Josna Rege

265. Swagmen

In Books, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, travel, Work on April 22, 2014 at 10:38 pm

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Sheoak Sam, by George Washington Lambert, 1989

Sheoak Sam, by George Washington Lambert, 1989

As I travel in comfort, holding a train ticket, carrying a London Transport Oystercard (the world is your oyster?), pulling a neatly zippered suitcase on wheels, met and picked up by family in cars, I think of the many people who have no homes and no safety net and must continually move on from place to place exposed to the elements, dodging the law, carrying all their worldly belonging on their backs. They have been called by various names: bums, tramps, hobos, travelers, and swagmen.

Swagman-1Swagmen, as they are known in Australia and New Zealand, are an underclass of transient temporary workers who travel on foot from farm to farm, carrying their swags, or portable bedding, on their backs. There are numerous ballads featuring the swagman, most famously Waltzing Matilda, which is sometimes known as Australia’s unofficial national anthem. Here’s the tune I learned, but here is another, which may be the original. The swagman has been romanticized and become an iconic folk figure, as has the hobo in the United States, riding the boxcars in the era of the railroad. But in reality, the homeless life was not so romantic for the lonely men who had to live it. Read a moving post on the hard-traveling, (not-so-) Jolly Swagman on the Western Australian website, Words From the Dust.

If you’re of a mind to listen to some songs celebrating the life of the swagman, traveler, or hobo, try Harry McClintock’s Big Rock Candy Mountain, Shankar Jaikishan and Shailendra’s Mera Joota hai Japani from Raj Kapoor’s 1955 film Shri 420, Roger Miller’s King of the Road, Tom Paxton’s Rambling Boy, and John Prine’s The Hobo Song. [Note that all these songs are sung by men about men: today, women and children are swelling the ranks of the homeless in greater numbers.]

Aside from “Waltzing Matilda,” the other place I first encountered the figure of the swagman was in Norman Lindsay’s comic classic, The Magic Pudding, one of the favorite books of my childhood, given to us by Australian friends whom we had met in Greece. It too romanticized the traveling life, rejecting even the swag as too burdensome. In it, Bunyip Bluegum, the fastidious and well-bred hero, takes to the open road soon encountering and casting in his lot with two unlikely friends, Sam Sawnoff, the Penguin Bold and Bill Barnacle the sailor. But when our hero first leaves home he cannot decide “whether to be a Traveller or a Swagman,” and must consult the poet Egbert Rumpus Bumpus. Here is the poet’s response (duh), and his subsequent pearls of wisdom for the young bunyip:

gs009‘As you’ve no bags it’s plain to see
A traveller you cannot be;
And as a swag you haven’t either
You cannot be a swagman neither.
For travellers must carry bags,
And swagmen have to hump their swags
Like bottle-ohs or ragmen.
As you have neither swag nor bag
You must remain a simple wag,
And not a swag- or bagman.’

‘Dear me,’ said Bunyip Bluegum, ‘I never thought of that. What must I do in order to see the world without carrying swags or bags?’

The Poet thought deeply, put on his eyeglass, and said impressively—

gs012‘Take my advice, don’t carry bags,
For bags are just as bad as swags;
They’re never made to measure.
To see the world, your simple trick
Is but to take a walking-stick
Assume an air of pleasure,
And tell the people near and far
You stroll about because you are
A Gentleman of Leisure.’

‘You have solved the problem,’ said Bunyip Bluegum, and, wringing his friend’s hand, he ran straight home, took his Uncle’s walking-stick, and assuming an air of pleasure, set off to see the world.

                                  from The Magic Pudding (full-text with illustrations, Project Gutenberg)

Tomorrow is another day, when I shall arise and, assuming an air of pleasure, take to the open road. For tonight, signing off with the haunting Hobo’s Lullaby, by Woody Guthrie.

Down on his luck (Frederick McCubbin, 1889)

Down on his luck (Frederick McCubbin, 1889)

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  1. It sounds like such a free, romantic life, but I bet life was very hard for these poor guys.

    • I bet you’re right, Kate. It’s no fun being alone, homeless, unemployed, cold, and hungry, however many songs we sing about it. Thanks for commenting: I guess I completely forgot to reply to any of the comments on this post, so please forgive this late response.

  2. Fascinating Josna. So informative. Always wondered what a swagman was. Vaguely knew the term from the song, “Waltzing Matilda.”

    • Here I am replying more than a year late, Don! Yes, there are all these evocative words that we have heard but have never really learned the meaning of. It’s fun to delve into one and track it back in all sorts of unexpected directions.

  3. The homeless men in my area sitting under the highway viaduct, make a much less romantic picture than the swagmen in the paintings.

    • I agree, Kristin. This national romance with the idea of the hobo or the swagman is somehow bound up with the U.S. (and the Australian) national identity. The reality, as you note, is quite different today–and probably always has been; though perhaps the demographics of homeless people have changes in more recent times. [Don’t laugh at this ultra-late reply. It must have slipped by me in last year’s A-Z challenge!]

  4. Whenever I hear the word ‘swag’, I expect to see it written on the side of a sack being carried over the shoulder of a masked robber, wearing a striped jersey. It’s fascinating how one word can come to carry so many different images.

    • Keith, I can just see that striped-jerseyed robber in my mind’s eye! Yes, it’s a great word, rich with meanings. Thanks for your comment and so sorry for this crazily long delay in responding on my part–totally accidental. Cheers, J

  5. Funny that now we talk about “swag” being the fancy stuff you get for free at conferences, or in awards show gift bags.

    • Yes it is, Kari–and that you for your comment. Apparently it was back in the 1790s that the word “swag” acquired the additional meaning of “booty” or “plunder’. The root meaning is to sway heavily or lurch. In Australia the swag is what the swagman carries with him. Here’s some info on
      9Oh, and so sorry for the l-o-n-g delay in replying; I only just realized yesterday that I had somehow neglected to respond to any of the comments on this story.

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