Tracking down John Collinson
BY GRAHAM MCDONALD
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.
Numerous references to ‘John Collinson tenor’ appear in various newspapers from 1925 up until 1940. One was in Perth’s The Sunday Times, May 1925, in an article about a performance in England by the Maidstone Choral Union featuring Australian tenor John Collinson, along with two other Australian singers. Then come two reports from 1927 of Collinson singing at a private concert, again in England, for the former Governor of South Australia with specific mention of him serving in the 25th Battalion.
The singing English patient
How did a boilermaker who had enlisted in the Army become an internationally performing tenor? After the operation on his injured arms one of the medical staff heard him singing while still under the influence of the chloroform anaesthetic. Recognising a special talent she put him in contact with the conductor Sir Henry Wood, who ran the Prom Concerts each year in London. Wood sponsored his musical training in England and Europe.
Further Australian newspaper reports of Collinson’s career are sparse. According to a biography on the National Archives of Australia’s Mapping Our Anzacs website, Collinson married a woman he met while in hospital in England and they had two sons. He enjoyed a moderately successful career as a singer and singing teacher, performed for the BBC and possibly toured the US.
Other newspaper reports include the announcement of his return to Australia in 1940, arriving in Fremantle and hoping to find work as a singer. By this point his first marriage had broken up and he arrived in Australia in the company of another woman. What he did between 1940 and the mid-’60s, when he surfaced in Broome, is still a mystery. He died there in 1973 and was buried in the Anglican section of the cemetery.
It’s not clear why he has been labelled a ‘Queensland tenor’ as his only connection with that state is that he enlisted in the army there. It may even be stretching things to claim him as Australian, but he did serve in the Australian army and spent most of the second half of his life here, to say nothing of being the first person to record 'Waltzing Matilda'.
Please enquiries [at] nfsa.gov.au (contact us) if you have further information on John Collinson, ‘Queensland tenor’.