Saturday, 11 December 2010

WWC♯D? No.2


Here is a video clip from Mayday 2010. It was filmed at Padstow in Cornwall, a uniquely Celtic corner of England. The “Old” or “Red Ribbon” Hobby Horse (or “Obby Oss” as they call it in Padstow) is one of three horses which come out into the town on Mayday. First to emerge in the morning is the Children’s Oss. The second is the Blue or “Peace” Oss, and the third is the Old Oss.

In this clip the Oss comes out of the Golden Lion pub and starts the day’s dancing. The dance will take all day, and will process throughout the whole town of Padstow. Traditionally it is good luck to be barged by the Oss’s tarred skirts, and in this clip we see it actually seize a young woman. The Oss is usually accompanied by one or more “Teasers”, who dance before it carrying something that looks like a decorated bat or clapper.

Mayday is Padstow’s “Day”, the day when it does it’s own thing. But something nags at the back of my mind when I watch these clips. There was a big revival in interest in English traditions in the 1970s, and Padstow was a big draw for enthusiasts who wanted to see, and to participate in, something utterly unique in the world. The B&Bs and hotels became booked up for miles around. I met at least one Londoner who was a regular down in Padstow – he would go there, put on his white clothes and red necker, and dance along with the Old Oss – and he wasn’t alone. I heard (second hand, so if you quote me don’t quote me as Gospel), that as the B&Bs filled up, more and more Padstonians  booked holidays in Ibiza. Cornwall depends on tourism for much of its wealth, but nonetheless calls tourists by the disparaging name of “grockles”. Padstow would empty out its natives and become a town where outsiders performed the tradition.

So when I look at the clips, I wonder how many people I am watching, either as onlookers or participants, are actually Cornishmen and Cornishwomen from Padstow. Maybe things have quieted down. Maybe they have reclaimed their Day as their own, to some extent. Maybe what I was told was complete eyewash anyway.

But it all made me wonder this: Is an ethnomusicologist free to become an enthusiast, a participant, a revivalist?

Ethnomusicology and looking at folk traditions strikes me as being a little like particle physics. When a traditional display is observed it is, like the behaviour of a particle, somehow changed. This can’t be helped. It is a mater of context. To an extent, if only to a small extent, the display is for the observer, whose presence slightly alters the context of the display. When the observer becomes a participant, the context changes further.

This is the point at which one usually takes a moral stance and states a principle, draws a line at the place beyond which one promises not to “interfere”. But “interfering” and not interfering both have consequences, as surely as effect follows cause. Recognising this, and placing traditions within changing times (which is surely where they are anyway!) is part and parcel of being able to see people’s music and traditions in context.

A couple of words which keep cropping up in my dippings-into ethnomusicology are “etic” and “emic”. To me they are a couple of suffixes. Basically their purpose is to differentiate between outside and inside a culture. Neither viewpoint is complete in itself. Insiders can be subjective to an extent that outsiders often can’t. Outsiders can be objective to an extent that insiders sometimes can’t.

I have been told that I have a good appreciation of “context”, particularly historical context. I don’t know. Do I? I do know that I certainly ought to if I am going to maintain an interest in subjects like this.

Okay, I asked: “Is an ethnomusicologist free to become an enthusiast, a participant, a revivalist?” Well, why not? Who could resist the chance to dance through the streets of Padstow, or to play in a gamelan ensemble, or to join in a Sardana in the town square in Girona? Go for it, but keep a sense of what it is you are doing.


I noticed that the second clip had appeared on the web site of the BNP (British National Party), who are reckoned to be a Fascist organisation. That's an interesting phenomenon in itself, the appropriation of the images of a traditional event for right-wing political purposes.


  1. The answer is not only "why not?" but that there is no other way. Read an article or two by Mantle Hood on bimusicality.

  2. Well you know that I write from a position of ignorance. :-D