Can you hum the tune of Waltzing Matilda? It is our most iconic song, and for many of us the melody is familiar from infancy. The well documented story of Waltzing Matilda’s composition is a classic example of how music changes and evolves as it passes through time and travels across continents. For those of you who may not be familiar with the tale, in early 1895, at Dagworth Station, a property outside Winton, Christina Macpherson, sister of the Dagworth station manager, played a tune by ear on a zither or autoharp to entertain guests. The tune was most likely, and fairly loosely, based on Christina’s memory of a Celtic folk melody ‘Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea’, which she had heard months earlier and over a thousand miles away, arranged for a brass band and played at the races in Warrnambool.
One of the guests at Dagworth Station in 1895 was Banjo Paterson. Banjo came up with some words to fit Christina’s tune, and a title – Waltzing Matilda. Christina transcribed the melody in her head, and the rest is history. The National Library holds Christina Macpherson’ s original manuscripts, and provides some informative pages about our legendary song with much more detail of its history http://www.nla.gov.au/epubs/waltzingmatilda/.
State Library of Queensland also holds several important resources which reveal the history of our favourite national song. Along with a facsimile of Christina Macpherson’s original manuscript, we hold a multi-volume set of songbooks called Scots minstrelsie: a national monument of Scottish song, published by Grange Publishing Works in Edinburgh in 1893 and representative of many State Library of Queensland holdings of traditional folk music. Irish, Scottish, Anglo Celtic – a rich reservoir of traditional, secular music of the people of Britain and Ireland, handed down orally across generations and centuries of community music making, and captured for posterity in a large variety of published editions.
Volume 1 of Scots minstrelsie contains ’Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea’. Did Thomas Bulch, the Australian bandsman who arranged ‘Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea’ for brass band in 1893 invest in a new copy of Scots minstrelsie to aid his work, or did he discover the tune elsewhere? We will never really know, but the dates suggest that this may have been possible
In addition to these multi-volume sets, State Library holds a first published edition of Waltzing Matilda, arranged by Marie Cowan and published in 1903, principally as a vehicle for advertising James Inglis and Co.’s famous Billy Tea. Countless arrangements have followed this first publication, and State Library holds over 70, but it is fascinating to trace Waltzing Matilda through time and space from a simple Scottish tune, to a half-remembered arrangement to an advertising jingle for bush tea, to the iconic song it is today.
Queensland Music Coordinator – State Library of Queensland