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The Georgia Minstrels in Queensland, 1878

16 Mar

Last Friday I was looking at Queensland’s reception of the Georgia Minstrels, an African-American minstrel troupe managed by the impresario, Charles B Hicks, who toured Australia in 1877-79. They were sensations for the first eighteenth months of their tour, performing to packed houses around the colonies (Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland) and attracting a certain celebrity.

When the Georgias arrived in Brisbane on the evening of 27 February 1878, a crowd gathered at the wharf to see them disembark. In their advance publicity, they had billed themselves as ‘The Great American Slave Troupe… Composed of Colored Men’. Evidently, then, there was a good degree of racial if not racist curiosity among the Brisbanites gawping at them as they hauled their belongings on-shore. (Perhaps people were interested in what the Georgias looked like sans make-up, as they blacked-up on stage in the same way that white minstrel performers did, covering their skin with burnt cork or greasepaint). And that curiosity of course played into their popularity in Brisbane, Toowomba, Warwick and Ipswich over the following weeks.

DON’T BE DECEIVED

We are not a party of White Men with Blackened Faces.

THE ORIGINAL GEORGIAS

are composed of

AMERICAN CITIZENS

of

AFRICAN DESCENT,

And are, therefore, the only exponents of the Native Humor of the Colored Man that have ever visited Australia.

The Georgias attracted a broad popular audience when they were in Queensland. They gave matinee performances towards the end of their tour, and entreated would-be patrons to bring along their children for a ‘thorough treat’. They also performed in the Botanic Gardens on a Saturday afternoon a couple of times. One of these occasions was for a celebration of St Patricks’ Day, however, which I imagine was a dog-whistle to the more rumbustious among their audiences, for an afternoon of al fresco revelry under the sign of Erin’s Isle green. And apropos of my previous post about larrikins’ attraction to blackface minstrelsy, there is an indication that a few larrikins were among their audiences in Ipswich:

‘Those in the back seats were unable [to hear] at times – through the noisy and disgraceful conduct of a number of ill-mannered youths – who seemed to have enteted the building for no other purpose than to make themselves obnoxious’.

Billy Kersands

(An image of famous African-American minstrel, Billy Kersands, who was managed by Charles B Hicks in the mid-1880s. He didn’t come to Australia with Hicks’ Georgia Minstrels, but a performer called Billy Wilson did, and the two seem to have had similar performance styles. Wilson’s Australian performances attracted a great deal of commentary about the way he used his mouth and its size, as did Kersands’ in America).

References

Brisbane Courier, 28 February and 4 March 1878.

Queensland Times (Ipswich), 16 April 1878.

Richard Waterhouse, ‘Antipodean Odyssey: Charles B Hicks and the New Georgia Minstrels in Australia, 1877-1880’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, v.72, no.1, June 1986: 19-39 (fabulous, closely-researched article).

The coster and the larrikin

16 Mar

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Last post I wrote about the larrikin Bill in C J Dennis’ The Sentimental Bloke (1915). Even though he had grown up a pugilist in a Melbourne slum, this Bill was famous for his romantic longings and penchant for reverie. (That’s his wedding scene from the 1919 Raymond Longford silent film based on Dennis’ poetry).

Dennis’s bloke Bill shows us that the Australian larrikin was able to be imagined in bewilderingly different ways by the early twentieth century. In 1870, Marcus Clarke had decided that the larrikin was much the same as Sam Hall, a rough music-hall character who went to the scaffold for murder, shouting ‘damn your eyes!’ at all society. In The Sentimental Bloke, however, the larrikin was a bovver-boy given over to a desire for domesticity. It was extraordinary that this sentimentalised view of the larrikin was possible, given that only a few decades before, larrikins were the subject of a moral panic in Australia over street youth and their gang-raping propensities. There was still concern about the degeneration of urban youth in the early twentieth-century, mind you, as well as the survival of early negative views of larrikinism. But these were no longer the only perspective available on Australian boys from the push.

The Australian larrikin’s progress from Sam Hall to Sentimental Bloke in C J Dennis’ poetry (and its filmic and theatrical spin-offs) almost exactly mirrors the characterisation of roughs in the English music hall. As historian Peter Bailey sees it, anyway, the quintessential music-hall character in mid-century England was none other than the murderous Sam Hall. The leading character in the 1860s and 1870s was the heavy swell: the plebeian Champagne Charlie who whooped it up in even higher style than his betters when out on the town. By the 1890s, however, the coster singer a la Albert Chevalier predominated, dressed in a pearlie-stitched velvet suit singing sweetly of “my old Dutch” (his wife; rhyming slang with Dutch fife). This shift in music-hall characterisation represented a movement, Bailey says, from class culture to mass culture – from popular resistance, through emulation of the upper class, to domestication.

There’s a lot to mull over in Bailey’s conclusion that coster singer of the 1890s represented the triumph of sentimental mass culture over the oppositional class culture of old. Since there are so many correspondences between the coster and the larrikin, this same argument might well also be applied in an Australian context. Nonetheless, I find it hard to accept the implicit judgment in the view that popular culture wrought a transition from an insurgent class identity to sentimentalised domesticity. Anyone brought up on feminist critique would surely blanch at the suggestion that representations of rough costers and larrikins are to be preferred over sentimental ones on the basis that the latter are inauthentic and that in any event sentimentality is undesirable. What Bailey is essentially doing via this argument is pitting a positive masculine notion of authentic toughness against a negative feminine one of overdone sentimentality – an old old trope by now. And this view can also be seen in Australian discussions of Dennis’ Bill. The Sam Hall-style larrikin is seen as a heroic figure, of sorts, while the Bloke-style one is considered an absurd fabrication, born of Dennis’ own middle-class fantasy.

I guess for my own purposes, what I am interested in why a sentimental vision of the larrikin gained such currency and popularity in the first decades of the twentieth century. I’m interested in explaining the shift from bad boy to sweet one rather than passing judgment about it. At the same time, I’m aware that the bad-boy vision didn’t disappear. In the 1920s, for example, the vaudeville comic Roy Rene gave his own spin to a raffish larrikin-figure on the popular stage. His Mo character was a Jewish boy from the slums of Woolloomooloo: frequently drunken, leery, and full of double entendres, a larrikin of a very different mould to Bill from Dennis’ poetry.

(Roy Rene as Mo)

mo.jpg

The coexistence of these two larrikin figures suggests that there wasn’t some overall debasement of cultural attitudes in early twentieth century Australia, in which tastes otherwise attuned to the oppositional and carnivalesque turned instead to the sentimental. What seems to have happened is that the sentimental developed alongside a continuing interest in the raffish, anti-bourgeois larrikin type. Views of the larrikin diversified, in other words, rather than changing neatly from one thing to the other. So far as I know the same thing happened in England: the sentimental costers of Albert Chevalier still competed for room on the music-hall stage with more rebellious and gritty personae.

Ultimately, I suspect that recognising and interpreting the development in views of the larrikin/coster will require a less judgmental perspective on what was taking place in popular culture than the one offered by Bailey. It won’t be possible to explain the emergence of sentimental figures as part of an overall feminisation of Anglo culture. And nor will it be possible to simply equate mass culture with a syrupy domestic sensibility, imagined as something insincere and bad.

References

Peter Bailey, ‘Custom, capital and culture in the Victorian music hall’, in Robert D Strorch, ed., Popular Culture and Custom in 19thC England (London: Croom Helm, 1982): p. 198.

Suzanne Clark, Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991) (on the denigration of sentimentality and mass culture as feminine).

Marcus Clarke, ‘Australian larrikins’, Australasian, 19 March 1870.

C J Dennis, The Sentimental Bloke (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1915).

Jonathan Docker, Postmodernism and Popular Culture: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), pp. 198-218 (on Roy Rene as Mo).

Andreas Huyssen, ‘Mass culture as woman: modernism’s other’, in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (London: Macmillan Press, 1986), pp. 65-81.

John Rickard, ‘Lovable larrikins and awful ockers’, Journal of Australian Studies 56 (1998): 78-85 (on sentimental visions of the early 20thC larrikin).

The Sentimental Bloke

13 Mar

When my sister was still in high school a few years ago, I went to see her in a musical based on C J Dennis’ Songs of the Sentimental Bloke. Apart from watching her as an Anzac-era working girl, flouncing and sashaying about in the chorus, the main thing I thought as I sat in the audience was how little Dennis’s work now speaks to us. Published as a collection of poetry in 1915, it became immensely popular during World War One – particularly given that Dennis wrote further spin-offs, The Moods of Ginger Mick and Digger Smith, which featured Anzac heroes. There seemed to be such a gulf to me, sitting in the auditorium of a Sydney high-school, between what appealed to wartime Australians and what appeals to audiences now.

For a start, the vernacular in which Dennis had his characters speak no longer sounds Australian (”Er name’s Doreen… Well, spare me bloomin’ days!’). No one hawks rabbits through Melbourne slums now, either, as Bill the Bloke does in Dennis’ poems.  More than anything else, though, the reason that the musical seemed so removed from my own sensibility, at least, was because it wasn’t funny. In its own day, The Sentimental Bloke was renowned for its comedy, but what is comic now about a plain-torkin’ bloke who loves a ‘tart’ from a pickle factory?

sentimental-bloke.jpg

(Still from an amateur production of The Sentimental Bloke, ransacked from this public photo-album. Click to enlarge.)

When I first began thinking about it, I decided that perhaps The Sentimental Bloke was funny in its day because of the incongruity of its larrikin character, denizen of Little Bourke Street, talking of ineffable yearnings and ‘ideel love’. There was something condescending about the laughter he incited then, with his rough vernacular rubbing up against his soft spot for Doreen. Perhaps this humour was augmented, I surmised, by the fact that sentimentality was not quite the thing for a man of the time. In an era when men were increasingly supposed to be tough, muscular, and beloved of other men’s company, here was the doltish bloke Bill carrying on about Doreen, oblivious to the fact that his wistfulness made him ridiculous to his fellow man.

Now that I have been reading a little further into it, it appears that most of The Sentimental Bloke‘s Anzac-era fans found it funny not because they found his sentimentality ridiculous, but because they found it sweet. I know that humour can be both things at once: witness, for example, the comicality of Michael Caton’s Daryl Kernigan in The Castle, a latter-day sentimental bloke if there ever was one, or Kath’s husband Kel Knight in the TV series, Kath and Kim. But from reading contemporary accounts so far, I don’t get any sense of the snigger-snigger that Kel and Daryl incite in reactions to The Sentimental Bloke. So far, references to his embodiment of supposedly universal longings, and of a defiantly anti-elitist love of the Bloke’s sweetness, are what prevail. 

In his preface to the 1915 edition of Dennis work, for example, Henry Lawson vaunted the Bloke’s everyman status and his ‘exquisite humour’ as the key reason for the book’s appeal. Others similarly spoke of the Bloke’s ‘sentiment’ as his most alluring quality. And the very pictures that accompanied the original book suggest that this sense of his sweetness didn’t come with the laugh-at-the-bogans edginess of later comic offerings. They portrayed Bill as a chubby cupid, pink-skinned and baby-cute.  

sbloke.jpg

How, I wonder, does all this celebration of sweetness and sentimentality fit in with the historiography of masculinity in the early twentieth century? In Making the Australian Male, for example, Martin Crotty looks at the way that middle-class Australian boys were inculcated in a certain dashing manliness and militarism in the lead-up to World War One. They were taught to place less emphasis on domesticity and sentimentality than the generation before them, he says. In an English context, John Tosh similarly talks about a movement away from an expressive personal style and from domestic desires among middle-class men in this period. In Australasia, there is also of plenty of commentary on the consolidation of the muscular, stoic-masculine ideal after the War, as the Anzac myth got underway.

The popularity of the Bloke’s wistfulness makes me think that there was rather more attraction to sentimentality among Australian and New Zealand men in this period (among working-class and populist men at least) than we might imagine from this historical literature.

References

Martin Crotty, Making the Australian Male: Middle-Class Masculinity, 1870-1920 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001).

C J Dennis, Songs of the Sentimental Bloke (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1915), including preface by Henry Lawson.

John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth Century Britain: Essays on Gender, Family and Empire (Pearson Longman, 2005), especially the last chapter.

Sleepless in Smith-street

17 Jan

You hear plenty about how chronically underslept the kids are these days, compared to some unspecified days of yore – sometime before social networking sites and PSPs, presumably. But go back a little more than a century, and outside polite society there wasn’t a lot of early-to-bed going on. No doubt I have a skewed vision of this, having read police courts for inner Melbourne’s seamy Fitzroy and Collingwood during the 1880s so recently. The knockabout demographic in those places was hardly representative. But still, it’s astonishing to think of how many young children and teens wandered the streets there in the small hours.

What about Thomas and Walter Cahill, for example, two waifs who were picked up among a swarm of ‘little outlaws’, crouching in an outhouse sometime around three in the morning? Or the four larrikin boys caught throwing stones at the market-gardener, Joshua Ah Ken, around four in East Melbourne? And the eight year old hauled away by police after stealing a pitcher from a back lot at 3.30am? And then there were the kiddie labourers – like Albert Facey in A Fortunate Life – who worked twelve hours or more a day, or who were performing nights before the theatre industry was regulated, as dancers and conjurors’ assistants. It makes SMSing your friend some hours after dinner a little less drastic, no?

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Butchery in Smith-street, Collingwood, with kiddies & others loitering outside (SLV, 1860s).

 

The Larrikin’s Hop & blackface minstrelsy

15 Nov

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Well, my article on larrikins’ use of popular theatre to fashion their identity on colonial streets is to be published in Australasian Drama Studies sometime soonish, called “The Larrikin’s Hop”. The title comes from a larrikin song sung in blackface in the late 1880s and early 1890s, by Australian minstrel-vaudeville comic, Will Whitburn.

 

I’m now writing a piece for an American journal about larrkins’ relationship to blackface performance. To this end, I’m neck-deep in four wonderful works: Eric Lott’s Love and Theft (1993), Shane and Graham White’s Stylin’ (1998), W T Lhamon Jnr’s Raising Cain (1998), and William J. Mahar’s Behind the Burnt Cork Mask (1999). For sheer style, these books are treats. Each abounds with the literary equivalent of the black/face masculine dash it describes. ‘This passage, in all its woozy syntax and headlong rush’, writes Lott at one point, describing how it feels to be taken on some of his own more virtuoso prose-flights. White historians might not be able to jump, it seems, but they sure as hell can kick up a syntactical shindig if they choose.  

Reading this American scholarship is prompting me to think about the reasons that blackface minstrelsy appealed to Australian larrikins, and how this was different (if at all) to its appeal to the white working-class in America. That blackface  appealed to disaffected youths in Australia, many of them from an Irish background, obviously has a lot to do with the way blackness and blackface operated symbolically throughout English-speaking western society. (On this point, Robert Nowatzki has written an interesting article about the appeal of blackface to Irish immigrants to America).

Even with this transnational logic at work, however, it is not possible to make everything said about the American minstrel-show applicable to Australia. Each of the historians I’ve just mentioned see minstrelsy as a way for white Americans to come to terms with abolition, with the consequent troubling presence of free blacks in public places, and the competition for work between black Americans and the white working-class. Obviously, Australia had its own history of violent struggle between Aboriginal people and white colonists. But there was not a daily confrontation and inter-relation between white and black in Australian cities as there was, say, in New York. Australian working-class resentment was directed primarily at Chinese labourers – a fact no doubt influencing minstrel efforts to distinguish representations of blackface from Asianness there.

The combined effect of these things meant there was not the same intensity in Australia to the dynamic Lott identifies in white Americans’ relationship to blackface. He speaks of white Americans’ voyeuristic fascination for black bodies, which built up a kind of Freudian charge from frequent contact in urban places. He also speaks of a white longing to mock and plunder black culture, to steal from it and hobble its power. Neither of these related forms of desire existed with the same forceful immediacy in Australia. As a result, the minstrel-show was never as socially threatening there.

Australian minstrelsy attracted a more diverse audience than its American or English counterparts: it still appealed to workingpeople and the ‘disorderly classes’, but it wasn’t confined to this constituency. Blackface could also be used more freely to signify other things in addition to race: anti-authoritarianism, sexual licence, the pleasures of display and violent release. And in particular, its style was available to Australian larrikins, open for adoption and combination with other influences (that of Irish and Cockney characters from English music-halls, for example) to become part of their own distinctive identity.

Larrikin theatricalities

24 Oct

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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.