skip to main content

Waltzing Matilda -a loose translation for non-Australians

Words by A.B.(Banjo) Patterson

Waltzing Matilda is in many ways Australia's unofficial national anthem. Lots of Aussies would love to have it made our official national anthem, and millions of people all over the world are familiar with the song, yet a surprising number haven't got the vaguest idea what it's about. So in the interests of education and enlightenment, we present a translation of the song into modern idiom, so you can have some idea what's going on. (These explanatory notes are the opinion of Mike Kear, host of Music from Foggy Hollow and not necessarily those of Banjo Patterson.)

1. Once a jolly swagman, camped by a billabong
under the shade of a coolabah tree
And he sang as he sat and waited while his billy boiled
You'll come a waltzing matilda with me
A swagman, is a hobo or a tramp. You dont see many of them these days, but they used to be everywhere, strolling along the roads and byways scrounging a meal here and there where they could, with their swag over their shoulder. A swag is the bundle of possessions - the bag on the end of the stick containing all his "stuff". Interestingly, Aussies so love slang, that they create slang terms for other slang terms. Matilda is slang for a swag. A coolabah tree is just a gum tree, and a billy is a kind of kettle for cooking or boiling water for tea.

So in short, this first verse means a tramp or a hobo is sitting in the shade of a tree boiling up some water over a fire to make some tea, probably because he had no food for a meal.
Chorus: Waltzing matilda, waltzing matilda
Who'll come a-waltzing matilda with me
And he sang as he sat and waited while his billy boiled
Who'll come a-waltzing matilda with me
Waltzing is slang for walking. So the chorus tag line goes . "walking with my stuff". Not quite as catchy as the actual tag line huh.

And the line has nothing to do with the famous mondegreen, beloved by so many teachers .. "Andy Sang as he watched ... " who's Andy?
2. Down came a jumbuck to drink at the billabong
up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee
And he sang as he stuffed that jumbuck in his tucker bag
You'll come a-waltzing matilda with me
A jumbuck is slang for a sheep, and a billabong, that's like a bend in the river but the river's straightened out and its left this little boomerang of water like a dam or a waterhole.

Ok so the sheep came down for a drink and, the swaggie's jumped on it and grabbed it. He's a sheep stealer.

Tucker means "food" so the sheep is definitely going to become lambchops in the very near future. But the swaggie's a bit worried about cooking it right here, so he stuffs it in his tuckerbag - his food bag - and prepares to high-tail it out of there - take his forthcoming meal - a-waltzing.
Chorus: Waltzing matilda, waltzing matilda
Who'll come a-waltzing matilda with me
And he sang as he stuffed that jumbuck in his tucker bag
Who'll come a-waltzing matilda with me
When I was a teenager, we used to infuriate my mother by singing "and he sang as he stuffed that blondegirl in his sleeping bag", but we were but saplings with the sap only just starting to rise in our bodies then.
3. Down came the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred
UP rode the troopers one, two, three
Who's that jolly jumbuck you've got in your tuckerbag
You'll come a-waltzing matilda with me
Now this is where it gets interesting ..

A squatter is the landowner. Not exactly loved by many of the population. Australia in the early days had a significant proportion of the population who had been convicts, and landowners to them represented everything they loathed. However, the squatters could call on the authorities when they needed them, while the swaggies couldn't.

thoroughbred of course is a fancy horse. The squatter's wealthy as indicated by the fact he has a thoroughbred horse, when mere mortals had lesser horses, often former brumbies (wild horses). up rode the troopers, one two three: uh oh .. here are the cops.

"Who's that jolly jumbuck ... " oh yea like he's going to know the name of the sheep. 'Dolly'? Actually they're saying "please can we have the sheep back if you dont mind please sir". Or words to that effect. Now, when they're saying "you'll come a-waltzing matilda with me" it's the swaggie who's going to be a-walking - they're arresting him and taking him downtown.
Chorus: Waltzing matilda, waltzing matilda
Who'll come a-waltzing matilda with me
Who's that jolly jumbuk you've got in your tucker bag
Who'll come a-waltzing matilda with me
Have you got the picture yet? Another little-known fact is that A.B. "Banjo" Patterson, the author of the song was named not after the musical instrument, but after a horse his father owned. Patterson wrote the lyrics and they were put to several tunes.
4. Up jumped the swagman, and leapt into the billabong
"You'll never catch me alive," said he
and his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong,
'You'll come a-waltzing matilda with me'
But the swaggie's got different ideas. This is the sad bit so get your tissues ready.

The swaggie doesn't want to spend the rest of his days in jail for knocking off one lousy sheep so he jumps into the waterhole to drown himself.
Chorus: Waltzing matilda, waltzing matilda
Who'll come a-waltzing matilda with me
and his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong
Who'll come a-waltzing matilda with me
So there it is .. what many would like to be Australia's national anthem .. "a penniless tramp steals a sheep, a rich farmer brings the cops and catches him and he commits suicide rather than face the music." A little different in theme to "rockets red glare" and "Land of hope and glory" and "God Save the Queen" don't you think? But that's what appeals to many Australians - the larrikin side of us.