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Down_on_his_luck

When I decided to call my blog Waltzing More Than Matilda, I wasn’t prepared for the number of people who would come here searching to find out more about the name Matilda. Every once in a while, the number of searches builds up to the point where I start feeling guilty that I’ve lured people to my blog under false pretenses, and I answer their questions. These are specifically about Waltzing Matilda.

What are the words to Waltzing Matilda?

That’s a harder question to answer than you might think, because there aren’t any “official” lyrics, and there are a few slightly different versions. You can see Banjo Paterson’s original version here.

Does Waltzing Matilda rhyme?

Yes – it has an ABCB rhyming pattern, so that the second and fourth lines of each stanza are exact rhymes, and all the B lines end with a word that rhymes with bee: eg tree, me, glee, three. Mostly it’s the word me, which several times rhymes with itself.

Name of the guy from Waltzing Matilda/What’s the boy’s name in Waltzing Matilda?

He’s never mentioned by name, but he’s said to be based on a real man named Samuel Hoffmeister, originally from Germany, whose nickname was “Frenchy“. Presumably by the same Australian logic whereby a red-haired man will be nicknamed “Blue“.

There’s a familiar Australian witticism that the jolly swagman’s name must have been Andy: “Andy sang as he watched, Andy waited ’til his billy boiled”. As Banjo Paterson’s real first name was Andrew, perhaps a laboured attempt to put him into the song.

Can “waltzing Matilda” mean to be hung?

No – it means to travel by foot, carrying your belongs on your back. A swagman’s rolled sleeping blanket was his “Matilda”, and to “waltz” your Matilda was to take it on a long walk.

Is “waltzing Matilda” a euphemism?

No, it’s slang.

Is there a Waltzing Matilda Hotel?

Yes, it’s not a particularly unusual name for hotels. Here’s an example.

One or more islands named Waltzing Matilda?

I don’t think there’s even one, let alone more than one.

[Did] Ansett use [the song] Waltzing Matilda?

Yes, Ansett Australia Airlines used the song in their advertisements to mark the centenary of Waltzing Matilda in 1995. They also had a scene from the song painted on their 737s the year before, and the first 737 aircraft they ordered in 1986 was named Waltzing Matilda.

Was there ever a warship named Waltzing Matilda?

No. The Royal Australian Navy usually names its vessels after Australian place names, animals, Aboriginal words, and famous people from history, rather than works of fiction. Besides, the song ends with someone drowning, which hardly seems appropriate for a ship (although it doesn’t seem to have put other people off naming their boats Waltzing Matilda).

A 1950s horror movie which has the song Waltzing Matilda in it?

It’s not strictly a horror movie, but could you be thinking of the 1959 post-apocalyptic film, On the Beach? The song is used to great effect in a particular scene.

Waltzing Matilda – the national disgrace – America owns it

That’s not quite true, but it’s a complicated story. Banjo Paterson sold the rights to Waltzing Matilda to Australian publishing house Angus & Robertson for 5 pounds. Banjo died in 1941, and under Australian copyright law, as in most of the world, once the creator has been dead for 50 years, a creative work is in the public domain, so Waltzing Matilda has been copyright-free here since 1991.

However, in the United States, Waltzing Matilda was falsely copyrighted as an original composition by Carl Fischer Music in 1941. This came as a horrible shock to Australia when they found out in the 1980s, although Carl Fischer Music claimed most of the royalty money went back to Australia, to the Australian music publisher Allans Music (they may have bought the copyright from Angus & Robertson). Since copyright in Australia expired in 1991, Carl Fischer Music obviously didn’t give any money to Australia after that.

A bitter pill for Australians to swallow was that they had to pay a licensing fee to Carl Fischer Music to have Waltzing Matilda played at the closing ceremony of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, since it was on American soil. It sounds rather mean and money-grubbing to have charged us for own anthem, probably because it was.

So Waltzing Matilda was never “owned by America”, but only by one American company. And as all good things come to an end, and all bad ones too, eventually copyright ran out in the US, which doesn’t happen until 70 years after the creator’s death, and Waltzing Matilda has been in the public domain worldwide since 2011.

If it was a national disgrace that it occurred, I can’t see that the disgrace is attached to our own nation. We didn’t steal it, and our shonky copyright laws didn’t allow it to happen.

Why isn’t Waltzing Matilda the [Australian] national anthem?

There was a plebiscite to choose a national anthem in 1977, and more than 43% of people voted for Advance Australia Fair, while only around 28% voted for Waltzing Matilda. (Almost 19% voted for God Save the Queen, and less than 10% for Song of Australia).

God Save the Queen is our royal anthem, to be played whenever someone royal shows up. Waltzing Matilda is an unofficial national anthem, and is a particular favourite at sporting events – especially the Olympics and Commonwealth Games.

In any case, it probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to have a national anthem under copyright in another country.

[Is] Waltzing Matilda no longer sung at AFL [Grand Finals]?

I think the 1980s was the only decade where it was sung almost every year; it didn’t start out like that in the 1970s, and seems to have become hit-and-miss in the 1990s. The last person to sing Waltzing Matilda at an AFL Grand Final was probably Guy Sebastian, about ten years ago.

Some people feel outraged that this “great tradition” has been neglected, but their memories have probably made it seem more frequent than it really was. I suspect these people were children and teens during the 1980s, so that they grew up with a general impression of Waltzing Matilda being played each year.

Why did Senator [Bob] Kerrey sing Waltzing Matilda after being elected?

Robert Kerrey was elected to the US Senate for Nebraska in 1989. He didn’t actually sing Waltzing Matilda after his election: he sang And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, written by Australian folk singer Eric Bogle.

The song is written from the point of view of an Australian soldier who loses his legs at the Battle of Gallipoli, and sees the war he participated in as bloody and futile. Because the song was written in 1971, it can be seen as a criticism of the Vietnam War, which was similarly gruesome and pointless.

Senator Kerrey served in the United States Navy during the Vietnam War, and lost the lower half of one leg in combat. He suffered some traumatic experiences during the war, and must have identified with the narrator of And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda. He also used the first line of the song for the title of his autobiography, When I Was A Young Man.

The song has been frequently covered by folk singers in the UK and the US, and is internationally famous as an anti-war song.

(Painting shown is Down on His Luck, by Frederick McCubbin – 1889)

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