While Australians will likely understand the title Waltzing Australia instantly, the meaning might not be obvious to non-Aussies. Of course, mention the famous poem and song “Waltzing Matilda,” and the connection will be made for more folks. However, there are still some outside Oz who are scratching their heads as to the meaning of much of what appears in the original work, and therefore wonder what I’m saying in my title. (This is also a good opportunity to introduce you to one of Australia’s great writers!)
A. B. “Banjo” Paterson was a lawyer, journalist, and poet who wrote some of Australia’s most famous verse, including “The Man from Snowy River,” “Clancy of the Overflow,” and, of course, “Waltzing Matilda.” Like all his poetry, these three iconic poems celebrate aspects of Australian life as it was in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Australia is a land that has long admired great riders, and “The Man from Snowy River” reflects that by recording the breathtaking ride of a mountain horseman who, when faced with a cliff that stopped other riders in their tracks, turned his horse and, with a cheer, “raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed.” “The Man from Snowy River” was turned into a wonderful film that adds a fictional back story to the true events in the poem, to set viewers up for the chase and ride at the end, which also offers the opportunity to enjoy a good bit of Australian scenery. (If you see the movie, note the dapper lawyer who introduces himself as Andrew Paterson. A. B. Paterson witnessed the famous ride of which he wrote, so he of course had to be on hand in the film version.)
“Clancy of the Overflow” spoke longingly of the life of the drover (what Australians call their cowboys). At the end of the poem, the poet wonders if he wouldn’t prefer Clancy’s life on the plains to a city desk job.
Like “Clancy,” “Waltzing Matilda” celebrates the life of freedom that Australians also valued. In this poem, more familiar today in its musical versions, a swagman boils his billy by a billabong and sings of waltzing Matilda. A swag is a bed roll, pack, or bundle of personal belongings. A swagman is someone who carries a swag as he wanders, or waltzes, back o’ Bourke, or out in the boonies, as we Americans might say – the wild, undeveloped areas far from the cities. Another name for that swag was Matilda. A billabong is a cut off bend of a river; a water hole created when a river changes course, leaving a pond “stranded”; or a backwater or water hole in an otherwise dry riverbed—from Aboriginal billa = creek, river or water, and bong = dead. A billy is a metal bucket in which water is heated, generally over a camp fire, for making tea (the origins of the word are uncertain, but it may be derived from Aboriginal billa, for water.)
While I’m not a swagman, and I was usually carrying more luggage than just a Matilda, I did waltz over a substantial part of Australia during my six months, and have returned to waltz again, on three subsequent visits.