Review: Dagworth Day – the musical

Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong,
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee,

And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag,
“You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me”.

Dagworth Day the musical

Local Arts received a boost at Old Petrie Town in Brisbane last Saturday (5 September 2009).

Dagworth was a sheep property in far western Queensland 100 kilometres north-west of Winton. It was owned in the 1890s by squatters of the Macpherson clan.

This period,  up till the beginning of the first world war in 1914,  was the peak time for graziers like the Macphersons. Even though the show has a narrative that closely parallels Waltzing Matilda – the musical, the  original lines and wit of its author, Bernie Dowling, come through.

The Dowling script holds the musical together. Nearly every theme can be found: class, womens’ suffrage, aboriginal dispossession – all played out on the wide brown land.

The main character, Sam Hoffmeister, is a shearer who loses his love (the squatter’s sister, Christina Macpherson), his union and his life.

Sacked by the union for supporting equal pay for an aboriginal shearer, satirically named Billy Tea, Sam becomes the ghostly narrator to what is a grim tale set to the backdrop of Queensland industrial strife. White people like to think of Aboriginal people as being dysfunctional, but where did all the poverty and dispossession come from? I am talking dispossession of black and white here. The union was suppressed and the leaders locked up on St Helena Island in Moreton Bay.

Abingdon Downs 1879
Abingdon Downs 1879 (Click to enlarge).

But then Sam Hoffmeister, he was a german and probably a preferred migrant. What of the Chinese, the Lebanese, the Assyrians, they weren’t even preferred – they were the people who the white australia policy was designed to keep out; and if not out, out od employment.

This is the time of aboriginal dispossession and so it is little wonder that Sam advises Billy to hold on tightly to the papers of the sulky he wishes to buy.

The yarn is spun around the mythology of Australia’s alternative national anthem, Waltzing Matilda, a republican song if ever there was one. Bernie Dowling even coined the lyrics to its predecessor which he called the The Gay Fusilier (originally from The Bold Fusilier that only had a few lines still remembered)

Waltzing Matilda
Sydney May, author of the first researched book on the subject, The Story of Waltzing Matilda, asserts that there was no piano at Dagworth Station, only ‘an instrument which played from a perforated roll’ and an autoharp (view image). Banjo Paterson himself later referred to Christina playing a ‘zither’.

Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred,
Down came the troopers, one, two, three,

“Where’s that jolly jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?”

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong,

“You’ll never catch me alive”, said he,

And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong,
“You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me”.

Christina Macpherson is credited with the music and Banjo Paterson with the words. Neither is entirely likely. But they certainly added to the colorful history of the period. What do academics call this? Bio-regional writing? All I can say is the tale comes out of the struggle between worker and squatter.

Bernie tells me his next project is to write another musical about Mary Gilmore —  author, journalist, poet, and communist (arguably). I wish him good luck.

Ian Curr
September 2009

Mic Travers and the Pine Rivers Celtic Folk Outfit played the music and sang the songs. Original Lyrics / music by Gloria Swenson.

4 thoughts on “Review: Dagworth Day – the musical

  1. Over the years many historians have mulled over the origins of the popular Australian Anthem ‘Waltzing Matilda‘.

    Some of their opinions are featured in the ABC’s version called ‘The Matilda Myth‘, but the ‘Labor’ historian and ABC favourite, Ross Fitzgerald, is the one interviewed.

    “Emeritus Professor in history and politics at Queensland’s Griffith University, Professor Ross Fitzgerald, adds weight to the claim (in the ABC report)”.

    “There seems to me no doubt that Waltzing Matilda wasn’t just a little romantic ditty, it was a very deep, multi-faceted political allegory and lament,” he said. “It (Watzing Matilda) followed on directly from Banjo Paterson’s first-hand account of what had happened in the 1894 shearers’ strike in general, and what had happened specifically at the Dagworth Station, and he was aware of the suicide or murder of Frenchy Hoffmeister.” — ABC News “Waltzing Matilda an old cold case

    Professor Fitzgerald is wrong. Paterson made no ‘’first-hand account’’ of the 1894 Queensland Shearer’s Strike. Both Fitzgerald and Macgoffin imply that Banjo Paterson was a socialist.

    Bill Magoffin on the ABC’s Hindsight program ‘Who’ll come a waltzing?‘: “It’s a rebel song: ‘You’ll never take me alive, said he.’ It’s the Australian fighting spirit, and that’s what fires people up, and that’s the way I feel when I hear it…”

    And his son Richard Magoffin on the same program went on:

    “It’s a reply to Henry Lawson’s ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’ from 1891. These people were confederates. They were very competitive, but Paterson was aware of the trouble that Lawson got into with ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’ but he did reply and he did it in a succinct way through the allegory.”

    Quite the contrary, Paterson was a fervent nationalist who supported home rule for Ireland, and Australia for Australians. If he was a rebel it was for nationalism not for the workers. Banjo Paterson was a guest of the squatters at Dagworth, the Macphersons, who disliked the English and distrusted police and probably regarded them as agents of the English.

    Richard Magoffin (1937-2006) is the historian who is credited with discovery of the background about Waltzing Matilda. His son, Bill Magoffin, is interviewed on the ABC programs about his father’s involvement with the squatters at Dagworth the setting for Banjo Patterson’s ballard, Waltzing Matilda.

    Just last year the creators of ‘Dagworth Day— the musical’ [Ray Swenson, Bernie Dowling and Gloria Swenson] explored the same ideas that ABC programs Hindsight & BackGround Briefing now does in ‘The Matilda Myth‘.

    Photo: Creators of ‘Dagworth Day – the musical’, from left to right; Ray Swenson, Bernie Dowling and Gloria Swenson.

    Bernie Dowling describes the idea behind the script of musical that he wrote well before the ABC came up with the idea of doing a show about it:

    Squatters and unionist shearers face off in armed battle at Dagworth station. It is the second shearers’ strike within three years, both born from wages cuts of more than 10%.

    Shearer Sam Hoffmeister was shot in the shoulder during the battle of Dagworth [September 2-3 1892] and he and other unionists ride from the sheep station, pursued by squatters and traps [troopers]. Dagworth Day in Dowling’s script is actually compressed from three days in September, 1892. (Later) At that other billabong, Hoffmeister dies in uncertain circumstances. [Hoffmeister was killed in 1894 by a bullet to the roof of the mouth]. What is certain is he does not drown himself.

    — from The quarterly Newsletter of the Arts Alliance of Pine Rivers
    In an age of internet, the ABC makes no mention of or acknowledgement to the creators of ‘Dagworth Day — the musical’ [See ABC radio National programs (BackGround Briefing and Hindsight) that came up with the concept they call ‘The Matilda Myth’.]

    And this despite simple Google searches showing that ‘Dagworth Day— the musical’ was published and the show put on at the Old Petrie town on Saturday, September 5th 2009 i.e. it was developed long before the ABC came up with ‘The Matilda Myth’. It would be interesting to know how the ABC researchers came up with the concept and why the ABC producers decided to back the project. Com’on Aunty, fess up, could it be that your researchers trawled the net and decided to pursue the trail blazed by a local arts group, the ‘Arts Alliance of Pine Rivers‘?

    Maybe the squatters were right, in this case at least, the workers who produce the art end up with nothing? And what about the traditional owners of the land?

    Regardless of where the ABC got the idea for their show they should stump up the money so that ‘Dagworth Day – the musical’ can be put on by local artists for people to enjoy.

    Ian Curr
    Feb 2010

  2. Bernie Dowling says:

    I do not know if the Matilda Myth borrowed any of my material for its program.

    I sent the producer a copy of our play Dagworth Day a few days before the program went to air and he did not acknowledge receiving it.

    I posted a comment on the Background Briefing website and it is not up yet.

    Dagworth Day was first produced on September 5, 2009 and we owe no debt to the program The Matilda Myth.

    We sent offers of the play to more than 200 theatre companies so if you know any in your area, ask them to produce it next year, The good history in Dagworth Day needs to replace the bad history in the Matilda Myth.

    As for the ABC seemingly censoring me, well, there you go.

  3. I want to know what a ‘Squatter’ is and what a Squatter wore.

  4. Mira,

    A squatter was a person who settled on aboriginal land in Australia.

    The photo shown in the article above shows what squatters did and what they wore:

    You can enlarge it by going to the article and clicking on the image.

    Why do you ask?

    The Editor

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