Festival at a new museum in Australia celebrates iconic song with Ulster links

A typical 'jolly' swagman, c 1901, with billy can and swag on his back
A typical 'jolly' swagman, c 1901, with billy can and swag on his back

“It’s there whenever Australians want to quell their fears, steel their resolve, express their joy, celebrate their victories or lament their defeats.”

That rousing commendation for one of the world’s best-loved songs comes from the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton, Queensland, Australia, where a festival of re-opening begins tomorrow.

Original lyrics and Music of Waltzing Matilda circa 1895. Held by National Library of Australia

Original lyrics and Music of Waltzing Matilda circa 1895. Held by National Library of Australia

Winton’s Way Out West Fest marks the resurrection of a museum that was burnt down several years ago and has been rebuilt to celebrate one of history’s greatest “anthems”, performed worldwide after it was written by Andrew Barton Paterson (1864-1941) in January 1895.

“Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,

Under the shade of a

coolibah tree,

Early sheet music of Waltzing Matilda

Early sheet music of Waltzing Matilda

And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:

Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”

Nicknamed ‘Banjo’ Paterson – the name of his favourite horse – Andrew was a prolific Australian poet, journalist and author and his great-great grandfather was General Charles Barton of Waterfoot, near Fermanagh’s border-town, Pettigo.

In a nationwide poll held in Australia in 1977 to find a new national anthem, 28.3 percent of the population voted for Andrew Paterson’s song.

Waltzing Matilda's 'Banjo' Paterson

Waltzing Matilda's 'Banjo' Paterson

“Waltzing Matilda,

waltzing Matilda

You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me

And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:

You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

Played prolifically during this year’s Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, it was at the 1962 opening of the Perth Games that over 50,000 spectators watched more than 300 dancing girls and 360 marching girls, with massed brass bands and a 720-voice male choir, performing ‘the swagman’s stroll’ to the tune of Waltzing Matilda – the first time that the unofficial Australian anthem was played ‘officially’!

Winton’s new museum and the National Library of Australia are amongst the many organisation and institutions that recount the history of the song which has long been the subject of controversy – how and where did it originate, why are there different versions, what does it mean, and why has a song become an Australian icon?

In January 1895, at Dagworth Station near Winton, ‘Banjo’ Paterson heard a tune played by Christina Macpherson, a friend of his fiancé, which is now universally agreed to be Christina’s adaptation of a Scottish folk song – Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea.

Paterson began writing lyrics, and once again, the origins of the words are complex and much-debated.

Some commentators believe he adapted them from an existing bush ballad.

Some reckon the lyrics celebrate the defiant spirit of the local sheep shearers’ strike in 1894, when one of the shearers was found dead near Winton.

Another theory is that the words might tell the story of a swagman’s suicide by drowning in a billabong near the town.

The origins of the melody are even more complex!

The existence of an original musical manuscript by Christina Macpherson came to public notice in 1971, together with an undated letter by Christina recalling the events surrounding the creation of the song.

This led to Christina being accredited as the first ‘creator’ of the music, later re-arranged by Marie Cowan.

Christina openly acknowledged that she adapted the tune from an existing folk song which she heard played by a brass band.

But let’s now return to Pettigo and Waterfoot – ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s ancestral home.

Great-great grandfather General Charles Barton came from a well-to-do family with a proud record of military service. General Charles’s son Robert had a daughter Rose Isabella who married farmer Andrew Paterson in Australia – ‘Banjo’ was their son, the ‘Barton’ part of his name coming from his mother’s family.

Born on 17th February 1864 at Narrambla, near Molong, New South Wales and educated at Sydney Grammar School and the university of Sydney, ‘Banjo’ became a solicitor and practised until 1900 in Sydney.

He began writing and publishing poetry and in 1895 wrote Waltzing Matilda and published The Man From Snowy River and Other Verses – an immediate popular success.

In 1903 the bestselling author married Alice W Walker, and they had a son and a daughter, during which time he turned to journalism and became a war correspondent, in China after the Boxer rebellion, and later on the Philippine Islands.

But he never forgot his love for poetry and verse.

Another collection of his work, Rio Grande’s Last Race and Other Verses, appeared in 1902, and this has been frequently reprinted.

From 1904 to 1906 he edited the Sydney Evening News and in 1907 became editor of the Sydney Town and Country Journal.

He also collected popular Australian songs.

Old Bush Songs, Composed and Sung in the Bushranging, Digging and Overlanding Days was published in 1905 and by 1924 had gone into its fourth edition.

In 1906 Paterson published a novel, An Outback Marriage, which reached a fourth edition in 1924.

He became a farmer near Yass in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales for some years, and when the 1914-18 war broke out he went to Europe as correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald.

He was also an ambulance driver in France during First World War and in 1915 he went to Egypt where he reached the rank of major.

After his return to Australia from the war Paterson remained in journalism for the rest of his life until he died in Sydney on 5th February 1941.