“Waltzing Matilda” – the story of Australia’s unofficial national anthem

Here’s an interesting conversation I found on the web the other day:

A non-Aussie: “It came as a huge surprise to me that the >Waltzing Matilda< is not the Australian national anthem.”

(More than one) Aussie: “It bloody well should be”.

Chances are you have no clue what “Waltzing Matilda” is or why people Down Under would hold it dear. I’m here to explain.

PART 51 OF β€œAM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE

“Advance Australia Fair” is the current national anthem of Australia. Unlike its title suggests, the song’s lyrics have sparked heated discussions about the message it projects, especially around the “fairness” concept. Consequently, some prominent Aussies have shown their disapproval by either refusing to sing it as it is or not standing up when it is played.

Since I’m a foreigner, it’s not up to me to judge whether it’s the right choice for a song to speak for all Australians. But you’ll understand why it might not represent all social groups “fairly” when you watch this video by Aboriginal rapper Briggs:

(On a side note: I asked Briggs in this interview about his ideas for a song to be the national anthem.)

Apart from the “fairness” argument, some also consider the current anthem “so boring that the nation risks singing itself to sleep, with boring music and words impossible to understand.” It’s a pretty harsh evaluation coming from a politician about one of his country’s emblems, I reckon. Again, his opinion seems to be shared by a wider population.

All in all, efforts have been made in the last decade to at least change some lyrics. An entire project called Recognition In Anthem, solely dedicated to rewriting the song in a more inclusive way and including the input from Aboriginal leaders, was launched in 2017. It’s still ongoing.

As a result, other popular national songs have been proposed to replace “Advance Australia Fair”. Possible options are “I Am Australian”, “I Still Call Australia Home”, “Down Under” or even “Treaty”.

Here is where “Waltzing Matilda” comes into the equation.


To be honest, the story of “Waltzing Matilda” is as controversial as “Advance Australia Fair” but for different reasons. And they have nothing to do with dancing or girls.

Firstly, there is no official version of this 19th century bush ballad (a folk song about the life in the Australian bush). The lyrics were written in 1895 by Banjo Paterson, but they have slightly evolved since then. It turns out that the author kept alternative versions of his work that might have been circulated in different places at the same time.

The title of the song itself, “Waltzing Matilda”, means “to travel from place to place in search of work with all your belongings, wrapped in a blanket, slung across your back”. The origins of the phrase can be traced back to the 18th century German settlers. This is the one thing about the song that remains unchanged.

Text modifications were partially due to how the story told in “Waltzing Matilda” has been used over the years. For instance, the lyrics were “changed for an arrangement of the song” to accompany a Billy Tea commercial jingle from the beginning of the 20th century.

This version reads “You’ll never catch me alive said he” as opposed to Paterson’s original lyrics “drowning himself ‘neath the Coolibah Tree”. Billy Tea’s version was clearly way better suited for marketing purposes.

Speaking of the text itself – it’s a gem for linguists and Aussie English enthusiasts. Whilst it’s not easy to understand for an average person (even Down Under), it contains quite a few unique Australian words, some of which are no longer in use. Check out this Wikipedia article with explanations and translations.

If the confusion about the lyrics wasn’t enough, the melody has been treated in a very liberal way, too. Including during its creation.

When Paterson wrote the lyrics at the end of the 19th century, the music had already existed since at least 1890 as “The Craigielee March”. That song, in turn, was based on a melody from 1818 written by a Scottish composer.

In 1895 Paterson stayed in remote Queensland at a sheep and cattle station, where one of the residents played the tune occasionally, having previously heard it in Victoria. So Paterson simply put the lyrics to a pretty much readily available musical work.

Reportedly, today there are as many as 700 (!!!) versions of the song when it comes to style and genre. Some of them are quite surprising, like the one by Gary Cohen – reworked for square dancing purposes. This website allows you to follow the most famous renditions of “Waltzing Matilda” in chronological order to see how it has been rearranged over time.

Slim Dusty‘s country version is my favourite one:

Lyrics and versions of the song aside, the most divisive thing about “Waltzing Matilda” is the message it sends.

To make the long story short: A guy camps in a bush drinking tea. He catches a stray sheep to have a bite. The sheep’s owner gets furious for having his property stolen. So, together with three coppers and the landowner, he tracks the guy down. But the guy prefers to commit suicide than be caught. And so his ghost haunts the site where it happens. The end.

Not exactly a story to tell the kids for a good night’s sleep. And not really a role model to follow. And definitely not the image Australia would want to project to the world. There was even a case of banning punters from singing it at a rugby game purely because of those reasons. Nevertheless, the consensus amongst historians is that “Waltzing Matilda” refers to true events.

So why is this song so popular amongst many Aussies?

My guess is it’s primarily because the melody is simple and catchy whilst the lyrics are repetitive and easy to remember. This is the key to any successful song in general. “Waltzing Matilda” seems to fit this definition perfectly.

So here’s proof that it truly is one of the most loved tunes in the country and beyond.

  • AFL (footy) or rugby fans frequently sing it at the games.
  • Australian female soccer team are called Matildas.
  • Some military units in Oz use it as their official song.
  • In the national plebiscite to choose Australia’s national anthem in 1977, it lost only to “Advance Australia Fair”, having received 28% of the popular votes (compared to 43% for the current anthem).
  • It has been covered or incorporated in other musical works by well-known musicians, amongst them Tom Waits, Rod Stewart or Australia’s Jessica Mauboy.
  • A pretty instrumental/vocal version was used in the famous movie Australia from 2008, directed by Baz Luhrmann, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.

The historic context of the song is preserved in the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton, close to where Paterson stayed when he wrote the lyrics. Located in remote QLD, this institution (first of its kind, apparently) is not only dedicated to the song. The numerous exhibitions and activities staged by the museum also show life in the Australian outback then and now.

I’m not sure the Aboriginal population of Australia would welcome “Waltzing Matilda” as the national anthem. After all, it fails to mention the First People’s legacy and concentrates mostly on the “white” history of the country. But at least it doesn’t make untrue claims regarding “fairness” or “equal advancement” of all Australians.

So, going back to the online exchange I mentioned earlier:

A non-Aussie: “It came as a huge surprise to me that the >Waltzing Matilda< is not the Australian national anthem.”

Another Aussie: “In some way, it is, Mate. Not officially but in the hearts of millions of AUSSIES… πŸ‘πŸ˜πŸ‡¦πŸ‡Ί”

So maybe it’s time to organize a plebiscite to choose a new, more suitable national anthem soon? “Waltzing Matilda” would be one of the strong contenders. For sure.


The “Waltzing Matilda” lyrics in one of their popular versions (i.e. the one by Slim Dusty above):

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
He sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
He sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled,
You’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,
He sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred,
Up rode the troopers, one, two, three,
With the jolly jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
With the jolly jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, you scoundrel with me

Up jumped the swagman and sprang 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

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
His ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
His ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.