The Upside Down Under
Waltzing Matilda


"Waltzing Matilda" is Australia's best-known bush ballad, and has been described as the country's "unofficial national anthem"

Waltzing Matilda is literally about a swagman who is discovered by some troopers with a stolen jumbuck (sheep), and who commits suicide by jumping into a billabong (waterhole) to evade capture. However, according to most historians of the song, the words of Waltzing Matilda are actually an oblique reference to, or inspired by, the suicide of a Unionist named Samuel Hoffmeister. This seems to be supported by Banjo Paterson’s account of the writing of the song.

Waltzing Matilda Cartoon
Waltzing Matilda Cartoon

Samuel Hoffmeister is believed to have participated in a Union raid on Dagworth Station on the night of the 2nd September 1894 in which the shearing shed was burnt down (a common enough incident during the Shearing Strikes of the 1890’s). Later the following day, Hoffmeister shot himself. The subsequent inquest found that Hoffmeister committed suicide, however the testimony of the witnesses was contradictory, so the full events of the evening and subsequent day are still unknown.

Several versions of the song have been written. The first version was to the tune by  Christina MacPherson, which was based on a Scottish folk tune called Thou Bonnie Wood Of Craigielea, a setting of a poem by the Scottish poet Robert Tannahill; who, coincidentally, drowned himself in a canal in his home town of Paisley, near Glasgow, at the age of 36.

The more well-known version of the melody was an arrangement of Christina MacPherson’s melody by Marie Cowan, commissioned by tea merchant James Inglis for an advertisement for his product “Billy Tea.” James Inglis was a friend of Marie Cowan’s. Some confusion about the authorship of the music may have come from the fact that Christina MacPherson’s married name was McCowan.

Waltzing Matilda Lyrics
The original words to Christina MacPherson's Waltzing Matilda melody that Banjo Paterson wrote in 1895:

The original lyrics were written in 1895 by Australian poet Banjo Paterson, and were first published as sheet music in 1903. Extensive folklore surrounds the song and the process of its creation, to the extent that it has its own museum, the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton, in the Queensland outback, where Paterson wrote the lyrics. In 2012, to remind Australians of the song's significance, Winton organised the inaugural Waltzing Matilda Day to be held on 6 April, the anniversary of its first performance.

A.B “Banjo” Paterson famously wrote waltzing Matilda during a visit to Dagworth Station in Queensland in January of 1895. In 1903 Marie Cowan altered the song slightly and that version became nationally known due to its use in a jingle for Billy Tea.

The first known recording is by John Collinson & Russell Callow from 1926. Twelve years later vocalist Peter Dawson recorded one of the most successful versions of the song.

Since then there have been versions in most styles of music you can think of. Graham McDonald maintains that it’s possible to chart the shifting tastes of Australian popular music through the different versions over the years. Graham works at the National Film and Sound Archive and for a few years now he’s been working on a single song discography for Waltzing Matilda.

Waltzing Matilda Origianl Lyrics
Original lyrics of Waltzing Matilda c.1895 Music by Christina Rutherford Macpherson (1864 - 1936) based on a remembered tune Words by A.B. (Banjo) Paterson (1864 -1941) music and lyrics written down by Christina Macpherson ink on paper; 31.0 x 24.8cm Manuscript Collection National Library of Australia

As mentioned previously, the song was first recorded in 1926 as performed by John Collinson and Russell Callow. In 2008, this recording of "Waltzing Matilda" was added to the Sounds of Australia registry in the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) which says that there are more recordings of "Waltzing Matilda" than any other Australian song.

This is the first recording of 'Waltzing Matilda’, recorded by the Queensland-born tenor John Collinson in London in 1926 with pianist Russell Callow.

Waltzing Matilda, according to the NFSA it has been recorded over 600 times in just about every possible musical style. In 1983 the late country-and-western singer Slim Dusty's rendition became the first song to be broadcast to Earth by astronauts.

Parts have been sung at six Olympic Games ceremonies dating back to 1956. The Seekers recorded it three times, and Slim played it at the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. More recently, in 2008 world-famous Dutch violinist Andre Rieu played the tune to a singing Melbourne audience of more than 38,000 people.


This song used many uniquely Australian words. The explanations are listed below:

Jolly – means happy (Not in common usage today).
Swagman – a hobo, an itinerant worker, who travelled from place to place in search of work. A swagman usually carried all his belongings wrapped up in a blanket called a swag.
Billabong – a waterhole or pond. It is an aboriginal word meaning little or no water.
Coolibah Tree – a eucalyptus tree which usually grows near water. Derived from the aboriginal word gulabaa.
Billy – a tin can with a wire handle used to boil water.
Jumbuck – a sheep. It is most likely derived from the two words jumping buck.
Tucker Bag – a bag for storing food (tucker). It was usually an old sugar or flour sack.
Squatter – a wealthy landowner, a rancher.
Thoroughbred – An expensive pedigreed horse. The Mercedes Benz equivalent of its day.
Trooper – a policeman, a mounted militia-man.


This song is a version of our unofficial national anthem Waltzing Matilda, the lyrics for which were penned by Banjo Paterson on a track east of Winton, in Outback Queensland.

It is sung in the Top End's Kriol, a combination of languages said to have grown organically from the meeting of Aboriginal, European and Chinese people around Darwin.

The artist, Ali Mills is an indigenous singer based in Darwin, Northern Territory. She is a Larrakia woman with some Irish ancestry. Her Kriol version of "Waltzing Matilda" sung in her Gurindji-Kungarakan language (written by her great uncle Val McGuinness) has received national airplay. She was a member of Darwin group Mills Sisters before going solo. In 2010, she released her debut solo album Waltjim Bat Matilda. She was nominated for three Deadlys in 2010 for Female Artist of the Year, Album of the Year (for Waltjim Bat Matilda) and Single of the Year (for "Waltjim Bat Matilda") and she performed at the awards ceremony.




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