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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: 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:

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 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.

Around the Maypole at the History Carnival

4 May

Welcome all to a giddy trip about the maypole at the History Carnival May 2010. What follows is a precis of good and zany posts on historical topics over the previous month.

Things topical

I begin with two  topical posts. The first is a discussion of the current and deliberate misuse of American history by the conservative Tea Party Movement. It appears on Inside Higher Ed and is a must-read for anyone interested in the politicisation of national histories.

Since the month of May marks the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the contraceptive pill to the US, I also begin with a post on that topic at Knitting Clio. In a fascinating (if longwinded) piece, Heather Munro Prescott argues that in spite of what Gloria Steinem might have said, a ‘contraceptive revolution’ didn’t just magically happen on US college campuses once the pill first appeared. It only started to happen after students campaigned hard for doctors to make it available.

Things Turn-of-the-Century

The swoony image below is from the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Munich magazine, Jugend, meaning ‘youth’. Over the past month, I’ve been loving the series of posts about this sumptuous Art Nouveau mag on the classy arts-journalism blog, The Blue Lantern. Lovers of Art Nouveau and fin de siecle German history, feast your eyes here and here and here and here.

For those interested in the same period in America, Edwardian Promenade‘s Evangeline Holland comes up with her usual goods in a piece on the origins of the tuxedo at Tuxedo Park. Love the pics and the detail as always, Evangeline.

On, lovers of this era can sate themselves on a post about the French singer, Mistinguett. She was nick-named ‘The Queen of the Music Hall’ in France in the era of such English music-hall greats as Maria Lloyd and Lottie Collins.

Far more seriously, Greenman Tim gives us the back-story to the attempted lynching of Edgar Freeman in Connecticut in 1878. Edgar Freeman was an African-American man accused of raping a 7 year-old white girl that year. As Greenman Tim argues, it was not in fact clear that Freeman was guilty of the crime.

At The Chicago History Journal, Joe Matthewson also discusses legal injustice towards black Americans in a pull-no-punches piece on the turn-of-the-century Supreme Court Chief Justice, Melville Weston Fuller.

Things Nineteenth Century

For those interested in heading back further into the nineteenth century, check out Karen Linkletter’s thoughtful piece on Abraham Lincoln’s legacy, and differing interpretations of his ‘House Divided’ Speech, at Milestone Documents.

You can also read the Wellcome Library blog’s brilliant excursus on ‘Siamese Twins‘, so-called after a famous conjoined duo hit European freak shows in the 1830s.

At the Virtual Dime Museum, readers will be charmed by a post on a newspaper begun by a prisoner at Brooklyn’s Raymond-St Jail in the 1870s. Read some great excerpts from the jailbird’s paper if you please.

The Virtual Victorian treats us to an exploration of Uncle Tom’s Cabin mania in the mid-century US. And what about Trish Short Lewis’ too-enigmatic piece on a female sex researcher from the Victorian era? (More information craved, Trish).

The Long View

At Zenobia: Empress of the East, Judith Weingarten introduces us to Eti, a strangely deformed female figure who appears as an image in Egypt’s Deir-el-Bahri temple. Eti is described in ancient texts as the ‘Queen of Punt’. For decades, scholars have argued about where this mysterious Punt might be. As Weingarten says, however, archeologists have now finally discovered its location. Go to the post for the breaking news.

If you can bear the ugly ads littering The Web Urbanist, Steve writes there about 10 ancient cities still inhabited today. The list includes Susa (Iran), Cholula (Mexico) and Damascus (Syria) – but to find out the rest, you’ll have to read on.

Finally, you can read about the Ice Age and view putative maps of the era at History Moments care of Jack le Moine.

That’s it for me for this month, history friends. Keep an eye out for the next host of the Carnival on the History Carnival site – or better still, offer to host it yourself!

The naming of the ‘Hottentots’

4 Mar

In a recent post on Sara Baartman, the ‘Venus Hottentot’, I noted that she was regarded as neither black nor sexy by the European crowds who saw her exhibited in 1810.

As art historian Z. S. Strother shows, the key reason that Baartman was so fascinating to Europeans was not the fact that she was a hyper-voluptuous black woman, but rather because she was assumed to be a ‘creature without language or culture, without memory or consciousness’.

For centuries before Baartman was brought to London, her people, then called Hottentots, occupied a special place in the European imagination. Now known as the Khoikoi, they were then a nomadic nation who ranged across the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa. Given how many ships stopped to water at the Cape, her people had more contact with Europeans than any other African population during the age of exploration by sea.

Composed of a lush series of popping and clicking sounds, the Khoikoi’s language was a matter of astonishment to the Europeans who encountered them. Most of the latter assumed that the click sounds were jabber, and that the people who spoke them were bereft of true language. The fact that they were given the name ‘Hottentot’ reflected this. The word is thought to have emerged from a compound of the Dutch verbs hateren (to stammer) and tateren (to stutter). The term hottentotism still apparently appears in English and French medical dictionaries to describe extreme stuttering. Hottentot is thus a highly pejorative label, conveying the once-popular European notion that the Khoikoi could not speak properly, or indeed really speak at all.

As Strother puts it, ‘language was central in 16th and 17th-century [European] thought because it marked the common frontier separating humanity from the beasts’. Given that the ‘Hottentots’ were regarded as without language, they were thus widely represented in Europe as ‘more like beasts than men’, and were distinguished from other native Africans.

When Baartman was brought to London in the early 18th-century, then, she was not seen as a representative of African or black womanhood, but rather of this specific race of not-quite-humans: the proverbial missing link between the human and animal realms.


Z. S. Strother, ‘Display of the Body Hottentot’, in Bernth Lidnfors (ed.), Africans On Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business (Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1999), 1-61.

The story of the stage-struck thief

10 Jan

The opening night of the former convict Robert Sidaway’s Sydney theatre was 16 January 1796. Edward Young’s The Revenge (1733) was performed that evening, with a gallery audience who paid in meat and flour rather than coin. The lead role of Zanga, the Moorish villain, was played by a convict actor, his face entirely smeared with burnt cork. Most likely Zanga’s costume was in the Elizabethan style, with a starched ruff at the neck and a great plumed hat and breeches. The evening’s costumes were supplemented by ‘some veteran articles from the York theatre’, a patron observed.

The items worn by the convict actors in the The Revenge had probably been stolen from the York theatre and brought over in one of the early convict ships. According to theatre historian, Robert Jordan, a one-eyed caster of plaster ornaments called William Richards was serving a sentence in Sydney for the theft of costumes from precisely that theatre. This roguish Richards was listed as a member of Sidaway’s theatre company staff in early 1897, and as an actor there a few years later. Back in England, he had been convicted for the theft of ‘sundry articles’ of theatrical attire, but was rumoured to have stolen much more:- to wit, a pair of scarlet morocco leather buskins, a pair of linen ruffles, three black feathers, a pair of paste knee buckles, and a fat silk sash.  Since convicts brought trunks of their belongings with them when they were transported, it is possible that Richards smuggled some of these items to the Antipodes.

An artful pair of buskins

William Richards appears to have become obsessed with stealing theatrical costumes well before the heist at the York theatre which caused his removal to Sydney. An announcement in the English Newcastle Covenant in 1890 declared that he was wanted for stealing items from the Manchester, Margate and Derby theatres as well as the one at York.  He was also found hiding in the Newcastle theatre with obviously suspicious intent.

As Robert Jordan says, it is unlikely that a fellow would steal theatrical costumes for their re-sale value. There were surely more profitable enterprises.  Richard’s thefts seem instead to have been motivated by a fascination with the stage. Here, then, was a man whose very transportation was caused by a passion for the theatre, and who likely took the proceeds of his theft to the colonies in the hope of pursuing that obsession anew. And here, too, was a fitting opening for a theatre built by a former convict: a play led by a convict actor decked out in hot items cunningly spirited across the seas from York.

Source: Robert Jordan, The Convict Theatres of Early Australia, 1788-1840 (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2003), 40-3, 247-50.

PS: Incidentally, Hazel Waters singles out The Revenge as a singular example of racism on the English stage in her book on that subject. A heavily-robed Zanga appears on its cover looking down viciously at his white foe:

Paying for the theatre in caper sauce

4 Jan

The first known theatre in Australia was in a converted tile shed in Brickfields, Parramatta, not far from the infant penal settlement of Sydney in 1793-4.

The best known of Australia’s early theatres, however, was built by the former convict baker, Robert Sidaway, and appears to have been located near a windmill at the Rocks, in view of the expanse of Sydney harbour  and the clutter of convict dwellings nearby. Sidaway’s theatre opened for business on 16 January 1796. It allowed patrons to pay for a ticket to the gallery not in one shilling coins, but an equivalent quantity of flour, or spirits, or meat. The English press had a hearty laugh at this when it found out:

‘According to a French journalist, admissions to the Theatre at Botany Bay are paid for either in money or eatables. For a leg of mutton you have free access to any place before the curtain, and if you add Caper Sauce you may take in a friend’ (Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, 24.9.1798).

In spite of the sarcasm, this practice was sometimes to be found in England’s smaller country theatres, including one in which the manager was paid in nothing but fish. Can you just imagine the brouhaha of bartering, the earnest pleas, the clouds of flour and stink of fish scales, and the frustrated crowds milling at the gallery door?

A playbill from Sidaway’s theatre dated June 1796, held at the National Library of Australia and displayed in larger format at Wikipedia.

Source: Robert Jordan, The Convict Theatres of Early Australia, 1788-1840 (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2003), 37