The Australian Historical Association has its annual conference in Melbourne on 7-10 July this year. Called Locating History, it will explore the interconnections between history and place. Here’s the abstract for the paper I intend to write for it:
Mother and Moonshine: The Minstrel Home-Song in Australia
To a hostile reviewer for the Bulletin, the blackface minstrel show was all about “moonshine and mother”. Songs about mother languishing by the hearth as her sons roamed, or about the love of Kentucky, or Dixie, or Ireland, were a regular feature of the late nineteenth-century Australian minstrel show. Most often these nostalgic songs have been explained as a way to draw middle-class audiences to minstrelsy; a way of pandering to the cult of the home among the Victorian bourgeoisie. It is intriguing, however, that the popularity of sentimental minstrel-ballads continued into the twentieth century, at a time when middle-class men are said to have been renouncing domesticity, and the relationship between women and the home was similarly in the throes of change. Rowdy audience members also loved the hear-em-and-weep songs about home and mother on the Australian minstrel-show stage.
This paper is an attempt to come to terms with minstrels songs about home in a way which avoids a simplistic class-based interpretation of their appeal. In it, I explore what the continued appetite for these songs has to tell us about popular Australian attitudes to sentimentality, to nostalgia and to place at the turn of the twentieth century.