For those of you who are unfamiliar with this masterpiece, here are the lyrics, with the occasional explanation of terms when necessary…
“Once a jolly swagman …
(right, so… a swagman is, or was, a guy who travelled around the bush looking for work, essentially homeless, with all his possessions kept in his swag, which is essentially a bag)
Here is a photo of a particularly derelict swagman.
(which is essentially a creek, probably a little swampy)
Under the shade of a Coolabah tree
(well that’s just a tree really, but the fact that it is also a brand of very cheap wine – also commonly known as "goon" – that you can buy 4 litres of, for A$10 surely means something)
"And he sang as he watch and waited for his billy boil… "
(a billy is a metal can with water in it, for boiling “tea”, the “tea” back then apparently consisting of eucalyptus leaves)
"You’ll come a waltzing matilda with me"
(few Australians actually know what that is referring too, which is ironically unfortunate given that it is the title of the song, but apparently it is the act of being a swaggie, and wondering around with all your possessions in a sack on your back)
Latter on there are references to troopers (policemen, otherwise known as “The Man”), tucker bags (“tucker” is food, you can figure out the rest) and a “jolly jumbuck” which is a sheep, although since the sheep is now dead and in the swagman’s stomach, it probably isn’t all that jolly anymore.
So essentially, the swagman kills the jolly jumbuck and eats it. Then the troopers come down to arrest the swagman. The swagman doesn’t like this and jumps into the billabong, where he dies. Many have interpreted this as an act of suicide and martyrdom. Equally likely is that it is a demonstration of the old advice that you should never swim just after you have eaten a big meal.
So as you can see, this is a song chock full of sources for potential confusion to the non-Australian. Which begs the question of why an American, who’d already had a few hits under his belt, would want to cover the damn thing!
This American was Jimmie Rodgers and his version of "Waltzing Matilda" hit No.7 on the Australian charts in May 1959.
In the United States it was released to coincide with the release of post-apocalyptic blockbuster “On The Beach”, a long and quite tedious film that was quite exciting for Australians since it was largely filmed in Melbourne! Melbournites had never had so many big Hollywood stars like Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire in their midst before, so they got a little bit excited, even after Ava Gardner - sexy actress, and sometimes Frank Sinatra lover - may or may not have remarked that Melbourne was the perfect place to film a story about the end of the world, a remark that all Melbournians have traditionally felt particularly incensed by, and which did put a tad of a dent into the general feeling of nationalistic pride that all Australians felt by the fact that there was a Hollywood movie being filmed in Australia! Hollywood had shown that it was aware that Australia existed!
It was a proud time to be Australian. Fred Astaire was hanging out in Melbourne, and an American pop star was having a hit version of "Waltzing Matilda"
Even though it is slightly weird, during the opening credits of “On The Beach” to hear the melody line of “Waltzing Matilda” play as a U.S. submarine breaks through the ocean’s surface, it’s hard not to feel slightly proud of it. You also feel proud when you realise that although the rest of the world has been destroyed by a nuclear holocaust and everyone in Melbourne is going to die in five months – not to mention there being severe coffee shortages, an absolute travesty for a Melbournian – all that Australians seem to do is go sailing and sunbathing and get drunk and sing “Waltzing Matilda” over and over again. There’s a particularly annoying section of “On The Beach” – at about the time when you start to suspect that the last half of the movie is just killing time before everyone dies – when a bunch of bogans holler “Waltzing Matilda” over and over again, none of the singers seemingly to be quite sure which verse they are up to. It’s all very irritating.
But still it’s not as irritating as Jimmie Rodger’s rendition, which is so light and chirpy that it feels that not only has nobody explained to Jimmie what a “tucker bag” or a “billabong” or a “jolly jumbuck” actually is, but also that he is essentially singing about a poor homeless man committing suicide. I mean, there are chimes playing underneath the thing! Can be have a little bit of respect for the gravity of the situation, please!
Perhaps that is why the film doesn’t include the Jimmie Rodgers version. It just would have suited to overall gloom and doom of the movie. The record sounds like a lot of things, but one thing that it doesn’t sound like is the end of the world. Despite, or perhaps because, of being almost as bad the chart busting sing alongs that Mitch Miller And The Gang had infested the charts with about a year previously – even going as far as to feature the same marching drum beat as Mitch Miller And The Gang’s cover of “March From The River Kwai And Colonel Bogey” – and despite the sneaking suspicion that Jimmie Rodgers wasn’t actually to clear on such matters as what on Earth he was singing about!
It’s the least Australian sounding rendition of “Waltzing Matilda” imaginable. It was also not a particularly big hit in the United States, where they have no idea what a “billabong”, a “jolly jumbuck” or a “tucker bag” is. Australians did of course, having been taught the song during primary school, and having sung it practically every time they had found themselves around a camp fire.
Us Aussies were apparently so impressed by the mere fact that Americans were singing our unofficial national song that, despite its inherent awfulness, that we sent his next single all the way to Number One. Australia was quite smitten at the time with the idea of nice country fellas singing songs and few things are nicer than a country fella singing a hymn, in this case “Just A Closer Walk With Thee.” Whilst it doesn’t really shout Number One hit single at you, there is still quite a bit to recommend it as it meanders from a church choir one moment to an African American Baptist congregation the next, before bumping back into another church choir at the end. Whilst all this is happening around him, Jimmie, being in close communion with the Lord, is not distracted at all, staying the course, and praying his prayers. It’s quite a touching, if simple and not exactly awe inspiring, performance and “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” reached Number One on the Australian charts for Two Weeks in August 1960!
Jimmie Rodgers had gone a long way since “Honeycomb.” But he was still so very very nice.