Go Golly, Go!

For most people, the golliwog will always be associated with Robertson’s Jam – the brand’s smiling mascot and a comforting reminder of childhood. dailymail.co.uk

Defending the indefensible seems futile when self-appointed spokies for the cause use very public platforms to denigrate detractors from the get-go. So it is with some trepidation that I defend poor Golly.

When opinion is offered forth in columns it is always as well to remember a personally-held view does not a fact make, and it simply does not matter if the pen belongs to someone describing themselves as either academic, a researcher, or a member of a government authority appointed to castigate us. It is still opinion; nothing else.

When Ms Ammunson, from the HRC, doubled-down on her claim last week of Golly’s racist roots she enforced her view as though charged with unassailable moral authority, but the chink in her argument is fast-and-loose respect for facts so far bent they resemble hyperbole much more closely than straightness.

Golly is a minstrel, she tells us, and minstrelsy is racist ‘cos: Black-face, self-deprecation, denigration. All these things are pointers to Golly’s illegitimate origin, and it would be better if Golly had never been born, frankly, according to her. So offensive is wee Golly, says Ms Ammunson, that, after saving her own pair of Golly’s for decades, she intends to cremate them. Poor things.

The origin of minstrelsy is in the beautiful singing, harmonies and syncopated rhythms of black field-workers and slaves, as is the phenomenon known as ‘Blues’ music; together the mother and father of all modern ‘Rock’ music genres.

‘Black-face’ make-up was much more commonly known as ‘burnt-cork’ for the manner used in producing the pigment, but ‘black-face’ is a legitimate expression. The darkness was to imbue some level of credible authenticity to the non-black stage-performer of the memorable melodies, the white applied about the mouth and eyes was to exaggerate those features on stage for theatrical effect. The phrase was coined in contrast to ‘White-face’ make-up widely, and wildly, popularised by Joseph Grimaldi in the pantomimes and vaudeville’s of early 19th century Britain and still extant to this day; now more commonly known as ‘clown’ make-up. The essential elements of ‘white-face’ remain and are still so evident everywhere in street and stage performance that any need to describe the technique of exaggerating facial features with contrasting colours is redundant. It is an immediately recognisable, centuries-old, theatrical innovation; not racism.

Minstrel performance was very successful in an era of entertainment-starved but cashed-up and flourishing society prior to 1850 and the medium spread quickly, becoming more sophisticated. By 1870, well before Golly’s birth, audiences were already responding to performances by ‘genuine darkies’ and ‘burnt-cork’ was becoming distinctly ‘old-hat’: “Burnt cork performances are as a rule none too popular with the play-going public of the present day, but, the reason for this growing distaste for their entertainments probably lies in the fact that they are too frequently an exaggerated and coarse imitation of the original” (Auckland Star 1888).

New troupes of coloured entertainers became top-billing with very enthusiastic audiences, and after the end of the civil war that decimated the un-United States, they became seen by many as a panacea to old times; to some a celebration of the end of legalised slavery.

Shows became more and more popular, much bigger, more sophisticated. Companies would marshal all the best singers, actors, instrumental musicians, soloists, dancers, acrobats, and comedians they could get their hands on in blistering variety shows of two or three parts, and equal hours, duration. They bought the house down. Nobody could get enough, it seems, of Minstrels.

Extract from New Zealand newspaper in 1888

The appeal of these amazing shows was universal and ready audiences literally stacked the rafters of theatres and playhouses everywhere, even at the frontiers and in far-flung colonies; including New Zealand where in 1888 the Hicks-Sawyer Minstrels, a company consisting entirely of coloured cast-members and proudly advertised as so,  performed widely to rave reviews and audience rapture; almost all of the show’s songs were immediately encored, others the audience clamoured for such they demanded second encore’s, while between the musical pieces the performance “was varied by frequent jokes and witticisms, which were at once crisp, pointed, and telling, the constant laughter proved how well they were appreciated.”

It is completely correct that the shows, especially the first or ‘Chair’ part based on ‘traditional’ minstrelsy openings sent up the speech, witticisms, and manners of ‘plantation’ people; just as John Clarke and Billy T James sent up their agrarian contemporaries vernacular and philosophical oddities in equal part condescension and admiration a century later, and it’s completely reasonable to believe that some of their songs would not appeal to the modern audience based on their titles and lyrics alone:

While it’s also completely true that later generations will look back at some of the titles and lyrics lent to imbue some of the ‘music’ of our day, especially that of African-American performers, an urban grittiness, a so-called ‘authenticity’, and wonder what the hell we were thinking in allowing such venal rubbish to ever contaminate the airwaves.

If minstrelsy had components worthy of denigration it also had a legacy of merits, and I argue the baby should not be despatched along with the bath-water based simply on the former. Golly is part of that legacy.

Australian Variety Theatre Archive
IRVING SAYLES

One of the stand-out performers of the Hicks-Sawyer troupe was a young man; eighteen-year-old Irving Sayles, a superb singer and better comedian. They say he could make a corpse laugh. His stage-work was so popular he would never return to America, touring Australia and New Zealand for the rest of his life to enormous success; arguably the first antipodean super-star of stage: “An Australian institution delighting, in the course of a single year, hundreds of thousands of people throughout the different states and entertaining them with an ability possessed by very few other men; black or white, living or dead.” He would marry an English woman; Edith, who travelled with him nearly everywhere until Irving suffered a massive heart-attack in the streets of Christchurch while on tour, and was interred at Linwood cemetery just 42 years-old.

What would Mr Sayles have to say of lovable little Golly; the cheerful, humble and raggedy hand-me-down souvenir of his and minstrelsy’s happy heyday?


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