Waltzing Matilda

An Interpretation
Jon Saxton
January 1989

The words to the classic Australian ballad "Waltzing Matilda" describe the plight of a roving worker caught stealing a sheep but the song is written in a vernacular which may be obscure to many listeners. Here I present a translation, first written in 1989 and recently (January 2006) rediscovered while sorting through some old papers.

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
a single time. OK, so that is pretty obvious and perhaps not worth interpreting but at least we're off to a good start.
gay, but not in the same sense as that understood by the young men of Darlinghurst. (USA readers may substitute "San Francisco" for Darlinghurst.)
itinerant worker, called a swagman because of the "swag" normally carried by such persons. A swag comprises the belongings of the swagman wrapped in a blanket and formed into a back-pack. A swagman is also known as a "swaggie".
made camp (nothing to do with the sexual behaviour of the Darlinghurst set).
oxbow lake formed when a meandering river cuts through its own course leaving a segment of the river isolated from the main stream.

Under the shade of a Coolabah tree

beneath. OK, another of those gratuitous definitions. I'll stop now.
half of a pair of sunglasses.
type of tree which grows in some of Australia's wetlands.
a woody thing with leaves which gets pissed upon by dogs.

And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled

and he
a distortion of the swagman's name, "Andy".
another distortion.
something the swaggie did while waiting.
something the swaggie did while watching.
a tin can with a lid and a wire loop handle. Used by denizens of the Australian bush as a cooking pot primarily for boiling water to make tea.
what happened to the water when it was heated to 100 degrees. Curiously, this effect is not so apparent in the USA where water has to be heated to well over 200 degrees before anything interesting happens.

You'll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me

walking; the term used by swagmen to describe their means of travel.
the name given to his swag by one particular swagman. Apparently that swaggie was a Dutchman who came to Australia after his wife, Mathilde, had died. He adopted the swaggie lifestyle and named his swag after his wife in hr memory. The use of the name spread. It is a cute story but it is probably apocryphal,

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda
You'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me.
And 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 the billabong.

a sheep, specifically a young ram.

Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee.

Mathilde had been dead a long time.

And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag

pushed, stuffed, packed ... presumably after skinning and gutting.
food, hence "tucker bag".
sack, usually made of hessian. The term also refers to a woman of similar appearance.

"You'll come a-waltzing, Matilda with me.

Chorus: Waltzing Matilda, waltzing ... etc.

Down came the squatter mounted on his thoroughbred

a landholder through occupancy rather than purchase
a breed of horse. Not much good in the Australian outback or as a farm horse but probably ridden by the squatter as a symbol of wealth - a bit like a yuppie driving his Ferrari over the Sydney Harbour Bridge in peak hour traffic.

Down came the troopers, one, two, three.

one, two, three
just to show that the swaggie could count. (Or was it the policemen?)

Where's that jolly jumbuck you've got in your tucker bag.

A singularly redundant question.

You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.

a dance performed by sheep stealers while suspended by a rope from a gibbet.

Chorus: Waltzing Matilda ... etc

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong
"You'll never take me alive" said he.
Now his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong
"You'll come a-waltzing, Matilda with me."


Chorus: Waltzing Matilda ... etc


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