Capturing Gossamer: A Waltz with Matilda

Part I: A.B. “Banjo” Paterson: “And his voice may be heard”

When I was in my early teens and starting to learn French, my father gave me an Yves Montand LP as a Christmas present. It was then that I heard for the first time the song “Matilda”. The similarity between its melody and that of “Waltzing Matilda” was apparent, but the mood very different. Instead of the cheery, swinging rhythm of a band on the march, I heard a delicate lament of moderate tempo and no very pronounced metre. To a pretty guitar accompaniment, Montand sang the French lyrics in a voice conveying wistful tenderness.

This essay appears in the most recent Quadrant.
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I was curious about the similarity of melody and name but did nothing to find out more. Like all Australian schoolchildren, I knew that the lyrics of “our” song were the work of A.B. “Banjo” Paterson and I settled the question in my own mind by making the slipshod assumption that somehow or other, our song must have its roots in an old European folk-song. Whether there was any information, in French of course, on the album sleeve about the song’s creators I cannot say, for I can’t remember looking and, over time, the record slipped out of my vinyl collection.

A couple of years ago, with painful slowness, I learnt to play the ukulele. The motivation to do so came from wanting to accompany myself when I sang some of the French standards. One of the songs I chose was “Matilda”, and it was then I learnt that the lyrics of the song had been written by Francis Lemarque (1917–2002). Some sources in my research stated “musique de Marie Couran” which out-foxed me for a while until, with a bit more research, I worked out that “Couran” should be “Cowan”. Lemarque published the song in 1948, and it was a hit for Montand in France in 1949.

In 1902, Banjo Paterson had sold the “Waltzing Matilda” verses, not the music, to Angus & Robertson, who had in turn sold the copyright to Inglis & Sons, tea merchants. Marie Cowan, the wife of the manager there in Sydney, made some changes to the lyrics and tune and by 1903, with the aim of promoting sales of the Billy brand of Inglis tea, sheet music was being published with words and melody in accordance with the version of the song now generally known.

My earlier assumption about an old European folk-song had to be abandoned. The situation was in fact the reverse of what I had imagined. A Frenchman had thought so highly of an Australian song that he had adapted it for interpretation by someone who was to become one of France’s most revered singers.

So that I could sing the song as well as possible, I went to work writing out a translation of the lyrics and, as I warmed to the task, I found they appealed to me. I discovered what I considered to be a lovely, well-structured poem within a song, and I started writing notes as to why I thought the verses hung together so well. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that in my imagination, the character who was singing Lemarque’s words was mixed up in my mind with “our” man, the one who had chosen to meet his maker at the billabong. This was my translation of Lemarque’s lyrics:

The wind of the past
Is whispering an evanescent tale
That reawakens his faded memories of love:
Waltz of remembrance,
Melody of forgotten desires,
When you were dancing, Matilda, for me.
Waltz, Matilda, waltz, Matilda,
Waltz, Matilda, Matilda, for me.

Charming apparition from my full-bloom days.
Fragrant twirling,
In waltzing you were so pretty,
When you were dancing, Matilda, for me.
Like a light breeze
Which passes, and never returns,
With a smile, you left me.
This evening, I have found my way back
To the path of vanished hopes,
When you were dancing, Matilda, for me.
Where are you, Matilda? Where are you, Matilda?
Where are you dancing, Matilda, without me?

As lovely as you were,
You are never coming back to me,
When you were dancing, Matilda, for me.

I listened to Yves Montand’s version of “Matilda”, took up my ukulele, and worked out which chords were needed to conform with the melody. I had to change the melody in a couple of spots because my voice couldn’t reach the higher notes. As an hommage to the harmony of Franco-Australian relations, and to the bond forged in the fields of France early last century, I added two more lines in English at the end of the song. The words I chose were the last two lines of the Cowan version of the lyrics, the ones beginning “And his ghost may be heard …” Since then, “Matilda” has become one of the songs I sing when I’m doing some amateur performing.

The words Once a Jolly Swagman turned up in the television guide one week, so I watched the film: 1949 black-and-white, starring Dirk Bogarde, about dirt-bike riding in England. English actors played the part of an Australian, Lag Gibbon, and his sister Pat, and the tune of “Waltzing Matilda” formed a fair portion of the soundtrack. I read in the opening credits that the film was adapted from the novel of the same name by Montagu Slater (1902–56). I did the usual online research and found out that he was born in England; that he was very much a man of the Left; that he’d written the libretto for Peter Grimes, some novels, many plays and screenplays, and had died in England.

For the American market, the film title had been changed to Maniacs on Wheels. What had motivated an Englishman to write a novel titled Once a Jolly Swagman? Eventually, I found a copy of the book, published in 1944, and read that too. Its plot was different from the film, and the Australian component more pronounced.

An Englishman writing a novel with the first words of our song as its title; a Frenchman inspired to adapt our song into a romantic French chanson. A bit more research, and I discovered that an American singer-guitarist, Josh White (1914–69) had recorded the song as a ballad in 1944 for a set of discs called V-discs, sold only to American servicemen, and then again in 1947 for a four-disc album. All this activity in the 1940s stemmed from an existing song, but that song, in turn, had come into existence because more than forty years previously, the sound of a tune played by Christine Macpherson on a zither or auto-harp had galvanised Banjo Paterson into giving it some lyrics.

I wanted to learn more about these people, about what was going on in their lives when they created their work. Bearing in mind that questions remain as to how the melody Banjo heard Christina play might have sounded, I wanted to work from Christina’s transcription of 1895 to try to get as close as I could to what he might have heard. In this account, I have looked at the way in which, over the years, the song and its variations have swung back and forth in mood and arrangement between extroversion and reflectiveness, the collective and the intimate. And I have tried to bear in mind the need to engage a reader’s “mind’s ear” when writing about a song.

In a broadcast on ABC radio in the 1930s, Banjo said of the song:

The shearers staged a strike by way of expressing themselves, and Macpherson’s woolshed at Dagworth was burnt down, and a man was picked up dead. This engendered no malice and I have seen the Macphersons handing out champagne through a pub window to these very shearers. And here a personal reminiscence may be worth recording. While resting for lunch or while changing horses on our four-in hand journeys, Miss Macpherson … used to play a little Scottish tune on a zither and I put words to it and called it “Waltzing Matilda”.

In February 1895, Banjo turned thirty-one. He had been a partner in a Sydney law firm since 1888. His then fiancée was Sarah Riley, a cousin of his partner. In the summer of that year, he went away to Queensland. Sarah had come to Winton to stay with her newly married brother and his wife, and he joined her there. Christina Macpherson and Sarah had known each other from schooldays in Victoria. Christina had travelled from Victoria with her father and sister to stay at “Dagworth”, the family property one hundred kilometres north-west of Winton, managed by her brother Bob. An invitation came for Sarah and Banjo to join the Macphersons at Dagworth.

Banjo had the benefit of a first-hand description of events at Dagworth in the early spring of the previous year. During the shearers’ strike, a shearing shed had been set alight and on the night of September 1, 1894, a violent gun battle had ensued in which Bob Macpherson had taken part. The next day Bob had ridden with three policemen to a camp set up by union shearers beside a billabong to inspect the body of one of their number. Samuel “French” Hoffmeister was reported to have shot himself. Bob’s account formed part of the evidence at the inquest held the same month.

One account of Banjo’s visit raises the possibility at least that conversations at Dagworth gave him information which was novel and fresh in his mind when he came to write the lyrics of the song—conversations about the meaning of the words “waltzing matilda”; about an annoying practice among the swagmen whereby they would steal and kill a sheep, take the cuts they could fit into their sack, and leave the rest of the carcass to rot, bringing flies and disease; about two drownings in the district in the recent past, one on the property itself, and another in the Diamantina River.

In an article in Table Talk magazine, on January 31, 1896, Bernard Espinasse wrote a report of an interview with Banjo after the publication of his first poetry collection, The Man from Snowy River & Other Verses. Banjo told Espinasse that in order to gather material for his next book, “I’m going to spend my vacation in the North to study types and brush up my bush knowledge. You can’t write about a thing unless you know it thoroughly, or at least, you shouldn’t.”

In 1938, in an interview published in the Sydney Mail on December 21, he described the starting point for “The Man from Snowy River”—the poem had first appeared in 1890 in the Bulletin. He said: “To make any sort of a job of it I had to create a character.” Five years later, he created the character of the swagman who bagged a sheep then drowned himself in the billabong. He had, of course, fresh in his mind the story of the recent troubles at Dagworth, but from his childhood the bush had supplied a fund of tales about final encounters between outlaws and the authorities.

In 1869, when Banjo was five, his father bought “Illalong” station outside Binalong in New South Wales. Banjo, known to his family as “Bartie”, went to primary school in the village. “The smallest child on the Watershed can tell you how Gilbert died”—those words conclude his poem about Johnny Gilbert, a member of Ben Hall’s gang, who was shot dead by police near Binalong in May 1865. Hall had been killed by police outside Forbes the week before. According to a Sydney Morning Herald report at the time, Hall had met his end “near the north Billibong”. Gilbert, known as “Happy Jack”, was buried in the police paddock at Binalong (right). In Banjo’s poem, Gilbert shows courage in the face of death, and sacrifices his life for a friend:

“We are sold,” he said, “we are dead men both,
But there may be a chance for one;
I’ll stop and I’ll fight with the pistol here,
You take to your heels and run.”

Fred Ward, known as Captain Thunderbolt, escaped from Cockatoo Island Prison in Sydney. For six years he lived as an outlaw and bailed up many a mail coach. In 1879 he was tracked down and killed by a trooper, Constable Walker, at Kentucky Creek near Uralla, New England. At the magisterial inquiry, Walker said that Thunderbolt asked him, “Are you a trooper?” Walker told him he was and asked: “Will you surrender?” Thunderbolt: “No, I’ll die first.” Walker: “It’s you and I for it.” In “A Day’s Ride” an anonymous poet praises the valiant policeman and gives a theatrical description of the outlaw’s final moments, when he “relaxed his hold and sank beneath the waters of the creek / ’Twas thus the dreaded robber’s evil spirit passed away …”

In a newspaper article in 1943, journalist Vince Kelly, who worked with Banjo for Truth and Sportsman, gave an account of what Banjo had told him regarding the music Christina Macpherson was playing and the song’s composition:

It was such a catchy, whimsical, provocative tune that I said to her, “Why don’t you sing the words to that?” She replied: “It hasn’t got any words that I know of, but it must have had at one time. I believe it was an old Scottish hymn.” It was then I decided it should have words to keep it alive … I wrote words which I thought expressed its whimsicality and dreaminess.

In his book Fair Dinkum Matilda, Richard Magoffin states: “Although there was no piano, there was an auto-harp at Dagworth, a zither-type instrument left there by J.T. Wilson,” the bookkeeper who was on leave from the station at the time. In 1971, Magoffin interviewed Dave Pene, born out of wedlock in 1900, the son of Bob Macpherson. Pene recalled visits in 1905-06, that is, ten years after Banjo’s visit: “They had a zither y’know on Dagworth; it was … a three-stringed instrument and I don’t know who owned it, but it was on Dagworth when I went there as a kid.” In the ABC radio interview in the early 1930s, Banjo himself had described the instrument he heard as a zither.

The zither family is a large one, making it difficult to generalise about its characteristics of tone. A three-stringed instrument like a dulcimer makes a thrumming sound. A zither, such as the one with which the Australian singer Shirley Abicair found international fame in the 1960s, has a chime-like timbre. The autoharp has a sweet and plaintive essence—in the quaint simplicity of its overall effect lies a nostalgic evocation of the music-boxes and toy instruments of childhood. Whatever the configuration and capabilities of the instrument Christina was playing, instruments of this type are folk instruments, and their limitations are part of their charm. The tone is high-register and with an intrinsic naivety.

By the time Banjo heard Christina playing the tune it had been in her head for nearly a year. She was playing from memory a march in 4:4 time she had heard being performed by the local garrison artillery band at the annual steeplechase race meeting in Warrnambool, Victoria, in April 1894. In that intervening twelve months, being someone with musical ability, it is likely that she had been practising the tune at home on the piano. Now that she was away from home, the process of adapting the music to an instrument of the zither family must have resulted in some modifications in rhythm and tempo.

The tone of the instrument, the melody and the beat of the tune itself: Banjo was evidently beguiled by these, but perhaps there was also a visual dimension to his appreciation—the sight of the bonny musician absorbed in her task. After the song had begun to catch on during her stay in Queensland, Christina made a transcription of the single-note melody line combined with the lyrics. That part of the tune which Banjo chose for the verses requires more chord changes in the melody than the part he chose for the chorus. The musician has less to do in the chorus, and the reduction of musical activity provides a contrast even when the tempo remains a 4:4 march throughout.

In Banjo’s handwritten first draft of the song, a number of lines are different from the words Marie Cowan used in the version familiar to most people, and the adjective jolly appears nowhere. The swagman is camped in, not by, the billabong and the chorus refers to a waterbag, not a tucker bag. The law enforcement officers who arrive are police, not troopers, and the swagman has no defiant last words for them when he jumps into the waterhole, “drowning himself by the Coolibah tree”. It is not his ghost that may be heard singing the final refrain, but his voice. For the final word in the first line of the poem, Banjo has written either the singular “billabong” or its plural, but assuming the former, the opening lines he wrote were:

Oh, there once was a swagman camped in the billabong
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree
And he sang as he looked at the old billy boiling …

At the lines “And he sang as he looked at the old billy boiling / Who’ll come a roving” the ink in the pen looks to be running low. But then the pen is replenished, a firm line is drawn through the words “roving Matilda with me” and underneath, in bold fresh ink appear the words: “waltzing Matilda with me”. The first few words of the chorus are also written when the ink is running low: “Who’ll come a roving” and then the replenished ink goes to work again: “roving” is crossed out, and alongside it is written: “Waltzing Matilda my darling.”

In 1916, John Shaw Neilson wrote about his composition methods in letters to a fellow poet, Victor Kennedy: “Repeat your lines over and over till you get [the] weight in the right places. If you listen to a band you will get some notion of this.” In the interview for Table Talk at the beginning of 1896, Banjo told Bernard Espinasse:

I am very particular about my work. It is not enough for me that a line scans correctly, or that it even contains a thought, it must satisfy me. And sometimes a verse takes a lot of re-arranging before it does satisfy me.

Banjo wanted to preserve the tune he heard Christina playing. One can imagine him settling to the task, perhaps humming along for a little while, as a prelude to picking up his pen. The sound gave the poet the sense. In the lyrics he created, the chorus becomes a song within a song—the song of the swagman, and in the last verse, his lament. Banjo is dissatisfied with “roving Australia”: the words are too banal, too hearty and redolent of masculine occupation; there is some elusive feminine essence that must be captured and included to provide a contrast. An idle fancy, but maybe “Christina”—a three-syllable woman’s name ending in a—crossed his mind as he sifted through ideas, selecting and discarding. And then the flash of inspiration in which a term of mock-romance leaps into focus: being “on the waltz” a term already in circulation, used by itinerant workers in Australia to describe being on the tramp. And in order to waltz one needs a partner: the bush workers had that covered as well. For the swag in which they carried their worldly goods, including the blanket that kept them warm at night, they had a name—their “Matilda”.

Much has been written about whether the words Banjo wrote carried a wider message.

Old Bush Songs, his collection of Australian popular songs, was first published in 1905. It had taken him nearly ten years to assemble, requiring much “patching and altering” and sifting through letters sent to him from all parts of Australia. In his introduction, he said that he had put it together “in the hope of rescuing these rough bush ballads from oblivion” as they were “fast being forgotten”. He made the point that they were meant to be heard, not read, and heard in the context of activities in the bush—a shearer starting up a song in a shearing shed, or a drover in a camp at night:

A great deal depends, too, on the way in which they are sung. The true bushman never hurries his songs. They are designed expressly to pass the time on long journeys or slow, wearisome rides after sheep or tired cattle; so the songs are sung conscientiously through—chorus and all—and the last three words of the song are always spoken, never sung.

An awareness that the old way of life was dying out, a sadness at its passing, the death of the shearer Hoffmeister, the little Scottish tune. Richard Magoffin wrote in Fair Dinkum Matilda: “In 1895 the song must have seemed a plea that the spirit of the swagman should not be allowed to perish; in 1939, it would be seen as an affirmation that the spirit of the swagman had survived.”

The amendments that Marie Cowan made to the song in 1903 were designed to increase the sales of “Billy” tea, but they may well have contributed to the song’s appeal and ultimate popularity in any case. In her version, the opening image of a man in high spirits sets the mood of the whole tune, with its breezy insouciance. But let us picture the original character created by Banjo, a lone figure scratching an existence in unforgiving surroundings, and a little touched by the isolation. His only respite from the silence and the solitude is the sound of his own singing. Despite his meagre existence, a romantic nature remains intact; the larrikin and the dreamer are one and the same. But his little fool’s paradise is of short duration. With the rude interruption to his reverie, and his liberty forfeit, he removes himself from the troubles of this world. His disembodied voice continues to sing a song of lovely ambiguity: is he merely inviting company on the tramp, or asking a girl to dance ?


Part II: Josh White and the Swagman

Banjo Paterson died in Sydney on February 5, 1941. In June 1942 at the Town Hall in midtown Manhattan, an all-star “Folk-songs on the Firing Line” concert was held to aid the war effort. Josh White sang “Dorie Miller”, the story of a black naval messman who was decorated for bravery after taking over an anti-aircraft gun during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Among the other performers were Leadbelly, and singers from the Royal Australian Air Force, who sang “Waltzing Matilda”, which was to become a staple of Josh White’s repertoire.

Josh White was born in Greenville, South Carolina, on February 11, 1914, fifty years to the day after Banjo’s birth. His father was a tailor and, by all accounts, an eloquent preacher, serving as a Methodist minister at the Allen Temple nearby. All the family sang, with his mother as accompanist on the autoharp. The family fortunes collapsed when his father was admitted to an asylum, and at the age of seven or eight Josh began nearly a decade of leading blind singers round the streets as they busked. With the first singer who employed him, he beat time with a tambourine to the gospel songs the blind man was singing. He became his family’s main wage-earner. Before reaching his teens, he was going on extended road trips and meeting people from all walks of life. “Roaming the roads, never certain where I’d sleep, and almost always hungry,” he said later about those days, but all the time he was learning from the musicians, developing and refining his guitar skills. By the time he was fourteen, he was in the recording studio.

Not only did he share a birthday with Banjo, but, in another coincidence, both of them had turned a handicap in their dominant arm to their advantage. Banjo, it seems, had suffered a broken right arm during infancy that went undetected. All his life he suffered stiffness and soreness in his arm and hand. A skilled horseman, he maintained that the weakness gave him greater sensitivity handling the bridle.

In the mid-1930s, Josh White severed a tendon in his right hand. He had three operations, and then injured the hand again in 1938. He adapted his guitar style to include more emphasis on his left-hand technique. In his interesting biography Josh White: Society Blues, Elijah Wald writes of White’s “superb tonal control” and “a tasteful sparseness”.

By 1943, White’s repertoire had broadened—as well as blues and gospel, he was ranging over all forms of the folk genre, from old English folk-songs to songs of topical significance. “Waltzing Matilda” was one of the half-dozen songs he recorded on V-discs, the special releases for the American armed forces.

By 1944, he had top billing at Café Society, an in-vogue nightclub in Greenwich Village. He performed regularly on radio during the war years, and recorded an album, Songs by Josh White. In his book, Elijah Wald quotes from liner notes by the American poet Langston Hughes, who wrote:

Josh is a fine folk-singer of … any songs that come from the heart of the people … Perhaps it was from Blind Lemmon [sic] that Josh absorbed the common loneliness of the folk-song that binds one heart to all others—and all others to the one who sings the song … The guitar that Josh White plays is as eloquent, as simple and direct as are his songs themselves … Sometimes his guitar laughs behind a sad song. Sometimes it cries behind a happy song …

The version of “Waltzing Matilda” White recorded in 1944 is a perceptive interpretation. As he told younger performers, he made story-telling his priority, and here he clearly differentiates between the two moods existing in the song. Each line of the narrative part—the swagman’s activities, the arrival of the squatter and the troopers—is sung to one strum of the guitar in a brisk recitative. With the “Waltzing Matilda” refrain, he changes to a rolling waltz time and his tone becomes more dreamy and wistful.

Bearing in mind that it was the Marie Cowan version of the lyrics that went out to the world, White makes a few minor changes to those lyrics, and there are some small and attractive variations to the melody. He said that, when it came to folk-songs, “You don’t have to sing them word for word”, that their very nature meant you were at liberty to vary them.

He went on tour in America in 1946. The concerts followed a printed program, and one of his opening numbers would invariably be “Waltzing Matilda”. His overseas tours between 1965 and 1967 included performances in Australia. He brought his version of “Waltzing Matilda” to audiences all over the world. In a televised concert he gave in Sweden from 1962, he introduces the song by telling the audience it is “a very old Australian ballad”, the Australian “theme song” and that “it’s a very sad song. It’s about a hobo, called a swagman.”

In 1894, Christina Macpherson had heard the tune played as a march by a military band, and had then transferred the tune to a stringed instrument. Over forty years later, a military choir sang the same tune, and Josh White changed the arrangement and sang a gentle ballad in waltz time to a guitar.

The limpidness of his singing; the priority he gave to our song in his repertoire; his sympathy for its picaresque hero, the underdog—the song must have had a special significance for a man whose childhood had been spent “roaming the roads”. He paid Banjo the compliment of singing his song, and he sang it beautifully.


Part III: Montagu Slater: “Matilda” and the Brothers-in-Arms

Once a Jolly Swagman is a novel by an Englishman, Montagu Slater, first published in England in 1944. Bill Fox is the central character and the novel is written in the first person. Bill, born in 1914, has grown up in a working-class street in Kentish Town, North London, with eight people in the one house. By the 1930s, he is catching a train each morning at seven to work in an engineering shop, and returning home at seven each night. His mother has become involved in supporting the Hunger Marchers. Bill wangles some money out of his father, buys a motor-bike and goes on to become an ace dirt-bike rider. His brother Dick joins the International Brigade and goes off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, which he survives. In a speedway accident, Bill squeezes out his team captain, an Australian named Lag Gibbon, who has been his hero. While Lag recovers physically, his career is over. Bill feels a measure of guilt, but suffers no reproaches from anyone else. All that matters is winning and he is now a speedway celebrity.

Bill marries Lag’s sister Pat, and works to set up a union of bike-riders, in an effort to stall ex-riders from turning into “drunks, neurotics and cripples”. It is a bad career move, and work drops off. He remains chairman of Speedway Equity, but exchanges the track for a dangerous fairground activity known as the Wall of Death. He is head-hunted, and travels overseas with the act; when he has an accident, he and his wife Pat discover that because his employer had him insured, he is able to collect five hundred pounds, which he regards as a windfall. He is now twenty-five and it is 1939; he resolves to join the army, and subsequently, the Commandos. The novel concludes with a letter from Bill to his wife; he is now a prisoner-of-war in Stalag A23.

The mindset of a champion in a daredevil spectator sport, the mindset required of a soldier in a theatre of war—the similarities between the two are central to the novel. What is the effect on someone of habitual recklessness? If a young man manages to survive a world of all-or-nothing, do-or-die, what happens when it stops? Once a jolly swagman he may well have been, but what has he become?

Montagu Slater was born in Millom in the county of Cumberland in 1902. His father was a tailor (as was Josh White’s) and a strict, lay-preaching Wesleyan. Montagu went to Oxford on a scholarship and graduated in 1924. He got a job in Liverpool as a reporter on the Liverpool Post, and lived in the open dormitory of a dock settlement. Amid the General Strike of 1926, the Hunger Marches of the 1920s and 1930s, the upheavals created by the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism, he joined the Communist Party in about 1927.

He moved to London in 1928, married and raised three daughters. He published his first novel in 1931 and his second in 1934, when he became editor-in-chief of the Left Review. He wrote articles, theatre criticism, short stories, screenplays, more novels, many plays, and the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. He was involved in staging large pageants, including one at Wembley Stadium in 1938, “The Pageant of Cooperation”. Music for the pageant was composed and arranged by Alan Bush, who, with Randell Swingler, co-edited The Left Song Book, published in the same year.

From the 1930s onwards, Slater was in a circle which was a convergence of communism, literature, theatre, painting, poetry and music. Two Australian poets, Jack Lindsay and John Manifold, were part of this network. Manifold, his wife Katherine, and the Slaters were all close friends of Randell Swingler. The hero of Once a Jolly Swagman has the same surname as Ralph Fox, a founder of both the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Left Review, who was killed at the age of thirty-six in the Spanish Civil War. Others in the circle also joined the International Brigades: John Cornford was killed in 1936 the day after his twenty-first birthday. Esmond Romilly survived the Spanish Civil War, but was dead at twenty-three, a casualty of the Second World War.

From his early forties, Slater himself had to exist with the knowledge of an ever-present danger in his own life. Diagnosed with cancer, he underwent abdominal surgery in 1943; he was to have thirteen more years of life.

In the 1930s, there were other Australians making their mark in England in an entirely different sphere, the world of motor-cross. Ron Johnson was born in Scotland, but emigrated to Western Australia with his parents when a child. He started racing at the Claremont Speedway in Perth, then in 1928 travelled to the United Kingdom. In a race at New Cross Stadium in 1935, he ran into the fence on the back straight and fell. His team-mate, Tom Farndon, had little time to take evasive action, suffered head injuries and died at the age of twenty-four.

The atmosphere of the track at night-time with its floodlights and packed stadium; the fanatical spectators egging on their heroes; the roar of the bikes, the tension, the spectacle: this was a form of entertainment which everyone, sportsmen included, knew might end in death. Thousands lined the streets to witness Tom Farndon’s funeral.

The accident in Once a Jolly Swagman between the Englishman Bill and the Australian Lag is therefore a reversal of what happened between Johnson and Farndon. In the story, the accident does not prove fatal, but marks Lag’s exodus from the sport. From the outset of Bill’s career, Lag has encouraged him and endorsed his talent. “There was something about this huge Australian that twisted and turned me inside. There was something I liked. I couldn’t quite tell what. I could stand with him and feel companionable without talking.” But their conversations thereafter take place in a rest home and Lag is now a shell of a man.

“I had what they call a nervous breakdown,” Lag tells Bill. Bill presses him to leave the place, to come back to the track, but: “I like it here,” is the response. “It goes on too long, and gets to be a strain,” Lag says of his old life.

Bill, unable to shrug off the guilt he feels at having triggered Lag’s undoing, decides to seek counsel from his brother, Dick, returned from Spain. Before doing so, he tells Pat, Lag’s sister, of his reasons for choosing Dick as confidant: “You can’t fight in a war without learning about breakdowns,” he says. He takes issue with her response, that “dirt-bike breakdowns are different”. He tells her: “Too much will-power or too little—and all mixed up with courage and cowardice. It must be the same in a war, only more so.”

If they survive, there is a reckoning for those who have been living as if there is no tomorrow, and Bill himself has to make that uneasy transition. In Lag’s downward spiral and annihilation are echoes of the jolly swagman’s self-destruction, but the book ends on a hopeful, if poignant note. It is July 1944, the month after the Normandy landings, when the tide of the war is turning in favour of the Allies. Bill is writing to his wife as a prisoner-of-war:

We’ve lived in a world of death-wishing, you and I, Pat. The speedways were a way of death-wishing for hundreds of thousands. It’s not for nothing the Wall was named of Death. And now there’s going to be a world of life-wishing. For generations.

Earlier in the story Bill describes a gathering of Australians at a party in Hampstead. Bill goes there to speak to Pat’s husband: her marriage is foundering in any case, and Bill wants to marry Pat himself. Bill arrives to find a group of people sitting on the floor drinking beer. One of them is playing a ukulele and the others are singing along. The beer runs out; Pat and Bill take jugs to a nearby pub, and on their return they find the others still singing:

They’d got to a song I hadn’t heard before, Australian, full of words I didn’t quite get, though they sounded like the brand of slang you ought to know in Kentish Town. It went to a waltz tune, or I suppose it was one, for it was all about waltzing. I got to know the words later.

The first verse of the Marie Cowan lyrics is then quoted, and then Bill’s account continues: “everyone knows it now. Then it was new to me, novel and homely at the same time.” One of the men says to him: “Sorry about the Aussy [sic] songs, old boy, but we are Aussies here, and you’ll have to get used to it.” Pat tells the group she and Bill were late back with the beer because Bill had got caught up talking to a fan. The Australian singer indulges in some mild goading. “I know a Speedway celebrity, too … He’s called Lag,” he says to Bill, who doesn’t respond. The fellow says: “He’s Pat’s brother.” Bill again says nothing. The fellow picks up the song again, taking a bawdy swipe at the Pom who is intending to remove Pat from her Australian fold: “Came a jolly jambuk / Down to that billabong / Up jumped the swagman and swagged her with glee.”

The Left Review folded in 1938, and an attempt was made to set up a successor, Poetry and the People. In its early issues, Jack Lindsay and John Manifold, then in his early twenties, wrote articles extolling the ballad tradition. Born in Melbourne in 1915, Manifold graduated in modern languages at Cambridge in 1937, and while there, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. He worked in Germany as a translator in a publishing firm, and fled just as war was declared. He served in the British Army’s Intelligence Corps. He published several books of poetry while living overseas, including The Death of Ned Kelly and Other Ballads in 1941.

In 1949, Manifold (right) returned to Australia with his English wife and settled in Wynnum, Queensland. There, he collected Australian bush ballads and, in 1964, published The Penguin Australian Songbook and Who Wrote the Ballads? Notes on Australian Folksong. He played guitar, and his bush band The Bandicoots regularly performed at his home and elsewhere.

He wrote an article titled “The Long March with Matilda” which appeared in a 1973 issue of the Australian Left Review, a monthly published from 1966 to 1993. He was opposed to the idea of “Waltzing Matilda” being adopted as our national song: “We of the Left must save up ‘Waltzing Matilda’ to be the marching song of a new Popular Front, or Left Coalition, in which the swagman is brother-in-arms with the industrial worker and radical student.”

In the novel, Slater makes his central character a man with a clinical disengagement from political collectivism. Just after his brother has returned from Spain, Bill and other members of his family go to Earls Court Stadium along with 10,000 others. By now, Bill is accustomed to large throngs from his bike-riding activities. Nevertheless, when the International Brigade marches down the arena, he is disturbed at the fervour of the crowd, whipped up by the pageantry of the occasion—sashes, banners, fanfares:

what began to get me down was the way the whole of the ten thousand people were convinced that they themselves were the show. Every man jack or woman jill of them had won the Spanish war single-handedly you might say.

He acknowledges that it is difficult to resist the infection. “Why do they have to be so hysterical about it?” he mutters to his family. “Why do they have to make their politics so personal? Politics are not personal. It’s not decent to treat ’em like a revival meeting. It’s like religion gone mad, this stuff.”

His brother has “dodged out of” marching, and in a conversation with Bill afterwards tells him: “I think I know what you meant tonight … The trouble is people try to imagine what things are like and get it all wrong. Those people don’t quite know what’s going on in Spain …”

On July 22, 1939, a march of International Brigade veterans did take place at the Empress Hall for the London District of the Communist Party. Its title was “Heirs to the Charter” and the pageant was put together by Montagu Slater, Alan Bush and André van Gyseghem. Slater continued his involvement in staging large pageants, including one in 1948 to cele­brate the hundredth anniversary of the Communist Manifesto.

This episode in the novel has a curious and enigmatic presence, and an even-handedness. The ecstasy on the faces of crowds at fascist rallies in the 1930s has its mirror image in the faces of those amassed on the other side of the political spectrum. Not only does the central character in Slater’s novel resist being swept up in the mob enthusiasm; he is disgusted by it.

In an interview in 1981, Montagu Slater’s widow said that her husband remained a committed communist till his death in 1956. On one interpretation, the simplest one, the title of the novel can be matched with Lag’s downfall and the Australian motif threaded through the story: other bike-riders, Pat and her circle of friends. The source of the book’s title is Marie Cowan’s adaptation of the opening line of Banjo’s song. There is nothing overt in the book to suggest the song was being used as a means of incorporating a political message, but in this instance, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that it was.


Part IV: Francis Lemarque: A love song for “Matilda”

In the upheaval created by the Second World War “Waltzing Matilda” was disseminated internationally by Australian soldiers on the march. Just as the melody played by Christina Macpherson on the zither or auto-harp had its derivation in a tune played by a garrison band at Warrnambool on race day, so too did musicians in other countries find in the march version of the song inspiration to create their own interpretation. In America in 1944 Josh White recorded the song as a tender ballad sung to guitar. And in France, three years after the end of the war, Francis Lemarque’s adaptation of the song met with great success and would become a staple in the repertoire of Yves Montand.

Francis Lemarque was born in 1917 in an apartment above a Paris dance hall at 51 Rue de Lappe in the quartier de la Bastille. His real name was Nathan Korb. His father, who worked as a tailor, was Polish and his mother Lithuanian: they had fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe. He grew up surrounded by the songs of the street floating out of brasseries and bals musettes. He and his brother were inspired by the Auvergnat accordionists to begin singing and playing themselves.

In 1946, he saw the twenty-five-year-old Yves Montand performing at the Club des Cinq in Montmartre, and began writing songs for him. It was the beginning of a successful collaboration. In the same year, he met Ginny Richès, born in Egypt of French and Italian parentage. He married her in July 1948.

In 1949 the Australian Women’s Weekly interviewed Lemarque in Paris, and in November that year published an article titled “‘Jolie Matilda’ waltzes in Paris”. To the accompaniment of his guitar, the magazine reported, Lemarque was singing his song “Matilda” each night at the College Inn, Rue Vavin in Montmartre. Earlier that year, Montand had recorded the song and it had become something of a hit. Lemarque told the interviewer that he first got to know the Australian song through his wife Ginny. She was a sculptor who had come to Paris from Egypt three years previously. She was sculpting a portrait bust of him, and while doing so, used to hum or whistle a tune. “This tune fascinated me. It had such a lilt, such a swing, and yet with a sadness in it.” She told him the Australians in the Middle East used to sing it during the war. Lemarque took steps to find out about the song, but in the meantime, penned his own lyrics. In any case, when he did receive a copy of the English lyrics, he was unable to obtain a translation of some of the words. “Also, ‘Matilda’ had to be a love song because the French like songs all about love sung softly and slowly. Your ‘Matilda’ is a march.”

Lemarque (left) altered the melody of “Waltzing Matilda” for his song, but it carries within it the main motifs of the original song. The lyrics of his song conjure up an image of a will-o’-the-wisp Matilda dancing on her own in a void outside of time or space, twirling like a music-box ballerina come to life. Here, with a little poetic licence, is a rendition of the lyrics:

“Oh, there once was a man whose memory was bestirred by the wind’s whisper one evening, and he began to speak. He wasn’t speaking to anyone around him but to a ghost of the past, someone he had loved, and her name was Matilda. He could remember how she looked, twirling gracefully as she waltzed; he could remember her scent, as she danced for him. Then reality began to intrude upon his reverie; his tone became more urgent as he addressed the charming apparition. For just a little while that evening, he told her, through the power of memory, he had been able to relive the way he felt, the way he was, when she was dancing for him. He called out to her, a sad lament for his own loss and out of concern for what might have become of her. Then he squarely faced the painful truth: that as lovely as she had been, the sight of her dancing had been but a moment in time, ephemeral as youth is ephemeral. Like the delicate breeze that had passed never to return, his waltzing Matilda had vanished forever.”

The wind of the past, the memory of her scent: the French lyrics call to mind some lines from a poem by the Australian poet Will Ogilvie, “Wind o’ the Autumn”:

I love you, wind o’ the Autumn, that came from I know not where,
To lead me out of the toiling world to a ballroom fresh and fair …
Oh! say, wild wind o’ the Autumn, may I dance this dance with you
Decked out in your gown of moon-mist and jewelled with drops of dew?
For I know no waiting lover with arms that so softly twine,
And I know no dancing partner whose step is so made for mine!

And in Banjo Paterson’s poetry too are echoes of the French lyrics. “I attach most value to pieces like ‘The Wind’s Message’, at least I hope they’re new,” he said in his interview with Bernard Espinasse in 1896:

There came a whisper down the Bland between the dawn and dark …
It brought a breath of mountain air from off the hills of pine,
A scent of eucalyptus trees in honey-laden bloom;
And drifting, drifting far away along the southern line
It caught from leaf and grass and fern a subtle strange perfume …

(“The Wind’s Message”, published October 1895)

And we catch a sound of a fairy’s song, as the wind goes whipping by,
Or a scent like incense drifts along from the herbage ripe and dry—
Or the dust storms dance on their ballroom floor, where the bones of the cattle lie.

(“Prologue—Australian Scenery” published in The Animals Noah Forgot, 1933)

Le vent du passé murmure un conte effacé …” In Banjo’s family, there was a connection with France. His maternal grandmother, Emily Barton (née Darvall) was born in Yorkshire in 1817. When she was five, the family moved to Brussels, where she and her two sisters were educated and spoke in French. When she was fourteen, the family moved to Boulogne and lived there between 1831 and 1839. They left for a warmer climate and arrived in Australia in 1840 when she was twenty-three. She married in that year, and spent many years in the bush, but by the time Banjo was ten years old, she was widowed and living in Gladesville. He came to live with her while attending Sydney Grammar School, and therefore had the benefit of her interesting life experience. She wrote verse, she encouraged him in his reading of the English poets and writers such as Ruskin and Carlyle, and she spoke to him in French. And seven years after his death, her grandson’s uniquely Australian song inspired a man who lived and breathed Paris to write a chanson that became a French classic.

The genesis of Banjo Paterson’s song was the tune played by a garrison band. Yet when Christina Macpherson played the tune, it was its “whimsicality and dreaminess” to which he responded. After the modifications by Marie Cowan, the jaunty romance marched across the globe, sung by soldiers toughing it out in a world riven by conflict. Montagu Slater published a novel which kept the wartime context of the song in focus so that the inclusion of “jolly” in its title carried a note of irony. In the same era, Josh White sang the Marie Cowan version as a sweet lament for the fallen swagman. And in France, in the immediate aftermath of the war, Francis Lemarque gave “Matilda my Darling” centre-stage, no longer the swagman’s “bluey” but a delicate ballerina of the imagination.


Part : Komm auf die Walze, Matilde, mit mir!

In a 1962 issue of Quadrant (Vol. VI, No. 1), there appeared a book review of Curt and Maria Prerauer’s Zeitgenossiche Australische Lyrik, which had been published the previous year in Munich. The book is a selection of Australian poems, with English and German texts on facing pages. The reviewer wrote that “[a]mong the successes is the poem ‘Walzende Matilde’”, and the review concludes with the German translation of the first verse of Marie Cowan’s version.

I tried out the German lyrics, sung to the familiar tune with the accompaniment of my trusty ukulele, and liked the result. There was a swing to the words which sat well with the tune’s lovely, loping rhythm. Once I’d learned something about the authors and their careers, I understood why the lyrics were written to such a high standard of compatibility with the melody.

Curt Prerauer, pianist, conductor, music critic, composer, teacher, was born in 1901 in Silesia, in the area which is now part of south-western Poland. He learnt violin, piano and organ and graduated in music at the University of Breslau in 1921. From 1925, he was employed as an organist and coach of solo singers with the Staatsoper Berlin. With Hitler’s implementation of systematic discrimination against Jews, Prerauer’s appointment was terminated in 1933, and later that year he accompanied Florence Austral on a tour of the Netherlands. After working in England, he arrived in Australia in 1934 and made it his home. In 1938, he was appointed conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Society of Sydney. In December 1942, he married Maria, a talented twenty-year-old soprano. Together they translated Patrick White’s 1961 novel Riders in the Chariot and several Australian plays including Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, well-received in Germany and Austria. Prerauer died in Sydney in 1967. His wife survived him by nearly forty years, and worked as a journalist, music reviewer and arts editor.

I borrowed a copy of Zeitgenossiche Australische Lyrik, and found that the Prerauers had translated the whole of “Waltzing Matilda” into German and that, as I expected, the rest of the lyrics fitted very nicely too. The introduction and the notes at the back of the book are all in German. In the introduction, the writers refer to “Walzende Matilde” as Australia’s most famous folk-song and state that in its four verses is expressed the whole idea of Australian non-conformity, of “rugged individualism”. The notes about the song give a definition of Matilda, billy, billabong, coolibah tree, but not of jumbuck. In the song they use the word “der Hammel” which means a wether, more docile than a ram. In the definition of billy, tea is described as Australia’s national drink.

When Banjo visited the Macpherson property at Dagworth in 1895, he was told about the dramatic events that had taken place there in the previous year. After the attack on the Dagworth shearing shed, a union shearer, Samuel Hoffmeister, had been found dead beside a nearby billabong with a gunshot wound to the head. A magisterial inquiry a few days later made a finding, recorded on a “Certificate of Particulars”, that the cause of Hoffmeister’s death on September 2, 1894, was “suicide by shooting”. On the printed part of the death certificate appears the question: “Where born, and if not born in Australia, period of residence in Australia”. The handwritten response contains only one word: “Batavia”. His age is stated to be forty-three years. Samuel Hoffmeister was known to his fellow shearers as “French” or “Frenchy”. One newspaper at the time reported that he was “the son of an old South African Boer” and another stated: “He is believed to have been a Dutch native of South Africa”. Questions have been raised over the years about Hoffmeister’s background, including whether he was of German descent, and the subject is an interesting one, but outside the scope of this essay.

Many Germans came to Australia in the nineteenth century. The earliest arrivals in the 1830s did so on religious grounds; they did not want to submit to the King of Prussia’s unification of the Protestant churches. They settled near the Torrens River and in the Barossa Valley. More German immigration followed with the discovery of gold and some Germans came out independently of community migration. The Alsace-Lorraine area had been annexed by the German empire in 1871, after its victory over the French in the Franco-Prussian War, and many French-Germans left Europe to escape the conflict. New arrivals joined Australian-born Germans trekking north and south to the goldfields in Queensland and Victoria.

The journeyman, wearing his bundle over his shoulder, was a familiar sight in Germany, and a presence in many German folk-songs. Now he joined the fellowship “auf der Walz” in Australia.

The guild system in Europe, which dated from medieval times, required an apprentice in various trades to serve several years travelling the countryside gaining experience in his craft. In the German-speaking countries, the young manual worker was called a Handwerksbursche, and the years he spent as a journeyman were known as the Wanderjahre. He became a Walzbruder, a member of a brotherhood of the road “auf der Walz”.

As he calls Matilda to join him “auf der Walz”, the swagman at the billabong in Prerauer’s fine translation invokes the spirits of his brethren in Europe over the centuries, the Wandersmänner of many a folk-song. Curt Prerauer fled persecution in the Germany of the 1930s and found his way to Australia. For the rest of his life he poured his energy and musical gifts into his adopted country. In Zeitgenossiche Australische Lyrik, he and his wife set out to give German speakers an appreciation of the work of Australian poets and, in the case of Banjo’s song, the chance to sing this uniquely Australian ballad in their native language. Prerauer wanted music composed in Australia to draw inspiration from its surroundings and history, and it is fitting that he should be linked with the poetry of Banjo Paterson, whose aims he shared.

The first edition of The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses was published in Australia in October 1895. In the preface, Rolf Boldrewood wrote:

the maker of folk-songs for our newborn nation requires a somewhat rare combination of gifts and experiences. Dowered with the poet’s heart he must yet have passed his “wander-jähre” [sic] amid the stern solitude of the Austral waste … Amid such scarce congenial surroundings comes off that finer sense which renders visible bright gleams of humour, pathos and romance, which, like undiscovered gold, await the fortunate adventurer.

Diana Figgis lives in Sydney. She wrote on “Henry Green’s Literary Garden” in the December issue.


4 thoughts on “Capturing Gossamer: A Waltz with Matilda

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    What a brilliant piece from Diana Figgis.!
    I was involved in the 1960s folk revival in Sydney, encountered many interesting characters and performers, and learned much about music in the process. When a request for a song came from an audience member it added to one’s credentials to ask ‘which version?’ Many songs had more than one.
    By my own count, the Paterson/Macpherson classic has three variants:
    1. The original ‘Queensland’ version;
    2. The standard (Australia’s National Song) Paterson/Cowan version;
    3. The Loaded Dog version, as performed by the WA bush band of the same name. It has arguably the best tune of all. I searched for it in vain on the Internet. It used to be there.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    I liked the Queensland version, best. Known as the Nambour version when I first learnt in in Rabaul in 1963.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    But what a great article.

  • hwka says:

    Yeah, sure (yawn)…
    Read a few lines, my index finger started tapping the mouse.
    I am on a desktop Mac and the mouse only responds if you click way on the left.
    I didn’t click in the correct area and a few more lines got through my retard barrier.
    Read it all of course and went back and read a few favoured areas again.
    Listened to Josh White – I knew him quite well but had never heard the Swedish performance.
    Josh is fantastic.
    But Diana Figgis ? – she could melt rock with that story.

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