“Waltzing Matilda” is an Australian Icon. Many Australians carry it in their hearts as an unofficial national anthem. The text to the tune was written in 1895 by Australian Banjo Paterson and has struck a chord with people down under ever since.
The story goes as follows: a jolly swagman (wandering worker) is camping at a billabong (small body of water) when he spots a jumbuck (sheep) coming to drink. Delighted, the swagman catches and stows it away. However, he is interrupted when a squatter (landowner) and three troopers (policemen) come riding to arrest him for stealing the sheep. The swagman refuses to be arrested and promptly jumps into the billabong to drown himself.
Its broadly anti-authoritarian attitude and free-spirited message helped to immortalize ‘the jolly swagman’ in the nation’s canon and the song’s story has been a source for Australian identity for generations. I highly recommend giving it a listen if you haven’t already!
Now, to address the obvious. Paterson’s “Waltzing Matilda” is not really a piece of Horror literature. In fact, it’s not very scary at all (or is it?). One way or the other, listening to it will likely neither strike fear into your heart or send shivers down your spine. But still, there is something eerie about this tune. The text reminds us in the last stanza that the swagman’s “ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong”. This nod to the trope of haunting ghosts points us in a more harrowing direction than the many cheery iterations of the folk anthem would let on. When recontextualized as a ghost story, “Waltzing Matilda” sheds light on the creepiness of the jolly swagman’s story.
There are a handful of horror elements woven into the plot and style of the swagman’s tale. The repeated phrase “you’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me” wraps up each stanza, evolving throughout the song to refer from the sheep that is about to be killed to the swagman himself. Observing this motif changing in context from a somewhat empty expression to a cynical comment to an animal about to be slaughtered to a violent threat by an unyielding land owner can be read as both uncanny and unsettling.
The setting of the Australian bush is also significant. The archetype of the swagman exists only in the context of a vast and unconquered environment. The swagman travels by foot because he must and camps where he pleases because he can. The squatter exists as a counterpart to the swagman, hogging land he has no right to claim, and reacting to intruders that only take what they need with uncalled-for chicanery. Thus, the landowner, in coordination with the police, violates a central tenet of the Australian national image and transgresses on the autonomy of the folk-hero, the jolly swagman.
The lack of hesitation and matter-of-factness with which the swagman decides to drown himself is perhaps the most clear horror element and is especially unsettling by subverting expectations. The message here is clear: death is better than arbitrary abuses of power.
Again, “Waltzing Matilda” is not horror literature on its face. Accordingly, the horror elements outlined above become most apparent if you are actively looking for them. However, presenting the song in an appropriate context can exacerbate and truly bring to light its creepy inner-life. This potential did not go unnoticed to writers, giving us horror-twists on the classic story such as in the 2017 movie The Marshes where the a ‘jolly swagman’ character becomes a nightmare incarnate for city-dwelling researchers venture into remote nature to conduct research.
One could also argue that the infamous “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” by Eric Bogle borrows from the discussed unsettling elements to create its eerie atmosphere to underline the searing anti-war message. Here, “Waltzing Matilda” accompanies the soldiers killed and mutilated in the battle of Gallipoli as creepily subversive background music.
Exploring “Waltzing Matilda’s” hidden horrors is a very worthwhile task, and I invite anyone to try to tease out some hidden meanings by holding a horror lens to your favourite non-horror texts.