So recently I finished a piece about larrikin culture, and its theatricality, in late-19thC Australia. Larrikins were renowned for loitering in the vestibules of colonial theatres, and afterwards packing into the galleries to amuse themselves at everyone else’s expense during a show. They were also among the mob at the back of smaller suburban venues of a Saturday night. Sometimes they hung about grabbing the top-hats of the dress-circle crowd, crushing them beneath their high-heeled boots. But larrikins also specialised in sartorial pretensions of their own – not just the fancy boots, but bell-bottomed trousers, coloured neck-ties, and jauntily-tilted hats. They walked with a swagger, set their faces with a leer; all in all, a self-conscious mode of self-presentation. The same could be said of larrikin women, who dolled themselves up in flounced dresses and brazen face.
The theatricality of larrikin identity has often been observed in accounts of them making a nuisance of themselves in colonial cities during the 1870-90s. But I haven’t read anything about the role played by popular theatre – about the way that larrikins used it as a resource upon it when styling their street persona. Hence my paper. It looks at the role of coon songs from American minstrel-shows, and coster swell songs from English music halls as inspiration for Australian larrikin culture. Who would have thought that blackface ‘coon’ characters would have had such an influence on what it seen now as such an ocker cultural identity? But it seems to me that this was the case.
Larrikins and ‘coons’ were both reviled as savage and oversexed at the end of the century, for intimidating people in the street, for thieving and living the fast life. Little wonder, then, that dance-mad larrikins would have kicked up a storm to songs like I’m a Hot Thing or Darktown is out To-night, feeling a sense of gleeful recognition in the words and the toe-tappin’ beat:
Warm coons’ a-prancin’s, swell coons a-dancin’
Tough coons who’ll want to fight;
So, bring along your blazers,
Fetch out your razors, Darktown is out to-night.