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Waltzing Matilda:  Exposed

(Reprint from News: March 16, 2002)

March 16, 2002


About an hour later, I pulled off the highway and, following the signs, drove about six miles down a deserted dirt road and pulled into an empty dusty parking lot for the Combo Waterhole.  That name probably doesn’t ring any bells, but the Combo Waterhole is the billabong made famous in the song, “Waltzing Matilda."


A.B. "Banjo" Paterson

(1864 - 1941)

     Andrew Barton Paterson was born on a sheep station in the Outback of New South Wales.  His parents sent "Barty," as he was known, to Sydney when he was young to get an education.  Afterwards, he joined a law firm in Sydney as a lowly clerk but worked his way up, and by the time he was 22, he was a solicitor for the law firm of Street & Paterson.

     Andrew vicariously escaped the drudgery of his desk job in Sydney by writing stories for local publications about his beloved Outback, using a pen name of "The Banjo," referring to his father's racehorse.  His first famous poem, "Clancy of the Overflow," was published in 1889 and paid tribute to a man who lived an unfettered life in the bush: 

And I somehow rather fancy that I'd like to change with Clancy,

Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,

While he faced the round eternal of the cashbook and the journal,

But I doubt he'd suit the office, Clancy, of the Overflow.

    A year later, Banjo penned a poem about a cowboy's life in Victoria called, "The Man From Snowy River."  In 1895, while visiting the bush in Queensland, he co-wrote the song "Waltzing Matilda" with Christine McPherson, a woman he had become romantically involved with.  It never made him rich, though, because Paterson sold the rights to "Waltzing Matilda" in 1903 for just five pounds.  Paterson returned to Sydney, married, served in World War I, retired in 1930, and died in 1941. 

     Paterson remains one of Australia's greatest literary talents and, through his poems and stories, chronicled life in the Outback better than perhaps any other writer.  He is an inspiration to writers like me, whose pathetic attempts to adequately describe the mythical Outback greatly pale in comparison.



Above left:  Banjo Paterson.

Above right:  Banjo (right) camping in the bush.


If you’ve been following my website, you know that “Waltzing Matilda” is one of my favorite songs.  Indeed, learning that song in the First Grade planted the seed for my eventual trip to Australia, although I never figured out what a Matilda was or how exactly one waltzes with it.  During the next 24 hours, I learned the story behind the song, so here goes:


Back in 1895, a poet from New South Wales named Banjo Paterson visited Queensland for the first time and came out to this waterhole one afternoon with his fiancé, Sarah Riley, and Sarah’s father, a local rancher.  Yes, it’s that same Banjo Paterson (how many could there be?) who wrote the poem, “The Man From Snowy River,” whose path I crossed a month earlier near Canberra. 


Banjo heard a lot of stories that afternoon while picnicking next to the Combo waterhole with the Rileys and shortly afterwards wrote the words to “Waltzing Matilda,” which was loosely based on some of these stories, including a sheep-shearer who committed suicide during the ill-fated sheep-shearer's strike in the 1890s, and another man who'd recently drowned at a nearby waterhole. 


Over the next few weeks, Banjo wrote the words to the song while Christine McPherson, a good friend of Sarah’s who was also visiting the Rileys' ranch (or "station"), wrote the tune.  Apparently, Sarah didn’t take kindly to her fiancé Banjo working so closely with Christine on the song, so she split up with poor Banjo a short time later and called the wedding off.  No one's sure exactly what happened, but Sarah refused to speak to her friend Christine ever again and shortly afterwards, Christine's brother ran Banjo off the station.


In case you were wondering, as I was, the term “Waltzing the Matilda” means being on the road and carrying a swag (a bedroll), as many traveling sheep-shearers did back in those days.  If you recall, the song is about a jolly swagman who stops at a billabong and, while he’s waiting for his billy to boil, spots a jumbuck and stuffs it in his tucker-bag.  




Translating that into English, it’s about a transient worker who visits a pond and, while he's making some tea, spots a sheep, which he stuffs into his food bag (he apparently had a very large food bag).  Soon afterwards, troopers arrive to arrest the jolly swagman, but vowing never to be taken alive (and probably not so jolly anymore), he jumps into the billabong and drowns.  According to the song, if you visit the billabong today, you can still hear the swagman’s ghost singing “Waltzing Matilda.” 


After driving all that way out to the Combo waterhole, I was pretty disappointed not to see any jolly swagmen there.  In fact, no one was around except for a voracious mob of bushflies who eagerly greeted me.  Even though it was pretty darn hot and despite the swarm of bushflies, I had lunch here overlooking the billabong “under the shade of a coolibah tree,” just like in the song.  Although this place was a lot drier than I imagined it would be, I could almost see Banjo sitting here and listening to stories about the bush. 


To complete the experience, I took out my “Lazy Harry Sings 25 Australian Favorites” CD, popped it into my CD player, and listened to “Waltzing Matilda” sung in Harry’s nasally Australian accent – in fact, I played it about five times.  As I finished eating lunch, I turned off my CD player and, after all was silent once again, I listened closely.  During that moment, I thought I actually heard the swagman’s ghost singing “Waltzing Matilda.”  More likely, though, it was the drone of a hundred bushflies. 


Here's Lazy Harry singing Waltzing Matilda.

Requires a RealPlayerIf problems, see Help.


Waltzing Matilda  (By Banjo Paterson)

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong

Under the shade of a coolibah tree

He sang as he watched and waited 'till his billy boiled

"Who'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me?"


Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda

You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.

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.

He laughed as he shoved that jumbuck in his tuckerbag

You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.




Down came the squatter mounted on his thoroughbred

Up jumped the troopers, one, two, three.

Where's that jolly jumbuck you've got in your tuckerbag?

You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.




The swagman he got up and he jumped into the billabong

You'll never catch me alive, said he.

His ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong

You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.





2-2956_Combo_Waterhole.jpg (62355 bytes)    2-2959_Eating_Lunch_Under_Coolibah_Tree.jpg (54755 bytes)    2-2958_Camry_at_Combo_Waterhole.jpg (67373 bytes)

Above left:  The Combo waterhole, the inspiration for "Waltzing Matilda."  Those are real, live coolibah trees on the banks.

Above center:  I had lunch here under the shade of a coolibah tree.  Just me and a hundred bushflies.

Above right:  After popping a CD into the stereo here, I listened to "Waltzing Matilda" -- about 5 times, in fact.



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