On sentimental cowboys

28 Jan

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Last post I wrote about Lance Skuthorpe (1870-1958), proprietor and presenter of an Australian rough-riding show called Skuthorpe’s Wild Australia in the early 1900s. What fascinates me after reading more about him is his combination of sentimentality with a tough masculinity.

According to Lem Partridge, one of Skuthorpe’s long-term riders and managers, ‘Skuey’ was incurably reckless with his cash. Just as soon as he raked in good returns from a show, he had spent them and was broke again. Life was ‘full of laughter and heart-break’ with Skuthorpe, Partridge said. And what went along with this boom-and-bust way of living was a simultaneous hardness and tenderness of character.

Skuthorpe was in many ways as hard as nails. What else would one expect from a rough-rider whose trademark style in the saddle was a nonchalent immoveability, acting as if the frenzied buckjumper beneath him was nothing at all? He was also notoriously tough with his fists, going deaf in mature age from too many blows to the head during fights as a younger man. But at the same time, he was drawn to the sappiest ballads and poems. So far as his biographer Jack Pollard was concerned, Skuthorpe’s favourite song was the super-saccharine ‘I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight, Mother’, closely followed by ‘The Soldier’s Poor Little Boy’ (the lyrics for which are below) and ‘The Dewy Downs of Yarra’. ‘Lance’s repertoire of bush ballads and folk songs was remarkable’, Pollard continues, ‘…and he hoarded them with a sentimentality common in such a hard Australian bushman’.

The more I read of late-Victorian and early-twentieth century English-speaking culture, the more it seems to me that the flash cove who mixed toughness with sentimentality was a recognisable type – be he an Austalian bush/showman or larrikin, poor Irish-American fan of minstrelsy, or Cockney vaudeville enthusiast. Minstrelsy and vaudeville both mixed ultra-weepy songs about dead mothers with a riotously anti-authoritarian comic shtick, just as bushranger melodramas portrayed iron outlaws with hearts o’gold. Like the bush ballads hoarded by Skuthorpe, these theatrical forms appealed to rough blokes (among others) who were said to cry and roar along to the action depending on the emotional mood. This mix of hard and soft, for want of less overtly gendered metaphors, points to how limited our imagination of masculinity and femininity can be. If even someone like Skuthorpe was given to the expression of tenderness, why do we so often persist in seeing sentimentality as feminine, as something alien to masculine sensibilities?

PS: here are the lyrics to “The Soldier’s Poor Little Boy”:

The snow is fast a-falling,
And the wind on loudly roars,
When a poor little child, quite frozen,
Came up to the rich lady”s door.
He spied her from the window so high,
Which filled his heart with joy:
“For mercy sake, some pity on me take;
I”m a soldier’s poor little boy.

“My mother died when I was young,
My father went to the war;
And many a battle so brave he has fought,
Always covered with wounds and scars.
Many a mile on his knapsack
He carried me with joy.
But now I’m left quite parentless-
I”m a soldier’s poor little boy.

“The snow is fast a-falling,
The night is coming on,
And if you don’t protect me
I shall perish before the morn.”
She rose up from the window so high
And opened the door to him:

“Come in, you young unfortunate child;
Thou shalt never wander again.
My only son in the war was slain,
My pride, my all, my joy;
And as long as I live, some shelter will I give
To a soldier’s poor little boy.”

References

The above image is from Nelson Boren Art, a site full of similar schmaltzy offerings.

Jenny Hicks, Australian Cowboys: Roughriders and Rodeos (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 2000), 36-7

Veronica Kelly, ‘Melodrama, an Australian pantomime, and theatrical constructions of Australian history’. Journal of Australian Studies (1993) 38: 51-61.

Jack Pollard, The Roughrider: The Story of Lance Skuthorpe (Lansdowne: Melbourne, 1962), 94.

S. J. Routh, ‘Skuthorp (Skuthorpe), Lancelot Albert (1870 – 1958 )‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.11 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1988), 627-628.

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