Friday, October 1, 2010

Swagman in Sepia


"Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong

Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled
You'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me"
This song is sung by an Australian, almost as the National Anthem

The words to this bush ballad, were written by the famous Australian poet Banjo Patterson in 1895. They originated from a real life story of an event that happened at a sheep station called Dagworth near Winton in Queensland the year before.
Some shearers went on strike, setting the wool shed on fire and killing many of the sheep. One of these men ran away rather than be captured.
He killed himself at the Combo waterhole, after being followed by the station owner and police.

A Swag is a bedroll.
Matilda is the affectionate name given to the swag by the Swaggy.
Waltzing, was how the swaggy referred to walking along with his swag tied with a string on both ends, so it hugged his body like a dancer.
A Swaggy or Swagman is a homeless wanderer. A man who roamed Australia working for a meal and sometimes a place to sleep.
A Billabong is a waterhole
A billy is a tin pot with a wire loop handle used to boil water for a cup of hot tea.



As a little girl if I spotted a swaggy approaching from over the hill near our farm I'd run to tell my mother. Our home was closer to the road than most and seemed to entice them in. Mum took advantage of the help by getting a pile of wood chopped. While they did this she fixed a tray of good food to eat.
Later, the man sat on our garden bench under eucalyptus trees at the side of the house.  While he rested and enjoyed his food, I sat close by and watched.
I don't remember any conversation accept when my mother came out to make sure he had enough. I remember the heavy leather boots and rough material of his trousers. I haven't seen one for years, but they live on in our songs. 

Most walked, but the one in this photo, had a bike.

"For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to to his life?" 
Matthew 6:25

27 comments:

  1. Fascinating post. Over here, the ones who'd work for their meal were called hobos, the ones who wouldn't - bums. In my basement, I've got an old chair of my grandmother's which was "rebottomed" with oak splits by an old hobo in the 1930's. Too proud to be a bum, he insisted on working for his supper, a night in the barn, and breakfast. The man was old and his work was crude, but the gnarled-looking chair is a beautiful testimony to something mostly missing in today's world - honor and pride. Thanks for reminding me of that treasure.

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  2. What a fantastic post, Crystal Mary! The photos of 'swagmen' are just great too. And a big thanks for the glossary of terms. Of course I knew the words, but not what they meant. So interesting.
    Well, one word I did know and that is what we called a 'billie can'. When I was very small we used to hang round any workmen that were in the vicinity, watching them. The builders especially mixing cement by hand which was fascinating, and the tea-boy who took all the workmen's billie-cans and boiled water for tea in them over an open fire. Each of the men hantheir own little tin double-ended cannister with tealeaves in one end, and sugar in the other. I think these were geen at one end and yellow at the other - but of course the billie cans were soot black with wire handles - just as they are in your photos. What memories in a simple artifact.
    Oh, and I think the word 'billie' or 'billy' is an old Scots word for 'comrade' or 'mate'. I think Georges and I blog commented each other on this one before (on the subject of 'hill-billys').

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  3. Hello Georges,I didn't know there was a difference in the terminology of hobo or bum.Yes the 1930's were the years of the Great Depression and world wide men wandered seeking work, wherever..so hard and so sad. To leave you a chair, that man left a piece of himself. I wonder how many places he did that. You may be surprised?? There could have been more of his workmanship...

    Hello Phllip, These men amazed me. You wonder where they go once the leave your sight. Yes the billy can, we still have them over the camp fire. Blackened on the outerside as you say, with the wire handles that turned burning hot.
    Yes, the mateship came about from sharing. Mainly men use the term mate, however, in the hospital system we all called each other mate for the closeness shared between staff....To the patients though we remain formal and referred to the other as Doctor or Sister.
    I should have been born in a tent as I love the outdoor life.

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  4. Such an interesting post, Crystal Mary. The photos are wonderful. I love the one with the bike. This song is well known to all of us in NZ but so interesting to hear how it came about.

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  5. Hello Joan, NZ and Oz are close relies...We each support the other.. Sometimes we sing a song without every knowing the beginnings.

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  6. So interesting! I remember singing "Waltzing Matilda" in elementary chorus. I loved the flow of the words and melody, but I never knew the meaning of what we were singing! LOL Thank you for sharing and restoring a childhood memory. Many blessings to you!

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  7. Crystal Mary, this is lovely...our mothers were very much the same in that they cared for those in need of food and brief shelter.
    I also loved the Aussie slang and definitions, I love that stuff!

    Rene

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  8. You will never believe this - but htis song was on a Disney album I used to play for my grandson. We loved it and used to sing it all the time - I didn't know all those facts though.

    I will have to tell him. Thanks.
    sandie

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  9. Thanks fo explaining what those words mean. I have been singing that song in ignorance since I was a child. Sm of the words I knew, sm I didn't.

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  10. Thank you for sharing this glimpse into the Austrailian culture. Love the old photos and folk song. And the reminder that "His eye is on the sparrow".
    Blessings.

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  11. A very interesting post, being a NZer I am very familiar with your song and how it came about. Times were very hard in the 1890's and I am reading a book about a NZ seep station and it said that during one year alone 925 swagman visited the station for help - a few hours or days work, food, clothes, boot and sometimes money was given to them. Over a period of a few years thousands asked for help.

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  12. How well I remember the knocks on the door at one in the morning. My mother fixing a big breakfast as she would tell her captive audiance about Jesus and His love. Then giving the weary stranger a blanket and pillow and told to sleep in the car that was parked in one of our few outbuildings. How great her reward???

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  13. What wonderful photographs ... full of life and beauty and character. I remember learning that song as a child and singing it with enjoyment but not much understanding. Thank you for explaining the meaning to me, and also for telling their story in such a vivid, interesting way.

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  14. Loved this and all the detail, I know the song well, I know I learned it as a child and later used it when I was a counselor at Girl Scout camps in college but I never knew all this about it! Thanks for explaining it all so clearly! Love the photos too...I believe the swagman would be the dame as our old time hobos!

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  15. PS another typo, I meant "same" as our hobos! Fingers too fast and I should read before letting it fly! :)

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  16. This was a great post. It helped put photographs to words I've heard and sung for years. It just makes me want to visit your country!

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  17. Hello all, Of one thing I am very surprised??
    That children in other countries have learned our song...that is so wonderful as we here learn many of yours.
    Just love to read all your comments and learn from you.
    Blessings. Crystal

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  18. So true Mary how much we learn, from a post and also from the comments. I too remember that song but not all the history you recounted. I have read several novels involving Australia and found one relative a Fitzgerald, sent there for a crime. LOL I keep wondering why she, yes a woman, was a passenger from Australia. The book "The Secret River" by Kate Grenville was a great novel for expounding on that subject. Great post.
    QMM

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  19. Mary thanks for visiting my Old Forest blog and becoming a follower, I only add to this blog after our annual summer/autumn holiday. My everyday blog for bits and pieces is at My Magpie Collection.
    Looking at your photos here again really make me wonder just how hard it was back in those times, what marvellous men they were to keep on going.

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  20. this is so cool. At first when I started reading I didn't understand what your post was about but as I kept reading...wow. this is very cool. love how you wove it with that scripture.

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  21. This is all quite fascinating : I had never fully known or understood the story behind the song. A fine combination of words and pictures. Thanks

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  22. interesting pictures . now, homeless people in the city just sit on the sidewalk and beg for money to pay for drugs and/or alcohol... honest good work is no longer part of the equation.
    :?~HUGZ

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  23. We called them bums over here and I use to see them riding on top of railroad cars as the trains were passing by. They would have to climb down and run when the trained stopped and the would stop by houses and ask if they had a spare bit to eat.

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  24. Fascinating post with lots of interesting details. Like most of the other people commenting, I had no idea what the meaning behind the song was. I wonder if your mother was anxious about your safety -- now if a homeless wanderer approached, I think we'd feel fear for our children.

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  25. I was born up near the Murray in 1945 We lived in Bearii some distance north of Numurkah. My father was the teacher at Bearii. I can remember my parents talking about swaggies and it must have been a hard life for them up so far away from anywhere. My mother would tell a story that if a swaggie came to the government house she would yell out to my father that it was only a swaggie and then give him some food. My father was in the school about 80 metres from the house and of course didn't hear her but it worked. It was a tough and lonely life up there in the 40's

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  26. I was born up near the Murray in 1945 We lived in Bearii some distance north of Numurkah. My father was the teacher at Bearii. I can remember my parents talking about swaggies and it must have been a hard life for them up so far away from anywhere. My mother would tell a story that if a swaggie came to the government house she would yell out to my father that it was only a swaggie and then give him some food. My father was in the school about 80 metres from the house and of course didn't hear her but it worked. It was a tough and lonely life up there in the 40's

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  27. I was born up near the Murray in 1945 We lived in Bearii some distance north of Numurkah. My father was the teacher at Bearii. I can remember my parents talking about swaggies and it must have been a hard life for them up so far away from anywhere. My mother would tell a story that if a swaggie came to the government house she would yell out to my father that it was only a swaggie and then give him some food. My father was in the school about 80 metres from the house and of course didn't hear her but it worked. It was a tough and lonely life up there in the 40's

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