“Waltzing Matilda” has a central place in Australian history. The well-known bush ballad emerged just before Federation and over the last century developed into one of the most iconic and beloved folk songs, even claiming informal national anthem status. Scholarship has uncovered secret histories and controversies surrounding the song; the cover-up of a dead swagman and Banjo Paterson’s racy love triangle are but two examples that have recently come to the fore through the research of Denis O’Keeffe and Benjamin Lindner.
Contentions around copyright also emanate throughout this discourse. In 2015, Greg Pemberton presented some complexities around copyright and ownership of the song in a Sydney Morning Herald article, questioning whether royalties had ever been paid to the right people. Pemberton noted Harry Alfred Nathan’s publication of the song on December 20, 1902, by W.H. Paling & Co, with an accompanying copyright claim stamped February 27, 1903. Musicologists and journalists have previously considered Harry Nathan’s lost version of the song, which he claimed he wrote before Marie Cowan’s 1903 version. In 1966, Oscar Mendelsohn analysed Nathan’s reprinted edition of 1905, which retrospectively claimed initial publication circa 1900, but Mendelsohn could find nothing substantiating that.
This essay appeared in September’s Quadrant.
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Fortunately, in his discussion of copyright, it appears Pemberton accidentally and unknowingly fell on the corroborating evidence. A review of the copyright papers held in the National Archives of Australia finds the seven-page submission to include a copy of the autograph score of Harry Nathan’s version, dated 1901, and thus the basis for the 1902 edition published by W.H. Paling & Co. This is evidence that Nathan’s version of the song preceded Cowan’s, which was published several months later in July 1903.
A comparative musicological examination of Nathan’s and Cowan’s scores supports earlier suppositions drawn by Oscar Mendelsohn, Roger Covell and Greg Pemberton. Harry Nathan’s version of “Waltzing Matilda” was published, at the very least, six months before Marie Cowan’s version in July 1903. It is highly likely that Cowan or James Inglis reviewed Nathan’s music and copied extensively from it, developing, adapting and rearranging the bush song for James Inglis & Co’s “Billy Tea” marketing campaign.
Harry Alfred Nathan (1866–1906) was the grandson of composer Isaac Nathan, who is regarded by many as the father of Australian music. The younger Nathan, according to the North Queensland Register (Townsville), studied “theory, piano, organ and voice production” at the Guildhall School of Music in London from 1888 to 1892, and he was the “accompanist for the Ballad Singers Club and the Guildhall School of Music”. In 1893, the Sydney Morning Herald announced his return to Australia. On August 4, 1896, following his work as organist at Sydney’s St Mary’s Church, Waverley, the North Queensland Register advertised Harry Nathan’s move to Queensland, where he commenced as organist at St Paul’s Church in Charters Towers on August 5. Around 1900, he took up a post as organist at the Townsville Anglican Cathedral and published the song “To Arms! Australians” in Townsville. For several years he lived not far from Winton, where Banjo Paterson wrote the words for “Waltzing Matilda”.
Nathan was indeed the friend to whom Paterson entrusted the musical realisation of “Waltzing Matilda”. After initially workshopping the music at Dagwood Station near Winton in 1895, Christina MacPherson sent Paterson a transcription of the melody—as best she could remember. In an undated letter from MacPherson to a Dr Thomas Wood, held in the National Library of Australia, she admits she is “no musician” and that she did her best to recall a melody she had heard a band play at the Warrnambool Steeplechase in 1894; Paterson had asked her to indulge him. In fact, several scholars, including Robyn Hamilton of the State Library of Queensland, have confirmed that MacPherson misremembered the melody of the Scottish folk song “Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea”. MacPherson further states that Paterson shared the melody they workshopped together with a “musical friend” who intended to turn it into a bush song.
Remarkably, on the title page of the autograph score, submitted along with his copyright application in February 1903, Nathan scrawled the title: “New Bush Song: Waltzing Matilda”. Thus, it is highly likely that he was the “musical friend” engaged by Paterson to turn “Waltzing Matilda” into a bush song. In his copyright claim, Nathan attributes the lyrics to A.B. Paterson, and the arrangement and harmonisation of the music to himself. He also claimed the edition included in the submissions as “the sole property of Harry Nathan”. Notably, on December 14, 1901, Rockhampton’s Capricornian asserted, “Some clever fellow has managed to fit the quaint trifle with an exceedingly catchy air.” Praise for the melody itself is disingenuous to both MacPherson and Nathan; the former helped establish the melody, without credit, and the latter harmonised and arranged it beyond the point of an air. In any case, all this is further evidence that Nathan’s version of the song clearly precedes Cowan’s.
A comparative musical examination of Nathan’s 1902 version and Cowan’s 1903 version reveals that Cowan used Nathan’s score as a basis. Her version includes a melody accompanied by iconic lilting rhythms, a formal extension including introductions and codas between verses, the use of simpler harmonic language, and a general transposition from E♭ to F. Keys are intriguing things in music history and theory. The key of E♭ was historically used to engage with ideas of love, devotion and intimacy; it is a key that is expressive, courageous, determined and dignified. The key of F can indicate serenity, contemplation, peace and joy; it is clear, pastoral and rustic. Despite this transposition, Cowan kept most of Nathan’s lyrics and developed several of his foundational musical parameters.
Several scholars compared available scores in the 1960s. Roger Covell observed that Nathan’s version was a “balder, blunter version of the tune than Marie Cowan’s” and that the “objections that the tempo and verbal character of the songs are different are less convincing than a careful comparison of the melodic outlines”. In 1967, Covell supported Nathan’s claim as the composer of “Waltzing Matilda”, asserting that “the basis of this claim is a three-page manuscript now held by the Mitchell Library in Sydney”. He notes that this manuscript’s cover is dated 1900 and that it was printed around three years earlier than Cowan’s 1903 version, but that confusion arises because the Mitchell Library’s signed edition carries a witnessed declaration from 1905. Covell offers his opinion that the song was in circulation for at least ten years before Nathan transcribed the melody and arranged Paterson’s four verses, referring the reader to Mendelsohn’s book A Waltz with Matilda. Chapter 4 of A Waltz with Matilda focuses entirely on “Harry Nathan: The Onlie True Begetter”, and Chapter 5 is dedicated to Cowan’s 1903 version. The problem with Mendelsohn’s conclusions, however, is that they are based upon a score that was printed in 1905. Neither Covell nor Mendelsohn saw Nathan’s autograph score of 1902 that is now available in the National Archives of Australia.
Further musical comparisons can be made between Nathan’s and Cowan’s scores. In the verse, Nathan uses crotchet octaves in the left hand of the piano on beats 1 and 3 with simple chords in the right hand on beats 2 and 4. Cowan adopted this compositional device for her iconic introduction. Cowan also took steps to develop the melody’s rhythm. She added eight instances of a lilting dotted quaver-semi-quaver rhythm to the melody. It is not known whether the original versions of either MacPherson’s or Nathan’s melodies were swung; Cowan imitates this dimension in her arrangement. Cowan also added four-bar introductions and codas in the piano between verses, demonstrating a formal extension that goes beyond Nathan. Thus, there is evidence of musical development in Cowan’s version, further indicating it was written later.
In a musical sense, there is evidence of intentional simplification. That is, Cowan used a popular and simple triadic harmonic language in her arrangement, revolving around chords I, IV and V of F. In contrast, after beginning the piece in E♭, Nathan immediately employs an applied dominant G7 (V/vi) which resolves, expectedly, to C minor (vi) in bar 2. The use of an applied dominant chord in a bush song, however, is unusually artistic, though unsurprising given Nathan’s training at the Guildhall School of Music. Applied dominants are usually used to prepare modulations, cadences or give a sense of harmonic motion or change. But Nathan does not linger long in C minor; he returns immediately to his E♭ tonic. Of his A-A-B-A form, Nathan’s A chord progression is I-V7/vi-vi-I-V-V7-I. In section B, the chorus, Nathan substitutes an imperfect cadence, I-V7. An imperfect cadence gives the music a feeling of being unfinished and positions listeners to desire a more concrete harmonic resolution. Thus, a tension is created in the middle of Nathan’s chorus. Cowan seemingly enjoyed this imperfect cadence so much that she retained it.
I have proven that Harry Nathan was the composer of “Waltzing Matilda” in its original bush song form. After his 1903 copyright patent was disregarded, and “Waltzing Matilda” became famous as an advertisement for Billy Tea, Harry Nathan drowned himself in drink. He died of alcoholism in 1906. (Ironically, if he were drinking Billy Tea, he might have endured a little longer.) His ghost may be heard in the indomitable refrains of “Waltzing Matilda”, and his formative contributions to Australian music have gone on—and will go on—to touch the hearts and minds of many, in Australia and throughout the world.
David R. Crowden is a musicologist and PhD candidate at the University of Queensland