February 23, 2017
Paterson's "Waltzing Matilda"On this day in 1864 A. B. ("Banjo") Paterson, the Australian bush poet who wrote "Waltzing Matilda," was born in New South Wales. The story of the creation of Australia's unofficial national anthem is an engaging one, a convergence of history, politics, biography, etymology and irony that unravels in all directions. In 1894 Paterson was a thirty year-old city lawyer with a distaste for both cities and the practice of law. He preferred horses, history and his outback home, and writing ballads about them. While on a visit with his fiancé to Dagworth Station (large ranches, originally run by the government on convict labor) in Queensland, Paterson was taken with a nameless tune that he heard his hostess play on the piano from memory. Having decided to set words to it, Paterson immediately found his raw material in his host's guided tour of the Station, which included a description of those events surrounding the eight-day Shearers' Strike several months earlier. The "swagman [a drifter or itinerant sheep-shearer, carrying his swag or blanket-roll] camped by a billabong [waterhole]" was Samuel "Frenchy" Hoffmeister. He was a militant member of the Shearers' Union, thought to have been the one responsible for burning down the Dagworth woolshed, killing 140 sheep. He was not relaxing "under the shade of a coolibah [eucalyptus] tree" but hiding out. If "he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy [tin can of water] boiled," it would have been very softly. When the swagman "stowed that jumbuck [sheep] in his tucker [food] bag" he was adding the fuel of poaching to the fire of political and class war. When "up rode the squatter [wealthy landowner], mounted on his thoroughbred," backed by "the troopers, one, two, three," it was a contest no swagman -- least of all a militant unionist-arsonist-poacher -- could win. When he suicidally "leapt into the billabong," crying "You'll never catch me alive," it was the leap of a cornered, outback, underclass, convict-bred martyr, to the cry of 'up yours, mate.'
"Frenchy" Hoffmeister, the historical swagman, shot rather than drowned himself, and was from German stock, as was the expression "waltzing Matilda." Auf der walz means to 'go on the tramp' or hit the road, used in Germany to describe traveling workers or soldiers on the march; a Matilda came to mean those women who followed the soldiers, to 'keep them warm.' Eventually the soldier's greatcoat or blanket was a Matilda. Thus Paterson's swagman-hero was not only without justice, or food, or a way out, but a woman's warmth. And the nameless tune that Paterson first heard at Dagworth Station and took for his swagman turned out to be a version of the "Craigielee March," which was itself taken from a century-old Scottish air called "Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielee." There may be older, less direct roots for the tune that Paterson made famous, but "Craigielee" was written by Robert Tannahill, a lonely, semi-cripple who would escape to the woods, and whose final relief was to kill himself by drowning.
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