“Waltzing Matilda”


A swagman (rover) camps by a pool. He sees a sheep come down to drink, and grabs it. He is spotted by (three troopers/the landowner), who call on him to justify his actions. Rather than face up to his crime, the swagman drowns himself in the pool


Virtually every aspect of this song -- its historical basis, its words, its tune(s) - has been the subject of disputation, athough there is now consensus among scholars on the following basic facts:

1. While visiting Dagworth station (a pastoral holding in outback Queensland) in 1895, the poet A.B. (Banjo) Paterson heard a tune hummed and played on the autoharp by Miss Christina McPherson, sister of station manager Robert McPherson.

2. Miss McPherson indicated she had heard the tune some time previously at a race meeting in Warrnambool in Victoria, played by a local band. She understood the tune was called "The Bonnie Wood of Craigielea." (A ballad of this name by Robert Tannahill of Scotland was set to music by Robert Barr in the early 1800s and, according to Magoffin, a march arrangement by Gordon Parker was performed at the Warnambool races on 24 April 1894.) At Dagworth Miss McPherson rendered the tune from memory.

3. While at Dagworth Paterson wrote words to fit Miss McPherson's tune. The words he wrote were those of the poem/song "Waltzing Matilda."

4. Paterson's setting of McPherson's tune was quickly picked up and sung around the district, including at the Winton races on 24 and 25 May 1895.

5. At these races Christina McPherson wrote out and gave to family friends the Barlams the song's words and music. (This manuscript only came to light in 1971. Its authenticity has since been verified by, for example, by the National Library of Australia, which included it in its recent major exhibition of treasures from the world's libraries.)

6. Following the Winton race meeting the song travelled further afield, entering oral tradition. In the process the song's words (and possibly also its tune) evolved through the "folk process." The major change was that Paterson's wimpish "drowning himself by the Coolibah tree" in the last verse gave way to the more defiant "'You'll never catch me alive!' said he."

7. The song first appeared on sheet music in 1903, published in Sydney by James Inglis & Co. While the lyrics were attributed to Paterson they were in fact the "folk processed' words (possibly with additional textual changes introduced by the publisher); the music was cited as being "arranged' by Marie Cowan. Cowan was the spouse of Mr. W. Cowan, James Inglis & Co.'s Manager. (Cowan's version has similarities with, but is distinct from, the tune in the McPherson manuscript. The extent to which the Cowan version reflects the tune as it evolved through oral transmission, and the extent to which it incorporates changes introduced by Mrs. Cowan, is not known. While Mr. Cowan later claimed the sheet music tune was entirely his wife's composition, its similarities with that in the 1895 McPherson manuscript suggests "arrangement' was indeed the more appropriate term.) The sheet music version became the standard rendering of the song.

8. Paterson gave his approval to the 1903 sheet music text and music. Fourteen years later he included his original text as a poem in his book _Saltbush Bill J.P. and Other Verses_.

9. An entirely different tune, set to Paterson's original 1895 lyric, was obtained in the early 1950s by John Manifold from John O'Neill, who later indicated he had heard his father singing it around 1912. This is known as the Queensland, or sometimes the "Buderim," version.

There have been suggestions the song predates 1895, and so was, at best, modified by Paterson. Certainly, it is possible that Paterson, either consciously or unconsciously, drew upon an earlier song in writing his text. Claims however that the song itself predates Paterson rely upon second-hand accounts of persons who claim to remember hearing it prior to 1895. No documentary evidence to support this proposition has come to light, and these days the claim is given little credence.

In 1941 the suggestion was raised via the Sydney Bulletin that the tune and word structure of Waltzing Matilda is based upon a song "The Bold Fusilier' which, on account of its reference to the Duke of Marlborough, was assumed to date from the early 1700s. Several correspondents attested to the song's existence. One claimed to have heard it as a child in England, another to have heard it in Australia from his grandfather. The tune was said to be recognisable as that used for Waltzing Matilda, and while only one verse and a chorus of the text were remembered in either case, a strong structural resemblence to that song was apparent. Unfortunately, extensive efforts by scholars to trace the song have thus far been fruitless, and no full text, musical notation or other documentary evidence of its existence prior to 1895 has come to light.

The "Bold Fusilier' vs "Craigilea' debate impacts hardly at all on Paterson's claim to authorship. Should further research establish the existence of the Bold Fusilier prior to 1895, then obviously it is a possibility that Paterson knew of it and drew upon its word structure in writing Waltzing Matilda. A number of Australian bush songs are parodies, and so such a circumstance would be unremarkable. Regarding the Bold Fusilier tune we can say little, for at present the only version of it we have dates from the 1940s, some four decades after the publication of the Cowan tune for Waltzing Matilda. In that time all manner of opportunity existed for failures or tricks of memory to occur.

For these various reasons, the consensus in Australia is clear: Paterson wrote the words in 1895 to a tune played from memory by Christina McPherson, and subsequently both text and tune evolved in oral transmission. Further changes may have been introduced consciously at the time the song was published as sheet music in 1903. - MK

The above was written in response to my original rather caustic comments about the authorship of "Waltzing Matilda." I must admit that I still have misgivings.

First, I think it likely that "The Bold Fusilier" is an authentic folk song, and most unlikely that it was composed after "Waltzing Matilda." Nor do I regard it as believable that this form would have been evolved independently by Paterson. Of course, it, or something like it, could have been the "Craiglie" tune Paterson heard. This does not affect Paterson's authorship of "Waltzing Matilda" in any way, of course. But I think dependence a practical certainty.

It strikes me as curious that Paterson wrote this piece for music, but his other poetry is just that: Poetry, and rarely in a style suitable for folk song.

John Meredith met informants who claimed *their* sources (fathers) knew the song before Paterson's composition. None of these claims can be verified, and all are secondhand -- but of course written records of Australian folk songs before 1895 are quite rare.

There are scholars, such as John Greenway, who clearly did not believe in Paterson's authorship. Even John Meredith had his doubts. Most of these stated their opinions before the McPherson manuscript was discovered. But the manuscript, while it strengthened the arguments on the pro-Paterson side, did not weaken those on the anti- side.

Thus, despite Keith McKenry's well-researched statements above, I still consider the matter open.

Another possibility, which I have not seen mentioned, is that Paterson included some fragments of an existing song into a largely new composition based on a local event. This would explain the informants who thought they knew the song before 1895 -- but there is no evidence whatsoever for it. - RBW

Cross references


  • John Greenway, "Waltzing Matilda" (on JGreenway01)
  • A. L. Lloyd, "Waltzing Matilda" (on Lloyd4, Lloyd10)


  1. Meredith/Anderson, pp. 73-74, 95, "Waltzing Matilda" (2 texts, 1 tune, the latter being a fragment of a bawdy version)
  2. Fahey-Eureka, pp. 234-235, "The Blackboy's Waltzing Matilda" (1 text, 1 tune -- a pidgin English semi-parody)
  3. Paterson/Fahey/Seal, pp. 308-310, "Black Boy's Waltzing Matlida" (1 text -- the same adaption as the preceding)
  4. PBB 119, "Waltzing Matilda' (1 text)
  5. SHenry H566, pp. 122-123, "Waltzing Matilda" (1 text, 1 tune -- but collected from Australian children rather than Ulster natives)
  6. Manifold-PASB, pp. 160-163, "Waltzing Matilda" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
  7. Silber-FSWB, p. 339, "Waltzing Matilda" (1 text)
  8. Fuld-WFM, pp. 619-620, "Waltzing Matilda"
  10. Roud #9536
  11. BI, PBB119


Author: words widely attributed to "Banjo" Paterson
Earliest date: 1903
Found in: Australia