Waltzing Matilda songsheet
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.
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Imagine the scene — your favourite sporting event is about to start. The national anthems have been sung and the crowd has gone wild waiting to hear a song that'll inspire the team. And some famous singer comes out and he rips out his guitar and he launches into — not 'Waltzing Matilda' but 'Go to the Devil and Shake Yourself'.
It's a catchy phrase, but they're not quite the lyrics that Banjo Paterson left us with. You see, it was one of his lady friends who gave us the music for 'Waltzing Matilda', and she possibly drew her inspiration from this devil of a taunt.
The key to that lady's identity is here at the National Library in Canberra. It's in this folder, down in the library's music stacks, and have a look at this. This is a handwritten version of 'Waltzing Matilda', lyrics by Banjo Paterson and music by Miss Christina Macpherson.
It was Christina Macpherson who handwrote this song sheet. She was the daughter of a Queensland squatter whose friends included Banjo Paterson. And one night in 1895, Banjo Paterson was staying on the family property when Christina decided to play a lively tune on a zither, which is a kind of small, flat harp you play on the table.
Banjo saw an opportunity to impress the gathering, and Christina, of course, and on the spot penned some lyrics. And after a few days of collaborative brainstorming, Banjo and Christina came up with this.
(Sings) ‘Waltzing Matilda, Matilda, my darling
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
Waltzing Matilda, leading a water bag
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?’
Sounds a bit different, doesn't it?
Robyn Holmes is an authority on 'Waltzing Matilda'.
Well, we know from Christina's letters that she actually went to the races and heard a song called 'Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigie-Lea' — a Scottish song — being played by the local band in an arrangement by an Australian composer. So the tune of this is stuck in her head as a sort of aural memory, and off she went to Dagworth Station and must have been humming it, and she and Banjo together created the song out of it.
And 'Bonnie Wood of Craigie-Lea' was a fairly well-known tune at the time and it came from an older song called 'Go to the Devil and Shake Yourself' or something like that, is that right?
We think so. Again, we haven't entirely proven this. But in fact we're fairly sure that all this kind of music was actually based on original sort of traditional songs, or jigs, in the case of this one.
So are the lyrics really about some old sheep thief who decides to kill himself?
There was a great deal of historical fact that underpins this story because, at the time, Dagworth Station was embroiled in the political turmoil taking place from the shearers' strikes.
And so, Banjo Paterson, he would have heard these stories?
He certainly knew about them, particularly because there'd been recent trouble on Dagworth Station. One shearer, 'Frenchy' Hoffmeister, actually suicided in the billabong on the property probably about a month before the song was written.
Ah, so what you think is a normal old folk song turns out to be a political, social commentary.
The events that inspired 'Waltzing Matilda' are mostly forgotten, and the lyrics have long since lost their original meaning. But the spirit of defiance still strikes a chord, and even the music has changed since that night in 1895.
Nothing like a bit of Banjo on the banjo.
(Sings) 'Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me'.
I don't need to go on because it is our national song. And the handwritten manuscript of Christina Macpherson is a National Treasure.