Who Wrote the Haunting Australian Song “Waltzing Matilda”

For contemporary music fans, the song “Waltzing Matilda” likely conjures up recollections of singer Tom Waits playing the piano with passion and emotion, wearing a newsy hat, and singing the chorus: Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda, you go waltzing Matilda with me.

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Technically, that song, though known by many as “Waltzing Matilda,” is called “Tom Traubert’s Blues.” But what is the origin of the song and how did it become Australia’s unofficial song?

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Waltzing Matilda

Though the title of the song sounds like it’s about a dance with someone named Matilda, it’s actually born of an Australian style of poetry called a “bush ballad”—slang in the country for traveling on foot. Here, “matilda” is a word that means one’s belongings, often slung over one’s shoulder.

The original song is about a worker capturing a stray sheep to eat. The sheep’s owner and the police catch up to the rogue camper, who shouts back at them as they’re in pursuit, “You’ll never catch me alive!” The traveler kills himself in a river and his ghost later haunts the location.

Written and Published and Ad Jingles

The song was originally published in 1903 but it was written a few years earlier in 1895.

The song’s original lyrics were written by the Australian bush poet, Banjo Paterson, fit to music by Christina Macpherson. Paterson, who wrote the song over several weeks, was born on February 17, 1864, and he died on February 5, 1941.

Artist Marie Cowan changed some of the lyrics and published a new version as an advertising jingle for a tea company, making it nationally famous. This version is more akin to how people sing it today.

The song is so popular in Australia that there is even a Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton, the same region where Paterson originally wrote the lyrics. And April 6 is now known as Waltzing Matilda Day in Australia.

John Collinson and Russell Callow

The song was first recorded by John Collinson and Russell Callow in 1926 and was added to the Sounds of Australia registry in 2008. The country’s National Film and Sound Archive has stated that there are more recordings of “Waltzing Matilda” than any other song in Australia.


According to accounts in Australia, there are a number of possible events that inspired the writing of the song, including the Great Shearers’ Strike of 1891, which nearly brought factions to a civil war and had to be halted by the military. That conflict included the death of Frenchy Hoffmeister, who perhaps inspired the character whose ghost later haunts the area where he was killed.

Paterson and Macpherson

The two writers of the song had somewhat different accounts of how the tune was originally written.

Macpherson remembered it was written in Winton while Paterson said it was composed at Dick’s Creek while on the road to Winton.

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Macpherson died in the 1930s and found among her possessions was an unsent letter to a musicologist 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.”

Around that same time, Paterson told ABC radio, “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 First Performance

Sir Herbert Ramsay is known as the first singer to publicly perform the song, which he did on April 6, 1895. It was performed at the North Gregory Hotel in Winton during a banquet for the Premier of Queensland. Afterward, it still took some time for the tune to catch on widely.


These are the original lyrics, which include many esoteric Australian terms, published by Paterson:

Oh! there once was a swagman camped in the Billabong,
Under the shade of a Coolabah tree;
And he sang as he looked at his old billy boiling,
‘Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.’

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 in glee;
And he sang as he put him away in his tucker-bag,
‘You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me!’

Down came the Squatter a-riding his thorough-bred;
Down came Policemen — one, two, and three.
‘Whose is the jumbuck you’ve got in the tucker-bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with we.’

But the swagman, he up and he jumped in the water-hole,
Drowning himself by the Coolabah tree;
And his ghost may be heard as it sings in the Billabong,
‘Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?’

Check out the version by Slim Dusty below.

Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

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