Matilda" is a ballad centering on a swagman, an itinerant laborer who walked
from one place to the next looking for temporary employment. He carried
a swag (rolled-up blanket or pack) containing his belongings--hence, the
term swagman. The laborer in the poem is a sheep shearer.
ballad is a poem, often set to music, that tells a story centering on
a theme popular with the common people of a particular culture or place.
Barton (Banjo) Patterson wrote "Waltzing Matilda" in 1895 at Dagworth Homestead,
sixty-two miles northwest of the town of Winton in Queensland, Australia.
The homestead was the site of a sheep farm and a shearing operation.
MacPherson (1864-1936) set the ballad to music in the same year, basing
the melody loosely on a Scottish song, "Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea."
James Barr (1770-1836) wrote the music for that song, and Robert Tannahill
(1774-1810) wrote the words. MacPherson had heard the Scottish song played
by a brass band in Warrnambool in Victoria, Australia.
the years, "Waltzing Matilda" became an unofficial Australian national
anthem. In Stanley Kramer's 1957 film On the Beach, "Waltzing Matilda"
served as part of the background music. It was used as the theme in other
film productions and was played at the end of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games
refers to the swagman's travels. In other words, he waltzes about seeking
work. The second word, Matilda, is another name for a swag or pack
that he carries around. It contains a blanket and other belongings.
of the Poem
Oh! there once was
camped in the Billabong,2 Under the shade of a Coolabah
tree;3 And he sang as he looked
at his old billy4
"Who'll come a-waltzing
Matilda with me."
come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling,
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda
Waltzing Matilda and leading
a water bag--5 Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda
Down came a jumbuck6
to drink at the water-hole,
Up jumped the swagman and
grabbed him in glee;
And he sang as he put him
away in his tucker bag,7 "You'll come a-waltzing
Matilda with me!"
Down came the Squatter8
a-riding his thorough-bred;
Down came Policemen--one,
two, and three.
"Whose is the jumbuck you've
got in the tucker bag?
You'll come a-waltzing Matilda
But the swagman, he up and
he jumped in the water-hole,
Drowning himself by the
And his ghost may be heard
as it sings in the Billabong,
"Who'll come a-waltzing
Matilda with me?"
Notes . 1...swagman:
See Type of Work. 2...billabong:
Dead end of a river branch; river branch formed when the water is high;
stagnant pool; lagoon; water hole. 3...Coolabah
tree: A type of Eucalyptus tree growing
near rivers in Australia. 4...billy:
Vessel such as a pot, bucket, or can with a handle. It is used for boiling
. . . bag: Holding the bag as if it is
a woman whom the swagman is leading in a dance (waltz). 6...jumbuck:
bag: Bag for food; container for game. 8...Squatter:
swagman is a free spirit. He travels from place to place to earn his livelihood
rather than keeping regular hours in the workaday world. His independence
represents the autarky on which Australians pride themselves.
Defiance of Authority
swagman answers only to himself, not to government authority. When policemen
appear and threaten to arrest him for stealing a sheep from the squatter
(landowner with grazing sheep), the swagman drowns himself in a water hole
rather than submit to arrest and punishment. His suicide represents the
ultimate act of defiance against officialdom. Suicide is of course a conscious
act of self-destruction and, therefore, contrary to the moral law. But
in a work of fiction, writers often color it with heroism. It is the swagman's
seeming heroism that captured the popular imagination of Australians, who
made the ballad their unofficial national anthem. (The actual national
anthem is "Advance Australia Fair.")
wrote the poem plainly and simply with a cadence that made it easy to set
to music and sing.
first five words of the poem (Oh! there once was a) resemble the
opening words of countless other narratives from folklore, legends, and
fairy tales: Once upon a time, there was. Such words cue readers
and listeners that a good story is about to unfold.
ignored the fuss and bother of allusions and hidden messages but seasoned
the poem with Australian argot that lends authenticity to the poem.
even line (2, 4, 6, etc.) rhymes with the sound of a long e.
helps to accent the rhythm of the ballad. Following are examples of this
figure of speech.
Oh! there once
a swagman camped in the Billabong
sang as he looked at his
old billy boiling
Matilda and leading a water bag (line
Up jumped the swagman and
him in glee (line 10)
sang as he put him
away in his tucker bag (line 11)
ghost may be heard as it sings in the
Questions and Writing Topics
What is the difference between
a ballad and a lyric poem?
Write a short ballad about a
person involved in an interesting or unusual incident.
Write an essay centering on
the lifestyle on an itinerant Australian sheep shearer.