Monday, February 17, 2014

Remembering Banjo Patterson and Waltzing Matilda

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Andrew Barton "Banjo" Patterson (link), the man who in 1895 wrote the lyrics to Waltzing Matilda, a song often regarded as the unofficial national anthem of Australia.  I first heard it as a boy in the early 1960s at the Boy Scout Camp Shin-Go-Beek in central Wisconsin.  There were a few hundred of us at a time at those annual summer camps, and I think we sang this song, and a few others, every day at lunch and dinner; interestingly though, Waltzing Matilda is the only one I can specifically remember.  Of course, I had no idea then what any of the nouns meant – swagman, billabong, coolibah tree, billy, jumbuck, tucker-bag – they seemed borrowed from a foreign language.  As it turns out, they were – Australian!

Patterson was quite a fellow.  He grew up in the Australian outback and, although becoming a lawyer, is best known as a writer – he wrote lyrics, penning the words to Waltzing Matilda; poetry, including The Man from Snowy River (which was later twice made into a movie); novels; sports reports; and finally dispatches from the front, serving as a war correspondent during the Second Boer War in southern Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China.  He also served in WWI first as an ambulance driver and later as an officer in the Australian Army, with which he was wounded in France.  He eventually settled down as a farmer in later years and died in 1941, during WWII, at age 76. 

I’ve heard many versions of Waltzing Matilda over the years, but perhaps the best (despite omitting the third verse), slowly paced with a wistful, melancholy air, is one by the late Tom Dundee, from a town far from Down Under – Chicago.  I’ll almost certainly never learn if he first heard the song deep in the Wisconsin woods, but his version is available on iTunes, where I discovered it and bought it some years ago.

R Balsamo

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