Reprint from:  News:  March 16, 2002

Waltzing Matilda:  Exposed

About an hour later, I pulled off the deserted highway and, following the signs, drove about six miles down a deserted dirt road, then 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, became a lawyer for the legal 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 the pen name of "The Banjo," the name of 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" (which, 90 years later, was made into a movie starring Kirk Douglas).  In 1895, while visiting the bush in Queensland, he co-wrote the song "Waltzing Matilda" with Christina MacPherson, 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, he 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 35 years later, although I never figured out what a Matilda was or how exactly one waltzes with it.  During the next day, I gradually learned the story behind the song, so here goes:


Back in 1895, a poet from the Sydney area 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 had crossed a month earlier near Canberra.


Banjo heard a lot of stories that afternoon while picnicking next to the Combo waterhole with the Rileys.  Shortly afterwards he wrote the words to “Waltzing Matilda,” which was loosely based on some of these stories, including a sheep shearer who committed suicide during an 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 Christina MacPherson, a friend of Sarah’s who was also visiting the Rileys' ranch, composed the music, based on a tune she had once heard.  Apparently though, Sarah didn’t take kindly to her fiancé Banjo working so closely with Christina and so, in a huff, 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 Christina ever again and shortly afterwards, Christina's brother ran Banjo off the ranch.  Hmm... sounds like a good made-for-TV movie.


In case you were wondering, like 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 hot and despite the swarm of bushflies, I ate 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. 



Here's Lazy Harry singing Waltzing Matilda.


To complete the experience, I took out my “Lazy Harry Sings 25 Australian Favorites” CD, popped it into my car's 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 faintly heard the swagman’s ghost singing “Waltzing Matilda.”  Or maybe it was the drone of a hundred bushflies.


Waltzing Matilda 
(Words 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 'til 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 'til his billy boiled

"You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me."


Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong

Up jumped a swagman and he 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 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.






Above left:  The Combo waterhole, the inspiration for "Waltzing Matilda."  Those are coolibah trees on the banks, just like in the song.

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 five times, in fact.