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Waltzing Matilda by Banjo Paterson

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. So far I’ve analysed picture books. Today I analyse a song using the same seven-step story structure, which happens to be Australia’s unofficial national anthem. I own Waltzing Matilda in picture book form, though it always scared me as a kid. Although the tune is upbeat, inspired indirectly by Celtic folk music, Waltzing Matilda is a tragic ghost story about theft, suicide and power.
Banjo Paterson wrote the lyrics in 1895. It’s widely believed the song was inspired by events that happened after The Great Shearer’s Strike of 1891.

The billabong which inspired the lyrics is thought to be near Winton, in Queensland. If you go to Winton today you can visit the Waltzing Matilda Centre.

WALTZING MATILDA LYRICS

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
He sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
He sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Down came a jumbuck to drink at the billabong,
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee,
He sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
He sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred,
Up rode the troopers, one, two, three,
Whose is the jolly jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
Whose is the jolly jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, you scoundrel with me.

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong,
You’ll never catch me alive, said he,
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong,
you’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
His ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.
Oh, you’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WALTZING MATILDA

Waltzing Matilda is a narrative bush ballad, meaning it’s a complete story set to music. It includes all seven steps.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

A swagman. A man travelling through the Australian bush with a swag (a rolled up bed). An itinerant worker perhaps, between jobs.

What’s wrong with him?

The swagman’s weakness is that he farmhand or perhaps he is a homeless man out of work. He contrasts with the more powerful individuals, who have somehow managed to get their hands on land, using it only to benefit themselves. Most people listening to this song would identify emotionally with the swagman rather than with the aristocracy.

WHAT DOES THE SWAGMAN WANT?

He wants a rest from his travels. He sits down to make himself a cup of tea but he’s also hungry, so he kills a sheep which happens to belong to the wealthy landowner on whose property he squats. Sheep stations in Australia are absolutely massive, so you don’t necessarily know there’s someone on your land.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The opponent is the squatter. If this were an English story, he would probably be an aristocratic landowner, but squatter refers to farmers who didn’t necessarily have the papers to properly own their land. The squatter doesn’t want men killing his sheep, which may well be his only source of income even if he is wealthy by comparison. Importantly, the sheep may no more belong to the squatter than to the swagman.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

The swagman’s plan is simple. He will kill a sheep and eat it. The simplicity of his plan is his downfall. He should’ve checked he wasn’t being tailed. (It’s likely he was being tailed, given the size of the area, and the low likelihood of randomly being caught.)

BIG BATTLE

Three policemen run after the swagman and apprehend him.

Rather than lose his dignity and his freedom, the swagman dives into the billabong. It’s unclear to me if he meant to suicide with this action — perhaps he hoped to get away somehow. In any case, death is the outcome.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

Main characters don’t learn anything when they are dead at the end. Except occasionally they exist in the spiritual realm. There is an entire subgenre of books narrated by dead main characters, for instance. (The Lovely Bones seems to have started that trend.) Dead narrators seem to suddenly become a lot more emotionally mature, because they’re speaking from beyond the grave and have a more omniscient view of events.

But when main characters die, the reader does learn something. Young child readers learn that stealing can lead to terrible outcomes. Older readers can see that a person without capital can lose everything over very little (a meal), and we learn that some people can gang up on other people without just cause. We learn that life is unfair, basically.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

In this case, the swagman lives on as a ghost near the billabong. He’s achieved freedom from the law, but now he gets to rest by the same billabong forever.


Though my childhood copy of the story is illustrated by Desmond Digby in ‘old master’ style, the song has been more recently illustrated by Freya Blackwood. Freya Blackwood’s style is more oriented to a young audience. Notice the swagman now has a dog, which is not mentioned in the original bush song. However, it’s highly likely he was accompanied by a dog, helping him to bring the sheep down, then sharing the meat.

 

Waltzing Matilda Freya Blackwood

Anyone with an interest in the story which inspired the bush song can read a non-fiction account by Dennis O’Keeffe.

Waltzing Matilda non-fiction

1 Comment

  1. I’d forgotten this song. What fond memories. Great discussion too.RT

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

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