Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Shade of a Coolabah Tree

I was inspired to write this blog post, and this story, after my Beloved brought to my attention an American children's version of the song Waltzing Matilda, from an old TV show called Kidsong. The song consisted of only the first two verses, replacing some of the Australianisms like 'Coolabah' and 'jumbuck'. To be blunt, I found that rather offensive. Once more, it was an attempt to avoid education by localizing a cultural icon from a foreign land. Now, I'm not upset about it, because that's an old TV show and only a moron would try to water down Waltzing Matilda in this day and age. However, it bothers me that the song was reduced to two verses, because I think part of Australian culture is that creepy, dark side. The part where it's not all fun and games, sometimes a poor homeless man gets hunted down by the police and sometimes people die out in the bush. Because of that, I've decided to explore the song Waltzing Matilda, by trying to expose the actual nature of this song, and why it's one of the darkest stories we've all heard, but don't seem to realize it.

Out in the bush, the red hot plains of Australia were spread far and wide, and at midday it could be up to forty degrees in the shade. The sky would be filled with cloudless blue, cicada chittering and the occasional, warbling magpie. Out not far from the droving stations, was a huge waterhole known as Four Mile Billabong.
As the sun was at its highest, a young wanderer had made camp under a eucalyptus tree, by the banks of the billabong. The Swagman was a scruffy, old bugger; he hadn’t shaved in the last few weeks, his akubra hat had corks on string tied around it to keep the flies off his head, and his bare feet were pitch black from a lack of bathing. Just beside him everything he owned was wrapped up in his bedroll in a bundle and dropped on the dirt beside him. But, despite having lost everything but his swag, he whistled cheerily to himself, as he held his billy-can over the fire using an old branch to hold it above the little flames, the metal popping and buckling from the heat.
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?"

A lot of people know that a swagman is, in fact, a homeless person. But what quite a few don't know is that swagmen were people that lost everything during the Great Depression in the 1930s. After World War 1, a lot of people suffered financially and some people lost absolutely everything. It was common for people to carry everything that they had left in a swag, which is a bedroll that could double as a kind of rucksack which they bundled all of their belongings in. They used to travel around the great outback heading between cattle droving stations, towns and other farmlands, asking for work or for some meager task for which they could be paid with money or just food. If they couldn't, they just fed off the land with what meager survival knowledge they possessed.
The term Waltzing Matilda apparently comes from German immigrants. Waltzing comes from auf der walz which basically meant "to walk around, looking for work", a term used for young journeymen learning a trade on the road. Meanwhile "Matilda" was a name supposedly given to women who accompanied German soldiers in their camps during the Thirty Years War and kept them warm at night, just as the swag would keep swagmen warm.
I believe this whole notion represents Australia quite a lot, as it were; this man's down on his luck with no food and no home, but he still manages to get on with his day. Yet, I can't help but feel like the notion of a "jolly" swagman is rather condescending, this is the Great Depression after all, very few people were jolly about it. Perhaps it's something like a joke, Australians do have a twisted sense of humour after all, perhaps we call the swagman jolly for the same reason we call a redhead "bluey".

The Swagman’s whistling cut short. He fell absolutely silent as he heard something come trotting up behind him. He turned slowly around, and saw an old sheep meandering through the scant grass. It was a fat, strong buck, a sheep. It wandered to the bank of the billabong and, tilted its head down to drink.
Careful not to move any other muscle, and not taking his eyes off the fat buck, the Swagman carefully lowered his billy to the ground, making sure not to make a sound as metal patted dirt. Then, he reached into his swag, and felt around till his fingers found an old potato sack and he dragged it out. He upturned it, dropping its contents onto his bedroll before he stood up and snuck around behind the sheep. He carefully crept closer and closer, careful not to make a sound.
The sheep lifted its head. Before it could flee, the Swagman leapt. The buck tried to jump away, but he grabbed its hind legs. As though he were sheering it, he turned and grabbed its forelegs in front of him, splayed out and he brought the potato sack over its head.
The hindlegs bucked and kicked, as he tried to stuff it inside, but he couldn’t stop it from bleating and trying to escape. So, in one swift swing, he grabbed its legs and the top of the bag and swung it over his head. The bag swung up in the air and hit the ground with a heart-stopping crack. The only sound then was the Swagman’s heavy breathing as he stood there, the bag now stilled. He finally caught his breath and, after a quick glance around, he started whistling to himself as he finally stuffed the sheep’s legs in the bag and tied it up.
Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong.
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee.
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag:
"You'll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me."

There are a few theories as to what inspired the song Waltzing Matilda, but what we know is that the song was written by Banjo Paterson, to the tune of "The Craigielee March" (inspired by the Scottish song "Bonnie Wood O' Craigielea"), after hearing the song played by Christina MacPherson, Mr Paterson liked what he heard and put lyrics to it.
As for the words of the song, most people believe it was inspired by the Great Shearer's Strike in the 1890s. On September, 1894, The shearers at Dagworth Station went on strike, but the strike turned into a riot then the riot turned violent with the strikers shooting their rifles and pistols in the air.
One of the strikers, a man named Samuel "Frenchy" Hoffmeister, is believed to have then been responsible for setting fire to the woolshed, killing dozens of sheep. He fled from the station and - it is said - the owner of Dagworth Homestead and three policeman tried to chase him down. But, rather than be captured, Hoffmeister ran to the Combo Waterhole and shot himself. His body was later discovered by police.
Whether this story is true or not, there are similarities to Waltzing Matilda's 'plot', and at the very least it brings us a step closer to explaining why a man caught with a sheep would be willing to commit suicide rather than be arrested for stealing a sheep.

The Swagman was whistling to himself, once again boiling the water in his billy-can, when he heard the trot of horses. He glanced over to see a well-kept man with a white beard and shirt riding up on a horse, most likely a farmer squatting at the local shearing station and a few feet behind him were three mounted troopers, each with a rifle over their shoulder. He became quite concerned when, rather than riding by, they rode their horses right up to the eucalyptus tree and stopped in front of him.
  "That looks like him," said the farmer, and without dismounting, the three troopers trotted closer. The Swagman jumped up, so as not to get trampled, and in his mad scramble, he dropped and spilled his billy-can.
  "Hey hey! Watch it, ya bastards!" yelled the Swagman.
  "What's your name?" asked one of the troopers.
  "Get fucked," replied the Swagman.
  "Easy, swagger," said another trooper. "We're not messin' about. We're looking for a cold-blooded killer what beat a little abo' boy to death. Unless you want to get dragged all the way back to town, you ought to tell us what you're doin' out here."
  "Hey, I ain't killed no blackfellas!" pleaded the Swagman. "I'm just restin' mah feet guv', out of the sun. I ain't seen a soul 'round here but the flies . . ."
  "Is that so . . .?" asked the trooper. He glanced over the swagman's meager belongings; but, when he saw the potato sack with a developing spot of blood seeping through it, he pointed his rifle at the Swagman. "What's that you've got in the tuckerbag, mate?"
  "What, that? That's nothing!" said the Swagman, raising his hands. One of the other troopers dismounted his horse and, keeping his distance from the swagman, the trooper opened the bag and held up one of the limp hindlegs.
  "Nah, it's just a sheep, boss," he said, and the mounted trooper lowered his rifle.
  "A sheep?" asked the farmer. "Oi! That's gotta be one of my sheep!"
  "Hey hey, now," said the Swagman. "No you don't, that's my sheep. I caught it myself."
  "It's got clean wool," said the trooper on foot, unwrapping part of the dead sheep from the bag. "And his arse has been mulesed. It isn't a wild sheep."
  "Told you. He's stolen and killed one of my sheep!"
  "What? No, I didn't steal your fucken sheep. This is bullshit!"
  "Alright, mate, come on," said the trooper on foot, "Grab your stuff, you'll be coming with me."
Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred.
Down came the troopers, one, two, and three.
"Who's that jolly jumbuck you've got in your tucker bag?
You'll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me."

This line tends to change around a bit. In some iterations, the third line is "Who's is that jumbuck . . .?" In the sense of a man stealing sheep, that makes perfect sense. But that's not the version of the song I heard. Rather, the line is, as above:
"Who's that jolly jumbuck?"
For a starter, a male sheep which has been stuffed into a bag isn't going to be very happy, which brings to mind what I said above about him being a "jolly" swagman, perhaps the line is meant to be ironic, in that both the sheep and the swagman are far from jolly; in fact. But also, in the second iteration, the question is "who is?", which may seem like an odd question, unless you know about another legend people associate with the origins of Waltzing Matilda. Allow me to tell you the story of Harry Wood.
According to folklore, a young aboriginal boy had been found beaten to death out in the bush. Admittedly, we were still a fairly racist lot back then, but a child is still a child, and murder is still murder; so, the police were looking for the killer.
The man accused of the murder was named Harry Wood, and to avoid capture, he'd done a runner. The police went into the bush to find him, but at the billabong they found the corpse of a recently drowned homeless swagman. His campfire at the waterside was still crackling and the body was warm. It seemed as though the man had seen them coming, thought the police were after him and so jumped into the river in fright.
Perhaps the man was just mad and homeless; perhaps it was a suicide attempt and he had hoped the troopers would save him; perhaps he was the real killer of the boy, had stuffed the body in his tucker bag and was avoiding capture or maybe it's nothing more than a legend.

  "No, you can't do this!" yelled the Swagman.
  "Easy, mate, easy," said the trooper, stepping closer. But then the Swagman knelt down and quickly crammed his stuff into his swag, pulling up the corners, not bothering to roll it. the trooper said, "don't make this difficult."
The Swagman swung the swag around and whacked the trooper off of his feet.
  "Bugger off!" he yelled, then he swung his swag towards the horses, trying to get them to back off.
  "Oi!" yelled out the head trooper as his horse reared; he pulled his rifle.
  "Stop right there, you old bastard!" he barked. "You're coming with us."
  "You'll never take me alive!" cried the Swagman.
He then turned and leapt into the lake with a splash. The troopers dismounted their horses and ran to the edge of the lake to swim after him, but the Swagman hadn't returned to the surface.
  "Where the bloody hell did he go?!" yelled the squatter.
  "I don't think he's coming back up," said the third trooper.
And for a while, the men just stood and stared at the lake, in silence.
Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong.
"You'll never take me alive!" said he
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?"

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda
"You'll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me",
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?"

All in all, Waltzing Matilda is a sad and terrible tale. In the first verse, there's depression and homelessness; in the second, there's likely animal slaughter; in the third, wrongful imprisonment & in the fourth and last line, there's suicide.
In fact, thinking about it, this whole story of the swagman reminds me something of a boogeyman.
See, in parts of America, they believe there's a bad man called the boogeyman who eats children that misbehave and don't go to sleep. Some people believe the monster lives under their bed, but there's another belief that he comes to steal children away in a sack; known as the Sack Man or Bag Man, he kidnaps misbehaving children.
And what, with the legend of a young, aboriginal boy being beaten to death, and songs about a man that stows animals away in his tuckerbag - remembering of course that the tuckerbag is for storing stuff you plan on eating - I can't help but think that the Swagman sounds similar to this Bag Man, or "Boogie" Man.
After all, Waltzing Matilda is a ghost story . . .

I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and until next time, that's the story of the ghost - or 'shade' - of the Coolabah Tree; now, who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

1 comment:

  1. For those wondering, here is a link to the Kid Songs version: . It definitely cuts out the morbid parts of the song.


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