Tag Archives: music hall

The Aussie ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’

14 Mar

The first Australian performance of the song-and-dance act, ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’, was in a burlesque at the Melbourne Opera House  (a venue in Bourke Street which later became the Tivoli) in mid-May 1892.

The artiste who performed it was the London ingénue, Alice Leamar, later to become famous for her racy music-hall number, ‘And Her Golden Hair Was Hanging Down Her Back’. Since Lottie Collins was planning to set off to America, Leamar had come to Oz in her stead with a company from George Edwardes’ London Gaiety Theatre.

The lyrics given for Leamar’s Australian performances of ‘Ta ra ra’ include a sixth verse which I have not come across elsewhere. They were published in the Australian Melodist, a songbook series containing the words of the latest theatrical songs. I include these lyrics in full below for the ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ fans out there.

The lyrics for ‘Ta-ra-ra’ give a vivid sense of how the verses set up the exultant gibberish of the chorus, allowing the song to jump happily between a knowing parody of demureness and a dervish of petticoats and limbs. In its characteristically cheeky prose, the Sydney Bulletin described Leamar’s performance of the chorus thus: ‘partly that of a spider getting enthusiastically off a hot stove and partly that of the native kangaroo… trying to break a record over a series of fences, and singing as she goes’.

A smart and stylish girl you see,
Belle of good society;
Not too strict, but rather free,
Yet as right as right can be!
Never forward, never bold,
Not too hot and not too cold,
But the very thing, I’m told,
That in your arms you’d like to hold!


I’m not extravagantly shy,
And when a nice young man is nigh
For his heart I have a try,
And faint away with tearful cry!
When the good young man, in haste,
Will support me round the waist;
I don’t come to, while thus embraced,
Till of my lips he steals a taste!

I’m a timid flower of innocence,
Pa says that I have no sense,
I’m one eternal big expense,
But men say that I’m just immense!
Ere my verses I conclude,
I’d like it known and understood,
Though free as air, I’m never rude –
I’m not bad, and not too good!

You should see me out with pa,
Prim, and most particular;
The young men say, ‘Ah, there you are!’
And pa says ‘That’s peculiar!’
‘It’s like their cheek!’, I say, and
Off again with pa I go-
He’s quite satisfied – although,
When his back’s turned – well, you know –

I’m a quiet girl, although
To skating rinks I sometimes go –
There is no harm in that, you know,
It gives a modest girl a show;
For when with giddiness you reel,
You hardly have the time to squeal,
When round your waist an arm will steal –
I say, girls, don’t it make you feel –

When in a train I chance to be,
It’s odd how men will sit next to me;
It cannot be my fault, you see,
If they presume to make too free.
I cannot tell the reason why,
I never make the least reply
But, ‘Oh, you should not!’, and ‘Oh, fie!’
Yet when the tunnels come – oh, my!

I feel I am so prim and staid
That on the shelf I may be laid;
It’s very hard, for I’m afraid
I’m not cut out for an old maid.
Still mother tells me not to fret,
I’ve heaps of time to marry yet,
And when I’m someone’s little pet
I won’t be bashful then – you bet!


Argus (Melbourne), 16 May 1892, 6.

Australian Melodist, no. 20 (Melbourne: n.d.), 6-8.

Bulletin (Sydney), 17 September 1892, 8

On Alice Leamar: Roy Busby, British Music Hall: An Illustrated Who’s Who From 1850 To The Present Day (London, 1976), 100.

The black origins of ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’

17 Feb

In 1897, a local band in Athens offered to play the British national anthem to a party of English volunteers in the Greco-Turkish war. Standing to attention with their caps doffed, ready to sing ‘God Save the Queen’, the volunteers were surprised when the band played ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’.

Whether this story is true or not, it underlines the extent to which ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ became synonymous with British culture after it was first performed in London in late 1891.

Lottie Collins (from Wikipedia Commons)

The performer who made ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ famous was the music-hall and burlesque artiste, Lottie Collins. With an East End accent and a childhood performing in the ‘alls (she first made her name at eleven in a skipping-rope act with her sisters), she too was as British as they come. It is almost hard to believe, given this, that ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ began its days across the Atlantic as an African-American song. It was one of the innumerable numbers created by black Americans which were poached by whites and then made into a commercial success.

At the start of the 1890s, Henry Sayers, the white manager of a blackface minstrel company, was drinking at a nightclub-cum-brothel run by Babe Connors in St Louis, Missouri. According to one commentator, Babe Connors’ “resort” ‘anticipated by three decades the elegant Harlem clubs of the Jazz Age’. It offered the sight of ‘Creole’ showgirls sans their knickers, and extraordinary music to boot. Its real star was Mama Lou, a big dark-skinned singer who dressed in a comic maid’s costume (calico dress, gingham apron, red bandana) and belted out memorable songs. Among her repertoire were ‘Frankie & Johnny’, the ‘Bully Song’, ‘There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight’, and (you guessed it):  ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’.

Henry Sayers was just one of many white composers and showmen who hung about Babe Connors’ at the start of the 1890s to watch the girls and rip off the songs. Soon after he attended that night, a female performer in his George Thatcher Minstrels company gave a version of ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ in a blackface farce called Tuxedo. This farce played first in Boston and then in New York at the Park Theatre, opening on 5 October 1891. While showing in New York, the song was heard by Stephen Cooney, Lottie Collins’ American husband. He quickly acquired her the English rights to the song – paying Sayers rather than Mama Lou, of course. Collins then worked up the can can-like dance which made her name on the international stage, asking a London lyricist to tailor the words to her needs. Once any whiff of blackface performance was removed, she debuted the act at the Tivoli in the Strand.

Before long,  Collins was dancing ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ in a pantomime at the Grand Theatre in Islington and also on the stages of other London music halls. Each time, audiences cheered and whistled to the song, earning her a rapturous applause. She went on to tour America with the act and at the turn of the century came to Australasia, by which time ‘Ta-ra-&c’ was only remembered as a British music-hall song.


On the Greek performance of the British ‘national anthem’:

Ernest Short & Arthur Compton-Rickett, Ring Up the Curtain, Being A Pageant of English Entertainment… (London: 1938), 201.

On Lottie Collins & Stephen Cooney:

‘A chat with Lottie Collins’, The Era, 10 August 1895, 14

Roy Busby, British Music Hall: An Illustrated Who’s Who From 1850 To The Present Day (London: 1976), 39.

On Babe Connors & Mama Lou:

David A. Jasen & Gordon Gene Jones, Black Bottom Stomp: Eight Masters of Ragtime & Early Jazz (New York: 2002), 2-3.

David E. Chinitz, T. S. Eliot & the Cultural Divide (Chicago: 2003), 39-40.

On the George Thatcher Minstrels’ Tuxedo:

New York Times, 5 October 1891, 4.

Eugene Tompkins & Quincy Kilby, The History of the Boston Theatre, 1854-1901 (Boston: 1908), 387.

The allure of prudery

9 Jun

Artistically speaking, the upsurge of prudery in English culture during Victoria’s reign was a boon to its comic poetry and song. So says J S Bratton anyway, in her now-venerable work The Victorian Popular Ballad (1975).

Before inhibitions about sexual display and discussion were on the rise, hack writers put out broadsheets aplenty (home-printing jobs on single sheets of paper, offered to passers-by by roving sellers in the street), full of baldly bawdy jokes in verse. But with greater reticence came greater ingenuity. Public prudery ‘put at an end to the threadbare reiteration of old jokes about sex in the old words and with the same old range of innuendoes and variations’, Bratton says. It forced writers ‘to look for new ways of making their point’.

The rich range of sexual allusions which became part of the Victorian music hall’s comic songs would not have developed absent this growing restraint. Nor would audiences would not have found suggestive songs so delightfully risque. The prohibitions on overt references to sexuality fostered the conspiratorial rapport which developed beyween singer and audience, making it hilariously naughty when Champagne Charlie popped his bottle in an ejaculatory burst of froth, or when a girl was said to have  ‘never had her [bus] ticket punched before’, or when erotic meaning was invested in a commonplace word and a raise of the eyebrows.

Advertising today still frequently trots out lines about being ‘sinfully indulgent’ or deliciously ‘devillish’ or ‘naughty’ – usually by buying chocolate or drinking ice tea, or something equally banal. But since there aren’t the same restraints on public discussion of sexuality, those suggestions are hackneyed and meaningless. There isn’t the same conspiratorial allure or comic mileage to be had from the risque anymore, not in an age of gross-out comedy and the bald literalness and acessibility of porn. Perhaps that’s part of the reason that there is a growing fascination with Victorian sexual mores and the allusive comedy of the music halls (I’m mindful here of the slated docu-series on Victorian sexuality said to feature Rupert Everett as narrator, and of course the range of scholarly literature touching on the relationship of public prudery to sexual practice in the era, from the work of Peter Bailey to John Tosh to Joy Dixon to Jeffery Weeks, to the innumerable volumes on Oscar Wilde’s trial and divorce scandals a la the Beecher and Tilton affair). An age where the limits of permissiveness were more sharply drawn – in public, at least – is fascinating to those operating within quite different, if uncertain, parameters.

The coster and the larrikin

16 Mar


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)


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.


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).