The first public performance of “Banjo” Paterson’s ballad Waltzing Matilda was held in April 1895 at Winton’s North Gregory Hotel, and has stirred up gossip and speculation ever since. Legend has it that Christina MacPherson told Paterson the tale of a swagman’s brush with the law at the Combo Waterhole, near Kynuna, while the poet was staying with her family at nearby Dagwood Station. Christina wrote the music to the ballad, a collaboration which so incensed Paterson’s fiancée, Sarah Riley, that she broke off their engagement. (Neither woman ever married.)
While a straightforward “translation” of the poem is easy enough – “Waltzing Matilda” was contemporary slang for tramping (carrying a bedroll or swag from place to place), “jumbuck” for a sheep, and “squatters” refers to landowners – there is some contention as to what the poem actually describes. The most obvious interpretation is of a poor tramp, hounded to death by the law, but first drafts of the poem suggest that Paterson – generally known as a romantic rather than a social commentator – originally wrote the piece about the arrest of a union leader during the shearers’ strike.
Either version would account for its popularity – it was one of four songs Australians voted for to become the national anthem in 1977, coming in second, and Aussies readily identify with an underdog who dares to confront the system.