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.


  1. I think our job in the debate as ethnomusicologists is to be the mouthpiece for the traditions and not make opinions or comparisons either way. If the traditions are to be living traditions, then it is up to the people of the tradition to make it so. If it is a dying tradition, then it is our job to preserve it, if only to add another archive to the library. Sometimes it's that simple.

    I know someone in Peru right now who had to talk her informants into realizing that their musical traditions were unique and should be continued and preserved. I don't agree with that. If they don't think it's important, then why keep it? Preservation and archival are important, but maybe it's not so vital to keep certain traditions alive without the progression of change. Then again, take a look at the Tibetans who are struggling to keep their traditions in the face of genocide.

    As an aside, the Lancashire rosettes Morris dancing troupe reminded me of American cheerleaders and I'd have to really stretch my neck out to see the "traditions" inherent there. At one point does it get so far away from its original intent that the name should change entirely? Not sure.

    As for the Coconut dancers - interesting. Are you sure it's not "blackface"?

    Awesome post - sorry I didn't find it earlier. You're a better ethnomusicologist than I'll ever be. It's all about context, and that's your forte, Marie.

  2. Thanks for your comments.

    Interesting debate you're having with yourself in the second paragraph! I think that is why I headed this blog "What Would Cecil Sharp Do?" - not to advocate a Sharpian approach, but more to point out the fat that in your field you are working in a fluid or dynamic situation. Your manifesto in the first paragraph is probably spot-on; but on the other hand, when you find something wonderful that is dying out, even because of a shift in the community's attitudes which is perfectly valid, I can imagine the pang you must feel.

    You cite the Tibetans. The movement for preservation of traditions comes from them - that's an important fact.

    The Lancashire Rosettes do remind onlookers of cheerleaders or (sometimes) majorettes. I wouldn't rule out some influence on the look, BUT their role (outside of competitions, such as you saw on the clip) has traditionally been as processional dancers in the yearly "Whit Walk" and other street carnivals in the NW of England, and that role dose date back to immediately after WW1, when so many men's teams had ceased due to the slaughter. Anyone familiar with the men's processional dances will be able to spot similarities in the steps, movements, etc, and be able to draw the conclusion that it is a continuing but changed tradition, not an import.

    Regarding the Nutters. I think that their tradition pre-dates Music Hall minstrelsy. They are not the only traditional English group which do, or did, black up, and certainly not the only group to disguise their faces. It seems much more likely to me, judging by the time of year that most English traditional dances and plays take place, that their origins are in pre-Christian ritual, though some connection has been made to celebrations of the Aragonese defeat of the Moors in Spain. The word "morris" has been linked to "moorish", though the etymology may be tenuous. There are also seasonal "mumming" plays, the name of which might come from a Norse word for a mask.

    If this link works, you can see a mumming play put on in a pub in the SW of England. The characters usually include Saint (or King) George, who fights and kills a Turkish Knight, and a Doctor who revives him.

    One of the most fascinating of British rituals is the Hobby Horse procession in Padstow, Cornwall. Here is a link to an amateur video - not terrific quality, but you get a reasonable view of the grotesque "horse"
    The tune, "Unite and Unite", keeps up all day.

    You're right. It is all about context. I think it is also a matter of looking at it from all angles, being open to discovery, but also having the facility to identify and eliminate the unlikely! I have heard some opinions voiced about British rituals that have been extremely specious.

    Lastly, thank you for that comment about my being an ethnomusicologist. I am honoured. Frankly, I can't hold a candle to you. I don't have your drive. I do have a knack for being able to see things - as you say - in context.

  3. Errata:

    Line 3 - "fact", not "fat".

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