Tex Morton, Troubled Celebrity

18 Aug

New Zealand-born singer-songwriter Tex Morton is remembered as the father of Australian country music today.

He was Australasia’s country music star, beginning his career as a recording artist in 1936. The star of his own records, radio show, travelling rodeo show, how-to-play-guitar packs and comic books, he was a genuine celebrity throughout the tumultuous 1940s. With his fresh-faced looks, musical talent and self-promotional flair, he was sometimes mobbed by young women at his public appearances: a pop star before the term entered the vocabulary.

You can find many an admiring write-up of Morton’s career by country music specialists and aficionados. They note that he left Australia for ten years at the end of the 1940s, spending most of the 1950s touring Canada as a stage hypnotist.

What you won’t read is that Morton had a seriously troubled personal life before he left Australia in the 1940s.

In 1945, at a time when he was married with twin sons, Morton and the rodeo performer Lance Skuthorpe Jr were charged with the joint rape of a 16 year-old girl at a party in Darlinghurst, Sydney. The charges were dropped a couple of weeks after their first court appearance. Presumably this was because it was the girl’s word against theirs. Morton and Skuthorpe both admitted that they had sex with the young woman, but claimed it was consensual.

Not surprisingly, Morton split with his wife Marjorie around the time that the rape charge hit the press. He was back in the newspapers in 1946 when his estranged wife sued him for maintenance. She claimed that he only ever made irregular payments to help support her and their sons. The judge agreed. Morton’s attempt to avoid playing regular child support was unsuccessful, but only after he and Marjorie had traded bitter allegations about each other’s behaviour in the witness box.

In 1950, the Western Australian showman Bob Carroll made headlines in Perth by claiming that his wife Dorothy had conducted a long-running affair with Morton in the 1940s. Dorothy Carroll (later Ricketts) had performed alongside Morton in his roadshows as Sister Dorrie, the singing cowgirl.

It is fascinating that even though these scandals were widely reported, they had little impact on Morton’s celebrity at the time. They had also disappeared from public memory by the time he returned to Australia in the 1960s, hailed as the founding father of the local country music scene.

Final note

The musician-historian Toby Martin and I have an article coming out in the next issue of Australian Feminist Studies discussing the troubled relationship to women and domesticity in Tex Morton’s music and life.

An apology to Warren Fahey

7 Aug

After founding Larrikin Records in 1974 and having a long association with a musical ensemble called the Larrikins, folklorist and musician Warren Fahey has been hard and unfairly hit by the imbroglio surrounding the Men At Work hit ‘Down Under’.

Fahey sold Larrikin Records to Music Sales Corporation in 1998. He had nothing to do with the infamous lawsuit brought in 2008 by Larrikin Music Publishing, a revamped version of this company, against members of Men At Work and their label EMI.

The lawsuit, of course, was brought on the basis that ‘Down Under’ contained a flute riff based on ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’, the well-known Australian children’s song. Since Larrikin Music Publishing owned the copyright for this song, it claimed that it was entitled to a massive 60% of ‘Down Under”s royalties.

The claim was viewed both by the general public and Fahey himself as grasping and unfair. Though he urged Larrikin Music Publishing to give up its suit, however, Fahey still receives hate mail from Men At Work fans on the mistaken assumption that he was involved.

I am sorry to say that I unintentionally made a reference to the ‘Down Under’ case in Larrikins: A History which could be taken to suggest that Fahey was involved in the suit against Men at Work.

In my conclusion, I noted that Fahey founded Larrikin Records in the 1970s. I then went on in the same breath to mention the lawsuit in a way that – I see now – potentially intimates that Fahey was involved.

I am mortified that my careless summary of the case might contribute to the flak Fahey has received. I have sent him a profuse apology which he has accepted ‘in the spirit of larrikinism’ – a very decent and generous gesture, and indicative of the man.

Many thanks – and apologies again, Warren Fahey.

Larrikins and Bohemians at Ray Hughes Gallery

6 Aug

Here’s an oped piece of mine in the Sydney Morning Herald today: ‘Larrikin’ Has Been Colonised By the Elite.

It criticises the way some of Australia’s super-rich style themselves as ‘larrikins’ to suggest that they only have ordinary Australians’ interests at heart.

It also talks about Australia’s late-colonial larrikin history:

Colonial larrikins were far more interested in big-noting themselves – whether as binge drinkers, flash dressers or bare-knuckle fighters with aggression to burn – than they were in being ”ordinary”.

This colonial larrikin phenomenon emerged at a time when the casualisation of labour and the absence of a minimum wage created a precarious future for unskilled youth. They faced this lack of opportunity at the same time as others were making fortunes from land speculation and mining shares.

The uneasy combination of aspiration and resentment that they expressed on the streets was largely due to their economic predicament.

I’ll be talking about that larrkin history at Ray Hughes Gallery in Sydney’s Surry Hills this Thursday night (9 August 2012 from 6pm) as part of an event for the Shaken and Stirred Supper Club.

The event is called ‘Larrikins and Bohemians: the high and low lifes of Australian history’ and also features Tony Moore talking about his great new book Dancing With Empty Pockets: Australia’s Bohemians. More info and a link to ticket sales can be found here.

Larrikins: A History – Sydney launch on 26 April

22 Apr

Sorry about the extraordinarily long hiatus, everyone. Pleased to say, though, that one of the reasons for it is now out of the way. The book, Larrikins: A Historymy key labour for the past few years – has finally been published by the University of Queensland Press.

The launch is this Thursday evening, 6 for 6.30pm on 26 April, at Gleebooks (49 Glebe Point Rd, Glebe) in Sydney. If you live in the area:  I would love it if you came along and said hello.

I asked Mark Dapin, the novelist and recently sacked columnist and writer for the Good Weekend to launch the book. I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time – his maverick humour, always underpinned by a quiet eloquence and genuine smarts – and felt like a nervous schoolgirl emailing him about the launch. This is the man who once edited the bloke’s magazine Ralph and wrote the confronting crime novel King of the Road, and whose sundry articles on the strange quirks of contemporary Australian society and masculinity are always worth returning to.

Lucky for me he said yes.

photo of Mark Dapin

Mark Dapin

Larrikins: an interview

16 Jun

Last week I talked to Richard Adey on Radio National’s Life Matters about Larrikins: A History, the book due out with the University of Queensland Press early next yearHere is what the program’s website says about it:

For more than a century the term ‘larrikin’ has played into the myth about what it means to be an Australian male.

Melissa Bellanta traces the term larrikin from its derogatory meaning in the late 1800s, through to its positive reinvention in World War 1, to its heyday in 1970s Australian cinema.

But Dr Bellanta, from the University of Queensland, speculates the term may die out with the last of the baby boomers.

Here, too, is a podcast of the interview: http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2011/06/lms_2

Knife culture, or Australia’s lack of it

11 Jun

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald today discusses the culture of knife violence in Glasgow.

Endemic to the problem is the fact that so many of those involved valorise the carrying of knives and bearing their scars as a sign of tough masculinity. So too is the fact that gang-fighting has been normalised within certain Glaswegian neighbourhoods: either accepted fatalistically or actively lauded as a way of life.

The degree to which street violence can be seen as ‘cultural’ has long been controversial in debates about gang violence and juvenile delinquency. At worst, it becomes a way to lay all of the blame for the problems associated with street fights on the communities in which it takes place, ignoring the other ‘social’ factors at play (unemployment, badly-resourced schooling, poor public amenities and housing, etc).

From my perspective as an Australian historian who has researched urban youth gang fights in the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, it is striking to note the cultural differences with Glasgow. The most notable of these is that comparatively speaking, knives have played so little role in street violence among Australian youth.

Small numbers of organised criminal gangs fought with razors in late 1920s and 1930s Australian cities, especially Sydney, just as they did in Glasgow. Among the youth gangs called ‘larrikin mobs’ or ‘pushes’, however, many of which skirmished over territory, knives never played a significant role. There was a short-lived spurt of gun-fighting just after the First World War, particularly in the inner-Melbourne suburbs of Carlton and Fitzroy, but it never lasted long enough to become a part of those districts’ culture.

Glasgow’s Community Initiative to Reduce Violence thus seems to be on the money in directing itself chiefly at tackling knife culture before anything else. Its chief aim (apparently) is to not to stamp out youth gangs or turf wars per se, but rather to convince those involved to do away with the knives.

Bogan vs Larrikin

8 Jun

The term ‘bogan’ is one we often hear bandied about in Australia these days, not least by websites such as Things Bogans Like, Bogan Bingo and bogan.com.au. For those not familiar with the term, it used to mean something between redneck and suburban hillbilly, referring to uneducated persons of low income and crude opinions dressed in ugg boots and flannelette shirts. Now it used in a looser sense, used as a label for any person deemed to possess vulgar tastes. Among its enumeration of bogan enthusiasms, for example, the Things Bogans Like site includes reality TV, Palazzo Versace Australia, Buddhist statues as home furnishings and Louis Vuitton bags bought in Thailand. The official website for the Kath and Kim TV series adds to this list Gucci Envy Me clutch sprays and tan-in-a-can.

The fact that so many people are being called bogans these days seems to reflect an anxiety about the expansion of credit-fuelled consumption in Australian society. It also springs from people’s desire to prove the superiority of their own tastes by ridiculing other people’s tastes as bogan.

Since the bogan phenomenon is concerned with recent developments, it obviously differs from the idea of the larrikin during the period I discuss in Larrikins: A History, the book I finally finished writing earlier this year – that is, the years between 1870 and 1930. When the word larrikin first came into common Australian parlance in the late 1860s, at any rate, it meant ‘hoodlum’ or ‘street tough’. It was used by journalists and police to refer to young rowdies or street-gang members, or as a defiant way for those young people to refer to themselves. Rather than tapping into anxieties about credit-fuelled consumption or attention-seeking antics among newly cashed-up boors, the term larrikin was thus more concerned with fears of youthful street disorder.

Even though early usage of the word larrikin was initially different to the way that bogan is now used, it is interesting to note that a series of caricatures, theatrical skits and written pieces were published in the Australian press at the turn of the century that poked fun of larrikin youths’ style in a way not too different from bogan jokes today. These caricatures implied that rough larrikins were the epitome of vulgar tastes: whether because of what they wore, or how they talked, or the way they chose to amuse themselves.

Fascinatingly, too, the Australian colloquialism lair, which seems to have come into usage sometime later in the twentieth century, was essentially a combination of the two terms. It referred to someone of rowdy manners and loud dress sense: a hybrid of the word larrikin as it was once understood and bogan as it is understood today. In some ways, then, the bogan name-calling phenomenon isn’t wholly new. It would be interesting to know when exactly lair came into use, and when it  fell out of currency – because in many ways it described colourfully vulgar lifestyle choices not too different from those called bogan today.