Waltzing Matilda
By Andrew Barton (Banjo) Patterson (1864-1941)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Composition, Publication
Title Meaning
Text and Notes
End Rhyme
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Patterson's Biography
Index of Study Guides
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
Type of Work

......."Waltzing 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.
.......A 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.

Composition and Publication

.......Andrew 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.
.......Christina 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.
.......Over 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 in Sydney.

Title Meaning

.......Waltzing 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.

Text of the Poem

Oh! there once was a swagman1 camped in the Billabong,2
Under the shade of a Coolabah tree;3
And he sang as he looked at his old billy4 boiling,
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me."

Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling,
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
Waltzing Matilda and leading a water bag--5
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

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 with me."

But the swagman, he up and he jumped in the water-hole,
Drowning himself by the Coolabah tree;
And his ghost may be heard as it sings in the Billabong,
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?"

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 water. 
5...leading . . . bag: Holding the bag as if it is a woman whom the swagman is leading in a dance (waltz).
6...jumbuck: Sheep.
7...tucker bag: Bag for food; container for game.
8...Squatter: Landowner.



.......The 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

.......The 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.")


.......Patterson wrote the poem plainly and simply with a cadence that made it easy to set to music and sing. 
.......The 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. 
.......Patterson ignored the fuss and bother of allusions and hidden messages but seasoned the poem with Australian argot that lends authenticity to the poem. 

End Rhyme

.......Every even line (2, 4, 6, etc.) rhymes with the sound of a long e.




.......Alliteration helps to accent the rhythm of the ballad. Following are examples of this figure of speech. 

Oh! there once was a swagman camped in the Billabong (line 1)
And he sang as he looked at his old billy boiling (line 3)
Waltzing Matilda and leading a water bag (line 7)
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him in glee (line 10)
And he sang as he put him away in his tucker bag (line 11)
And his ghost may be heard as it sings in the Billabong (line 19)
Study 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.