Posted March 29, 2019 by Chris in Features

What Accounts for the Enduring Worldwide Love of Waltzing Matilda?

If you asked any non-Australian what they know about Australia they might say Crocodile Dundee.  They might say New Year’s Eve in Sydney.  They might say kangaroos.  They might say pokies at the top Aussie online casino.  In fact, there are many things that a non-Australian might say about Australia.  But almost everyone will say “Waltzing Matilda”.

Strange Vocabulary

If you then asked them to sing it, they can sing just the first few words of the refrain.  If you show them the words they will look a bit glassy-eyed.  Non-English speakers, of course, wouldn’t expect to know every word but native English speakers are also likely to not know any of the main words of the song.

National Anthem

And yet, many non-Australians think that Waltzing Matilda is the Australian national anthem and are shocked, shocked I tell you, to find out that it’s not.  So, why is Waltzing Matilda possibly the most famous folk song in the world?

The song was written about in the North Queensland Herald which referred to its catchy tune.  Others have said that it is a musical manifestation of the Australian dislike for authority and authoritarians.  After all, modern Australia was populated by criminals who the Crown had exiled to the faraway island continent.  However, this latter could not be the reason it is so well known around the world since most people don’t understand the words!

Aboriginal Lament

As people came to realize that there already people in Australia when the British sent their criminals to colonize the island continent, people saw in Waltzing Matilda a sort of aboriginal lament that the vast land had been taken over by outsiders.

There may be something in that analysis but bear in mind that we are still talking about a song with vocabulary that most people don’t understand!

It’s not about a Waltz

Americans, especially, first incorrectly think that the song is about a waltz, either real or metaphorical.  So, when they also incorrectly think that it’s the Australian national anthem, they compare it to their own national anthem.

The Star Spangled Banner is about the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry after a terrible night of war during the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain.  In 1812, the United States was a very small country, not densely populated and the main population centres were all along the eastern coast with the Atlantic Ocean.

Many thought that the U.S. might lose this war and revert to being subject to the British crown.  So, the Star Spangled Banner is a highly patriotic song for Americans.  They tend to put the same significance on Waltzing Matilda.  Thus, even though it is not about a “waltz” as such, the assumption is that it must be about an Australian’s deep patriotic love for his country.

By the time most Americans find out that Waltzing Matilda is just a ballad about a swagman which in American English is a hobo, the song had already taken hold in the collective consciousness.

American Hobo Lore

Even in the hyper-modern 21st century, Americans have a deep sense of movement across a vast continent.  The western migration is still a deep part of the American cultural consciousness.  Moving west was fraught with danger.  The most famous American song that evokes this danger is Shenandoah.

Americans learn in elementary school about settlers building log cabins, protecting each other from the Native Americans who until recently were called Indians since the western continents were discovered by Europeans looking for a western route to India.

Americans can explain that a sodbuster was a man who built his family’s home out of sod or large strong clumps of tall grass because in the interior plains of North America there weren’t trees!  To this day, in American English, sod is a form of grass although nowadays most people think of it as pre-grown grass that suburbanites plant in their yards.

The American hobo was the original homeless person.  But back in the day, a hobo was not an urban character; he and even occasionally she, travelled across the large country usually by jumping onto a train.

The hobo was the quintessential American individualist.  In the American consciousness is a deep sense that Americans are not and never will be subject to a King or Queen. Rather, they are subject to God and to themselves.

So, the swagman, once Americans understand that he is a hobo immediately becomes a folk hero to the average American.

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie was an American troubadour of the 1930s and beyond.  The 1930s were the years of the Great Depression which affected every economy in the world.  Guthrie put the sensibility of wandering men and women to music and his style became the modern style of American folk music.

So, a song about an Australian hobo, expressing his individuality more than his homelessness, easily entered the American view of the world. 

It also helped that the song had a very catchy tune.  Woody Guthrie’s most famous song, “This Land is Your Land” also has a catchy tune and every young American knows at least the refrain and the first stanza.

Slim Dusty

To Americans, Slim Dusty is an itinerant troubadour who embodied to folk culture of the hobo and the singer-songwriter in the woody Guthrie mold.  It also helped that most people understood that Slim Dusty was probably not his real name and “dusty” harked to a bygone but nostalgically important era.

Americans watching the final ceremony at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney saw Slim Dusty play Waltzing Matilda to conclude the ceremony.  For many, that sealed Waltzing Matilda as one of the most important songs in English.

America Leads the World

In the 20th century, the United States brought its culture across the oceans.  One major aspect of American culture is the blend of individualism, the western migration, the hobo culture of the Great Depression, and the folk song.

No other nation has quite the same blend of cultural elements as does the U.S.

Waltzing Matilda is thus a kind of Australian American song.  And as the U.S. has long influenced international culture, the American love of Waltzing Matilda has entered world culture as well.


I listen to and write about music!