As a child, I had a small collection of 78-rpm records given to me by my parents. Among them were symphonic music and operas (including complete recordings of Aida and La Traviata). And then there was a recording of Marjorie Lawrence singing “Waltzing Matilda,” an Australian song called a “bush ballad.” I noticed that the song, despite its title, was not a waltz. It was in duple time (that is, either two-four or four-four time). It is so popular with Australians that it has been described as the country’s “unofficial national anthem.”
I was surprised when the song showed up again in my adult life—in Vietnam of all places. As part of my job collecting intelligence on the enemy, I worked with Australian troops and civilian intelligence specialists. One day, I heard them singing “Waltzing Matilda.” They were astonished when I joined them in the song and knew all the words, even though I didn’t understand what they meant.
I’ve since learned a great deal more about the song. According to Wikipedia, “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.”
These days, when I hear “Waltzing Matilda,” I am reminded of the happy days I spent working with the Australians in Vietnam. We were brothers in arms.