27 Jul 2011

The Matilda Waltzers' Union

It is rather hard to imagine nowadays, but in my turbulent teens I was a 'folkie'. Every Friday and Saturday night would find me in smoky pubs and folk festivals jamming away on my tin whistles to tunes made famous by The Bushwackers, The Cobbers and their emulators. We danced the Brown Jug Polka and Strip the Willow and the Virginia Reel and mad galloping polka, to instruments like the ...ahem... Largerphone and the bodhran and the fiddle and the spoons and the squeezebox. It was rough and wild and great great fun. They are great memories.

The "Wackers," as they were fondly known are significantly responsible for the resurgence of Australian bush music and dancing in this country, and to me their version of the old songs is the only real version. The others are just plain wrong!

I've had their The Bushwackers Australian Song Book out in recent days as I plan for next term's folksongs. It has been a real nostalgia hit for me as I look through its battered pages. My copy is covered with old stickers saying things like 'smoking!' (a superlative in those days meaning much the same as the ubiquetous 'awesome' means today). Inside are glued words of old songs - The Black Velvet Band, The Catalpa and Lime-Juice Tub. It is old, worn and full of so many wonderful wonderful memories of my miss-spent youth.

Ah thems were the days.

While I was reminiscing, this page caught my eye. I remember thinking it was rather funny back in my youth, and it brought a smile to my face again today. Maybe it'll do the same for you. It's called The Matilda Waltzers' Union:
In 1877 the "professional" swagman - those who were swagmen by choice - formed their own "union". The inaugural meeting was held on the Lachlan River near Forbes in NSW and a collection of "frowsy deadbeats, loony hatters and aggressive cadgers" got together to vote office bearers and draw up regulations:

1. No member to be over 100 years old.
2. Each member to pay one pannikin of flour entrance fee. Members who don't care about paying will be admitted free.
3. No member to carry swags weighing over 10lb.
4. Each member to possess three complete sets of tucker-bags, each set to consist on nine bags.
5. No member to pass any station, farm, boundary-rider's hut, camp or private house without 'tapping' and obtaining rations and hand-outs.
6. No member to allow himself to be bitten by a sheep. If a sheep bites a member he must immediately turn it into mutton.
7. Members who defame a 'good' cook or pay a fine when run in shall be expelled from the Union.
8. No member is allowed to hum baking powder, tea, flour, sugar, or tobacco from a fellow-unionist.
9. Non-smoking members must 'whisper' for tobacco on every possible occasion, the same as other smokers.
10. At general or branch meetings non-smokers must ante up their whispered tobacco nuggets to be distributed amongst the officers of the Union.
11. Any member found without having at least two sets of bags filled with tucker will be fined.
12. No members to own more that one creek, river, or billabong bend. To sell bends for old boots or 'sinkers' is prohibited.
13. No member to look for or accept work of any description. Members found working will be at once expelled.
14. No member to walk more than five miles per day if rations can be hummed.
15. No member to tramp on Sundays at any price.

A further effort to give swagmen some kind of official status was a strange publication that appeared in 1900 entitled "The Swag: The Unofficial Flute of the Sundowners and Other Colonial Vagrants; with which is enfurcated the Bush Marconi and the Whaler's Telegraph".

The publication was aimed at the Governor-General, Lord Hopetoun, in the hope that he would obtain a better deal for the wanderers of the bush.

Amongst other things, the author reckoned that swaggies and their ilk, being true blue Aussies, should be represented at the functions celebrating the inauguration of the Commonwealth!

The Bushwackers Australian Song Book p44
Back to that Lagerphone. Are you curious? It was a upright pole - mostly a broom handle with two crosspieces covered in beer bottle tops. You played it by hitting the whole contraption instrument on the floor, and at the same time bashing the middle section with a solid piece of wood.

It wouldn't be Aussie bush music without it.


  1. Good times, good times!!!!
    I just knew you were an old "Wacker"!!!!

  2. Fun! I don't know the music you talk about in this post, but you're bringing back some muscial memories of my own misspent youth. Sometimes my husband and I belt out songs we remember from those times, and my kids think we are nuts.

  3. I love The Bushwackers. And bush music generally. Boy they are great exercise, and I love that they are something the whole family can enjoy.


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