Waltzing Matilda

"Waltzing Matilda" is Australia's best-known bush ballad, and has been described as the country's "unofficial national anthem".

The title was Australian slang for travelling on foot (waltzing) with one's belongings in a "matilda" (swag) slung over one's back. The song narrates the story of an itinerant worker, or "swagman", making a drink of billy tea at a bush camp and capturing a stray jumbuck (sheep) to eat. When the jumbuck's owner, a squatter (landowner), and three troopers (mounted policemen) pursue the swagman for theft, he declares "You'll never catch me alive!" and commits suicide by drowning himself in a nearby billabong (watering hole), after which his ghost haunts the site.

The original lyrics were written in 1895 by Australian poet Banjo Paterson, and were first published as sheet music in 1903. Extensive folklore surrounds the song and the process of its creation, to the extent that it has its own museum, the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton, in the Queensland outback, where Paterson wrote the lyrics. In 2012, to remind Australians of the song's significance, Winton organised the inaugural Waltzing Matilda Day to be held on 6 April, the anniversary of its first performance.

The song was first recorded in 1926 as performed by John Collinson and Russell Callow. In 2008, this recording of "Waltzing Matilda" was added to the Sounds of Australia registry in the National Film and Sound Archive, which says that there are more recordings of "Waltzing Matilda" than any other Australian song.


Writing of the song

The Australian poet Banjo Paterson wrote the words to "Waltzing Matilda" in August 1895 while staying at Dagworth Station, a sheep and cattle station near Winton in Central West Queensland owned by the Macpherson family. The words were written to a tune played on a zither or autoharp by 31‑year‑old Christina Macpherson (1864–1936), one of the family members at the station.

Macpherson had heard the tune "The Craigielee March" played by a military band while attending the Warrnambool steeplechase horse racing in Victoria in April 1894, and played it back by ear at Dagworth. Paterson decided that the music would be a good piece to set lyrics to, and produced the original version during the rest of his stay at the station and in Winton.

The march was based on the music the Scottish composer James Barr composed in 1818 for Robert Tannahill's 1806 poem "Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielee". In the early 1890s it was arranged as "The Craigielee" march music for brass band by Australian composer Thomas Bulch.It has been widely accepted that "Waltzing Matilda" is probably based on the following story:

In Queensland in 1891 the Great Shearers' Strike brought the colony close to civil war and was broken only after the Premier of Queensland, Samuel Griffith, called in the military. In September 1894, some shearers at Dagworth Station were again on strike. The situation turned violent with the striking shearers firing their rifles and pistols in the air and setting fire to the woolshed at Dagworth, killing dozens of sheep. The owner of Dagworth Station and three policemen gave chase to a man named Samuel Hoffmeister, an immigrant said to have been born in Batavia also known as "Frenchy". Rather than be captured, Hoffmeister shot and killed himself at the 4 Mile Creek south of Kynuna at 12.30pm on 2 September, 1894.

Bob Macpherson (the brother of Christina) and Paterson are said to have taken rides together at Dagworth. Here they would probably have passed the Combo Waterhole, where Macpherson is purported to have told this story to Paterson. Although not remaining in close contact, Paterson and Christina Macpherson had different recollections of where the song was first composed- Christina said it was composed "in Winton" while Paterson said it was at "Dick's Creek" on the road to Winton. Amongst Macpherson's belongings, found after her death in 1936, was an unopened letter to a music researcher that read "... one day I played (from ear) a tune, which I had heard played by a band at the Races in Warrnambool ... he [Paterson] then said he thought he could write some words to it. He then and there wrote the first verse. We tried it and thought it went well, so he then wrote the other verses." Similarly, in the early 1930s on ABC radio Paterson said: "The shearers staged a strike and Macpherson's woolshed at Dagworth was burnt down and a man was picked up dead ... Miss Macpherson used to play a little Scottish tune on a zither and I put words to it and called it Waltzing Matilda."

The song itself was first performed on 6 April 1895 by Sir Herbert Ramsay, 5th Bart., at the North Gregory Hotel in Winton, Queensland. The occasion was a banquet for the Premier of Queensland.

In February 2010, ABC News reported an investigation by barrister Trevor Monti that the death of Hoffmeister was more akin to a gangland assassination than to suicide. The same report asserts, "Writer Matthew Richardson says the song was most likely written as a carefully worded political allegory to record and comment on the events of the shearers' strike."

Alternative theories

Several alternative theories for the origins or meaning of "Waltzing Matilda" have been proposed since the time it was written. Still, most experts now essentially agree on the details outlined above. Some oral stories collected during the twentieth century claimed that Paterson had merely modified a pre-existing bush song, but there is no evidence for this. In 1905, Paterson himself published a book of bush ballads he had collected from around Australia entitled Old Bush Songs, with nothing resembling "Waltzing Matilda" in it. Nor do any other publications or recordings of bush ballads include anything to suggest it preceded Paterson. Meanwhile, manuscripts from the time the song originated indicate the song's origins with Paterson and Christina Macpherson, as do their own recollections and other pieces of evidence.

There has been speculation about the relationship "Waltzing Matilda" bears to an English song, "The Bold Fusilier" (also known as "Marching through Rochester", referring to Rochester in Kent and the Duke of Marlborough), a song sung to the same tune and dated by some back to the 18th century but first printed in 1900. There is, however, no documentary proof that "The Bold Fusilier" existed before 1900, and evidence suggests that this song was in fact written as a parody of "Waltzing Matilda" by English soldiers during the Boer War where Australian soldiers are known to have sung "Waltzing Matilda" as a theme. The first verse of "The Bold Fusilier" is:

A bold fusilier came marching back through Rochester Off from the wars in the north country, And he sang as he marched Through the crowded streets of Rochester, Who'll be a soldier for Marlboro and me?

In 2008 Australian amateur historian Peter Forrest claimed that the widespread belief that Paterson had penned the ballad as a socialist anthem, inspired by the Great Shearers' Strike, was false and a "misappropriation" by political groups. Forrest asserted that Paterson had in fact written the self-described "ditty" as part of his flirtation with Macpherson, despite his engagement to someone else. This theory was not shared by other historians like Ross Fitzgerald, emeritus professor in history and politics at Griffith University, who argued that the defeat of the strike in the area that Paterson was visiting only several months before the song's creation would have been in his mind, most likely consciously but at least "unconsciously", and thus was likely to have been an inspiration for the song. Fitzgerald stated, "the two things aren't mutually exclusive"a view shared by others who, while not denying the significance of Paterson's relationship with Macpherson, nonetheless recognise the underlying story of the shearers' strike and Hoffmeister's death in the lyrics of the song.


Paterson sold the rights to "Waltzing Matilda" and "some other pieces" to Angus & Robertson for five Australian pounds.

In 1903 Marie Cowan was hired by tea trader James Inglis to alter the song lyrics for use as an advertising jingle for Billy Tea, making it nationally famous.

A third variation on the song, with a slightly different chorus, was published in 1907.

Although no copyright applied to the song in Australia and many other countries, the Australian Olympic organisers had to pay royalties to an American publisher, Carl Fischer Music, following the song being played at the 1996 Summer Olympics held in Atlanta. According to some reports, the song was copyrighted by Carl Fischer Music in 1941 as an original composition. However, The Sydney Morning Herald said that Carl Fischer Music had collected the royalties on behalf of Messrs Allan & Co, an Australian publisher that claimed to have bought the original copyright, though Allan's claim "remains unclear". Arrangements such as those claimed by Richard D. Magoffin remain in copyright in America.


Typical lyrics

There are no "official" lyrics to "Waltzing Matilda" and slight variations can be found in different sources. This version incorporates the famous "You'll never catch me alive said he" variation introduced by the Billy Tea company. Paterson's original lyrics referred to "drowning himself 'neath the Coolibah Tree". The following lyrics are the Cowan version.
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong Under the shade of a coolibah tree, And he sang as he watched and waited till his "Billy" boiled, that jumbuck in his tucker bag, "You'll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me."


Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred. Down came the troopers, one, two, and three. "Whose is that jumbuck you've got in your tucker bag? You'll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me."


Up jumped the swagman and sprang 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."



The lyrics contain many distinctively Australian English words, some now rarely used outside the song. These include:

; waltzing : derived from the German term auf der Walz, which means to travel while working as a craftsman and learn new techniques from other masters. ; Matilda: a romantic term for a swagman's bundle. See below, "Waltzing Matilda". ; Waltzing Matilda: from the above terms, "to waltz Matilda" is to travel with a swag, that is, with all one's belongings on one's back wrapped in a blanket or cloth. The exact origins of the term "Matilda" are disputed; one fanciful derivation states that when swagmen met each other at their gatherings, there were rarely women to dance with. Nonetheless, they enjoyed a dance and so danced with their swags, which was given a woman's name. However, this appears to be influenced by the word "waltz", hence the introduction of dancing. It seems more likely that, as a swagman's only companion, the swag came to be personified as a woman.

:The National Library of Australia states: ::Matilda is an old Teutonic female name meaning "mighty battle maid". This may have informed the use of "Matilda" as a slang term to mean a de facto wife who accompanied a wanderer. In the Australian bush a man's swag was regarded as a sleeping partner, hence his "Matilda". (Letter to Rt. Hon. Sir Winston Churchill, KG from Harry Hastings Pearce, 19 February 1958. Harry Pearce Papers, NLA Manuscript Collection, MS2765)

; swagman: a man who travelled the country looking for work. The swagman's "swag" was a bed roll that bundled his belongings. ; billabong: an oxbow lake (a cut-off river bend) found alongside a meandering river ; coolibah tree: a kind of eucalyptus tree which grows near billabongs ; jumbuck: a sheep ; billy: a can for boiling water, usually 1–1.5 litres (2–3 pints) ; tucker bag: a bag for carrying food ; troopers: policemen ; squatter: Australian squatters started as early farmers who raised livestock on land which they did not have the legal title to use; in many cases they later gained legal use of the land even though they did not have full possession, and became wealthy thanks to these large land holdings. The squatter's claim to the land may be as unfounded as is the swagman's claim to the jumbuck.


The lyrics of "Waltzing Matilda" have been changed since it was written.

In a facsimile of the first part of the original manuscript, included in Singer of the Bush, a collection of Paterson's works published by Lansdowne Press in 1983, the first two verses appear as follows: Oh there once was a swagman camped in the billabong, Under the shade of a Coolibah tree, And he sang as he looked at the old billy boiling, Who'll come a waltzing Matilda with me?

Chorus: Who'll come a waltzin' Matilda my darling, Who'll come a waltzin' Matilda with me? Waltzing Matilda and leading a water bag, Who'll come a waltzing Matilda with me?

Down came a jumbuck to drink at the water hole, Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him in glee, And he sang as he put him away in the tucker bag, You'll come a waltzin' Matilda with me.

Chorus: You'll come a waltzing Matilda my darling, You'll come a waltzing Matilda with me. Waltzing Matilda and leading a water bag, You'll come a waltzing Matilda with me.

Some corrections in the manuscript are evident; the verses originally read (differences in italics): Oh there once was a swagman camped in the billabong, Under the shade of a Coolibah tree, And he sang as he looked at the old billy boiling, Who'll come a roving Australia with me?

Chorus: Who'll come a rovin (rest missing) Who'll come a waltzin' Matilda with me? Waltzing Matilda and leading a tucker bag. Who'll come a waltzing Matilda with me?

It has been suggested that these changes were from an even earlier version and that Paterson was talked out of using this text, but the manuscript does not bear this out. In particular, the first line of the chorus was corrected before it had been finished, so the original version is incomplete.

The first published version, in 1903, differs slightly from this text: Oh there once was a swagman camped in the billabongs, Under the shade of a Coolibah tree, And he sang as he looked at the old billy boiling, "Who'll come a waltzing Matilda with me?"

Chorus: Who'll come a waltzing Matilda, my darling, Who'll come a waltzing Matilda with me? Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag, Who'll come a waltzing Matilda with me?

Down came a jumbuck to drink at the waterhole, Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him in glee, And he sang as he put him away in the tucker-bag, You'll come a waltzing Matilda with me.


Up came the squatter a-riding his thoroughbred, Up rose the troopers—one, two, a and three. "Whose the jolly jumbuck you've got in the tucker-bag? You'll come a waltzing Matilda with we."


Up sprang the swagman and jumped in the waterhole, Drowning himself by the Coolibah tree. And his voice can be heard as it sings in the billabongs, Who'll come a waltzing Matilda with me.


By contrast with the original, and also with subsequent versions, the chorus of all the verses was the same in this version. This is also apparently the only version that uses "billabongs" instead of "billabong".

Current variations of the third line of the first verse are "And he sang as he sat and waited by the billabong" or "And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled". Another variation is that the third line of each chorus is kept unchanged from the first chorus, or is changed to the third line of the preceding verse.

There is also the very popular so-called Queensland version that has a different chorus, one very similar to that used by Paterson: Oh there once was a swagman camped in a billabong Under the shade of the coolibah tree And he sang as he looked at his old billy boiling Who'll come a waltzing Matilda with me?

Chorus: Who'll come a'waltzing Matilda my darling? Who'll come a'waltzing Matilda with me? Waltzing Matilda and leading a water bag Who'll come a'waltzing Matilda with me?

Down came a jumbuck to drink at the water hole Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee And he sang as he stowed him away in his tucker bag You'll come a'waltzing Matilda with me


Down came the squatter a'riding his thoroughbred Down came policemen one two three Whose is the jumbuck you've got in your tucker bag? You'll come a'waltzing Matilda with me


But the swagman he up and he jumped in the water hole Drowning himself by the coolibah tree And his ghost may be heard as it sings in the billabong Who'll come a'waltzing Matilda with me?



In May 1988 the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) Chief Executive, John Sturman, presented five platinum awards, "which recognised writers who had created enduring works which have become a major part of the Australian culture", at the annual APRA Awards ceremony as part of their celebrations for the Australian Bicentenary. One of the platinum awards was for Paterson and Cowan's version of "Waltzing Matilda".

Official use

The song has never been the officially recognised national anthem in Australia. Unofficially, however, it is often used in similar circumstances. The song was one of four included in a national plebiscite to choose Australia's national song held on 21 May 1977 by the Fraser Government to determine which song was preferred as Australia's national anthem. "Waltzing Matilda" received 28% of the vote compared with 43% for "Advance Australia Fair", 19% for "God Save the Queen" and 10% for "Song of Australia".

Australian passports issued from 2003 have had the lyrics of "Waltzing Matilda" hidden microscopically in the background pattern of most of the pages for visas and arrival/departure stamps.


"Waltzing Matilda" was used at the 1974 FIFA World Cup and at the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976 and, as a response to the New Zealand All Blacks haka, it has gained popularity as a sporting anthem for the Australia national rugby union team. It is also performed, along with "Advance Australia Fair", at the annual AFL Grand Final.

Matilda the Kangaroo was the mascot at the 1982 Commonwealth Games held in Brisbane, Queensland. Matilda was a cartoon kangaroo, who appeared as a 13 m high mechanical kangaroo at the opening ceremony, accompanied by Rolf Harris singing "Waltzing Matilda".

The Australian women's national soccer team is nicknamed the Matildas after this song.

Military units

It is used as the quick march of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and as the official song of the US 1st Marine Division, commemorating the time the unit spent in Australia during the Second World War. Partly also used in the British Royal Tank Regiment's slow march of "Royal Tank Regiment", because an early British tank model was called "Matilda".

Covers and derivative works

In 1995, it was reported that at least 500 artists in Australia and overseas had released recordings of "Waltzing Matilda", and according to Peter Burgis of the National Film and Sound Archive, it is "one of the most recorded songs in the world". Among the artists and bands who have covered the song include Frank Ifield, Rod Stewart, Chubby Checker, Liberace, Harry Belafonte, Bill Haley and the Comets, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Helmut Lotti, Wilf Carter (Montana Slim), the Irish Rovers, and Burl Ives, The Swingle Singers and the Red Army Choir. Jimmie Rodgers had a US#41 pop hit with the song in 1959.

On 14 April 1981, on Space Shuttle Columbia's first mission, country singer Slim Dusty's rendition was broadcast to Earth.

In the Kidsongs 1986 recording I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing where Mr. World and the Kidsongs Kids visit the Australians, the final two verses were replaced with the repeat of the first verse to make it more kid-friendly. Only this time, new words such as "Traveller" took the original ones' places such as "Swagman".


Versions of the song have been featured in a number of mainly Australian films and television programs.

Waltzing Matilda is a 1933 Australian film directed by and starring Pat Hanna. It features a young Coral Browne.

Using the first line of the song, Once a Jolly Swagman is a 1949 British film starring Dirk Bogarde.

There was an animated short made in 1958 for Australian television.

Ernest Gold used the song and variations of it extensively in the 1959 film On the Beach.

The 2017 short film Waltzing Tilda features various versions of the song and it is also sung by the main character.

The 2019 HBO American film Deadwood: The Movie featured characters Al Swearengen and Jewel singing a version of the song at the end of the film. The movie is set in 1889 so pre-dates the creation of the song.

Video games

It is the theme song for Australia in the video games Civilization VI.


"Waltzing Matilda" is a fixture at many Australian sporting events. Jessica Mauboy and Stan Walker recorded a version of "Waltzing Matilda" to promote the 2012 Summer Olympics in Australia. It was released as a single on 3 August 2012.


On the occasion of Queensland's 150-year celebrations in 2009, Opera Queensland produced the revue Waltzing Our Matilda, staged at the Conservatorium Theatre and subsequently touring twelve regional centres in Queensland. The show was created by Jason and Leisa Barry-Smith and Narelle French. The story line used the fictional process of Banjo Paterson writing the poem when he visited Queensland in 1895 to present episodes of four famous Australians: bass-baritone Peter Dawson (1882–1961), soprano Dame Nellie Melba (1861–1931), Bundaberg-born tenor Donald Smith (1922–1998), and soprano Gladys Moncrieff, also from Bundaberg. The performers were Jason Barry-Smith as Banjo Paterson, Guy Booth as Dawson, David Kidd as Smith, Emily Burke as Melba, Zoe Traylor as Moncrieff, and Donna Balson (piano, voice).

Derivative musical works

  • During the 1950s, a parody of the original entitled "Once a Learned Doctor" gained some currency in university circles. It featured lyrics rewritten with reference to the split in the Australian Labor Party in the period 1954 to 1957.
  • In 1961, Australian songwriter Jack O'Hagan provided new lyrics to the traditional tune to be called "God Bless Australia" (see that article for its lyrics) that he hoped would become the Australian national anthem.
  • Eric Bogle's 1971 song "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" relates the story of a former swagman whose comrades got killed in the Gallipoli campaign and who himself loses his legs. The song incorporates the melody and a few lines from "Waltzing Matilda" at its end.
  • Rambling Syd Rumpo (played by Kenneth Williams) in the late 1960s BBC radio programme Round the Horne did a parody of "Waltzing Matilda" beginning "Once long ago in the shade of a goolie bush..."
  • The Family Car Songbook (1983) presents a "translation" of the song, using the same musical score, into an "American" version.
  • Tom Waits' 1976 song "Tom Traubert's Blues" incorporates elements of "Waltzing Matilda".