The entire history of Australian recorded music can be traced through versions of Waltzing Matilda.
Just about every craze, fad and fashion in popular music has generated a recording of the song. There are versions in the popular styles of the 1930s and 40s, jazz improvisations and classical and choral arrangements of the song. Others are in the style of Broadway musicals, 80s power ballads, rock'n'roll or influenced by dance crazes such as the Twist. There have also been some strange and wonderful versions of the song from around the world.
‘Waltzing Matilda’, a poem by Banjo Paterson, was first recorded 30 years after it was written in 1895. The melody of the song is attributed to Christina Macpherson, whose family owned the property Dagworth Station near Winton in Queensland, where Paterson was staying when he composed the poem.
You can hear a sample of swing, folk, blues, big band, dance and orchestral versions below.
Waltzing Matilda glass slide, 1914. NFSA title: 775342
Most Australians know that Banjo Paterson wrote the lyrics to 'Waltzing Matilda' but who wrote the music?
And what does it have to do with a rather oddly titled song called 'Go to the Devil and Shake Yourself'?
Warren Brown tracks down the original handwritten score at the National Library of Australia, where curator Robyn Holmes reveals the story behind the chance collaboration that created our national song.
Investigating National Treasures with Warren Brown is also available for purchase from the NFSA Online Shop.
It’s interesting to hear Waltzing Matilda sung with an American accent. The group sings a harmonised version of the chorus.
This version of Waltzing Matilda by The Merry Singers is the b-side on this cardboard picture disc. The a-side is a recording of the traditional American song Buffalo Gals.
The disc would have been produced as advertising and put into products such as cereal boxes and magazines because they were light, thin, small, not as fragile as other types of vinyl and cheap enough to mass produce.
NFSA sound archivist Tamara Osicka says ‘It’s fascinating that Waltzing Matilda was something American parents were playing to their kids’. She says cardboard records are special because they are artworks and sound recordings in the same item. ‘We have about 100 cardboard records in the collection. Not all of them for kids.’
The artwork on the record, by an unknown artist, features an American cartoon imagining of an Australian scene. Other than the kangaroo depicted the scene could be from anywhere with a tree and green grass extending to the horizon. Produced in the years after the Second World War where the US and Australia were allies there would have been a curiosity about Australia and Australians. This is a lovely example of the tradition of naive, colourful illustrations for children at a time when the baby boomers, a massive potential market of consumers, were being born.
Tex Morton's version of Waltzing Matilda from 1943 was recorded for a wartime radio broadcast and has a very different feel. It was included on a souvenir CD release called, Greetings from Australia.
Famed Australian harmonica player Horrie Dargie and his Rocking Reeds (a band of harmonica players) recorded this instrumental version in the early 1940s. It was re-released as part of a collection of Australian harmonica tracks on a CD, Band in a Waistcoat Pocket, in 1995.
Waltzing Matilda became a popular song with foreign folk singers of various kinds in the 40s and 50s. Singers like Burl Ives, William Clausen, Harry Belafonte and the South African duo of Marias & Miranda all recorded versions as well as this blues tinged example by African-American singer and guitarist Josh White from 1951. White had originally recorded the song in 1944 for a set of discs sold only to American servicemen and then again in 1947 for a four disc album on Decca records.
Photo courtesy of the Estate of Josh White (Sr.) and the Josh White Archives.
Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Tour in 1954 was the occasion for this recording of the Thomas Wood arrangement performed by the South Australian Symphony Orchestra and the Adelaide Singers for a Royal Gala concert.
It wasn’t until Peter Dawson’s version in 1938, based on the arrangement by British musical examiner Thomas Wood, that Waltzing Matilda became a hit. Other versions came thick and fast after this one.
The years of the Second World War gave rise to numerous recordings of Waltzing Matilda. Jack White was an English band leader who led the band at the Astoria Dance Salon in London from 1936 until 1957 who recorded the song as a slow Foxtrot for Regal Zonophone around 1940-41.
The 1956 Melbourne Olympics generated several recordings of Waltzing Matilda, including this one from the Massed Bands of the Australian Regular Army, conducted by Maj. RA Newman.
A popular entertainment in Australia during the 1950s was Square Dancing, and just about any song could be turned into a square dance call. Gary 'Chuck’ Cohen, one of Australia’s top square dance callers of the period, recorded a version of Waltzing Matilda on an album with the Noel Gilmour Quartet.
The 116th Rhythm Ensemble was an Australian military entertainment unit during the Second World War. They recorded this swing version for a radio broadcast. The vocalist is Gordon Andrews, with the arrangement by Ron Williams.
Waltzing Matilda has inspired numerous other songs. Perhaps the most famous, and most poignant is Eric Bogle’s And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, which he wrote as a newly arrived immigrant to Australia in 1972. It was entered in a songwriting competition at a folk festival that year and was awarded third prize. No-one remembers the songs which took the major prizes.
It has since been recorded almost 140 times, by singers from many countries. It was first recorded by Eric on his first LP Now I’m Easy in 1980, after several other people had popularised it in Australia and Britain. In 1986 it was given a Gold Award by the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA), and in May 2001 APRA named it one of the Top 30 Australian songs of all time.
Gearge Trevares was a trombonist and band leader during the 40s and this arrangement was recorded in Sydney in July 1945 as the B side to Back to Croajingolong. The band was Wally Norman (trumpet), George Trevare (trombone), Rolph Pommer (saxophone), Pat Lynch (piano), Morgan McGree (guitar), Horrie Bissell (bass), Al Vincer (drums, vibraphone) and a young Don Burrows playing clarinet.
The Franklyn B Paverty Bush Band has been a Canberra institution for many years and recorded Waltzing Matilda twice on one CD. Alongside the more common version arranged by Marie Cowen in 1903, they included the lesser known ‘Queensland’ version, discovered by folklorist John Manifold in the 1950s and rather closer to the Patterson/MacPherson original in words and melody. Recorded live in the Great Hall of Parliament House, Canberra, on the evening of its official opening in May 1988.