Ken Boddie in beBee in English, Writers Principal Consultant and National Quality Manager • Douglas Partners Pty Ltd Sep 30, 2016 · 4 min read · 2.8K

May I Have the Next Waltz, Matilda?

May I Have the Next Waltz, Matilda?

Believe it or not, 'Waltzing Matilda', the unofficial national anthem of the Land Down Under, has absolutely nothing to do with ballroom dancing or fair damsels.  Rather, it's a tale of woe about a travelling itinerant, who chose an untimely wet grave rather then being locked up for sheep stealing.  For those of you who have yet to be exposed to the exuberant (some might say overly so) tone-deaf Aussie sports fan, particularly when away from home, straining his vocal chords (to the point of laryngitis) before the pending slaughter of the opposing team, here are the lyrics.

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled, 
You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.
Chorus (third line is swapped for the third line of each preceding verse)
Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda, 
You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me, 
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled, 
You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.
Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong, 
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee, 
And 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 thorough-bred, 
Down came the troopers One Two Three, 
Whose that jolly jumbuck you've got in your tucker bag, 
You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.
Up jumped the swagman sprang in to the billabong, 
You'll never catch me alive said he, 
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong, 
You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.
Banjo Paterson

So let's look at the jargon, much of which even we Aussies are hard pushed to explain these days, remembering that this song was written by the famous Banjo Paterson over 120 years ago. 

  • Swagman - he was a drifter, itinerant, tramp, nomad, gypsy; common back in the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s; a person on the road without a home and who carried his swag (see below) around with him.  These days the swagman has been replaced by the Aussie back-packer, who's primary aim is to see as much of Europe (mistakenly still called the home country) as humanly possible in his 'gap' year, and, when not travelling, can be seen working behind the bar in any of a myriad of pubs and hostelries. This species historically puts roots down, in-between travels, in London's Earl's Court (aka Kangaroo Valley) but in recent years also Shepherd’s Bush, Fulham, Acton and Clapham. The male backpacker has a heart of gold, but may turn feral when plied with alcohol, so lock up your daughters! The female backpacker has a propensity for 'mothering' other people's kids and frequently works as a nanny or au pair to fund her need for travel.  So, unless you want your children to grow up speaking 'strine' and eating Vegemite sandwiches, lock up your offspring, or hire a Swedish backpacker as a nanny. That'll keep your hubby real happy, ladies. 
  • Swag - this was traditionally a small cloth bundle carrying all the swagman's worldly goods, often tied to a stick and swung over the shoulder.  The modern day 'swag', however, is used for camping and comprises a bedding roll (like a heavy duty sleeping bag), often with a small hood or cover attached to guard against the intrusion of mozzies, cane toads, and other 'wrigglies and crawlies' when sleeping outdoors. Sleeping beneath the stars in the Great Outdoors sounds all right when watching others do it on TV in the comfort of your own home, but remember that the Australian Outback is home to many highly venomous snakes and spiders, not to forget bull ants, paralysis ticks and giant centipedes, so enjoy that camping trip, eh, and seriously, don't forget to take the caravan or camper trailer so that all your bodily appendages (or dangly bits) are up off the ground at night!
  • Billabong - this is an Aboriginal word which loosely translates as a dead-end water channel, often only filled when it rains.  To be geologically correct (and who is?), it's really a small 'oxbow lake' formed when the wide meander of a river is cut off by erosion and deposition as the channel moves across the low lying terrain. 'Billabong' is not a reference to the modern-day major Aussie clothing company, which 'boardies', 'thongs', hats and shirts are favoured by an international breed of 'surfies', with sun-bleached hair and a similar focus on cheap international travel as the Aussie backpacker. Lock your daughters up to deter the male of this species also!
  • Billy - this was a tin can with a wire handle, much like a paint can. It was filled with water, boiled over an open wood fire, and tea thrown in to make a good strong brew.  Overseas visitors to Oz, 'lucky' enough to stumble upon a mock-up billy tea brewing session, are often entertained to the brew being fused by swinging the billy impressively round and round over the head. This brewing process may often result in a drink strong enough to "put hairs on your chest" (not a good look for the ladies), and thick enough to leave any teaspoon, a modern refinement, stand up unaided in the billy can. Discerning lovers of the subtle flavours of green, white, or oolong teas, read this and weep!
  • Coolibah tree - all I can say about this species of gum or eucalyptus tree is I wouldn't know one if it moved from the outback to the suburbs and bit me on the rear-end (been reading Tolkien again).  This is what Google or Wikipedia is for!
  • Jumbuck - again an Aboriginal word, but this one means a sheep. If you really want to know the derivation, there is a running argument between the schools of 'jump-up' distortion and 'jombok'  distortion, the latter meaning fluffy cloud.  I prefer the fluffy cloud theory, which appears a perfectly reasonable 'pie in the sky' deduction if you haven't seen a sheep before and there's this strange looking white fellah with hundreds of them, and who also has this 'pie in the sky' wish to take your ancestors' land away from you.
  • Squatter - this term was used, back in the day, for a large landowner (the land being large not necessarily the owner) often called a grazier or station owner. You should be aware, however, that the term cattle or sheep station is used in Australia for a huge spread of stocked land, typically as big as a small European country, and much like a ranch in other parts of the world, but without the cowboys and indians.  Don't hang around this station, however, waiting for a train to come, or you'll be sadly disappointed!
  • Troopers - these were mounted military men and, back in the day, Australia was policed by the army.  Remember that we Aussies (or rather our ancestors) were originally 'encouraged' to come to the 'lucky country' on a slow cruise ship, as a reward for such petty misdeeds as stealing a loaf of bread.  In hindsight this seems to be a perfectly sane choice - die of hunger or pinch a loaf and get a free trip to Oz.
Now what about this Waltzing Matilda business? Ask most Aussies why the swagman wanted to ask Matilda to take a spin around the dance floor to a 3/4 rhythm and you'll get a blank stare.  Unlike our Kiwi cousins, who reportedly really like their sheep, the swagman's reference to Matilda wasn't a wish to romance the jumbuck, but is an archaic and now unused term meaning to go 'walkabout' (or waltzing) with your swag (or Matilda).  Yes this sounds rather strange, but believe me, I know, because I 'Googled' it and confirmed the result on Wikipedia, and we all believe what we read on Google and Wikipedia, don't we?


May I Have the Next Waltz, Matilda?When not researching the weird or the wonderful, the comical or the cultured, the sinful or the serious, I chase my creative side, the results of which can be seen as selected photographs of my travels on my website at:

The author of the above, Ken Boddie, besides being a sometime poet and occasional writer, is an enthusiastic photographer, rarely leisure-travelling without his Canon, and loves to interact with other like-minded people with diverse interests.

Ken's three day work week (part time commitment) as a consulting engineer allows him to follow his photography interests, and to plan trips to an ever increasing list of countries and places of scenic beauty and cultural diversity.

Ken Boddie Oct 3, 2016 · #37

#36 thanks, Franci, but spare a thought for Banjo Paterson, the real talent behind this tale.

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Franci Eugenia Hoffman Oct 2, 2016 · #36

#33 Thank you for letting me know about this story. It's truly an artfully crafted piece and one I'll read more than once.

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Pamela L. Williams Oct 2, 2016 · #35

#34 No, he had the right to sell it because legally his 'Squatters Rights' gave him legal ownership. It was considered abandoned property. I don't know all the legalities at the time. It's just an interesting family story for us.

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Ken Boddie Oct 2, 2016 · #34

#32 So the Kentucky property wasn't the squatter's to sell, Pam? Quite a few Aborigines here in Oz would say this is a widespread 'white fellah's' practice that has been going on for a couple of hundred years. 😕

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Ken Boddie Oct 2, 2016 · #33

#31 If you get a chance, Franci, read "The Man from Snowy River".

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Pamela L. Williams Oct 1, 2016 · #32

Ken, had to take a few days off beBee due to other commitments. Sad, but what a welcome back. Something for my Cultures Around the World App and one of my favorite 'oldies' explained to me! I had always heard that Australia was the equivalent of a penal colony for all those who dared to thwart the crown. Your explanation is pretty close. Of course didn't know a loaf of bread was 'thwarting the crown'! Wonderful read, enjoyed this little piece of Oz! One thing struck me: A squatter in the U.S. is someone who is/was living illegal on a piece of land. Eventually 'Squatter's Rights' developed, meaning if they stayed on the land long enough with no claim made by the real owner then the land became the squatters. In days of old, when the west was not yet won, much land was 'grabbed' by squatters. Just a bit of US trivia for ya!
Here's some family history in relation to squatters. The family story is that my father's ancestors once owned the land upon which the famous Kentucky Derby is now held. In the mid to late 1800s during a drought the family had to relocate to survive. A squatter they asked/paid to watch the land for them eventually claimed Squatter's Rights and later sold the land...not sure when the 'Derby' owner took possession as it could have had several owners after my family. But there you go!

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Franci Eugenia Hoffman Oct 1, 2016 · #31

#22 Banjo Paterson - quite the man. Well worth taking time to read about.

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Ken Boddie Oct 1, 2016 · #30

Thanks for the share, @Milos Djukic 👍

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