Book review: “Waltzing Matilda – Australia’s Accidental Anthem”
March 6th, 2019 | 'Banjo' Paterson, Music
Book Review: “Waltzing Matilda – Australia’s Accidental Anthem” by W. Benjamin Lindner
(Published by Boolarong Press)
This is a book I have long been hoping somebody would write, but dared not believe anybody would.
There has been much written in recent years about the writing of Australia’s unofficial national anthem ‘Waltzing Matilda’. In particular, there has been a push to suggest that the words relate closely to the events surrounding the burning of the woolshed at Dagworth station in western Queensland in early September 1894, and the subsequent death of a shearer, Samuel Hoffmeister. (The two events may or may not have been related, but probably were.) Personally, I have never found this line of argument convincing.
Considerable uncertainty has also surrounded the timing of the writing of the song, with proponents of the Hoffmeister theory keen to believe, and therefore prove, that the song was written as soon as possible after these events. I have also never been convinced that this has been proven.
Part of the difficulty has been that Paterson’s travel arrangements during this time were never documented. A new book on the subject, “Waltzing Matilda – Australia’s Accidental Anthem”, by W. Benjamin Lindner, sets out to resolve this conundrum in a devastatingly simple way. It makes you wonder why nobody has ever thought of doing it before.
What is not disputed is that Paterson wrote “Waltzing Matilda” in collaberation with Christina McPherson, who provided the music (the tune ‘Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea’ that she had heard played at the Warrnambool races in April 1894), and that he was in the company of his fiancé, Sarah Riley, at the time. So, if Paterson’s travel movements cannot be nailed down, can the movements of McPherson and Riley? Turns out they can! They both travelled to Queensland from Melbourne, and both spent a large part of the journey on the ocean, travelling by steamer, First Class. These voyages are well documented, and prove beyond doubt that Waltzing Matilda could not have been written any earlier than August 1895, almost a year after the burning of the Dagworth woolshed. Furthermore, while Paterson’s travelling arrangements cannot be proven, his various sporting and social activities in Sydney most definitely can, and it turns out they line up perfectly with the movements of McPherson and Riley!
This is an extremely dense and well-researched book. There is a very large cast of characters. I read it quickly and in a somewhat feverish state of mind, as I quickly realised what a gem it was, and don’t pretend to have fully comprehended or integrated all the information it contains.
It is very clear to me, however, that Waltzing Matilda was written some months later than many would like to believe. I also think Lindner has done a very good job of demonstrating just how unlikely it is that Paterson based the words on the death of Hoffmeister. Importantly, a detailed analysis of the inquest into the death of Samuel Hoffmeister fails to make any link whatsoever with the squatter Bob McPherson, brother of Christina, and manager – with his three brothers – of Dagworth station. I can see that those events may well have fed into the lyrics, but only in a very general sense, and certainly not in the strictly literal sense that some would like to believe. (Lindner makes specific reference to Richard Magoffin and Dennis O’Keeffe in this respect.)
Lindner also makes it clear that Waltzing Matilda was almost certainly written at more than one location – possibly as many as three or four – with McPherson playing an autoharp initially, and then moving to a piano when one became available.
Lindner also points out that the evidence he has discovered means that the first public performance of the song could not have taken place in April 1895 at the North Gregory Hotel, as has been believed by many up until now, because it had not yet been written.
There are passages which could have benefitted from further editing. The text contains minor grammatical errors at times, and there is some repetition that could have been tidied up, but these are minor quibbles.
Lindner is a criminal lawyer, and calls his book a ‘forensic history’. It didn’t necessarily need a lawyer to write this book, but his methodical, persistent, extremely detailed, dispassionate approach is well suited to the task. He does concede that Trove, that invaluable National Library resource that contains so many early newspapers in digitised form, was not available to earlier researchers.
I would strongly recommend this book to anybody who is interested in the history of Australia’s unofficial national anthem, ‘Waltzing Matilda.’