Graham McDonald investigates the background of the man who first recorded 'Waltzing Matilda'.
Every Australian knows the chorus of 'Waltzing Matilda' but who sang the song first?
The Australian classic, based on Banjo Paterson’s poem, was originally recorded with vocals by John Collinson – but until now nothing more was known about him.
His name appears on the 1926 release by Vocalion Records (Broadcast Deluxe Series W573) but it seems to be the only recording the tenor made. When the song was added to the Sounds of Australia registry in 2008, all we knew was his description as a ‘Queensland tenor’.
The only other hint we had was from the archivist at the Royal Academy of Music in London who told us that a John Collinson had enrolled there in 1919. The Academy records contained little biographical information other than that he was listed as a British subject, and the date suggested that he could have been a discharged serviceman from the First World War.
Service in Gallipoli
Pursuing the possible military connection, a search of the National Archives of Australia’s military records from the First World War quickly turned up three John Collinsons: two from Victoria and one from Queensland.
The Queensland Collinson enlisted in Brisbane, joining the 25th Battalion in February 1915 aged 22. His birthplace was given as Newcastle upon Tyne in England, and his occupation as a boilermaker. He served in Gallipoli and the Western Front until wounded in 1917, a gunshot breaking both forearms.
After medical treatment in England he was discharged, giving his intended place of residence as Wallsend on Tyne. In 1963, aged 70, John Collinson wrote to Army Records from a PO Box in Broome, Western Australia requesting his campaign medals and applying to join the local branch of the RSL (Returned and Services League). There is no mention of any musical activity, but it gave us a Queensland-enlisted John Collinson who was in the UK after the war finished in 1918.