic rhythm is uneven and is repeated often (See Map I). Line 3 has the same rhythm as line 8. Lines 5 and 6 are identical as are lines 4, 7, and 9.

What does it look or sound like?

Oddly, the tune is sweet sounding which belies the tragedy that awaits the swagman (see Map II). I think this is one reason that "Waltzing Matilda" is so intriguing.


Beethoven, Jane. The Music Connection. Silver Burdett Ginn. Morristown, NJ.

Birth, William website at www.waltzing matilda.com/wmbirth.html

World Book Encyclopedia, 1898, World Book, Inc. Chicago, Illinois 60654