A Song and Dance

A Song and Dance

This week’s poems are musical in subject, as well as by their nature.

Andrew Barton “Banjo” Patterson leads off with the unofficial Australian national anthem, “Waltzing Matilda”.

We move into the bridge with Laurence Binyon’s “The Little Dancers”.

The coda is supplied by the Jacobean playwright John Fletcher who writes about “The Power of Music”.

Note: I have decided against continuing to paraphrase the Wikipedia entries on the poets’ lives; I will simply provide a link to the relevant article. This allows me to concentrate on the poetry rather than summarising the poet’s experiences. Where it seems appropriate, I may mention any events that seem to be relevant to the poem.

Poem 52. Waltzing Matilda

Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

Banjo Paterson (1864—1941)

Oh! there once was a swagman camped in a Billabong,
Under the shade of a Coolabah tree;
And he sang as he looked at his old billy boiling,
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?”

Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling?
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag,
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

Down came a jumbuck to drink at the water-hole,
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee;
And he sang as he stowed him away in his tucker-bag,
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.”

Down came the Squatter a-riding his thoroughbred;
Down came Policemen, one, two and three.
“Whose is the jumbuck you’ve got in the tucker-bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me!”

But the swagman he up and he jumped in the water-hole,
Drowning himself by the Coolabah tree;
And his ghost may be heard as it sings in the Billabong
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?”

I’ve heard this song many times without really thinking that much about it, other than its Australian origin and the story it tells. Until I researched it, I didn’t realise there are several versions of the lyrics, though I had some conception of its importance in Australia—it has been described as the country’s unofficial national anthem. This version is Paterson’s original words; the words we are all probably more familiar with are those written by Marie Cowan and performed worldwide.

The genesis of the words is interesting—the original tune (apparently also different to the Marie Cowan version) was a Scottish tune named “Craigielee” performed by Christina McPherson, the daughter of a squatter, who had committed it to memory after hearing it at the Warnambool races in 1894. It’s been suggested that Paterson wrote the words to impress McPherson because he was attracted to her but the official story is that he was travelling with his fiancée at the time.

Marie Cowan arranged the song in 1903 for James Inglis & Co Ltd. with a tea advertisement on the back cover, and via Harry Nathan’s registration with the Patent Office in 1903 this arrangement became the most well-known version of the song, though the National Library of Australia apparently holds hundreds of versions in its Music collection. One other version based primarily on the Cowan tune is thought to be earlier than the 1895 song and based on the folk tune “The Bold Fusilier”.

The third variation on the theme is known as the Queensland version and retains the words written by Paterson but has a different tune.

The song tells the story of an itinerant worker who carries his possessions in a bundle or ‘swag’ (the swagman) who surprises a sheep (the jumbuck) in a water-hole (the billabong). A sheep-farmer (the squatter) accompanied by three policemen catches the swagman in the act of making off with the sheep in his food bag (the “Bushtucker Trial” being familiar to any fan of “I’m a Celebrity”) and preferring to commit suicide than face summary justice, the swagman leaps into the water-hole where he drowns. “Waltzing Matilda” is swagman’s slang for tramping through the Australian bush with the swag on your shoulder.

I think life in the bush must have been considerably more sordid than might be suspected from the initial verse. The swagman is portrayed as a free spirit rather than a petty criminal and the scene described sounds rather attractive.

The casual way in which the swagman snatches the sheep goes without comment though it’s worth pointing out that the name squatter for a sheep farmer reflects the fact that many farmers had laid claim to their land informally by squatting there for the required length of time and so the farmer may not have had any more right to the sheep than the thief. The squatter is accompanied by three policemen, which sounds rather a lot for an isolated sheep station, so perhaps the squatter has already suffered the depredations of sheep thieves and is prepared to throw the book at his victim.

The only other thought that occurs to me is that the swagman must have killed and butchered the jumbuck since a tucker-bag seems to be a pouch or sack used exclusively for food (as compared to the swag which contains the swagman’s worldly goods, such as they are). The paintings and photos I found while searching for “tucker-bag” suggest a bag that would be way too small to fit a whole sheep inside.


  • Read more about the poem at Wikipedia.
  • Read more about the Waltzing Matilda Centre at Wikipedia.
  • Read more about tucker bags at Wikipedia.

Poem 53. The Little Dancers

face to face they gaze,
Their eyes shining, grave with a perfect pleasure.

Laurence Binyon (1869—1943)

Lonely, save for a few faint stars, the sky
Dreams; and lonely, below, the little street
Into its gloom retires, secluded and shy.
Scarcely the dumb roar enters this soft retreat;
And all is dark, save where come flooding rays
From a tavern-window; there, to the brisk measure
Of an organ that down in an alley merrily plays,
Two children, all alone and no one by,
Holding their tattered frocks, thro’ an airy maze
Of motion lightly threaded with nimble feet
Dance sedately; face to face they gaze,
Their eyes shining, grave with a perfect pleasure.

This short poem seems to me like a jewel or one of those miniature paintings that captures a moment in time. The cleverly chosen words all combine to show us this brief glimpse of the two girls dancing with each other to a catchy tune, concentrating on the intricate steps with the rest of the scene muted or in dull colours reflecting their total focus on and enjoyment of the dance. Like the painting of a master, the words evoke the impression of joyful movement, although the moment is only a snapshot.

Binyon is perhaps best known for his poem “For the Fallen” which is an integral part of Remembrance Day, but I will return to that poem in November.

Poem 54. The Power of Music

In sweet music is such art

John Fletcher (1579—1625)

Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain-tops that freeze,
Bow themselves when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.

Everything that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or, hearing, die.

This is another short poem though of much earlier date. John Fletcher succeeded William Shakespeare as house playwright for the King’s Men, dying of plague just nine years later. His plays were more popular than Shakespeare’s for a time though they eventually lost out to the Immortal Beard as Michael Flanders once dubbed England’s national literary hero.

This poem reminds us that music has the power to soothe. Fletcher conjures up the spirit of the legendary Greek musician Orpheus who was credited with the ability to charm living things and even stones with his music. He builds the image of the maestro, his fabulous capacity to control nature by his music, and concludes by saying that all sweet music is capable of entrancing us in the same way.

I like this one because I listen to music as much as I listen to podcasts and audiobooks—some evenings I choose the playlists that Nicola liked; others I will choose music at random—and I do find that it has the power to evoke the memories and thoughts of old, reminding me of evenings I have spent listening to music with friends and family, at home or in public.