WHAT WOULD CECIL SHARP DO?
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.