Sunday, August 27, 2006

Morris dance (Dirty Linen, 1996)

I've just been reading Colin Irwin's excellent book In Search of Albion, about British customs. Is there a word for the sort of nostalgia one feels for something one never had? Because that's the way I feel about so much of English and Scottish tradition.

This story was submitted with a whole lot of quotes as section dividers. The layout changed the presentation of them; some were just sort of floating in the article. I've tried to put them in their proper places, but here are two orphaned ones:

In the Morris-dance proper we have a dance of grace and dignity, instinct with emotion gravely restrained in a manner not unsuggestive of its older significance, full of complex co-ordinated rhythms of hand and foot.

--Cecil Sharp and Herbert C. McIlwaine, The Morris Book, 1912

Morris dancing is one of the Great English Mysteries, like cricket and warm beer.

--Rosemary Edghill, mystery writer, in Book of Moons, 1995

For more on the Bristol Morris Men, see

From Dirty Linen #64, June/July '96.

The Merry Mighty Morris

by Pamela Murray Winters

In the village of Long Ashton, on the edge of Bristol, England, Paul Woods lives among green fields where cows lean over the fence to sniff at the pineapple sage bushes in his garden. He and his wife, Sandra, share their home with a number of small animals, some living and some ceramic. The ceramic ones, collected on his travels, parade across his mantel. All of them play melodeons, a testament to their owner’s love of music.

Most work days, Woods instructs other University of Bristol librarians in the mysteries of CD-ROM technology, the internet, and other modern practices. He is never at work on May Day. Instead, he rises at 4:50 a.m., dons the garb of his brotherhood, and ties straps of jingle bells around his calves. And precisely at daybreak, he and the other members of the Bristol Morris Men greet the sun and the summer with the peculiar steps and turns of a half-dozen centuries.

Great Britain has well over 500 morris teams, or sides, with perhaps 5,000 to 7,500 dancers, according to Tom Keays, creator of the frequently asked questions file (FAQ) for an Internet group of the ancient art. The latest edition of the American Morris Newsletter directory lists about 150 sides in the United States and Canada. Co-editor Allen Dodson said “that translates into 1,500 to 2,000 people, since many people dance with more than one of these teams.”

A morris dance is not a sock hop, though there is revelry. It is not a ballet, though it includes carefully choreographed feats of nerve and grace. It is not a square dance, though the dancers form figures and move to lively music. A morris side contains some or all of the following: (1) between six and 12 identically dressed dancers, usually of the same gender; (2) a fool, who may be dressed like the other dancers but who is distinguished by being, well, foolish; (3) other characters of the sort found in folk plays — a horse, a king, a queen (often all portrayed by men); (4) many wonderful noisemakers: drums, concertinas, fiddles, and those bells; (5) handkerchiefs, ribbons, and garlands. Mix well, add a little magic and a lot of beer, and you have morris, or a mess.

The kicks and hops, the waving of white handkerchiefs and bashing of sticks, and the varying tempos of the music baffle and amaze first-time viewers. The handkerchiefs and sticks are said to be artifacts of swordplay. And the bells? They’re to scare off evil spirits, as legend has it.

The fool, the odd card among the matched dancers, keeps the audience from getting in the way; in addition, the fool reminds the audience, usually not subtly, that it’s all right to enjoy themselves.

Antony Gay, the Bristol Morris fool, stirred up trouble at a dance weekend a few years back, recalled Woods. “Kemp’s Men of Norwich did a version of the Fieldtown stick dance ‘Balance the Straw,’ which they embellished by tossing the sticks to each other across the set and catching them. They were so intent on watching their own synchronized stick throwing that they failed to notice Antony tossing an extra stick into the middle of the set. They all thought, ‘Oh, God, I’ve missed catching the stick’ and went for it simultaneously, causing all the sticks to be dropped. They still didn’t realize what had happened until they counted the sticks afterwards.”

Who was this Morris fellow anyway? Many theories about “morris” draw a connection between the blackface some dancers (such as Shropshire Bedlams) wear and the notion that the dance is “Moorish.” Elaine Bradtke, a dancer, ethnographer, and wearer of more hats than your average morris side, says morris may come from a court dance “representing the Christians’ defeat of the Moors,” although it’s certainly changed in the intervening centuries. (Theories that the dance steps derived from the frustrated attempts of a group of jazz age Cambridge students to beat a Morris Mini into life are probably a bit farther from the truth.)

The Bristol Morris Men, founded in 1951, practice Cotswold morris, the best-known variety. (Others include Northeast sword dances and Border dances, out of which the Shropshire Bedlams evolved.) As the group’s squire, Woods is responsible for deciding which dances the group will do. “We have created many of our own dances within the styles of [various village] traditions. It really is a living tradition in this way.”

Some traditionalists would prefer that dancers like Woods be less creative with what they see as a British treasure as solid and enigmatic as Stonehenge. Both credit and blame have been laid at the non-dancing feet of folklorist Cecil Sharp: credit for reviving a near-dead art, blame for keeping the steps, dress, and music in a rigidity at odds with the wit and energy of the dancers themselves. While Sharp’s English Folk Dance Society demonstration side kept order, renegade dancers like the Ilmington side (called “uncouth and untraditional” by Sharp) and fiddler and solo broom dancer Samuel Bennett added new dimensions to the tradition in the earlier part of this century.

Written references to the dance date back to at least the 15th century. Morris shares certain elements of fertility and harvest rituals: animal sacrifice is suggested in some processions by a cake carried impaled on a sword; plays (like mummers’ plays) contain seemingly emblematic characters like shepherds, doctors, and royalty; and women, particularly brides, are sometimes passed around by the dancers in what seems to be either a fertility rite or (Woods implied) an excuse to handle strange women.

All over England our town and village communities have developed strange traditions...In most cases the communities have forgotten the original reason for continuing the custom. It is enough that the custom must be observed.

--The Morris Tradition, booklet, from the Morris Ring (1991)

No one is sure why the arcane customs of morris persist. In a 1989 interview with Colin Irwin of Folk Roots, musician and Shropshire Bedlams morris man John Kirkpatrick claimed that little evidence exists for the pagan-ritual origins often ascribed to the dance: “Morris appeals to a very primitive part of people which is difficult to express; and when you have this powerful energy going on, it’s easier to give it some ancient origin rather than admit that it’s part of you inside that’s uncivilized.”

Clearly, Paul Woods has found his inner morris man. At any given moment this mild librarian can become an agile dancer, a forceful caller, a persuasive educator, or an incorrigible punster — or several of the above. Asked by a BBC radio interviewer to describe a fellow dancer’s morris wear, he offered: “He’s wearing black britches, white socks, white shirt. He’s got a very colorful hat on. He’s got baldrics [sashes crossed over the chest] with a seal of Bristol in the middle. This was from the days before ecology went wrong — you used to get seals in Bristol.”

Woods says morris was developed by traveling farm laborers who, finding themselves short of work and in need of funds and entertainment, repeated a mix of ritual motions and passed the hat afterwards. However it evolved, it persisted, handed down in families and villages, until the end of the 19th century. By the beginning of this century, urban growth had emptied many village sides. War carried off many morris men: “Between 80 and 90% of the male population of the Cotswold morris village Ascott under Wychwood failed to return from World War I,” said Woods. The tradition would have vanished if Cecil Sharp had not traveled from village to village, seeking the surviving members of the local sides. Watching the old men patiently repeat the morris steps and play the old airs, Sharp noted, in detail, what he saw; in turn, his readers reclaimed the customs.

Morris is still a mystery to many Americans, but in England it’s a source of strong feeling, from local pride to broad derision. Among dancers, controversies rage; some charge the Morris Ring, founded in 1934, with inflexibility and a tendency to promote “wimpy” dancing, while conservative types are more likely to complain about mismatching tunes and dances or allowing women or mixed-gender teams.

I showed Woods a passage from World Music: The Rough Guide which begins: “Morris dancing is at the very heart of clich├ęd English imagery,” and goes on to sneer at hanky-waving, bell-jingling eccentrics. According to Woods, “some namby-pamby morris you see around” has given morris a reputation for silliness that doesn’t tell the whole story. Kirkpatrick has called morris “sexy,” and those who have seen it done well will agree.

Come you young me, come along

With your music, dance and song

--”Staines Morris,” traditional morris song, from the album Morris On, 1972

I’m not a natural dancer, by any means,” said Woods, a robust, red-bearded fellow whose appearance does not suggest Mikhail Baryshnikov. But when he was in his late 20s, a visit to the Bath Festival changed his life.

In the 1960s, the English folk revival sent young musicians out of the clubs and into the study rooms of the Cecil Sharp House in London in search of inspiration from the old ways. One such group, the Albion Country Band, had its own morris side. Around 1974, Woods, who grew up on the Ronettes, Bob Dylan, and Jefferson Airplane and had recently discovered British folk-rock, saw Albion Morris at Bath and was “knocked out,” he remembered. “How could anyone dance so skillfully and with such obvious enjoyment?”

Despite his love of the morris music, Woods was reluctant to dance: “It never occurred to me that I could do anything like that — me, Mr. Inepto!” He first attended festival workshops with “the master” Roy Dommett. Then, overcoming his shyness, he approached the Bristol Morris Men and asked to join. Over the two decades since, he has strained legs, back, and elbows and bruised his knuckles, though he hasn’t broken any bones. He has studied dancers from across the country (“always on the lookout for a good dance, figure, or tune to nick”) and has traveled all over Europe, collecting those ceramic animals and teaching dance. He has become one of the most experienced members of the hometown side he was almost too timid to join.

Naturally soft-spoken and introspective, he now calls all of Bristol’s dances in a booming baritone and has done numerous BBC interviews. He’s even danced on the radio.

Morris dance “transformed my personality,” said Woods, then qualified: “Mind you, it’s the uniform shielding me.”

They always say that morris is a ritual dance. I think sometimes it's an excuse for a good piss-up, really.

--Woods, BBC interview, 1982

A lusty, macho, ale-soaked mystique pervades many morris sides. Each week’s Bristol Morris practice concludes with an hour in the local pub. The exploits of Woods’ cohorts upon the occasion of his wedding cannot be recounted in a family publication. “Bristol Morris Men stag nights are...” Woods paused to think. “Different.”

There are now male and female sides, and mixed sides of both sexes, in Britain and the United States. “Many of the older clubs are still violently against women dancing,” said Woods. “We’re not, though most of us dislike mixed Cotswold morris on purely aesthetic reasons. It rarely looks good, whereas single-sex teams can get an energy and unity of purpose which look great.”

Bradtke, who dances and/or fiddles with three teams in the New Jersey area, noted: “In some ways [morris] is a ‘manly pursuit’— and like other manly deeds such as shoveling snow or changing a tire, a woman can do it as well if she puts her mind to it...To do the dance properly, one should be able to leap and caper about with wild abandon (in time to the music, of course). Because morris dancing doesn’t require a great deal of upper body strength, women are quite capable of doing the dance properly.”

The Bristol Morris Men perform at “weddings, circumcision ceremonies, parties, anything,” says Woods, but May Day is the pinnacle of the morris year. Although morris dancing wasn’t originally done on May Day but rather on Whitsunday, a movable spring holiday, the better-known holiday has become associated with morris. Teams start early in the morning and traverse their cities the rest of the day, dancing at pubs, churches, and shopping centers. Woods’ side once performed 104 dances on a single May Day.

Why go to so much work when pranks and beer can be had for so much less? Allen Dodson grows philosophical: “The world at large doesn’t understand or do morris, and that’s okay. The world at large is preoccupied with competition, making money, and gauging the worth of things by their popularity or money-making potential. Morris is anathema to all that...There’s a lot of joy in the morris — in the sounds of the bells, in the color of the kit, in the waving hankies — that is really beautiful.”

Q. What's the hardest part of dancing for you?

A. My body wearing out, being too fat, and not being able to dance as well as I used to when younger.”

--Woods, January 1995

On May Day 1995, just before lunch, Woods was dancing when he noticed that something wasn’t quite right with his foot. He massaged it during lunch, but upon resuming the dance “I heard a sort of slapping sound, and it felt like someone had hit the sole of my heel with a stick. They hadn’t, though. I crumpled.” Ever loyal, Woods didn’t shorten his May Day: “I carried on the tour, non-dancing, going to one more school, a sports center for a sauna, a pub, a curry, a long interview on cable TV, a paid booking at a hotel, and a pub... Then when I got home I asked my wife to take me to the hospital.”

The stress fracture kept Woods from dancing for two months; he did limited dancing through the summer until October, when the condition worsened. Weight loss and painkillers are keeping him on his feet, but he’s not sure when (as he might say) the jig will be up.

Said Bradtke, who had an ankle rebuilt to continue dancing, “Some [older dancers] take up less strenuous forms of dance; some take up a musical instrument. Some keep dancing ‘til they keel over dead... I heard of one old gent in England who was in his 80s and still teaching the new guys on the team. He had two hips replaced and before the surgery he would support himself by leaning on a table while showing the stepping!”

Bristol Morris Men are all getting older together,” Woods — who’s only half the age of Bradtke’s “old gent” — mused. “The nucleus of the side hasn’t changed greatly in 20 years. And soon the others will start to get the joint aches like me. It’ll be much harder for me to come along and not dance.” Still, he said, “Shouting is important too, and I think I do that quite well.”

Woods declared (not shouting) that he wishes to be buried in his morris kit, with the Bristol Men dancing at the funeral, and he’s chosen the dance: “Maybe ‘Getting up the Stairs’ (Ascott)?”

There was an old woman tossed up in a blanket

Ninety-nine miles beyond the moon

And under one arm she carried a basket

And under t’other she carried a broom

Old woman, old woman, old woman,” cried I,

O whither, o whither, o whither so high?”

I’ve gone to chase cobwebs beyond the sky

And I’ll be back with you by and by.”

--Morris On

It was past midnight on a summer night, and the librarian from Long Ashton was in a pastoral town much like his own, only this one was 20 miles west of Philadelphia. The occasion was the 40th birthday of an American friend. Woods had corresponded with Charlie, who is not a morris man, for over a year via the internet. Three days earlier they’d finally met face to face.

Now Woods was in Charlie’s living room, limbered by American friendship and British gin.

Thumbing through the CDs, he came to an old favorite, Morris On. “Play ‘Princess Royal’,” he commanded. He moved to a clear spot in the dining room. Charlie set his CD player, and the music, a mid-tempo jig, began. After a moment, Woods began to hop and tilt and kick and fly in a most surprising manner. He could be called a bearlike man, but his is not a lumbering grace. He moved as if gravity were some droll American fad he had every right to ignore. His arms and legs and trunk and head seemed to create the notes as they moved. He looked up, red-bearded and red-faced. “Of course, you have to imagine the bells,” he said. But he didn’t need bells.

A Mini-Morris Bag O’Discs

Morris music is “lively, bouncy jig tunes, reels, hornpipes, mostly all very articulated and rhythmic,” according to fiddler Elaine Bradtke. “We tend to accent the upbeats a lot. The tunes are often in the key of G, sometimes modal and very beautiful, sometimes major and kind of dippy.”

I came into the dance through liking the music,” said Paul Woods, who does not play an instrument. “The dance gives it an extra dimension. But I always get a kick when I hear a morris tune out of context, such as when Martin Carthy plays one on guitar.”

Jennifer Cutting, best known as the arranger, composer, keyboardist, and squeezebox player for The New St. George, recalled that when she joined New Esperance Morris Women in Islington, North London, the musicians were required to have dance experience so that the rhythms became ingrained. (Coming from the Ilmington side in Britain, Cutting had no trouble fulfilling this requirement.) Bradtke concurred: “It’s very important the musician know how the tune should feel to the dancers. There’s a common adage among dancers that the music will tell you what to do.”

Traditionally, morris tunes were played on a small wooden pipe (or “whittle”) and a shallow drum called a tabor (or “dub”). In the 19th century, many dancers resisted the the growing use of the fiddle and concertina for accompaniment, according to Sharp, but now both are often seen in morris bands.

Asked for favorite morris tunes, Cutting cites one from the Sherborne tradition, “The Orange in Bloom,” which The New St. George played in the pre-High Tea era. “I love it because the melody is so regal and stately.” Bradtke likes ones she doesn’t get to play often: “The Fieldtown version of ‘Shepherd’s Hey,’ ‘Staines Morris,’ and the minor version of ‘Princess Royal’.” Woods said, “Most of the tunes used by the Bampton dancers are brilliant, so infectious, so full of movement. I like particularly ‘The Quaker,’ to which we do an Oddington-style dance called ‘The Quinton.’ I knew I wanted to perform a dance to that tune one day when I first heard it.”

Listeners with one or more left feet may enjoy the following selections:

Morris On [Carthage CDCD 4406] and Son of Morris On [EMI CZ 535]: This rowdy pair of Ashley Hutchings projects “was especially influential during the 1970s,” said Bradtke. Although some dancers find the tunes too fast for dancing, they’re great for listening. I discovered morris music as a result of buying Morris On in my quest to own every sound Richard Thompson’s guitar ever made; he’s especially fine on “Cuckoo’s Nest.”

John Kirkpatrick’s many recordings, especially Plain Capers [Topic TSCD 458] and Sheepskins [Squeezer SQ125]: Perhaps Britain’s most famous morris man, Kirkpatrick proves that dancers make the best morris musicians.

Ashley Hutchings, The Compleat Dancing Master [Island HELP 17] and Rattlebone and Ploughjack [Island HELP 24]: The former, the morris Internet list FAQ points out, is not really morris; but its arrangement of dance tunes interspersed with quotes about dancing is great morris mood listening. The latter album is out of print, but Allen Dodson of the American Morris Newsletter thinks rerelease by Hannibal is imminent and recommends it for its morris field recordings.

The Old Swan Band, Gamesters, Pickpockets and Harlots has “some fine and unusual morris tunes,” said Dodson. “The same can be said for English Melodeon Players, which has three or four morris tracks.”

Over the Water [from Cottey Light Industries, 1710 Owensville Road, Charlottesville, VA 22901; 1-800-225-6409] is useful “for a feel of the American morris scene,” said Dodson.

Pamela Murray Winters

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