Waltzing Matilda – Australian Song With A Great History

The song that sums Australia up for most people

Waltzing Matilda – the song everyone thinks of as soon as the word “Australia” is mentioned.   OK, what does it mean?  Where does it come from? And why is it so important in the Australian psyche?

I am not sure I can answer the last point, but I can have a go at answering the first two and probably a couple more in passing.

But before I start to discuss its history and significance, here is a very standard performance of it by Slim Dusty to give you a taste of what I shall be explaining and playing to you in this post.

This is the version that everyone knows – there are a few other versions as I shall show you in the course of this post.

But where did this song come from, and why is it so popular?   Both good questions, the first I can answer, the second?  No idea why it has become such a popular song, representing Australia both for us here in Australia and for people all over the world when they hear it.

OK, it was written in 1895 by a sort of hedgerow wandering poet and singer Banjo Paterson in the   Queensland town of Winton where he was gently flirting with the daughter of one of the local land owners,  Christina Macpherson.  He wrote the words, and she wrote the music – well actually that isn’t really true, she used an already existing folk tune, the from 1806 dating Scottish tune Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea which was well known and much loved in Australia at the time.   Here it is for your pleasure…

It was also derivative of another, even older Scottish folk song apparently, with the wonderful name of…  “When sick is it tea you want?”   which dates from about 1798 apparently.   To be honest I can’t hear Waltzing Matilda in this one, but apparently they are related somehow..

This version is by the Boys of the Lough.

Not surprisingly there are many differing versions of Australia’s national song, which curiously enough has never actually been the official national anthem, which one would imagine it richly deserves to be.  It has been payed by all manner of groups and sung at every conceivable occasion from boozy nights in pubs to highly important national events.  It has also (of course) been satirised in a number of ways, been used by rock singers and so on.. the list of uses is almost endless, and while looking into this post, I was amazed by the weird and wonderful range of versions I came across… some of which I shall shortly post in this article for your entertainment.

The meaning of all those Aussie terms.

First though I thought that perhaps a short glossary might be in order, as not everyone knows the meaning of a lot of the very Australian words in this song, so here goes, a list of what those words mean.


derived from the German term auf der Walz, which means to travel while working as a craftsman and learn new techniques from other masters.


a romantic term for a swagman’s bundle. See below, “Waltzing Matilda”.

Waltzing Matilda

from the above terms, “to waltz Matilda” is to travel with a swag, that is, with all one’s belongings on one’s back wrapped in a blanket or cloth. The exact origins of the term “Matilda” are disputed; one fanciful derivation states that when swagmen met each other at their gatherings, there were rarely women to dance with. Nonetheless, they enjoyed a dance and so danced with their swags, which was given a woman’s name. However, this appears to be influenced by the word “waltz”, hence the introduction of dancing. It seems more likely that, as a swagman’s only companion, the swag came to be personified as a woman.

The National Library of Australia states:

Matilda is an old Teutonic female name meaning “mighty battle maid”. This may have informed the use of “Matilda” as a slang term to mean a de facto wife who accompanied a wanderer. In the Australian bush a man’s swag was regarded as a sleeping partner, hence his “Matilda”. (Letter to Rt. Hon. Sir Winston Churchill, KG from Harry Hastings Pearce, 19 February 1958. Harry Pearce Papers, NLA Manuscript Collection, MS2765)[23]


a man who travelled the country looking for work. The swagman’s “swag” was a bed roll that bundled his belongings.


an oxbow lake (a cut-off river bend) found alongside a meandering river.

coolibah tree

a kind of eucalyptus tree which grows near billabongs.


a sheep


a can for boiling water in, usually 2–3 pints (1–1.5 l)

tucker bag

a bag for carrying food (“tucker”).




Australian squatters started as early farmers who raised livestock on land which they did not legally have the right to use; in many cases they later gained legal use of the land even though they did not have full possession, and became wealthy thanks to these large land holdings. The squatter’s claim to the land may be as uncertain as the swagman’s claim to the jumbuck.

Funny Versions.

Obviously a song as popular and well known as this one has to have been the victim of a number of satires, so for your pleasure here are a couple to give you a taste of what can happen to such a song.  One an Aussie satire, the other a very, very British one….

Continue reading “Waltzing Matilda – Australian Song With A Great History”

Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet – Haunting Song

How a simple, yet deeply felt song can effect one – Even if it is sung by an old Tramp

I first heard this haunting small tune over a year ago, but it refuses to leave me alone.  The sound of that man’s quavery voice, even with its shades of Spike Milligan, is captivating in its simplicity and purity.

Before I start to discuss it, I feel that you need to hear it, so you know what it is I am so moved by.  So here is the shortest version of this little song as used by Gavin Bryars.

Do you see what I mean about the power of this simple bit of music?   And yes, it is Tom Waits you hear in this extract from a much longer work.

Here is what the composer Gavin Bryars has to say about the background of his use of this extremely powerful, if simple, song.

In 1971, when I lived in London, I was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song – sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads – and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. This was not ultimately used in the film and I was given all the unused sections of tape, including this one.
When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song – 13 bars in length – formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way [in the notes for the 1993 recording on Point, Bryars wrote that while the singer’s pitch was quite accurate, his sense of tempo was irregular]. I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.

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The Great Crash – Songs That Describe It. Pt 2

During the Great Depression there were really two songs that captured the spirit of the time. The first one I have already written about ( link to part one) in which I discussed and gave you various versions of the song “No one wants to know you when you are down and out”, so now I am going to have a look at the one that really does sum up the spirit and suffering of that awful time to perfection.

This is the well known song, Brother can you spare a dime?

Before I get into the many differing versions of this classic song, I should give you a wee bit of background to it.  And who better to tell us what the song is really about than the guy who wrote the words – E. Y. “Yip” Harburg.

He had this to say about the purpose and message of this song, which by the way was actually written for a musical called Americana in 1930, just as the Great Depression was beginning to bite.

“I didn’t want a song to depress people. I wanted to write a song to make people think. It isn’t a hand-me-out song of ‘give me a dime, I’m starving, I’m bitter’, it wasn’t that kind of sentimentality”.  The song asks why the men who built the nation – built the railroads, built the skyscrapers – who fought in the war (World War I), who tilled the earth, who did what their nation asked of them should, now that the work is done and their labor no longer necessary, find themselves abandoned and in bread lines.

It refers to “Yankee Doodle Dum”, a reference to patriotism, and the evocation of veterans also recalls protests about military bonuses payable only after 21 years, which were a topical issue.

So that is the background to this song, and to start us off I shall give you the best known and as near original version as there is, that being the version that Bing Crosby recorded back in the 30’s.

So as you can see, the guy is not really begging, he is saying what a huge contribution he made to things, and that now he has been dumped through no fault of his own.   He still has his pride, but admits he needs help, but not as a beggar, but as an equal who is in temporary need.  A powerful song.

Continue reading “The Great Crash – Songs That Describe It. Pt 2”