Sunday, December 23, 2012

How Banjo Paterson wrote Waltzing Matilda

WHO knows what note hits the right chord, what combination of uninspiring words and simple music turn the key to a nation’s heart even 100 years after their composition?
Not me, and certainly not the great Banjo Paterson whose throwaway  rhyme,  Waltzing Matilda, would go on to inspire this wonderful country we call Australia.
Back in 1995 when I was a columnist with The Courier-Mail in Brisbane, the boss sent me out to the near birthplace of the song, Winton, where the then prime minister, Paul Keating, was going to unveil a great statue of Paterson in the small western Queensland town’s centre.
Paterson would have been stunned after Waltzing Matilda was first publicly performed in Winton on April 6, 1895, had you told him Australia would have remembered his song into the next decade, let alone the next century.
He would have laughed, scornfully perhaps, had you suggested it would be the focus of a national centenary celebration in 1995, attracting an amazing mix of Australians from  humble bushies right up to governors and prime ministers.
That varied company, immersed in a wide variety of Outback food and drink, traditional trades, entertainment and culture under clear blue skies in a dusty town like Winton would have been inconceivable to Andrew Barton Paterson in his early days.
Whether he thought some of his more serious poems or short stories and newspaper reports from afar might make it into the 20th century as national treasures, we’ll never know.
But if he did have such foresight it is likely Waltzing Matilda would have been on the bottom of his list of self appraisals. He wrote the words purely for the amusement of Dagworth Station owner, Bob Macpherson, and Paterson’s fellow guests holidaying on the station.
His ditty was triggered rather than inspired by several events at Dagworth and Combo Waterhole.
The constant playing of Craigielee, an old Scottish tune (which became the Matilda theme) on her autoharp by the owner’s visiting sister, Miss Christina Macpherson, stories of the bitter shearers’ strike a few months earlier, including the suicide of a striking shearer, and of swagmen waltzing their matildas through the district, killing sheep when they needed a feed of mutton.
Apart from Miss Christina playing the autoharp, can you think of anything less inspiring for a song to touch a young nation’s heart and soul that thieving swaggies and suiciding shearers?
But the tune caught Paterson’s poet imagination and he wrote down words based loosely on local chatter, words that have been altered somewhat over the years.
Perhaps the fact that this nationally published poet had written an original poem and set it to music in
their district spurred local officials to putting on a party to celebrate its first public performance.
Local grazier Herbert Ramsay was rung in to sing the song in Winton’s North Gregory Hotel on April 6, 1895, no doubt doing it more justice than Prime Minister Paul Keating, Premier Wayne Goss and Governor Leneen Forde did 100 years later on the very spot of the first appearance.
It took eight years before Paterson’s words were published, which was probably a record delay for the young man who had been a nationally published poet and writer for a decade at that stage. In those days The Bulletin was snapping up and publishing everything Paterson could write.
Matilda first appeared on the national scene as sheet music in 1903 and was bought as a jingle for Billy Tea, that great Aussie icon with the swaggie and kangaroo on the packet.
You can get some idea of what scant regard Paterson had for Waltzing Matilda and its future when he told a friend years later that he had sold the song “with some other old junk” for ten shillings and sixpence.
Perhaps unknown to him in the early days, the song had taken off from the North Gregory Hotel performance in the only way possible in those long-gone bush days - by word of mouth. Ringers, shearers and drovers wandered off to all points from Winton 100 years ago, polishing up their versions around  untold campfires which eventually spread around Australia and the world.
Matilda certainly came back to  Paterson, not so much to haunt him for his early neglect but to delight him.  As he watched the Diggers come swinging down the gangplanks singing his song after victory in World War I, Paterson said: “I sold the song for ten and sixpence years ago, but it’s  worth a million quid to hear those soldiers singing Waltzing Matilda coming home.”
Maybe at that stage The Banjo was musing seriously for the first time just what sort of national treasure he had created and how long Matilda  would last.
Well, he would have been very, very proud to have wandered around Winton with the rest of us at his statue launch back in 1995. And I reckon if there are enough true blue, dinky-di Aussies left to prop up a bar or sit around a campfire by 2095, they will be at Winton, or where that town once stood, standing as close as possible to where the North Gregory pub once stood, if it ain’t still standing, and down a beer or a rum while croaking out Waltzing Matilda.
There was an intense feeling across the board in Winton that despite the ratbag forces white-anting away for outrageous social changes in recent years, traditional Australia will survive to celebrate Waltzing Matilda in another 100 years.
The Matilda celebrations back in 1995  convinced me that  tourism is the way to go for many small Outback towns such as Winton. So let’s not wait another 100 years before we have another drink for The Banjo.
I’ll drink to that, mates.

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