Waltzing Matilda – Australia’s national song

Australia’s unofficial national anthem – Waltzing Matilda, Australia’s national song
This tune … this poem … this song. It is an Australian legacy, suckered from our mother’s milk. We were born into it. It surrounded us and comforted us as a certitude, as we struggled to find our own identity. Though its original context is shrouded in mystery, this 120 year old song strangely defines us as a people.

It was a part of our make-up and psyche long before we could sing the song or recite the words. It stands alone as the icon that speaks to us Aussies of our home ‘among the gum trees’. Most Aussies have only a limited understanding of its context yet can still identify fully with its sentiment. Waltzing Matilda has truly become Australia’s national song and who better to sing it and remind us of our great heritage, than the late great country legend, Slim Dusty.

It may be ironic to the rest of the world that our song should be about a free-spirited drifter who took a gleeful opportunistic chance at a free feed, yet when accosted by the wealthy landowner and the police, chose a suicidal death over the loss of a free life wandering carefree through the outback of Australia. But to the average egalitarian, underdog supporting, non-privileged, resourceful, authority defiant, freedom loving Aussie … it makes perfect sense.

Some may have incorrectly called it “waltzing mathilda” or “walzing matilda”, but whatever you call it, the sound and the words ‘still smell as sweet’. So here is the Waltzing Matilda lyrics, performances and the surrounding story.

Waltzing Matilda by the Australian artist Pro Hart – www.antiqbook.nl

Introduction – Waltzing Matilda

Waltzing Matilda – Australia’s National Song – nla.gov.au

Believe it or not, but Australia’s national song and poem Waltzing Matilda, is actually a wildly romantic invitation. ‘Who’ll come a waltzing matilda with me‘ is an invitation to live the life we dare not.

  • A life carefree and unattached, without the dragging anchors of possessions. 
  • A life of enjoying simple pleasures like having a fresh cup of billy tea while sitting in the shade of a tree on the banks of a cool reflective pond. 
  • A life so ‘jolly’ that a song fills every vacant moment. 
  • A life of no responsibilities apart from the need to secure your next meal.
  • A life with no boss and no one telling you what to do, yet not lonely for “the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him”[1]
  • A life lived beneath the ‘wondrous glory of the everlasting stars[1] by night and ‘the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended[1] by day. 
  • A life of scented eucalyptus on the ‘murmur of the breezes[1], and an ear attuned to the distinctive bush songs of the ‘silver-voiced’ bell birds and the laughing chorus of kookaburras





A simple life of total freedom … the life of the Aussie swagman circa.1890.




Is it any wonder then, that when faced with the loss of this free life, that the Aussie swagman would chose death over a life lived in custody. It’s not quite up there with Emiliano Zapata‘s statement “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees” but the message from the Aussie swagman is the same. It is this belief in freedom’s importance to the Australian way of life, that has seen hundreds of thousands of our countrymen go to war in defense of that freedom, with over 100,000 of them making the ultimate sacrifice.
Australians know full well, that as one of the most urbanized nations in the world and being a part of the western capitalist system, that we can never take up the swagman’s romantic invitation. We want to so much but we just can’t see how we can ‘come waltzing matilda’ with him through the Australian outback’s wide open spaces, but it is fun every so often to pretend that we could. Singing this poem reminds us of the possibility of a simpler happier life as depicted by the swagman and the pertinent lesson that a life without freedom is no life at all.
As Bevan Potter says in his family blog about his German heritage:

“So, don’t be disillusioned if you sometimes feel that you want to leave your secure job, pack your bag and go on the road, because you are simply feeling some genetic urge to do exactly as your ancestors did, it is why you are Australian.”

There are other strong emotions tied to this poem that are peculiarly Australian; like always siding with the underdog and any Aussie ‘down on their luck’; like the healthy suspicion we have of the motives of those in authority and our support for the lovable rogues that stand up to them; like a general disdain for the privileged, ‘silver-spooners’ and unfairly advantaged who where gifted a life without having to work hard for it like the rest of us did; and the pettiness of an establishment that could condemn a man for taking one sheep in ten thousand, just as the English judges made an Australian convict of a man that stole a loaf of bread to feed a hungry family. Australians are bigger than that, and in this poem, as in our way of life … we are on the jolly swagman’s side and not the establishment’s.
Swagman billyswagg.com.au

For Australians, the swagman never dies. He speaks to us constantly in his ghostly call contained in the lines of the poem. He asks us the same question time after time; “Who’ll come a Waltzing Matlda’ with me?” and entreats us to consider this simpler happier life where possessions do not own us, where generosity of spirit and the mateship principles of the Aussie sawgman apply while being ever vigilant in the defense of the freedom we still enjoy.

As Heather Blakey says in her excellent article embedded at the end of this Knol:

“The ghost of the swagman may be found in the faces of the pioneers who settled the Never Never; in the eyes of the hardened shearing unionist who paved the way for Unionism in Australia; within the defiance of the Anzac storming the beaches of Gallipoli; in the stride of the Bondi life-saver and in the face of the determined protestor thumbing his nose at government officials and bureaucracy.”

Following are my selection of Aussies that have taken Australia’s national song to heart and share their feelings with the world through their musical instruments,their voices and their images.
Enjoy, Australia’s national song …
[1] – from Banjo Paterson’s ‘Clancy of the Overflow’


Waltzing Matilda – Slim Dusty style



Slim Dusty sang Waltzing Matilda to close the Sydney Olympic games in 2000. So typically Australian. There were no choreographed masses, no big brass bands, no overtly nationalistic fervor, just a 73 year old man singing alone a song he has performed countless times to small audiences in his outback travels. Still, what was unseen to the cameras that night were the 20 million proud  Aussies from around the world that stood and sang along with him.

Here is Slim Dusty’s rendition of Waltzing Matilda, without the ‘help’ from the Sydney Olympic crowd. It is the way we all picture it should be sung, around a camp fire somewhere outback in the company of a few friends. Please enjoy Austrlia’s national song sung by a national treasure.




Waltzing Matilda is by far, Australia’s most recognized song – Australia’s National song. Poet Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson CBE (1864–1941) wrote the poem in early 1895 at Dagworth station in Queensland. The original music score was composed by Christina Macpherson who was the sister of the station owner.


Slim Dusty smh.com.au


Slim Dusty (1927 – 2003) is our legendary outback songwriter and performer who died 3 years after singing the last song of the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics 2000.. Waltzing Matilda was his song and Slim Dusty was ours … 100% Australian. He was the embodiment of all that was good in the swagman. He loved the outback and sang and waltzed his way  through every tiny town. Possessions did not own him and he was generous to any Aussie ‘down on their luck’.


What people have said ….




“Waltzing Matilda is our unofficial national anthem and one day will be our official national anthem. The music is lyrical, the story whimsical and irreverent, and it makes all Australians emotional…. what better national anthem can a nation have? Nothing about war, greatness, power, glory …. just a song about an ordinary bloke down on his luck. Love it. The epitome of our ‘battler myth’ and one of the most beautiful and evocative pieces of music ever written.”
“Waltzing Matilda is absoulutely wonderful, gosh in in school we would have a list of songs to sing in morning assembly and this we sang daily without fail, this is the one that woke us up haha. I loved singing it. At the time -when at school- there was something significant going on as we had a special guest who had some real connection to this song, and he was teaching us everyday. Nice memory though and a song close to my heart. Slim Dusty is amazing!”
“I’m not Australian. But I was living in Australia in 2000 and watched the closing ceremonies for the Olympics while there and this made me weep. Everything I love and everything I hate about that country is there in that old man, starting almost too weak to sing and drawing freely given strength from the crowd to deliver the rousing epic of the death of a vagrant. Poetic and beautiful on all sides. Still leaves me misty-eyed today.”
“I absolutely adore this song. Even though I’m from Europe, this song makes me cry each and every time- for all the right reasons.”
“I remember watching this live on TV and feeling moved by the huge sing-a-long. As the announcer said, there wouldn’t be any other way to end the Sydney games”
“No song shall ever mean more than this one does to the people of Australia, and Slim Dusty is greatly missed. The voice of Australia! We miss you Slim! You’ll never be forgotten!”
“I fought beside some Aussies in Vietnam and they were some terrific soldiers and great friends. Whenever I hear this song I think of them. God bless Australia.”



As an Australian living abroad, this song has particular significance for me and truly resonates with my soul. Every time I hear it, my spirit soars, and I know that I am Australian. Although the years of my living abroad have diminished my accent, and I have even forgotten some Australian ways and customs, I will always have a connection with the soul of the land. In my dreams I see the great ocean horizon stretching from the shore into the distance, surrounding this sun-baked island, the deep vivid browns and reds of the earth, the shape and colour of the gum trees…the call of Australian birds, so alien and yet familiar.

The call to return is often strong, yet I will only return when my days of waltzing Matilda are finally over…





“I think this is the best poem eva writen you really should read!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! “
“Great song, wonderful country, nice people, greetings from spain”
“That IS Australia. My parents used to listen to Slim Dusty when I was a kiddie, and he WAS Australia. The video clip captures the essence and the heart of all we hold dear. That is Australia. I can almost smell the gum trees and hear the kookababurras. The bush and eating of BBQs and the billy tea.”

Waltzing Matilda – Australia’s national song



Guitar chords for the Waltzing Matilda Lyrics ….





[G] Once a jolly [D]swagman [Em]camped by a [C]billabong,
[G]Under the[Em] shade of a[Am]coolibah [D] tree,
[G]And he sang as he [D]watched and [Em]waited ’til his [C]billy boiled
[G] ‘Who’ll come [Em]a-waltzing,[Am]Ma [D] tilda, with [G]me?’
Chorus …
[G] Waltzing [Em] Matilda, [C] Waltzing[Am]Matilda
[G]Who’ll come [Em]a-waltzing,[Am]Matilda, with [D]me
[G]And he sang as he [D]watched and [Em]waited ’til his [C]billy boiled,
[G]‘Who’ll come [Em] a-waltzing, [Am]Ma [D]tilda, with [G]me?




[C]Once a jolly [G]swagman [Am]camped by a [F]billabong







[C]Under the shade of [G]coolibah tree






And he [C]sang as he [G]watched and [Am]waited ’til his [F]billy boiled







[C]You’ll come a [G]waltzing matilda with [C] me








[C]Waltzing matilda, [F]waltzing matilda







[C]You’ll come a waltzing matilda with [G]me






And he [C] sang as he [G] watched and [Am] waited ’til his [F]billy boiled







[C]You’ll come a [G]waltzing matilda with [C]me



































[D]Once a jolly [A]swagman [Bm]camped by a [G]billabong
[D]Under the shade of [A7]coolibah tree


And he [D]sang as he [A]watched and [Bm]waited ’til his [G]billy boiled





[D]You’ll come a [A7]waltzing matilda with [D]me







[D]Waltzing matilda, [G]waltzing matilda



[D]You’ll come a waltzing matilda with [A]me




And he [D]sang as he [A7]watched and [Bm]waited ’til his [G]billy boiled








[D]You’ll come a [A7]waltzing matilda with [D]me





Waltzing Matilda – Australia’s national song


What does it all mean?

‘Allan’s’ sheet music by Marie Cowan, published Melbourne, 1936.


Swagman vic.gov.au


Waltzing Matilda and the jolly swagman – nla.gov.au

Waltzing Matilda

… is the act of carrying the ‘swag’ and wandering aimlessly through the outback of Australia, looking for work when the need arose.
According to Henry Lawson in ‘The Romance of the Swag, 1907’
“Travelling with the swag in Australia is variously and picturesquely described as “humping bluey,” “walking Matilda,” “humping Matilda,” “humping your drum,” “being on the wallaby,” “jabbing trotters,” and “tea and sugar burglaring,” but most travelling shearers now call themselves trav’lers, and say simply “on the track,” or “carrying swag.”
Now the term ‘waltzing’ comes from the German expression Auf die Walz gehen which means to take to the road and rove as a journeyman carrying their tool-roll, often called their “Mathilda”.
Apprentices in various trades or crafts in the Middle Ages, were required to serve an allotted period traveling around the country or outside Germany gaining experience and new techniques for their trade. The apprentice gained employment with master craftsman in various towns, earning his living as he went and sleeping where he could. All this was part of the guild system for apprentice tradesmen, and was not abolished until about 1911.
Once their allotted time ‘on the waltz’ was complete, the apprentice would report back to the master craftsman to secure their release to be able to practice as a tradesman. Waltzing then came to mean ‘to travel while working as a craftsman’. ‘Waltzing About’ also became a colloquial term meaning to walk around aimlessly
The term ‘Matilda’ is an old Germanic name meaning ‘mighty battle maid’, although more likely called ‘Mathildas’ or “Mechilde”. It was initially a name given to female camp followers, but eventually evolved into meaning ‘to be kept warm at night’. For most soldiers, this was their large grey overcoat that they would wrapped themselves up in. These coats were then rolled up and carried over their shoulder while marching.
In Australia then, Matilda was a mock-romantic word for a swag and to waltz matilda was to hit the road with a swag on your back. In the Australian bush, ‘Matilda’ became a slang term to mean the de facto wife who accompanied a wanderer and was their sleeping partner. For the vast majority of swagmen, their Matilda was their warm blue blankets. So, Waltzing Matilda means to wander the Australian outback from place to place in search of work (Waltzing) with one’s sleeping blanket (Matilda) and belongings wrapped up as a swag.



                              Australian outback swagman – ngv.vic.gov.au


… is an Australian itinerant worker and traveler, who carried all his belongings in a rolled up swag. A gentleman of the road, who roamed the bush and outback of Australia as a carefree drifter, a tramp, a hobo or a bum; A hobo (itinerant worker), a tramp (an itinerant non-worker) or a bum (a non-itinerant non-worker).

The ‘swag’ is usually a chaff bag, that would contain his ‘billy’, provisions and blankets. Called by a wide variety of names, including ‘shiralee’ and ‘bluey’.
Swagman were an integral part of supplying seasonal shearing labour for the wool industry and were prevalent in Australia during the depression of the 1890’s, when the poem was written. They were mostly single men classified in a sort of underclass of transient temporary workers. They travelled by foot from farm to farm carrying the traditional swag with their few meagre possessions and looked for work as required.



The swagman legacy

Swagman Shearers 1890’s museum.vic.gov.au

It is every likelihood that the swagman in Banjo Peterson’s poem was the German shearer Samuel ‘Frenchie’ Hoffmeister. He was one of the union leaders of the shearing strike at Dagworth Station who was believed to be responsible for torching the shearing shed only weeks before Banjo arrived.

In the 1890’s, the working conditions for shearers in Australia were atrocious.Samuel Hoffmeister was one man who stood up to the wealthy landowners demanding a better lot for himself and his swaggie shearing mates. He apparently shot himself the next morning beside the billabong where the unionists were camped, although given the total capitulation by the station’s owner to the shearer’s demands and not charging the shearers for the burnt out shed, does raise questions about the suicide or murder of Samuel ‘Frenchie’ Hoffmeister.
These swagman of the 1890’s found most of their work following the shearing season and were responsible for shearing millions of sheep. Often these men would have to endure appalling conditions in hot tin sheds, yet they performed their back breaking task with a fine wit and dry humour.
These very same swagmen forged the concept of mateship in Australia, and through their unity and trust bonded together to lay the foundations for the labour movement in Australia with their shearing strikes of the 1890s

“To these men we owe a great debt, if it had not been for their unshakable resolve, Australia would have been burdened and inhibited by British class distinctions.” Bevan Potter

A typical Australian billabong dsr.nsw.gov.au


Billabong is a term used to describe a standing, often stagnant, body of water and related to river channels. The word billabong is derived from an Australian Aboriginal word meaning dead river. (‘billa” meaning creek to “bong” meaning dead)
One way that billabongs are formed in Australia, occurs when a river floods and causes a temporary channel to branch off from the river but not lead back to it
If the temporary channel is deep enough, the water will remain there after the flood and create a billabong.
Also creeks in Australia are subject to hot, dry weather interrupted by occasional flooding. Sometimes the creeks dry up leaving standing pools, or billabongs, in the deeper parts. The third type of billabong is found in rivers in all parts of the world, when a small ox-bow waterhole is formed on the outside channel of a river that was cut off by a change in the watercourse. In the Australian outback, a billabong generally retains water longer than the watercourse itself, so it may be the only water for miles around.

Coolibah Tree QLD – mdbc.gov.au


… sometimes spelled Coolabah, is a species of gum or eucalyptus tree. It is a particular kind of eucalyptus that grows beside billabongs.
More specifically, a Coolibah tree’s botanical name is eucalyptus microtheca, but commonly called ‘Flooded Box’. It is a small to medium-sized tree to 20m, widespread in arid and semi-arid areas near watercourses and seasonally flooded areas in open. It has no commercial value because of its notoriously crooked structure and does not have an inch of straight timber in the whole tree!
It is found in all states except Victoria and Tasmania.
Making Billy Tea ‘Outback style’ – nla.gov.au




… is an open topped tin can, maybe two litres (four pints) in capacity, with a wire carrying handle attached to the top rim. It was used for boiling water to make tea and to kill any ‘nasties’ that may have come from the water sourced from the (stagnant) billabong. Still, it was all the extras (ants, twigs, wigglers etc.) that gave ‘billy tea’ that rather unique taste. Older Australians still use the term “I off to boil the billy” even when they mean “to heat water in the electric jug”.


… is a sheep. It generally denotes a sheep that is difficult to shear. Maybe because it was too large or it is untamed.

The Macquarie Dictionary suggests that the term is an Aboriginal corruption of ‘jump up’. The term may also have been derived from ‘jombok’. “Jomboks are those big, white, fluffy clouds that typically drift across the inland Australian skies in late summer and Autumn. When the aboriginals first saw sheep they were reminded of jomboks and they just changed one letter to avoid confusion in their spoken language”. The term is no longer used in Australia today.

Tucker Bag

… is a traditional storage bag for carrying and containing food in the Australian outback. Typically carried by a swagman or a bushman, this pouch or bag has a single entry closed with a drawstring. The larger sized bags were used for carrying utensils and sleeping gear as well. Common materials used to make tucker bags where leather or oilskin. Tucker is also known as grub, victuals/vittles, or food.

Waltzing Matilda Troopers – gold-net.com.au


… is a grazier, pastoralist or station (ranch) owner. In the early days of Australia people just ‘squatted’ on patches of land, grazed their animals, grew their crops and built their houses and fences. In time, once governments took charge, they generally accepted the land claims of whoever was in apparent possession of the land. The largely nomadic life of aboriginal Australians left them without land ownership recognition. Anyway Australia on settlement was declared ‘terra nullius’ a latin meaning of ‘land belonging to no one’. The constabulary tended to work with the squatters to maintain law and order. To non-land-owners, squatters were an object of resentment. Note that the meaning of the word changed later in the twentieth century to mean a person who occupied or resided at a property illegally.



… is a policeman, a cavalry soldier, or perhaps a mounted militia-man. To a swaggie, there was no difference, just people with the power and authority to deny him his freedom. This term is very dated and hardly used in Australia today.

Waltzing Matilda – My pick of the verions

70’s folk group Seekers provide the music – Australian scenery the images
Ex AC/DC rocker takes it a bit more upbeat.
John Williamson provides the music, the Australian Rugby team the pictures
Tommy Emmanuel gives us two Australian classics for the price of one – Waltzing Matilda
No Australia Day would be complete without a rendition of Waltzing Matilda
Singing Waltzing Matilda is a Aussie Rules Grand Final tradition
André Rieu plays Waltzing Matilda on tour for an Aussie audience.

One Interpretation of “Waltzing Matilda” by Heather Blakey


 About the Author


y comes with being an Aussie, we just can’t help loving this place called Australia – its vast open spaces, its pristine beaches, its unspoiled outback landscapes, its melting pot of immigrants, its ancient heritage of the First Australians, its Anzac spirit, it mateship creed, it hard working, positive yet carefree attitude to life … yes, and even its perils, dangers and strife – we love it all. It is a long way to come, but I’m sure you will find it well worth the visit, even better, come join us … the people of the land ‘down-under’.


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