What Would Cecil Sharp Do? No.3
Cecil Sharp with some folk-dancing friends, the women are possibly from the Esperance Club, the men are wearing Cotswold morris attire and are probably one of the early teams of enthusiasts (see “Re-enactment” below).
I have had some further thoughts about morris dancing since I last wrote.
Firstly my sweeping statement that girls’ teams in the North West of England came about because of the shortage of men to fill the traditional teams after WW1. It only took me a little further research to question that, even though the research was a quick look on Wikipedia1 and little of it was further substantiated.
There is mention of dances in Lancashire which involved mixed teams of young men and women, in particular there is reputed to be a painting of Eccles Wakes, which I have not seen and can’t find on the internet, showing mixed dancers in the late 18c. However, I do know that the Eccles tradition is for a rushcart procession, and whether the accompanying troupe were strictly speaking morris dancers is a different matter; all extant antique photographs of rushcart processions show them to be all-male affairs.
A rushcart procession photographed in 1880
What is clearer is that girls’ troupes started to appear in the North West of England around mills and non-conformist chapels as early as the late 19c, although I maintain that the decline of men’s teams and the rise of girls’ post-WW1 must surely have been influenced greatly by war deaths. Surviving teams of traditional dancers in the North West, however, are exclusively all-male or all-female (I will say what I mean by “traditional” below) and each form, though still having mutually recognizable features, has developed along very different lines. Although I would still hesitate to cite American cheerleading as a direct influence2, a transatlantic observer would comment on certain similarities of dress and accoutrements. The “bunches” flourished by girls’ morris troupes are derived from the decorated sticks, “slings”, and garlands of the men’s troupes first and foremost, the modern (mid 20c onward) bunches bear too much similarity to those carried by American cheerleaders to prevent speculation about influence.
I have been able to find two pictures of a mixed boys-and-girls morris troupe performing at Goosnargh in Lancashire in the 1930s. As far as I can see they are holding Union Jack handkerchiefs.
Looking at morris dancing over the past 120 years or so, I feel I can divide the types of troupes, sides, and teams into the following categories and sub-categories. NB none of these categories includes a value judgment about the worth of each, the authenticity of each, or the motives of the creators or maintainers of each.
A traditional morris side is one which has an unbroken history in a particular place. Typical of this would be a side whose existence was recorded by Cecil Sharp and which still exists today. Examples would be the “Cotswold” morris dancers of Bampton and Headington. I would also use this term to include morris sides which had such an unbroken history when they were still active, such as the now defunct Chipping Campden side.
Although their history is patchy, their existence pre-Sharp places them within some kind of traditional matrix, for want of a better term. There is now a revivalist side in the village.
- Adaptive traditional. This is my term for dancing troupes and styles which have grown up and developed along different lines, sometimes radically different lines, due to various sociological circumstances. Typical of this would be the girls’ morris of North Western England, which has in fact flourished and grown.
As opposed to “adaptive”, this is my term for Morris dancing which has been adapted for purposes other than identifiably traditional ones. I would include in this category the teams found at girls’ schools which danced Cotswold morris, as collected by Cecil Sharp, as a kind of physical education.
Cotswold morris being danced at a girls’ school in the 1930s
Also I would include fanciful use of supposed (or even actual) morris dancing at village fetes and pageants at one time. As a possible example of this I am including below a photo of three girls and three boys at Chipping Sodbury in 1916.
Chipping Sodbury has no known tradition of morris dancing as far as I can tell, nor does the three-hand ring of each sex resemble any known one. The girls appear to have “Welsh” hats on, corresponding to the boys’ toppers; the latter may have been copied from the traditional attire of the men’s sides from Brackley or Bucknell.
The traditional dancers from Bucknell
Arguably the use of morris dancing in the training of students at the Royal Ballet School could come into the Adapted category too.
This term covers revival of dances in villages or areas where they were performed previously, but where there had been a hiatus. To be truly a “revival” there would need to be some very strong source of information on performance – photographs of costume etc, dance steps noted down or retained in the memory of a former dancer, tunes still known, and so on.
- Speculative Revivalist or Creative Revivalist. These are interchangeable terms which I would use to cover situations where people know that there was a now-defunct tradition in a particular area, but where there is too little information available to make an accurate replica of a bygone performance. In such situations an imaginative creation is arrived at. As an example of this I would cite the Shrophshire Bedlam Morris, who perform a “Border” style of morris but with a high degree of creative innovation. NB I will deal further with the use of “blackface” in morris dancing later in this entry.
In this category I would place any morris dancing group which performs a traditional dance as accurately as possible, but one which has no specific ties to the group’s location. Some observers could see this as presentation of morris as a museum piece rather than a living tradition. Into this category I would place “Morris Ring” sides, and other enthusiasts, who try to preserve mainly Cotswold dances as collected by Cecil Sharp. The value of this category is that they do allow us to see many types of dances which have died out in their previously traditional locations.
- Adaptive re-enactment. In this category I would place groups of dancers influenced by the principle that things should not only be the preserve of male dancers. Since the UK folk revival of the 1970s pressure had been applied along the lines of this principle. It had been resisted, mainly by “Ring” sides, for the very reason that a conscious decision had been made to preserve a form of dancing as it had been collected by Cecil Sharp, and that the conscious decision to change it fundamentally was a destructive impulse rather than one based on fairness. Nonetheless since the 1970s a number of groups of women dancers have emerged dancing what have been hitherto preserved as male forms of morris, particularly North Western clog morris.
One thing I should say about all these different trends, strands, and categories. People do the dances their own way, and do them at all for their own reasons. Their reasons are important to understand and to note, and their dancing at all is a way of ensuring some link with older traditions. Who knows but that any or all of these strands could become, in time, recognizable as a tradition in its own right.
Another thing to remember is this. Traditional folk forms are not the be-all and end-all. It is a noteworthy fact that the majority of people in Britain are unaware of the traditions that they may have lost, let alone the ones they still have somewhere within the borders of their country. The majority of people in Britain are more familiar with “Chart” R&B and with the latest winner of “The X-Factor” than they are with British folk music3. This is just a sociological fact, a context, not a judgment.
“Blackface” in morris dancing.
A brief note about this phenomenon. Apart from one instance in Lancashire, in the small mill-town of Bacup, all mention of dancers with their faces blackened appear to be in the counties of Shropshire of Herefordshire, along the border with Wales (and their style is referred to as “Border Morris”). The fact that these places are all in remote rural areas, well away from the large towns which would have Music Halls, coupled with the fact that the blackening extended to the eye- and lip-surrounds, suggests that it is something different from “blackface” in American Minstrelsy.
Here is a clip of the Shropshire Bedlam Morris dancing with black faces. This side was formed in 1975 by folk musician John Kirkpatrick. I would put them in the Speculative or Creative Revivalist category, as they work from known fragments of Border Morris along with their own creative reconstruction, and dance in an area where the tradition was previously known. Interestingly they came under criticism from a resident of the small Shropshire town of Clun precisely for blackening their faces. “I have to put up with it every year,” he said. “Has anyone noticed how racist it is?” As a matter of interest they have a “sister” side of women dancers who do not wear blackened faces.
Below are two tantalizing pictures of now-lost Border morris. The first group is from Upton-on-Severn. Their faces are not blackened, but they wear clothes which appear to be decorated with rags and ribbons. The second is a glimpse of dancers at Much Wenlock. You can make out that their disguise covers the whole faces. Their attire appears to be like a clown costume, and they seem to be performing a stick-clashing dance.
I think I will now give this subject a rest, you’ll be glad to hear…
1 Much better to enquire of the EFDSS library at Cecil Sharp House.
2 There is no tradition of cheerleading at sporting events in the UK, in fact any attempt to organise the spontaneity of fans has always been resisted, cheers and chants being devised solely by the fans themselves. American games such as Baseball and (American) Football have never taken off in the UK.
3 Recently BBC TV televised a show in which featured a musician’s attempt to organize a “flash mob” of clog dancers in a square in the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In a pre-event “vox-pop” interview one member of the public adamantly and persistently corrected the musician when he referred to clogs, saying word to the effect, “If they have leather uppers and laces they are not clogs, they are shoes. Clogs are made of wood, have no laces, and would fall off if you tried to dance in them.” There’s an article about the programme on this link, including some video clips.