Thursday, 28 October 2010

Don't you know who your own famous people are?

I have heard the following story several times, and I was sure that it must be well-documented. So when I went looking for it on the web I was gobsmacked when I found only three references to it, and that two of those were quoting the third. Apparently only someone called Brian Micklethwait on a blog site called has ever referred to this. If it’s in a book somewhere, let me know!

When the Beatles first came to America they told everyone they wanted to see Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley; one reporter asked “Muddy Waters … Where's that?” Paul McCartney laughed and said, “Don't you know who your own famous people are here?”

That story always raises a smile in the UK amongst people who can be fairly called “children of the 60s” - the generation who, more than any, idolized African-American musicians to an extent the objects of their admiration probably didn’t enjoy back home, certainly from white kids. I have a memory of being taken to meet Muddy Waters. I must have been about eleven or twelve, and the older male friend of an older female friend got me inside a college where Muddy was due to gig. I had heard of him, and had even heard some of his music. I wasn’t the only kid there as a British blues musician, Alexis Korner, had brought his children to meet the man they called “Uncle Muddy”. That isn’t “uncle” as in how some folk back in the US would say “uncle” to a black guy – that’s “uncle” as in Muddy was treated as a family member by the Korners. I can recall, I am sure, being in awe of this big guy with a placid, moon-like face, dark complexion, and sleepy eyes.

It was only around three decades later, after his death, that I stopped to consider the vast gulf of differences between us. We were a generation apart and a gender apart. We were a race apart and a nationality apart. We were a culture apart and a culture-within-a-culture too. We were an ocean apart, and when he was the age I had been he had picked cotton by hand, just like his unemancipated ancestors had done.

It is said that Nina Simone once threw a drink over Dusty Springfield, because the latter had been described as a “soul singer” and was white. To me nothing illustrates the gulf more than that incident. To Nina Simone, used to the wholesale theft of black music, its repackaging by white artists, and its remarketing by white businesses, nothing would be more insulting than hearing Dusty so described. To Dusty it must have been incomprehensible; she, like so many musicians in the UK – like the Beatles – admired the music of black America, acknowledged her debt to it, gave credit to it. Dusty Springfield was responsible for introducing Tamla Motown to a wider British audience, facilitating tours and TV appearances for Detroit artistes. She was their champion over here. One can’t help wishing that Nina Simone had found a better target to throw a drink at.

Now I have started reminiscing, I have remembered that at around the same time that I got in to see Muddy, I failed to get in to see my Jamaican hero Desmond Dekker – he was booked to play somewhere called the Daylight Inn, a pub, and as I was so obviously under drinking age I was turned away. I stayed outside for hours, trying to figure a way to get in, but failed. I got into trouble for an unexplained absence from home, and the irony was that if I had stayed at home I would have seen him live on “Top of the Pops” – the reason he was late at the gig was that “Israelites” had just got to No.1 in the charts, and he had to rush to the BBC for the show.

Now it occurs to me that Muddy Waters, Alexis Korner, Nina Simone, and Dusty Springfield have all passed from earthly works to heavenly rewards. Ah well...

Friday, 22 October 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 21

If you're wondering where my previous blog about freedom really came from, I can tell you that it sprang from a discussion I was having with Consuela (my Tejana maid) the other night. I had just airily declared that "There's nothing I couldn't do if I put my mind to it."

"Oh yeah?" Consuela said in reply. "Try slamming a revolving door!"

Y'know, sometimes I could cheerfully strangle her - she can be too damn clever by half.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Freedom defined

I have been asked to define freedom, not as I previously did (in political terms) but in philosophical terms. I wonder if, in fact, my philosophical definition is not implicit in my political expression, because if I argue from a left-wing libertarian (anarchist) point of view I must believe that free will and moral responsibility are possible. Nevertheless I will try to put my philosophy into words, or at least into some sort of context.

This is not a learned study, I am in no way a professional or even an amateur philosopher, I have never studied the subject. However for once I will cite references throughout this blog entry – as near as I can to the Harvard referencing system – where I have sought definition and guidance. The two articles by Galen Strawson and Shaun Nichols are worth reading in any case, and I hope my readers will follow the relevant links. Also (shock horror!) I recommend the Wikipedia article on free will[*]. I also recognize that I am one of what Nichols would call the “philosophically naïve”, and an unschooled person who simply sits and mulls things over.

I will start by introducing a couple of terms which are important to the consideration of freedom: determinism and metaphysical libertarianism, and by defining them below:

Determinism – the theory that human choice is not free, but is decided by past events (Collins); or a theory or doctrine stating that acts of the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws (Merriam-Webster, def determinism).

Metaphysical libertarianism – the theory that free will exists, is logically incompatible with determinism, that agents have free will, and that therefore determinism is false (Strawson).

I am conscious of the tension between determinist and libertarian schools, and that, by and large, the two schools tend to reinforce an incompatibilist overview, but on the other hand I recognize that there is also a compatibilist overview, stating that free will and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism (Nichols); possibly the father of compatibilism was Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679), and although compatibilism is often thought of as the weaker of the two overviews, being tantamount to “wishful thinking”, it has had its good share of respectable supporters from the world of philosophy – after Hobbes there are Locke, Leibniz, and Hume for example (Nichols).

 Thomas Hobbes

If I subscribe to either of these overviews then I believe I am, by accident rather than by design (because I have drawn conclusions apparently by my independent thought and free will) a compatibilist.

It seems to me to be most obvious that, determinism or no, freedom cannot ever be an absolute for us. An agent – “one who acts or exerts power” (Merriam-Webster, def agent), “someone or something that causes effect” (Collins) – clearly acts only within physical limits; no matter how much I might will myself to fly, all that happens when I flap my arms is that my muscles begin to ache. As I am a physical being, and as my metaphysical (intellectual, spiritual, intuitive, and so on – the side of me that can contemplate the abstract) self is contained within that physical self, I wonder how it could not be similarly limited. There is only so much that I can comprehend. I believe that is what catalyzes (rather than drives or stimulates, as either concept would admit determinism) me to search for knowledge, for spiritual meaning, for happiness, for means of artistic expression; were I unlimited in my freedom to act I would have no reason, no motive to search, because I would already have and know everything. The limits appear to give meaning to the search.

Unless my searching is wholly pre-determined and I am hard-wired[**] (Britt) to search, I could choose not to. I realise that from this assumption will flow the eddy of circular argument of determinism versus libertarianism; as I am not sufficiently versed in philosophy (cop out!) I am not capable of squaring that circle – I will simply have to acknowledge the paradox involved and allow it to continue to circulate.

However, it seems to me a wonder that determinists do not simply go and jump off the nearest cliff. What on earth could be the point of our lives if we are products and not agents? If everything we think, feel, create, say, and do is determined and inevitable? Such a world view would render our lives meaningless to the point of being intolerable. Thus maybe it is for my own safety, my own mental wellbeing, that I must hold to a compatibilist and libertarian view of my thoughts and actions; maybe it is the only sane thing to do, rightly or wrongly, even if determinism happens to be true. Recognising constraint is not the same as recognizing determinism. For example, recognizing the constraint within the mental-makeup of a psychopath which prevents her from being able to distinguish between “right” and “wrong” does not lead inevitably to the abrogation of my own responsibility for my actions.

It is difficult sometimes to hold on to the concept of freedom when it is constrained or defined. It is almost facile to say that “freedom defined is freedom denied” (Shea / Wilson), but facile or not it is part of the determinist/libertarian conundrum.

So where does compatibilism leave me? It leaves me feeling that notwithstanding our limitations we have, or have to act as though we have, an appreciable range of free will, and a moral obligation. That freedom, whatever else may bind it, is not bound by law and custom however. Neither the law nor societal expectations are natural constraints, or there would not be at one extreme the criminal and at the other the visionary, the innovator, and the rebel. It is this conviction that I hold that leads me from there to my politics – literally from my idiotikos to my politikos – and to the conviction that the moral and legal constraints imposed upon us largely by, and maintained for the benefit largely of, any concentration of wealth and power are not necessary or valid or necessarily-valid constraints, that they should be questioned, challenged, and that their demolition in the interests of experimentation in beneficial change should never be an “improper question” (for “improper question” perhaps see Copp). I have argued, or added the caveat, elsewhere (Marshall) that we ought to accept that to pass beyond solipsism we must give ourselves up to the unknown and make what is almost a leap of faith - to assume that what we perceive has reality; with this caveat in mind I would state that the perception that I am free is strong evidence that I am. Thus I would define freedom as "the capacity for independent decision and action without unnatural constraint."

If this short perambulation round the subject leaves much more open than closed, I am at a loss what else to say. However now you have some inkling of my thoughts about the subject, so feel free to comment or to ask for clarification. I won’t promise that I will be able to answer your questions, but you never know!

[*] Maybe I will deal with Wikipedia another time, when I ask the question “What the heck is ‘common knowledge’?”

[**] The pop-science concept of our brains’ being “hard-wired” as a physiological expression of determinism seems to be waning, at least as a fashionable, quasi-tabloid term.



BRITT R R, (2005), “Ancient Behaviours Hard-Wired in Human Brain”, in Live Science, retrieved October 20, 2010, from

Collins Compact English Dictionary, (1994), Glasgow, HarperCollins.

COPP D, (2007), “The Wrong Answer to an Improper Question?”, in Canadian Journal of Philosophy, vol 37 (2007) supplement [vol 33], pp 97-130

MARSHALL M, (2008), "Esprit sans Dieu", in Recto-Verseau No. 194, Romont (Switzerland), Editions Recto-Verseau, p55.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary, definition of agent, retrieved October 20, 2010, from

Merriam-Webster Dictionary, definition of determinism,  retrieved October 20, 2010, from

NICHOLS S, The Rise of Compatibilism: A Case Study in the Quantitive History of Philosophy, retrieved October 20, 2010, from

SHEA R & WILSON R A, (1975), The Illuminatus! Trilogy, New York, Dell.

STRAWSON G, (1998, 2004). “Free will”, in E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London, Routledge, retrieved October 20, 2010, from

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 20

Consuela (my Tejana maid) and I have lately been disporting ourselves at the ancient game of Knurr and Sling. Well, you might have guessed that a hitherto-unopened tea-chest in the teepee contained a couple of billets (or pummels, as they are properly known), a wooden frame (somewhat resembling a miniature gallows) from which a linen sling is suspended, and a bag of knurrs (some made of hard-baked clay and others of a dense wood). One of the pummels was sound enough, if in need of a little attention – Consuela took charge of it, treating the shaft with a preparation of one part white spirits to two parts boiled linseed oil, and the head with billiard-chalk. The other pummel, I’m sorry to say, was beyond repair, so I set about making myself another out of a branch cut from an ash tree, onto which I whipped a head made from my old sanding block, using cobbler’s thread to secure it. The flexibility of my newly-lathed pummel lends extra force to my every tip at the knurr.

I should make it plain that the game we play is not precisely Knurr and Spell in the strictest mid-Yorkshire tradition, for the simple reason that we do not use the spring-loaded “spell” (as in the antique pictures here) to lift the knurr into the air; rather, for our games, it is suspended in the linen sling. Our playing it at all is rather frowned upon by the All Britain Ball-and-Trap Federation, who contend that the Northern game (which ours is) is not open to female players.

We have had our moments of tension over this game, not least of all disputes as to whose knurr is whose once we have tipped them down the field. It is not enough that I prefer to tip a hardwood knurr whilst Consuela favours the traditional (and increasingly scarce) “potty” made, as the name suggests, from fiercely-baked clay – no – both knurrs being white led to identification being difficult without close inspection, and then there would be controversy as to where the knurr had actually lain. We got over that by painting mine red, but even then, after ten rises each, disagreement could sometimes not be avoided as to whose knurr lay furthest from the sling. Consuela even accused me – once – of standing on one of hers and burying it in the mud with my heel! I ask you!

Nevertheless, the last week has seen us returning, panting but smiling, from the field of play at the end of an autumn afternoon, ready for our meal and a relaxing evening in front of the TV.

Yesterday my tips were given extra strength by the knowledge that our lurker-upon-the-hilltop had finally been caught. A Fintry man of some forty-three summers had appeared at his local branch of Superdrug covered in nettle-rash and begging to take the shop’s entire stock of antihistamine spray. His collar being felt by a local rozzer and his subsequent lack of a suitable alibi for the times of his surreptitous visits to the teepee led to his appearance this very morning at the Sheriff Court.

I have heard that his advocate, one Mr Frizer of Frizer Skere and Poley (Writers to the Signet), immediately entered a writ of Eccleprudence, thereby claiming a sennight’s sloth upon the hearing of oaths to the matter. Sheriff MacMarley, however, declared the whole matter to be semper in faecibus sumus solam profundum variat. The upshot of this is that the missives-in-chief are to be placed before the Scrabster rather than being subsumed by feu-fettle. Ha – that put the malfeasor’s nose out of joint, I can tell you.

More of this anon. Really. You can’t escape it, so don’t think you can!

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

"The Values of Everything"

A very interesting article, published in The Guardian 12th October 2010, by environmentalist campaigner George Monbiot.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Obama the Target

The Guardian (a British newspaper) has a facility on its web site for people to post comments and debate the issues raised by news stories. I pop on there from time to see what's cooking. If a news story crops up about the American Right, the Tea Party, and so on a person with the screen-name of BeauregardJackson will be on patrol. He is, or claims to be, a recruiter for the Tea Party, and his mission appears to be cruising the threads gainsaying anyone from the Left and in particular anyone who criticises the Tea Party. Yesterday he came down like a ton of bricks on someone who posted a link to the well-known photo of a kid on a Tea Party rally carrying a placard that likened Barack Obama to a monkey. "You cannot seriously label the Tea Party as racist because one 12-year-old boy goes on a rally with one sign!" Well, I reflected, nobody stopped the kid.

As you know I frequently visit right wing blogs, so I thought nothing of looking for unflattering images of Obama on Google Image. Caricatures of politicians are commonplace; I am used to the lampooning of George W Bush - British cartoonist Steve Bell was merciless with him, and thought nothing of drawing Dubya as a monkey - Tony Blair too, Gordon Brown, and I am used to cruel cartooning of political leaders going back (in my memory) to the days of Harold Wilson and LBJ. However, I was not really prepared for the vilification that the Right has poured on one solitary, black politician. I was not prepared either for just how damn good the artwork was.

The links here are straight to the images:

Starting of mildly, Obama as Mickey Mouse.

Now it starts to get ugly. Try telling me there are no traditional racist overtones to portraying an African-American as a chimpanzee.

Obama as Hitler, or is this a challenge to the Right to make up their mind?

Another example of the "Hope" poster made into something else.

Barack tacked onto the end of the famous Chinese poster of Marx, Lenin, and Mao.

Obama as a muslim, but maybe not as any muslim.

This one I actually love - Alfred E Obama! But then it's from Mad magazine, and we can exclude it from the rest of the gubbins.

Probably the most libelous image imaginable - "Same shit, different asshole".

Obama as a Nazi Stormtrooper.

Obama in orthodox iconography, with the "Book of Marx".

Well if he's your hero I have no further comment.

Obama as a target - why do I feel that it's only a matter of time? With this kind of stuff around, nothing would surprise me!

Friday, 8 October 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 19

Since our foray to the neighbouring hilltop in pursuit of the watcher, Consuela (my Tejana maid) and I have become somewhat closer. Being involved in the same armed operation, even in an amateur capacity, breeds a kind of comradeship amongst those who are bound together by the ethos of soldiering, and that is how it has become with me and Consuela.

Before our dawn-time excursion in camouflage we were mistress and maid, except that I allowed her to challenge me intellectually and philosophically from time to time. Since then it is as though an unspoken agreement has been forged that we are sisters-in-arms. Occasional glances and smiles pass between us that did not do so before. There is a military crispness now when, during her daily domestic duties, she addresses me as “Ma’am”, as well as a new warmth. At moments of informality she calls me by my given name, just as she did on the captured hilltop when I arrived with my AS50 over my shoulder.

Yesterday evening I asked her to join me for dinner and for drinks afterwards (on this occasion I did not expect her to toil in the kitchen, but instead arranged for outside caterers to deliver our food). Consuela wore an evening dress that seemed to shimmer like silver; I could hardly take my eyes off her, so different was she from the camouflaged soldier of a few days previously. I was watching her almost feline grace as we moved from the dinner table, and I noticed that she was staring intently at her wine glass, two small furrows of concentration appearing between her eyebrows. She looked up and caught my quizzical gaze as we seated ourselves, I upon my chaise longue, she upon the fiddle-backed nursing-chair.

“Do you know what you have here?” she asked, holding up her glass.

“Enlighten me,” I said.

“I’m surprised you don’t realise. This is a late eighteenth century, trumpet-bowl wine glass – one of a pair, as I can see by the one you are holding – and the engraving around the rim is especially interesting. Liberty and Property. The glass is clearly of English manufacture, but the slogan… yes… this must have been made to order by an American colonist, maybe just before what you call the Colonial Rebellion in the seventeen-seventies. Maybe it was never shipped, maybe news of hostilities reached the craftsman and the glass remained here in Britain, for the slogan is clearly a political one, such as a gentleman of substance in the New World might use as a toast.”

I considered this, and said, “Are you sure it is not rather late nineteenth century, and pertinent to Lord Elcho’s Liberty and Property Defence League? After all, we are in Scotland, and Wemyss – Lord Elcho – was fairly local.”

Consuela shook her head.

“The design, the quality of the glass and – yes – the lead content… it is so clearly eighteenth century. These were packed with your general glassware, amongst the things you picked up from the charity shop last year. Do you realise how much these two glasses are worth? At least three thousand pounds, I would say!”

I looked at my glass, studied it. Consuela is very rarely wrong about such things. As she had drained her glass, I went over and gravely took it from her hand, motioning her to follow me outside. There, in the gloaming, I dashed both glasses against a stone, ground the shards into tiny pieces under my heel, and covered them with good, clean, Scottish earth. Consuela stood quietly all the while, although there was an initial tension in her body, as though she had been poised to stay my destructive hand.

Briefly I caught her eye, then I looked back at the disturbed ground, my nostrils filled with the scent of the turned soil.

“Consuela,” I said. “The ‘property’ of which the slogan speaks is that ‘property’ which lived and breathed, and which toiled for cotton and for indigo, and which had no right itself to liberty. I would not touch such a thing with my lips, and will never do so again – can never now. ‘Touch not the unclean thing’ as the Good Book says. I mean no disrespect to the land of your birth and upbringing, Consuela, but do you realise how close it came to having that ‘property’ enshrined in its Declaration of Independence? It was only through the agitation of Thomas Jefferson that his own words ‘the pursuit of happiness’ were substituted, and though Jefferson himself held such ‘property’ it did at least trouble his conscience.”

“Ma’am,” said Consuela. “You’re a hard woman, but a true and just one.”

She came over to me and slipped her arm through mine. Together, as the evening sky darkened, we watched the stars – the comforting familiarity of Orion and the Plough… and there, there was honest, constant Polaris alone in his fixed position in the firmament. A late bird cried. At the northern horizon there was the first hint of a shimmering, blue curtain, as the Aurora Borealis bestowed its peaceful blessing on our world.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 18

This morning there was a note pinned to the doorflap of the teepee. It read:

Nice try, but you’re only playing girlie-commando games. Okay so you nicked me, but I got clean away, and now I’m right here at your front door. Just letting you know.

Yours aye

“The Masked Cherokee”

I take the “Cherokee” thing with a pinch of salt – the guy obviously has a Wes Studi fixation. Anyhow he isn’t half as clever as he thinks. I was awake last night with a Bowie knife under my pillow, and could hear someone shoochling around outside. Also heard a twang and an “Ow, fuck! Oh bloody hell no. Ow!

Consuela (my Tejana maid) is an expert in counter-insurgency; she had rigged the tripwires around the teepee to spring up after any intruder got close, and those on the most obvious exit route had been angled to pitch the intruder into a large patch of nettles. All we have to do now is enquire of all the local pharmacies if anyone has purchased a bulk amount of antihistamine. Tee hee hee.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 17

Consuela (my Tejana maid) and I were up several hours before dawn yesterday and quickly into our camouflage clothing[*] and face paint. It was still dark when we slipped out of the tepee. We were on our way to a knoll where there would be, come sun-up, a perfect view of the hilltop from which we have long suspected we have been under surveillance.

We took a long and circuitous route, not wanting to appear in the line-of-sight between the hilltop and the tepee even in the dark. I was hauling my Accuracy International AS50 sniper rifle, which is quite a load at 14.1 kilograms plus ammunition, but I prefer it to the only-a-smidgeon-lighter Barrett M82. It’s my weapon of choice; I like the gas-operated, semi-automatic action, I like the way the muzzle brake gives a lower recoil, I like its accuracy at up to a mile and a half. Consuela was travelling light, carrying only an AK47 – marginally her first choice over an ArmaLite M16A4 – as I required her for non-sniping duties[**].

On reaching the knoll I selected a dry place to lie down, settling like a cat, moulding my body to the ground and silently shifting pebbles and bits of twig from under me. A sniper has to remain still. I trained my AS50 on the hilltop and clicked on my specially-adapted night-vision sight. Consuela was on my six about ten yards back and out of sight. Normally on missions we communicate by hand signals, but as I did not want to move any more than was necessary we broke our normal radio silence and used a pre-arranged series of brief clicks of our handies’ PTTs.

Daylight came slowly, and I flipped from night-sight to day-sight. I thought I could see the watcher. It was difficult – he was good – but there is no way you can disguise the flat lenses of binoculars, and it was that which had given him away in the first place. He was there, I was sure of it.

Early morning mist rolled in, and I decided to risk a hand signal to Consuela, directing her round to the East of our position and of the hilltop, and she made her way, moving like a shadow. Y’know, that young woman really has her grandfather’s genes – he was the legendary Gato Negro, who led many groups from Mexico across the border to the USA and was never caught.

I waited. Half an hour. Forty-five minutes. The mist rolled back again and the sun came up. An hour had gone by, and suddenly I heard two clicks on the handie – Consuela was in position to the East of the watcher. I checked in my sight and – yes – he was still there.

If he moved I would stand a chance with my rifle. I needed to spook him somehow. I made a pattern of clicks on the handie for Consuela’s benefit, and a few seconds later I heard the eerie whirr of her Navajo tsín dī’nǐ – the “groaning stick” as they call their bullroarer.

The watcher moved, rose a little. I fired! He dropped.

Instantly I called Consuela on the handie. “Move in. Secure the position.”

I heard the bullroarer stop, and her voice came back – a terse “Roger!”

I moved the AS50 to my back and set off at a yomp for the hilltop. I was only a couple of hundred yards on my way when I heard Consuela’s voice on the radio again.

“Position clear. Shall I pursue target?”

“Negative,” I replied. “Secure and hold.”


It was another half an hour before I reached the hilltop. Consuela was crouched low in some bracken, watching the treeline to the West, her AK47 resting lightly in the crook of her arm.

“What have we got?” I asked her.

“Nothing much. Chocolate wrapper here. Slight blood spatter. I think you winged him, but he’s legged it now. I think he had a motor down on the Newtyle road.”

“Damn. I’m getting old. Time was I could have taken someone in the throat at that range.”

“Don’t beat yourself up, Marie. You chose to shoot while he was moving, and I’m sure he kept very low.”

Crouching with Consuela, I looked down at the flattened bracken where the watcher had been lying. There indeed was the chocolate wrapper. Snickers. How anyone could bear to touch that product since the clever-dicks in marketing decided to stop calling it Marathon I just did not know. Death was too good for him. Next time, pal… next time…

[*] I have a suit in Flecktarn which I acquired from a friend in the Bundeswehr. Consuela likes to wear state-of-the-art CAPDAT digital camo.

[**] Consuela is actually much more expert at urban warfare than open-country work. She handles a Brügger & Thomet MP9 like it was an extension of her arm, and carries a Glock as a back-up piece.

Friday, 1 October 2010



I was asked a few days ago whether folk traditions were dying out, and whether it was an ethnomusicologist’s job to record folk music and dancing while they could be recorded, to form an archive. I am flattered to have been asked, because ethnomusicology is not my field. Maybe history is, and certainly observing human behaviour and thought has become my field. What follows is little more than a collection of sketchy notes which I hope will serve a purpose.

In my earlier blog about “conservative Indians” I talked about the way that culture is not static, but dynamic. Yes we do lose some traditions on the way, they do die out; but the ones that are left do not necessarily stand still. Traditions – this is a hard concept – change! They change because the world around them changes, social circumstances change. My opinion is that unless an ethnomusicologist is obliged to, or wants to, focus strictly on what he or she finds today, then the study of music in its ethnic context must take note of the march of time.

In 1899 Cecil Sharp happened to see the morris dancers at Headington Quarry near Oxford, and this spurred him to travel England and collect the details of any extant dances, songs, and rituals he could find.

The Headington Quarry dancers in 1895.
The dancing team still exists and performs at its traditional times of the year.

In 1934 the Morris Ring of England was formed. Significantly it was formed by six twentieth-century teams of dancers from places that had no extant morris dancing tradition of their own. These teams had taken the form of their dancing directly from the researches of Cecil Sharp in the Cotswold area, and this was the criterion they adopted for decades to come as the Ring grew, taking in newly formed dancing teams from further and further away from where Sharp collected them.

Not too far from Headington is the village of Bampton. They too had a team of dancers whose tunes and steps Cecil Sharp recorded.

The morris dancers, Bampton-in-the-Bush

I recall being taken to see them perform one Whit Monday in the 1970s. I was surprised to find that there were two separate teams circulating in the village, never appearing in the same place, and apparently not talking to each other. I was told that several years before there had been a dispute within the side as to how the dances should be done. As a result the dancers had split into two separate sides. I could see little discrepancies in uniform and in dancing style. The “young” side were slightly smarter and wore neckties, and there were slight differences in the sidestep movement and how the hankies were waved. What interested me further was the fact that there seemed to be a distinct difference between the basic step of the dance as performed by both the “young” and the “traditional” side on the one hand, and as performed by the modern sides who were part of the Morris Ring. The Ring sides used “single step” (1-hop, 2-hop) and the Bampton sides used “double step” (1-2-3-hop).

But now I begin to doubt my own memory, because on YouTube I turned up a recent clip of the Bampton traditional side and another of a Ring side from Gloucestershire doing a dance called “Step and Fetch Her”, and the steps are close to identical. Is my memory at fault or did the Bampton dancers re-adopt the Cecil Sharp version?

Step aside from the traditions of Southern England and head North to the county of Lancashire. Here a different tradition exists. Morris dancing was no longer a rural tradition but an urban one, associated with processions.

The Manley Morris Dancers from Cheshire in procession.

The Leyland Morris Dancers in the 1890s

These dances were performed in the iron-shod clogs of the mill- and factory-workers, and unlike the six-man southern dances there could be up to twenty-four to a team. (Although, as I said, these are basically processional dances the only YouTube clip I could find of the Leyland Morris Men has six of them doing a non-processional version of one of their dances.)

The First World War decimated the male population of the northern towns. However processions still took place and there was a demand for dancers. Teams were re-formed with little girls taking the place of men. They could not be expected to dress as the men, nor to wear clogs, and the character of the dances began to change.

A girls’ “carnival” morris troupe in the late 1940s.
“Ring” types would deride this as “fluffy” and “not traditional”

If you see a modern girls’ morris troupe, whose appearance seems to owe more to American marching bands, you will still see recognizable residual elements of the men’s dances. But nowadays the girls’ troupes exist more to take part in contests; their steps and moves are highly synchronised and stylised, and they dance to recorded pop music rather than to bands of musicians. The whole culture has shifted, and a totally new form has grown out of a tradition. See this recording of the Lancashire Rosettes.

Conventionally – that is if morris dancing is to be preserved as it was in the time of Cecil Sharp – the tradition is male. That was certainly the attitude of the Ring in the 1970s, and it was not a weak argument. Why not preserve a tradition which ones great-great-grandfather would recognize? Against this conservative attitude was the growth of late-20c feminism, and the argument that the tradition should give way to inclusivity. I never did any kind of folk dancing myself, but as an interested observer I was of two minds. The girls’ morris of the North West of England had grown out of prevailing social conditions, the late 20c impetus for change was deliberate, political (with a small “p”) pressure. Can such pressure be legitimate in the case of “tradition” and bring about a process whereby the tradition changes radically before one’s eyes? I leave the argument to the reader.

However, the late 20c influx of women into morris dancing[*] resulted in the formation of many new all-female sides, the majority of which dance versions of the Lancashire men’s dances. In that part of the UK the realms of the traditional men’s dances, the girls’ carnival morris, and the new ladies’ teams overlap. Here is a modern ladies team - The Chinewrde Clog Morris - performing a North-western dance.

This potted history started with the work of an ethnomusicologist, Cecil Sharp, and it ends with the question of where the modern ethnomusicologist fits in. What is his or her role? Where should one stand in the debate about what is and what isn’t tradition? Are the enthusiasts’ teams, whether male or female or (in some cases) mixed traditional at all? Is tradition the only or the prime criterion of the ethnomusicologist? Rather should he or she be interested simply in what people do with their music, for no matter what reason, no matter whether they are part of a continuing historical tradition (like as the Bampton dancers) or are folk enthusiasts?

I have given you perhaps a historian’s-eye-view. Make of it what you will.

[*] I know I am leaving out entirely the use of morris dancing in upper-class girls’ schools in the 1920s as a form of physical education.


Within the English tradition of dancing and ritual is the concept of disguise. One way in which that disguise is expressed is by blackening the face. It is not “blackface”, but it does surprise American visitors.
 The Bacup Coconut Dancers

Here is a unique bit of tradition from the North of England – The Bacup Britannia Coconut Dancers.