PLEASE NOTE: This is work in progress - several sections are under revision and of course the
bulk of the photographs and the diagrams which make the instructions so much easier to follow are also absent.



Historical Background

UNIT ONE - Parades and Processions

How to:
Organise a Procession
Put on a show
Make a Garland
Construct a Hobby Horse
Dress a Jack-in-the-Green
Perform a Maypole dance


UNIT TWO – ‘Ceremonial' Dance

How to Perform:
Cotswold morris
Border morris
Molly dancing
North West Morris
A Sword dance


Other Dance Traditions

UNIT THREE - Traditional Drama

How to: Put on a Mumming play


UNIT FOUR - Traditional Music and Song

How to:
Perform as a singer or musician
Choose and Instrument
Buy an Instrument
Collect Oral material - songs and stories


UNIT FIVE - Feasts and Festivals

How to:
Run a barn dance
Dance country dances
Survive a folk festival

Calendar of Folk Customs

Useful Addresses
List of Festivals


A week to Christmas and in a small Derbyshire mining village the weather is wet and the night is as dark and bitter as the beer. In the local working men's club the master of ceremonies for the evening calls for order. Bright lights cut through the wreathes of smoke as the customers settle themselves down with a clattering of chairs and a ringing of pint pots. Introduced: as 'champion tuppers' four young lads pace nervously onto a small raised stage. They are greeted with howls of good natured laughter.

The first is dressed as an old man with whiskery smears of soot on his cheeks. The second has raided his sister’s wardrobe and make up bag and is dressed as a woman whilst the third wears an apron and carries a butcher's knife and steel. Then, strangest of all, comes the fourth member of the company, down on all fours, draped in a blanket, bleating like a large sheep. They are about to tell the dramatic story of the death and dismemberment of the biggest sheep. there ever was - the Derby Ram. They sing and act:
"Ere comes me an' our owd lass,
Short o'money and short o'brass,
Pay for a pint and let us sup,
And we'll show thee th'Derby Tup.," …

…as the butcher sharpens his knife.

A Whit Bank Holiday and the lonely road to Bampton zig-zags across broad 0xfordshire farmlands, sandwiched between the Cotswolds to the north and the Berkshire Downs to the south. A view of the town church's slender spire caught between passing willows and over a dense green hedge shows we are nearly there, and then, Bampton itself. The streets appear wide and lined with small stone cottages and, just for today, cars. There are cars everywhere shimmering under a new summer's sun. As we have arrived late there are only a few stragglers armed with picnics, pushchairs and beer mugs, for us to follow into the market place, but once there…  people, all sorts of people, seeming to mill around at random.

The crowd draws together over by one of the village pubs and above their heads we can see the flash of waving white handkerchiefs and hear muffled notes of music. We weave amongst them working our way forward, pulled by the scraping of a fiddle and the rattle of brass bells and then, at the very front, we see… kicking up the dust, six men, dressed in white, dancing round, a graceful swirl of arms and legs and ribbons and bowler hats. We have arrived and the Bampton morris dancers are dancing for us.

For centuries the lives of ordinary people have been enriched by a variety of traditional customs and celebrations. They have danced and sung and made music both for the personal pleasure of performing when times were good and to supplement their incomes when times were hard. Popular culture, in the sense of those things which are the common property of a community, has frequently been written off by learned commentators and academics. Only an outsider, a member of the 'gentry', could have written as Francis Douce did in the early years of the nineteenth century,

“It is probable that from the present rage for refinement and innovation there will remain in the course of a short time but few vestiges of our popular customs ... "

He was wrong, innate qualities of persistence and a dogged determination not to lie down and die have carried that culture, in all its varying forms, through dark days of war and depression and enabled it to survive and respond to technological revolutions that have changed the face of the country. In the past the village green or the collier's row was enlivened by morris or sword dancing and the pubs roared with the sound of untutored voices raised in song and utterly amateur musicians thumping out jigs and reels. Today much of this survives or has been revived but it has been jostled onto the side lines by newer and perhaps more vigorous 'customs': rock and roll music, street theatre and carnivals, drum majorettes and football choruses. Many things change but the freedom to perform is still cherished despite attempts to impose licensing on free preformances. However, our interest lies not with these 'new' inventions but rather with the traditional dance music and song as enjoyed by the 'folk' of this country up to the beginning of the twentieth century and as interpreted by the revivalists who followed them into the twenty first.

It is a feature of this traditional heritage that the performing arts, though often indulged in for their own sakes were also used to enhance some ceremony or celebration. Whilst music, for example, could be a solitary occupation: the tune whistled in the fields or at the factory bench. It could also be a part of a harvest festival or a day of dancing. These community based customs shared a number of  common characteristics, firstly they tended to be profoundly seasonal in nature, particular events taking place at the same time each year. There was rarely a formal venue in the sense of a theatrical engagement or a sporting fixture, instead performances took place on the streets round the pubs and in the homes of those generous enough to patronise the company. The performers were all non-professional although collecting money was frequently an important part of the 'ritual'. Finally details of the performance, be they words, tunes or dance steps were hardly ever written down; they were committed to memory and passed on from one participant to the next, and hence from generation to generation, by word of mouth. Activities which today we know as May Day celebrations, morris dancing, sword dancing, mumming or bottle kicking and hare-pie scrambling, all share in some of these features.

In the early years of the twentieth century people who had seen and collected what they regarded as the last vestiges of this country's traditional culture had done so with a particular understanding of what they were seeing. They believed that many of the events that they had recorded could be interpreted as being survivals of some body of ancient pagan fertility ritual, once widespread throughout the country and involving elements of sacrifice and communion. This kind of view point has dominated, and in some cases still dominates, the thinking of many of those involved in folklore but the truth is more complex. The insights gained by the study of folklore have moved on from the religious and magical to the social and economic.

Historical Background

No doubt our pagan ancestors in pre-Roman Britain performed various rituals to ensure fertility and abundance in family and field, no doubt they celebrated with dance, music and song, everyone does. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of archaeologists, our knowledge of these early times, particularly with regard to the less tangible aspects of community life, is severely limited. The Christian church, first introduced into Britain during the Roman era, and becoming well established before the Norman conquest, put an end to it all anyway. The church dominated medieval society from its highest to its lowest levels, both intellectually and economically. We can be quite certain that many beliefs lingered on enshrined in story, song or saying and that many superstitions represented the last vestiges of pre-Christian religion, however, what people do in private is quite different to what they do in public. It has often been remarked on how the early church took over existing pagan festivals and made them its own, but it is hard to see how any village in lowland Britain could preserve pagan practices over several centuries in the face of hostility from the church, it is even harder to see how the church could encourage overtly pagan ritual elements such as the wearing of animal disguise or the erecting of the 'idolatrous' maypole if this were genuinely pagan in origin. It has also been suggested that the persecution of witches that blighted the later Renaissance in Europe was the final expurgation of the followers of the 'old' religion, a process made complete by the scepticism of those new pagans, the humanists and rationalists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The evidence is vague and tenuous so the case for a thousand years of survival by pagan customs must
remain unproven. The links between those customs noted by the collectors of the early twentieth century and the pagan practices of over a millennium before are all missing. The morris dancer who today stands up and announces the performance of an ancient fertility dance is creating a new mythology, not perpetuating an old one.

The picture which so far has been so widely out of focus and incomplete becomes clearer towards the end of the middle ages when much of the nation's wealth shifted into the hands of a rising number of merchants and tradesmen. The power of the old feudal lords had been eroded and a new social order, based on trade and centred on the expanding towns, was seen. In the cities the trade guilds, associations which looked after the interests of particular professional groups, such as the cutlers or the drapers, became increasingly powerful and influential. These guilds founded in the middle ages, with their love of pomp and pageantry were the instigators of a number of events which profoundly affected the history of many of our folk customs.

Changing social circumstances, coupled with the effects of the continental Renaissance with its classical and humanist  interests, produced a blossoming of national culture during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st. The fact that many of the newly rich and comparatively leisured classes were found in an urban setting meant that it was possible for them to suffer from a romantic yearning for the simple and largely fictitious pleasures of country life. These feelings are echoed in much of the poetry of the time:

"Spring, the sweet spring, is the year's pleasant king;
Then blossoms each thing, then maids dance in a ring,
Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing… "

from 'Spring' by Thomas Nash (1567-1601)

and were continued into the seventeenth century by poets like Robert Herrick who sung of "Maypoles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes" and called "come my Corinna, come, let's go a Maying.” Despite their idyllic idealised settings poems like these can give us a certain amount of information about rural customs. Another major source of information for this period comes from an entirely different direction, following the reformation there arose a number of particularly hard-line protestant groups who in this country are popularly known as puritans. The playwright Ben Jonson told of a Banbury baker who in a rush of puritan enthusiasthm gave up his trade,

 "out of a scruple he took, that, in spiced conscience, those cakes he made were served to bride-ales, maypole, morrices and such profane feasts and meetings.”

Puritan preachers frequently attacked the 'abuses' they saw around them, in an attempt to halt what they saw as a national moral decay. In the late sixteenth century the cleric Philip Stubbes could write of those who,” colour their faces" or "make holes in their ears wherat they hang rings" or engage in "devilish pastimes" such as football, in the same context as those who erected maypoles or elected lords of misrule. Although strongly critical in tone these writings provide us with some graphic descriptions of the traditions of the times. The picture is one of surprising richness and variety. Traditional celebrations seemed to thrive for a time, despite the scorn heaped upon them by their detractors. By the middle of the seventeenth century royal approval is given in a warrant from Charles 1st to the effect that the people should not be prevented from enjoying their harmless recreations, "nor from having of May games, Whitsun ales and morris dancers and the setting up of Maypoles" so long as they did not interfere with divine service.

Following the upheavals of the civil war and the restoration interest in 'merry England' seems to have waned on the part of those who might have been inclined to write about folk customs and traditional life. They were just no longer fashionable and as they also presumably ceased to present a threat to the moral fabric of the country these celebrations are no longer mentioned in the historical record. Meanwhile the next major movement in English history gathered momentum, the Industrial revolution.

The discovery and introduction of new techniques of iron-working  and the harnessing of steam power in the late seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth produced a near explosive growth in the size of our towns, particularly towards the end of this period. Outside the towns new patterns had been established by the enclosure of common lands and the building of turnpike roads and canals. New levels of production were required to feed the hungry towns and many landowners became extremely prosperous. Conditions within these new town developments were frequently grimy and grim but brought whole new masses of people together to form large urban communities based not on the village but on the street or workplace. Life for the rural labourer was no easier, indeed in some ways his burden of suffering had been increased. The-enclosure acts closed down many small independent farmers who had used common grazing to maintain a little livestock. The advent of agricultural machinery, the Napoleonic Wars and government tinkering with the prices of essential foodstuffs did little to help. By the 'hungry' 1840's rural life must have been at one of its lowest ebbs ever, yet even so was able to produce something of a 'hey-day' for traditional dance and music, perhaps adversity had something to do with it.

A new and important feature of village life in the nineteenth century was the founding of friendly societies and thrift clubs which promised mutual benefits to their subscribing members. 'Club Day' became an important date in the village social calendar and it sometimes inherited various traditional features. Club days took over from 'church ales' which were often held at Whit. These functions, centred on the parish church, were partly social occasions and partly opportunities for the local church authorities to raise funds in much the same way as fetes do today. In the industrial centres social activities were sometimes co-ordinated by the various associations of working men that were the fore-runners of the modern trades union movement. The factories' annual week long holidays were also occasions for community events and festivals.

The latter part of the nineteenth century saw a number of major changes in the social fabric of the country and these produced corresponding changes in many traditional customs that many saw as decay and decline. Some observances died out all together. A table compiled by J. Needham and published in the E.F.D.S.S. Journal illustrated this trend as applied to dance:

Active 1800 - 1900Active 1900 -1930
Cotswold Morris105 5
North-west Morris3112
Sword dance (Long)466
Sword dance (Rapper)115
Molly Dancing152

A major factor in this decline was the onset of cheap, readily available mass education. In rural communities especially the old 'dame schools', normally run, however inefficiently, by an individual from within the community were replaced by properly administered Board schools. These were staffed increasingly with trained teachers from London colleges. Many of these teachers were principled missionaries of a kind of 'middle class morality' that had very strong opinions as to what was right and proper  and what was not and old country customs with their frequent drunkenness and occasional violence were definitely unacceptable. Similarly improper were the songs of tradition which varied from the slightly risqué to the downright 'obscene', or so they thought. New songs, new tunes and in the case of maypole dancing, new customs, were introduced and finding favour with the middle classes were included on many a curriculum. Here is an early example of the 'take over' of a traditional festival from as early as 1859:

"National and Sunday Schools. The children of these schools had their annual May day treat on Thursday 3rd inst. The May Queen elected by children from the infant school, seated in a carriage which was literally both bower and a couch of flowers, drawn by her six maidens suitably dressed, with chaplets of flowers on their heads, was escorted in procession around the town. First came the boys, as her trusty knights, to clear the way, carrying a number of flags and banners; then came 'Jack in the Green' ; then followed the state carriage containing the queen, backed up by a gigantic maypole; the girls also carrying flags and banners brought up the rear. Where ever the procession stopped, songs and carols suitable to the season were very prettily sung by the children."

May Day in Deddington from 'Jackson's Oxford Journal' May 7th 1859.

One can imagine the old morris dancers around at the time shaking their heads, muttering under their breath and retiring in the sad knowledge that their days were numbered. Education aside, other factors must have been at work to cause so many rapid changes. In the countryside these included improved communications which brought about a change in social attitudes with the result that in some areas traditional pastimes became thought of as low and vulgar. The many thousands of cheap magazines and novels which circulated, especially amongst the women of the village, were avidly read and discussed and produced new models of 'refined' behaviour. In addition other types of entertainment were evolving and becoming more fashionable, a process made complete by the introduction of the phonograph and wireless to a mass audience during the inter-war years. The traditional tunes and words were not sufficiently up to the minute to attract the attention of a new generation. Finally the improved financial circumstances of many agricultural labourers towards the end of the Victorian era meant that there was less impetus to go out and perform for the sake of money, besides it became "too much like begging". All these factors had their parts to play but in the end it is schooling which must have had the most far reaching effect on the old traditions, an East Anglian molly dancer summed it up: "The younger people don't understand it, they don't know what its for." The whole process was of course much speeded up in towns with closer proximity to those who were 'trend setters'.

A kind of 'death blow' came with the First World War from 1914 to 1918. Many traditional musicians and dancers went off to the front never to return, a large proportion of the rising generation of young men who might be expected to have taken up the old traditions were also wiped out. Once more the fabric of English rural life changed but this time, in many instances, there was no place for the folk customs of earlier days.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the study of folklore became a respectable pastime for academics. Bodies like the Folklore Society had members who collected and interpreted observations on ethnic communities from all corners of the British Empire, which in effect at the time meant the world. Few people, however, realised the richness and variety of the traditional life of what was then called the 'English peasant', fewer still realised that a similar richness was to found amongst the teeming masses of the industrial towns and cities. The first collectors of folk music really were, in a sense, pioneers in both the field of study they had chosen and the methodology some of them brought to it.

One of these early collectors was Percy Manning an 'Oxford Antiquary' who recorded information about several Cotswold morris sides as well as making notes about mumming plays and collecting details of local May Day celebrations. He also met and encouraged the soon to be famous Headington Quarry morris men some years before they were discovered by Cecil Sharp, the most influential student and collector of folk dance and song ever. After graduating from Cambridge University Sharp spent several years in Australia becoming organist of Adelaide Cathedral and founding a school of music there. He returned to England in 1896 to become the director of the Hampstead Conservatoire. In 1899 whilst staying with friends at Headington near Oxford he had his first encounter with morris dancing. Members of the local morris team were touring the area, out of season, in an effort to make a little money. Sharp was inspired by what he saw, so the story goes, and devoted much of the remainder of his life to collecting and publicising traditional English dance and song. As part of his mission he persuaded the Board of Education to approve the use of folk dance and song in schools and in 1911 was instrumental in founding the English Folk Dance Society later to become the English Folk Dance and Song Society (E.F.D.S.S.). He lead the movement through into the 1920's which he hoped " would lead to a great dance development, possibly the foundation of an English Ballet", clearly seeing folk music in terms of his own cultured and classical background. His views on the origins of 'ritual dance' were firmly rooted in the typically nineteenth century concept that many apparently related facts could be explained by perceiving some underlying universal principle. Darwin did it with evolution and it worked, Sharp believed that most folk activities could be traced back to some basic pagan fertility ritual connected with the sacrificial death and miraculous rebirth of a sacred king who was identified with a vegetation 'spirit' , and was wrong. This idea can be seen primarily in the work of the great Victorian anthropologist Sir James Frazer who published an enormous collection of second hand observations linked together by the thread of his theory in a monumental twelve volume work called the Golden Bough. Sharp's ‘explanations' , were to dominate thinking about morris, sword dancing and mumming almost up to the present day.

In 1895 Mary Neal founded the Esperance Girl's Club, an organisation based on socialist principles for the poorer classes of working girls in London. An interest in 'national dance' lead her to approach Sharp for information. He gave her a number of leads which sparked off a wave of collecting notably at Ilmington and Abingdon amongst the morris dancers there. The results of this work were published in the Esperance Morris Books. In later years a rift developed between Neal and Sharp because of the formers view that dancing was primarily for enjoyment and that Sharp was erring in the direction of being too pedantic about the subject. In some places individuals were responsible for saving a particular tradition for example Janet Blunt, unofficial 'lady of the manor' in Adderbury, Oxfordshire collected the steps and dance tunes from William Walton, the last surviving member of the old village morris team, in 1918. Other collectors had other interests, in the same part of the world Reginald Tiddy, an Oxford don, collected a large number of mumming plays and published a book on the subject. He also lead one of the first revival teams of morris dancers in his home village of Ascott under Wychwood before he was killed in the First World War.

The collecting of original material continued throughout the twentieth century despite early fears that the subject was a dying one. Ian Russell contributed a detailed account of the hitherto largely unknown traditional drama of North East Derbyshire to the Folk Music Journal (1979). This paper is a good example of the more scientific approach that was brought to bear on folklore matters in the latter part of the century. In 1982 Michael Pickering published "Village Song and Culture" and developed a very political, almost ‘Marxist’ perspective on folk song. A long term project initiated in the 1930's involved the geographical analysis of seasonal performances, volumes printed included ones one ritual animal disguise and ritual drama. Individuals such as Russell Wortley, Alex Helm, Christopher Cawte and Roy Dommett all made valuable contributions towards the collecting and classification of traditional material.

Following the collecting activities of early pioneers in the field a number of people, who had little connection with the traditional centres, began to learn morris, sword and country dancing. Soon clubs were being founded in many parts of the country under the influence of the E.F.D.S.S. and its officials. A system of grades tests and examinations for aspiring dancers was instituted. During the 1920's many young people threw themselves enthusiastically into the preservation and recreation of the customs of 'old England'. Huge gatherings were held at locations like Hyde Park in London when thousands of enthusiasts demonstrated their common interest in folk dancing. The movement was not, however, without its critics:

"The folk song and morris dance craze strikes us as the daftest thing in crazes since the aestheticism of forty odd years ago and we only wish that another Gilbert would arise to ridicule it in another 'Patience'… When we have pale faced intellectuals warbling and capering under the delusion that they are restoring the simple gaieties of old England the thing becomes ludicrous… morris dancing would be very much better left to children."

Sheffield Telegraph September 28th 1926.

The reputation that folk dancing was left with under the influence of onslaughts of this kind was that at best it was 'proper' and ‘respectable' and that at worst it was for the weak minded and feeble bodied. Unfortunately this is the image that many members of the public retain even today, possibly with some degree of justification, although certain developments such as the birth of 'folk-rock' in the sixties and the 'new' morris of the past decade have effected some improvement.

Folk song suffered in a similar way and was in danger in the twenties of being permanently converted into a form of art song sung only by sturdy baritones or reedy sopranos. It was saved from this by the formation of the large number of folk clubs that sprung up in the late fifties under the impetus given to popular music by the phenomenon of 'rock and roll'. The roots of the 'hit songs' of the time were traced back into jazz and blues and then at least one strand into American folk song which in turn was seen to be a development of, amongst other things native British songs. The term 'folk singer' was suddenly widened to include contemporary figures such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez whilst at the same time there was the beginning of  a return to traditional material in this country with groups like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span giving old tunes 'electric' treatment.

In 1934 six newly formed morris teams came together to found the Morris Ring of England, a body which has recently severed links with the E.F.D.S.S. taking exception to the Society's positive attitude on the issue of women performing morris dances. The fact that the Morris Ring now has amongst its membership some 130 morris teams and that there are a further 120 or so women's and mixed sides. shows something of the popularity of 'ritual dance' as a pastime. Unfortunately this rapid expansion of interest meant that in many cases contact was lost with the real roots of 'tradition' and performances became rather hollow attempts to reconstruct a dead tradition rather than breathing life into something that is continually evolving. Even so, through the early decades of the twentieth century numbers of traditional performers doggedly kept up their annual observances. Thomas Hardy, writing in the 1890's thought he had spotted the difference between the old-timer and the new devotee: "A traditional pastime is to be distinguished from a mere revival in no more striking feature than this, that while in the revival all is excitement and fervour, the survival in carried on with a stolidity and absence of stir which sets one wondering why a thing that is done so perfunctorily should be kept up at all. " - writing of the mummers in the "Return of the Native"

The most exciting developments of the nineteen seventies and eighties lay with the number of comunities who discovered their own local customs and revived them. In the Cotswolds morris teams were reformed in the villages of Adderbury, Bucknell, Eynsham, Ducklington, Kirtlington, Sherborne and Wheatley, here the morris was a part of the wider cultural and political life of the village, in 1979 one of the dancers became chairman of the parish council standing on a 'village concern' ticket. A similar trend developed amongst some of the morris dance sides of the North-East and groups of mummers scattered throughout the country. If traditional customs are to flourish as anything more than museum pieces most notable for their 'quaintness' then they must develop and retain a commitment to their community.

The English Folk Dance and Song Society continues to be the leading national organisation for promoting and co-ordinating interest in traditional culture. They publish an excellent magazine "'English Dance and Song" three times, year and the more academic "Journal" annually. Their present London headquarters at Cecil Sharp House is a meeting place for many of those who share a common interest in folk. There is a small 'folk shop' on the premises where books and records are available (they also run a mail order service) and the important Ralph Vaughan Williams Memorial library with collections of books, manuscripts, photographs and recordings. From time to time concern is expressed that the Society is out of touch with some of the more significant new trends in the folk world. There will always be a tension between being able to 'move with the times' and attract new members and being viewed as a preservationist backwater.

UNIT ONE - Parades and Processions

People take to the streets on a variety of pretexts: to riot, to demonstrate, to celebrate and to gossip. Many communities formalised these spontaneous urges into processional type ceremonies that had the incidental effect of drawing the community together. Processions could be solemn and restrained when marking the rites of the church or the death of some famous personage or they could be wild and exuberant as when welcoming back  a returning regiment or the warmth of summer. Friendly clubs had their walks and military organisations their marches both designed as a public spectacle and a reinforcement of personal pride. May Day was, and of course still is, the great day for parades, the first warm days of spring have always been a natural time for celebration after the rigours of winter. Undoubtedly the pre-Christian inhabitants of these temperate islands were as glad to throw off the yoke of winter as their nineteenth century descendants and must have celebrated accordingly. Whatever the case the practise of celebrating the first of May was well established by the sixteenth century when it became a favourite target for attack by a number of puritan clerics:

"What a do make our young men at the time of May. Do they not use night watchings to rob and steal young trees out of other men's ground and bring them into their parish with minstrels playing before? And when they have set it up they will deck it with flowers and garlands and dance around. it (men and women together most unseemly and intolerable)"

from John Northbrooke's "A treatise wherein dicing, dancing, vain plays or interludes with other idle pastimes commonly used on the Sabbath day are reproved by the authorities of the word of God and ancient writers" 1579.

Or again:
” All the young men and maids, old men and wives run gadding overnight to the woods, groves, hills and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withal... But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their Maypole which they bring home with great veneration, as thus. They have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every oxen having a sweet nosegay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this Maypole ( this stinking idol rather) which is covered all over with flowers and herbs,  bound round with strings from the top to the bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion. And thus being reared up, with handkerchiefs and flags hovering at the top they straw the ground round about it, bind green boughs about it, set up summer halls, bowers and arbours hard by it. And then fall, they to dance about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the idols…  "
from Philip Stubbes in his "Anatomy of Abuses" 1583

All the indications are, in these sixteenth century reports, of a carnival like atmosphere with the locality being decorated with foliage in much the same way as bunting is used today at fetes. The decorative scheme was completed by the erection of a tall decorated pole around which the festivities were centred. Other writers tell disapprovingly of how games and sports were played under the supervision of an elected master of ceremonies and of how characters dressed up as Robin Hood and Maid Marion contributed towards the general gaiety of the revels. People evidently ate, drank and enjoyed the music and dancing, indeed for some there was rather too much dancing for dancing "is the vilest vice of all". Some folk, no doubt, made use of the occasion to slip away and 'make merry' with their chosen partner. Stubbes reports in an outraged tone,

” I have heard it credibly reported ( and that vive voce) by men of great gravity and reputation that of forty, threescore or a hundred maids going to the wood over night there are scarcely the third part of them return home undefiled".

Stubbes seems to have been the type of person who always sees things at their worst and was also clearly out of touch with the life of the common people, how else could he have. written, "It hath been told that your morris dancers have danced naked in nets: what greater enticement to naughtiness could have been devised ?" In fact Stubbes missed the point of this comment entirely, the phrase 'to dance naked in a net' was a colloquial expression of the time which meant "to act with practically no disguise or concealment while expecting to escape notice" -O.E.D. In his eagerness to find evidence of blameworthy behaviour Stubbes made an error misleading enough to cause at least one modern commentator to speculate as to the possibility of morris dancers appearing in fish-net tights! Morris dancers did, of course, take part in the May day celebrations, as we shall see, they were an important part of any big occasion as were other men dressed in fanciful costumes meant to resemble dragons, wild men or riders on horseback.

There are many ancient accounts and some representations of people dressing up in animal skins or masks for the purposes of disguise and entertainment. This practice may have had something to do with the veneration given to certain animal species by some pagan cults, horse worship is, for example, well known from pre-Roman Britain. However the familiar English hobby horse seems to have originated in the later middle ages as a theatrical device which was then made popular in the sixteenth century as part of the pageantry of royal and civic life. These horses took the form of a wooden framework draped round with cloth, with a carved wooden horses head at one end and a tail at the other. The whole thing was carried around by a man who played the part of the horses rider. This type of man/horse figure is known as a tourney horse because of its employment in mock tournaments and combats. Some of the earliest records show hobby horses being used as fund raisers for parish churches. They also appeared at court entertainments throughout the sixteenth century. This bill dating from 1575 gives a good idea of the construction of a 'royal' horse:

Item  skins to cover horses       21   Shillings  
Glue and hoops                        4 Shillings 8 Pence  
Horse tails and manes               7 Pence  
Hair to stuff boots                    3 Shillings 4 Pence  
Bits with bosses                       4 Shillings  

In 1585 hobby horses appeared in the annual parade of the city of London militia called the Midsummer Watch, although by then this particular observance was on the wane. It was planned that there should be:

"Twelve proper boys, on hobby horse finely covered with some pretty thing, as buckram or linen painted ... which said boys to have every one a little sword that after prancing, mounting and fetching up their horses aloft on all fours they may at divers times in the watch make combat ... six against six."

They were also on this occasion to be accompanied by a troupe of morris dancers. Hobby horses were used in municipal. processions organised by the local trades guilds in Norwich, Chester, Plymouth and Salisbury, in fact the Salisbury horse remained in use until the nineteenth century and can now be seen in the town's museum,

Another relic of the city guilds annual parades is Snap the Dragon who is preserved together with a couple of his close relations in Norwich Castle Museum. A barrel like frame of basket work formed the basis of a large figure with a long tail, scaly painted wings and a fearsome head with snapping jaws. Snap was originally employed in a re-enactment of the legend of Saint George, the patron of a local guild of traders, but like the Salisbury horse he too lingered on into the last century appearing fairly regularly; he even had an outing in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain.

The frequent appearance on the streets of London and other large towns, of the hobby horse earned it a place in popular literature as well as on the stage. In Francis Beaumont's play "The knight of the Burning Pestle" written in 1609 we hear that the "morris rings while hobby horse foots it feateously", while in Ben Jonson's "Every Man Out of Humour" of 1599, " Sblood! You shall see him turn morris dancer, he has got him bells, a good suit and a hobby horse." The hobby horse also became the subject of a well known sixteenth century catch phrase, 'the hobby horse is forgot' used by Shakespeare in Hamlet and Loves Labours Lost.

As we can see from the quotations above the hobby horse and the morris dancer became associated in popular thinking because of their recurring appearances together at many scenes of pageantry or celebration. By the end of the seventeenth century both the hobby horse and the morris dancers had dropped from favour and were no longer to be seen taking part in royal parades and civic processions.

Celebrating May day on a large scale became less fashionable after the restoration of Charles 2nd and gradually slipped into obscurity. During the Civil War the erecting of maypoles was banned by parliament probably as a response to certain rowdy behaviour that had political overtones as in this incident described by the vicar of Holywell near Oxford in 1641:

"One of the inhabitants of the same parish, being a most licentious and profane fellow, set up a maypole in summertime 1641, and that it might transcend the vanities and impieties of other maypoles he set upon this the picture of a man in tub, thereby, as he said,’to describe a roundhead...’ This picture being thus set up upon the maypole, the said profane fellow, the author of it, with his loose and licentious companions, making themselves mad merry about it, at last must needs go shoot at the roundhead upon it, and having for this purpose brought muskets with them and other pieces, one of them... shot and did hit the picture... "

from John Vicar's "A Looking Glass for Malignants"

There seem to have been few real protests at this and other prohibitions. The brief flare of interest at the time of the restoration was just a prelude to a more general apathy, however, as we shall see, a number of elements from these earlier celebrations survived through into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

A number of other customs connected with May Day arose in the towns and cities of seventeenth century England. Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary for May 1st 1667, "To Westminster; in the way meeting many milk maids with garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them." At a later period they were joined by the chimney sweeps who took over and Gradually made the day their own:

"Here they are! The 'sweeps' are come! Here is the garland and the lord and lady! Poor fellows! This is their great festival. Their garland is a large cone of holly and ivy framed upon hoops, which gradually diminishes in size to an apex, whereon is sometimes a floral crown, knots of ribbons, or bunches of flowers; its sides are decorated in like manner; and within it is a man who walks wholly unseen, and hence the garland has the semblance of a moving hillock of evergreens. The chimney sweeper's jackets and hats are bedizened with gilt embossed paper; sometimes they wear coronals of flowers on their heads; their black faces and legs are grotesquely coloured with Dutch-pink; their shovels are scored with this crimson pigment, interlaced with white chalk."
from William Hone's "Everyday Book" 1825.

Charles Dickens was also familiar with the processions of sweeps through the streets of London and wrote about them in his "Sketches by Boz" in 1836. The human garland or 'Jack-in-the-Green' is first recorded as having appeared at May Day towards the end of the eighteenth century. There is apparently no evidence to link the sweep's figure with the medieval carved stone heads or ‘green men' found in many English churches although some authorities have insisted that a link exists and further more that the link extends back to some kind of personification of the 'vegetation spirit'. The sweep's day was a very commercial affair and money making seems to have been its main purpose. The custom itself largely died out before the First World War.

A particularly specialised form of floral decoration, the garland, was made on the morning of Mayday in many nineteenth century rural communities. The construction and parading of the garland seems to have become increasingly the responsibility of children who apart from anything else must have been interested in the fund raising potential of the event. In many areas the custom was adopted by the schools and a certain amount of encouragement given by the teachers. The most famous account of this activity comes from Flora Thompson's autobiographical book, "Larkrise to Candleford" dramatised by the National Theatre with music by the Albion Band and televised by the BBC in 2008. It was first published in 1939 but refers to her childhood at Juniper Hill in Oxfordshire in the 1880's.

"The garland was made or 'dressed' in the schoolroom. Formerly it had been dressed out of doors, or in one of the cottages, or in someone's barn; but dressed it had been and probably in much the same fashion for countless generations. The foundation of the garland was a light wooden framework of uprights supporting graduated hoops, forming a bell shaped structure about four feet high. This frame was covered in flowers, bunched and set closely, after the manner of wreathe making. On the last morning of April the children would come to school with bunches, baskets, arms and pinafores full of flowers - every blossom they could find in the fields and hedges or beg from parents and neighbours…
The final touches were given the garland when the children assembled at six o'clock on May day morning. Then a large china doll in a blue frock was brought forth from the depths of the school needlework chest and arranged in a sitting position on a little ledge in the centre front of the garland....  All the children in the parish between the ages of seven and eleven were by this time assembled, those girls who possessed them wearing white or light coloured frocks, irrespective of the temperature, and girls and boys alike decked out with bright ribbon knots and bows and sashes, those of the boys being worn crosswise over one shoulder…  The procession then formed, it was as follows:

Boy with flag             Girl with money box

The GARLAND with two bearers

King and Queen

Two maids of honour

Lord and Lady

Two maids of honour

Footman and footman's lady

Rank and file walking in twos

Girl known as mother         Boy called 'Ragman’

The 'mother' was a responsible older girl who carried the lunches and generally looked after the younger children, while the Ragman's job was to carry the coats. In this fashion the children toured all the farms and large houses of the parish displaying their garland and begging for pennies with some appropriate verses.”

These were sung in Watford in Hertfordshire in 1893:

"A bunch of may I have brought you, And at your door I stand.
It is but a bud but its well spreaded out, By the work of our Lord's hand.

A garland, a garland, a very pretty garland, As ever you wish to see.
'Tis fit for Queen Victoria, So please remember me.

I have a little purse within my pocket, Dressed up in silk and string,
And all I want is a little piece of money, So please to put within."

From having been a festival that involved the whole community May Day became something that was almost entirely the province of young school children, even in Flora Thompson's time,” beyond giving flowers for the garland and pointing out how things should be done and telling how they had been done in their own young days, the older people took no part in the revels." Adult involvement surfaced again as May Day became a time for schools or in a wider sense the middle classes, to put on a show. Through the closing years of the last century and up until the late 1930's there are a variety of accounts of 'old English May days' organised on a lavish scale reminiscent of the Deddington pageant of 1859

The hobby horse as we have so far discussed him was very much a product initially of orgorganised. semi-professional entertainments, there are however, other horse like figures which appear to have a lengthier pedigree, elements of which may possibly go back to medieval times at least. These go by the family name of 'mast horses' so called because the operator supports the head, usually made from a painted beribboned horses skull, on a pole or mast, whilst disguising his own body by crouching beneath a blanket. During the Christmas period groups of people would accompany a horse on a tour of the farms, pubs and houses in the vicinity collecting food drink and money in exchange for the entertaining antics of the horse and the music and songs of the company. The Hooden horse of Kent toured regularly up until the First World War and has now been revived in a few places. In South Wales the Mari Lwyd or 'Gray Mare' still pays its visits in certain areas, sometimes its supporters will engage in a kind of singing competition to gain entry to a chosen house.

There are several references from earlier times condemning the practice of dressing up in animal skins and a few intriguing illustrations from medieval manuscripts showing strangely clad figures. It is possible that the visit of the mast horse is a genuine relic of some ritual of 'luck visiting' whereby various touring companies perambulate their locality to share out good luck, perhaps synonymous with 'fertility', they bring this luck either by virtue of the disguise they wear or the songs they sing or the objects that they carry as in the Scott's habit of 'first-footing' at new year. However, it must be added that once more the customs outlined above have not been traced back beyond the late eighteenth century. Mast horses have also appeared in some traditional mumming plays, as in the wooing plays of Lincolnshire and most notably as the 'Wild Horse’ of Antrobus in the Cheshire souling play.

In some Cotswold towns and villages a figure with a bull's head, the 'Broad' went round at Christmas with groups of men collecting monies and refreshments in return for wishes for good luck and good health in the coming year. Similar bands, without any animal escort, were familiar visitants in many parts of the west country where they went under the name of 'Wassailers' , a name said to derive from a Saxon expression ‘Waes hael' meaning good health. The wassailers would preface their collection with a traditional song often addressed to the master and mistress of the house. Many of these songs were collected and can be found in most books of folk songs or Christmas carols. This concept of luck visiting was taken further on some Somerset farms where orchards of cider apples were wassailed in song and by discharging shotguns into the bare branches to 'frighten away the evil spirits'. Wassailing is found in a variety of guises in many other parts of the country at Christmas and new year through to 'twelfth night'.

Plough Monday is the first Monday after the traditional twelve days of the Christmas holiday and marks the return to working on the land. The occasion was marked in the Fenland regions around Cambridge and Huntingdon by the appearance of the 'Straw Bear'. A man or boy, completely encased in straw was lead round from house to house putting on a show of ferocity by growling and struggling with its 'captors'. The custom died out in the 1900's, sped on its way by the authorities:

“ … two years ago a zealous inspector of police had forbidden straw bears as a form of cadging and my informant said that he thought in many places they had been stopped by the police… It seems a great pity that primitive customs should be suppressed by Bumbledom."

Folklore Vol. 20 1909.

How to:

Organise a procession.

Useful ingredients for a successful May Day celebration, or indeed any spring or summer festival, can be drawn from a variety of sources. Attractions might include a procession, a garland and other 'floral' decorations, the crowning of a May king and queen, the antics of a hobby horse and Jack-in-the-Green and maypole and morris dancing. Sports, games and refreshments can also be of help in creating a suitably festive atmosphere.

A well organised procession makes one of the best ways to start many outdoor events, it draws together both those who are participating and their potential audience. It gives the programme a definite starting point and it can be an entertainment in itself. The scale may vary tremendously from a handful of children bearing a garland to a collection of floats and massed bands that could stretch a mile or more, obviously the level of organisation needed is proportional to the size of the event. The police should be consulted about any function which takes place in a public place and involves possible obstruction of either pedestrians or vehicles, the planning of a route for a procession needs to take into account a number of factors to do with the quantity and direction of the traffic that only the police are really capable of commenting on. Their advice can also be valuable if large numbers of visitors are expected to arrive by car and parking has to be arranged. Various local organisations such as the 'Lions', Round Table or Scouts can sometimes be persuaded to act as marshals for things like car parking and controlling spectators.

The main requirement for a small scale procession is that the participants should keep together in a fairly disciplined way and at least look as if they are sharing some common purpose , otherwise the total effect tends to be lost, there are few things more humiliating than having a procession that nobody notices. The adoption of specific places within an 'order of march’, as in Flora Thompson's account, is probably the best way to keep things together and ensure some sort of 'stage presence'. Bigger processions can be less formal as their sheer size will make an impact although in this case it is far more important that everyone knows what is going on in terms of times, route and running order. If several different groups are taking part the third of these factors needs careful consideration. If at all possible rival groups with their own music, bands, morris dancers, majorettes, should be separated by and sandwiched between non-musical marchers or floats, the country dance team won't thank you if their tunes are drowned out by the country and western band on the lorry behind. In addition it makes for an interesting effect from the spectators point of view if walking groups are spaced between motorised floats. Marshalling the procession before it starts is a wearying process which can only be accomplished by drawing on a deep reservoir of patience and good humour. Once the thing is underway it must be kept moving steadily, frustration and anger can build up amongst those behind the group who suddenly break into their favourite dance routine and hold the parade up, they should have been told before hand. Equally irritating delays can be caused by having difficult terrain to negotiate, the muddy entrance to a field for example or a difficult bit of manoeuvring to execute perhaps through a narrow gateway. The route should be planned to avoid obstacles wherever possible.

Strictly speaking permission has to be obtained from the local authority before a street collection can be made, in practice many traditional entertainers who perform, pass the hat round and are away before any questions can be asked. However, if your event is a large one that will attract a lot of attention it is important that you stay on the right side of the law and obtain in advance the necessary permits from the local council.

As a procession comes to its end it is vital that all those taking part have clear instructions as to how they should disperse. If the procession is a prelude to other events then the participants should be placed so that they can move speedily to their performing place so that things flow smoothly on through the rest of the programme.

Normally those taking part, will be people from in and around the locality who have a special interest in the event as it is taking place within the community, however you might feel the need to attract in some outside 'entertainment' in order to offer something new. This is not really the place to go into detail about the extra attractions you might wish to import although the list could include anything from traction engines and vintage cars to platoons of civil war pike men but it is relevant to consider what 'traditional' performances could be included, and where to recruit the performers.

Put on a show.

Here is a typical programme for an afternoon’s celebration of May Day based on a small primary school:

1.30 Procession forms up at school
1.45 Procession moves off
2.00 Procession reaches local shopping centre or green.
2.05 Crowning of May king and queen
2.10 Judging and awards for competition for best garland
2.20 Display of maypole and morris dancing
2.40 Singing of May carol
2.45 All disperse

The school itself is a logical place to base the organisation of an event like this. The children can elect May king and queen beforehand and runners up can act as garland bearers and attendants, someone of importance, like the school cook can then be asked to do the crowning. Again, many schools, particularly in the primary sector have groups of children able to give displays of dancing and if they do not do it already they may be persuaded into learning the dances appropriate to the season, either maypole or morris. Booking groups of adult dancers can be an expensive business unless you have your own local team on the door step. Fees charged for dancing at festivals, fêtes and the like vary from as little as £20 to as much as £100, however some groups will turn up for nothing on the understanding that they can collect for their own funds from amongst the spectators. Display teams are generally reliable and good value for money providing you have it to spend in the first place, but they do not like to be kept hanging around, a prompt start and good time keeping will avoid a lot of frustration and bad feeling.

Any event benefits from being held in appropriate and attractive surroundings, decorations suitable for celebration of May Day, for example, fall into two broad categories: natural and artificial. As recorded in the sixteenth century accounts we have seen it was formerly the practice to decorate the scene of the festivities with branches of greenery collected the night before, obviously the modern reveller has to exercise some discretion. It would be more than unfortunate if the surrounding countryside was stripped of foliage for a May Day event, for a start there is less of it around than there was five hundred years ago! However, within limits greenery can be gathered and used at strategic spots, a recently revived example is as a frame to the 'bower' at the Kirtlington Lamb Ale, it is from here that the morris men's beer is dispensed.

These days thoughts of parades lead to visions of flags and bunting festooning houses and zigzagging across the street. They are fine if available but even the most modest of flags can be prohibitively expensive if brought new. Fortunately many places often have old lengths of this and that hidden away which can be brought out and shown the light of day after a little renovation, alternatively substitutes can be made from a variety of materials in various ingenious ways, as was demonstrated at the celebrations for various royal jubilees and weddings. Almost anything available in bright colours and large quantities can be strung together as a decoration, this includes toilet paper, fine if it doesn't rain, plastic fertilizer bags cut to shape, alright apart from the fragmentary lettering they carry) and empty drinks cans (they provide a musical accompaniment of sorts when it is windy). More professional results can be achieved for those prepared to put a little extra thought and time into preparations before hand. 'Real' bunting has been made from off cuts of material, either begged from commercial concerns or salvaged from amongst domestic scraps. These should be cut to shape with a pair of crimping scissors to avoid fraying and then folded over a line and glued, stitched or stapled into place.  Old sheets can be successfully cut to size, hemmed and then painted to make banners or flags. Poster colours mixed with a little PVA adhesive will make a good waterproof job of this.

An effective centre piece for the festivities can be had by imitating the practices of those villages on the Welsh Marches where living trees are decked with flags and streamers. Although there are obvious safety points to bear in mind when working on a large tree the end result can be very worthwhile and quite spectacular. Some villages had, or in a few cases. still have permanent maypoles, some of them up to 30 metres high. These would have been painted, often with spiral stripes in the fashion of an old fashioned barber's pole and finished off with a top-knot of flowers. The erection of a large pole on this scale is really a job for 'professionals' although smaller versions can be safely attempted either just for show or for dancing around.

Make a Garland.

The garland was the most important feature of many May Day processions and provides an attractive and evocative focal point for the celebration. Garlands come in three basic shapes: hoop, sphere and bell depending on the shape of the supporting framework which was traditionally of light wickerwork or bent laths of wood, often willow or hazel. Working with these materials can be difficult and modern plastic hoops, as found in the games cupboards of many schools, can make a good substitute. The hoops should be firmly tied together and if of brightly coloured plastic perhaps wrapped around with green crepe paper.

The frame is first covered with greenery that is either tied or wired in place, Leylandii or ivy is especially good for this, and then left overnight covered with a damp cloth. On May morning itself the freshly gathered flowers can be woven in with the foliage and bunches of flowers made up and fastened at important points on the frame. The range of flowers available will depend on how far advances or retarded the growing season is, the variety of cultivated spring blooms can be supplemented with sprays of flowering blackthorn from the hedgerow, this is the original 'may' blossom as in 'here we go gathering' knots of may'. If children are to be involved in collecting the blooms they should be warned against picking wild flowers or indeed raiding the neighbours garden without permission. Unfortunately the kinds of blossom available in early May tend to wilt and drop their petals rather quickly so that the working life of the garland is only four or five hours. If they are available a crown of imperial lilies of some other particularly striking flower can be fixed to the top of the garland to finish it off. It was often the practice to incorporate a small doll into the body of the garland, the lady as she was called could then be viewed on payment of a penny - this feature can also be added to a modern display.

Carrying the garland can present some problems. If it is small it can be carefully cradled in the arms but larger examples will need special mounting. If the thing is not too heavy it can be lashed to a pole and carried vertically overhead. Really large examples will need at least two people to carry them and need to be supported on a pole which runs through the garland so that the weight can be taken on the bearer's shoulders. If the procession is to be a lengthy one substitutes need to be available to take over as the original carriers tire. Extra flowers can be bound into posies for the king and queen and their retinue to carry or else made up to give away to the onlookers.

Construct a Hobby Horse.

Hobby horses and similar creatures can bring excitement to an occasion by their unpredictable antics. A small horse of the tourney type can be made from a large plastic hoop if one is to hand, otherwise a simple frame can be made from thin wooden strips bent round and glued and pinned together. A heavy fabric is needed to drape the frame with, hessian is a ideal material. The fabric, cut into two pieces one round for the top and the other for the skirt, is glued or stapled onto the frame. A tail is made from several strands of frayed string whilst the head is best cut from wood. The carpentry and carving skills involved in working from a solid block of wood through to an articulated horses head are beyond most of us although it is sometimes possible to find an enthusiast who will help out. As an alternative a head can be easily worked from a 'sandwich' of three short planks which can be individually cut to shape then glued together prior to sanding and painting. With a little ingenuity the horse’s mouth can be made to open and close and even pick up small objects. The head needs to be fastened to a neck, a stout cardboard tube can be useful here not only as a support but also as a channel along which controls can be run. The head and neck can either be held by the operator's concealed hands, in which case it can be made to do all sorts of surprising things, or it can simply be joined to the main frame. If the operator is to be concealed after the fashion on the modern Padstow and Minehead horses then a hole is cut centrally in the top piece of cloth so that the operator's head will pass through, the weight of the horse is then carried directly on the shoulders and the cloth may need reinforcing accordingly. The operator’s head should be hidden by a mask of some sort, again, following the Padstow pattern, a tall cone shaped mask can be built around a wire frame which is then draped in fabric with either painted or stitched decoration.

If the operator’s head, shoulders and arms are to be free they should be clothed appropriately as a huntsman, jockey or cavalry man perhaps. In this case it is important to ensure that the horse and rider do not come apart. The horse can either be suspended on 'braces' which will slip on over the shoulders or fixed to a belt which straps securely around the waist. These principles of construction can be adapted to make a variety of other animals such as unicorns, dragons or even ostriches!

The other type of horse figure, and in many ways the more dramatic, is the mast horse where the operator either wears the head as a mask or crouches beneath it concealed by a blanket, again the method of construction can be modified into other animal forms. A large head for a horse of the mast type can be made over a frame of chicken wire that has been moulded to the correct shape. Strips of newspaper soaked in thick adhesive paste are then wrapped around the frame until it is completely covered. When the first layer is dry the process should be repeated until a thickness of around half a centimetre has been built up. When completed and dry holes can be cut for eyes and nostrils and ears stuck on. The head can then be painted and made waterproof and then decorated with brown or black wool for a mane and by the addition of rosettes and a bridle. The space inside the head can be used for fitting all sorts of refinements such as battery powered flashing eyes! The head is then mounted on its pole and the blanket stitched in place around the back of the neck. Some sort of tie is generally provided to stop the blanket blowing clear of the operator's body in windy conditions and a string tail fixed at the back of the blanket to trail along the ground. Alternatively the head can be adjusted so as to sit over the head of the person taking the part. Care needs to be taken with a wire frame that there are no sharp edges that might catch the face. With suitable padding inside and ties to fasten below the chin the mask can be made to fit quite snugly. More experienced craft workers may wish to experiment with materials like latex rubber or glass fibre for these animal disguises.

Dress a Jack in the Green.

A Jack in the Green can either be made along traditional lines, in which case a bell shaped garland needs to be adapted to accommodate the human figure or else a more symbolic costume based on natural coloured fabrics can be put together.
The difficulty with the walking garland lies largely in the weight of a person sized costume with call its attendant greenery. The frame needs to be strongly yet lightly made with provision for the weight of the assemblage to be taken on the shoulders. An enormous amount of foliage has to be collected and tightly woven in order to conceal the figure inside, much of the effect is lost if the wearer can be seen. All in all it is quite an ambitious project.

An effective costume can be made which in a sense can be seen as a more abstract version of the same idea. In this case a basic costume in green, based perhaps on a leotard or tee-shirt and tights can be enhanced with streamers of different shades of green cloth either sewn directly onto the clothes or else attached to separate collars, cuffs and waistbands. Face paints or stage make-up can be used to colour any exposed skin green. Such a costume leaves much more scope for movement so that the Jack in the Green is free to join in with the 'skirmishing' amongst the crowds.

Perform a Maypole Dance.

Maypoles for using in the performance of plaited ribbon dances are a comparatively recent introduction yet are so firmly rooted in the public mind that they are an expected part of any May Day event. The pole itself can be purchased, built from scratch or improvised from existing equipment. Maypoles can be found in the catalogues of some educational suppliers or can be ordered direct from manufacturer at a price. Those wishing to avoid this expense can build or improvise their own. The Maypole comes in three separate parts: a base, the pole itself and a head. Stability is the major factor to be considered for the base. If dancing is to take place at the same spot perhaps for several years then it is worth setting some sort of permanent socket into the ground. For a pole of 2 to 3 metres tall this needs to extend at least half a metre below ground and be set in concrete. More portable bases can either be made of timber set crosswise, each arm up to 1 metre long or some existing base such as the sand or water filled ones for garden umbrellas or the heavy metal with wheels variety that are used for supporting posts for outdoor games like netball, can be reused. The base obviously has to match with the pole so that if a reused base is found then the pole will have to be a light alloy tube of some description. A wooden upright, jointed to the wooden base, needs to be at least 40mm square (the old 'two by two’) for a pole of 2 metres and proportionally thicker for a higher one. The pole has to be fitted with a head which is free to revolve and has eight equally spaced screw eye fittings around the edge to take the ribbons, details of construction will vary as to the materials and 'technology' available, we currently use a turned wooden head, made by the woodwork department of a local secondary school, fitted with a steel pin and two wooden washers. The pin fits through a hole pierced in the end of a netball post which in turn is set into a proprietary metal base.

The ribbons themselves should be of four different colours grouped in pairs say red and yellow and green and blue. Each pair of ribbons is tied to an eye, the first pair alternating with the second pair around the head. The coloured braiding sold to schools for making up into games bands is a fairly cheap material that can be used for ribbons although it is far from robust if a lot of use is expected. Much stronger but significantly more expensive are the various coloured webbings and carpet edging tapes that can be bought from upholsterers or good hardware shops. A maypole which is 3 metres tall needs sixteen ribbons at least 5 metres long. A loop needs to be made at the free end of the ribbon so that it can be slipped over the dancer's outside hand to avoid the risk of being dropped.

Performancers are often given by children, although there are some adult display teams, comprising of eight boys and eight girls in couples. Because of the difficulty in recruiting identical numbers of each gender  modern practice tends work with a mixed group of sixteen children and give instructions according to the colour of the ribbom being held i.e. ‘reds and blues’ rather then ‘all the boys’, however, in the instructions that follow we will assume eight boys paired up with eight girls. The dancers have no 'traditional' costumes, anything that is bright and colourful could be pressed into service although the overall appearance is improved by some degree of uniformity. On the other hand the dancers could follow the example of other performers during the spring and summer and dress in white perhaps with coloured sashes to match the colour of their ribbons. Mock medieval and Elizabethan costumes should perhaps be avoided as an unnecessary anachronism.

Each of the dances described here are normally performed with a light active skipping step although the more forceful hop step as used in morris dancing is occasionally used. Sometimes the figures of the dances may be walked, this achieves a rather solemn and courtly effect that some may feel is out of keeping with the essential feeling of liveliness of the occasion.

To begin the dancers should get used to skipping around a central point at a fixed radius whilst maintaining the same spacing between themselves and the people in front and behind. Both of these skills need to be mastered to avoid chaos when the time comes to dance with ribbons. Another important skill lies in actually managing the ribbons themselves correctly, they must be kept taut during the dances but without pulling so hard as to threaten the stability of the pole. As the dances proceed the ribbon either has to be paid out or taken in, this is achieved by gathering any slack in the outside hand and by using the inside hand to guide the ribbon and keep it at the correct height and tension. Having mastered these basic techniques new dancers can then go on to practice individual dances gradually working them up into a full programme.

During a performance the initial taking up of the ribbons can prove awkward unless it is done quickly with a minimum of fuss. Some groups like to dance on in double file before taking the ribbons of individuals who are already standing in position ready to hand them over. Others like to make a feature of one of the pair walking forward to take up the ribbons which are hanging loose from the pole. Whatever the method chosen the dancers, once in position, should be standing with their partners equally spaced out around the circumference of a circle three or four metres out from the pole. The boys should take ribbons of two of the colours, say red and green while the girls take the other colour of the pair, yellow or blue. Boys have their partners on the right

The Barber's Pole. This is the easiest of the dances. A chord or note is sounded and partners bow to each other before the girls take a couple of sidesteps in towards the pole, taking up any slack ribbon as they do so The girls all face clockwise around their inner ring whilst the boys in the outside ring face anti-clockwise. When the music begins everyone dances round in their circle, stopping as the music stops after sixteen or thirty two bars. The dancers then all about face and dance with the music back the way they came until they have returned to their starting positions.

Ropes. Four of the boys kneel down facing the pole in the equivalent of north, south, east and west positions. Their partners, followed by the couple on their right then dance round them in a clockwise direction,· wrapping their ribbons around his until the music stops. They then turn and dance back in the opposite direction to unwind. As the dancers go round they should try and avoid twisting their ribbons by instead always facing the way they are going and not spinning about their own axis.

The Grand Plait. This is a difficult dance to perform well and demands a lot of concentration from the performers. Partners face each other so that all the girls are facing clockwise and all the boys anticlockwise. When the music begins each dancer moves around the circle in the direction they are facing weaving in and out of the oncoming dancers. The boys will pass right shoulders with the first girl who is their partner,  then left shoulders with the next girl and so on. The girls of course are tracing exactly the same path but in the opposite direction. Some people find it easier to think in terms of moving in towards the pole and out away from it rather than remembering their lefts and rights in which case the boys will begin by moving in towards the pole to pass their partners who move slightly outwards. The dancers can be positioned either slightly nearer the pole or a little out from it so that at least their first move will be the correct one. At a prearranged moment, either when they meet their partner for the second time round or at the end of sixteen or thirty two bars (the two rarely coincide) the dancers stop, face the other way and dance back undoing the plait they have made down the pole. It is difficult to ensure that everyone stops in precisely the same position so it is always worth checking the ribbons before they are unwound so that everyone is clear about their first move. If things get really tangled it is best to stop the dancers and get them to walk the plait out by watching their ribbons as they go. This is the only occasion where the dancers actually follow their ribbons round, at other times it would be disastrous. As long as the music keeps playing the untangling process won't appear as too terrible a mistake.

Spider's Web. In many ways this is the most visually effective of the maypole dances. Each girl stands facing the pole holding her ribbon taut. When the music starts each boy dances round his partner twice before moving on in a clockwise direction round the circle to the next girl. The whole circling and passing on movement is repeated five times. The boys then stop and exchange ribbons with the girl they have arrived at by passing theirs over the top of the girls'. When the music starts again the girls undo the pattern of woven ribbons by dancing back round the boys in the reverse direction

Music. Any skipping tunes or jigs based on an eight or sixteen bar sequence can be used for these dances. 'Cock o'the North', 'Blaydon Races', 'Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush' ,'Mademoiselle from Armentieres' and 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again' are all well known tunes that will fit the dances. 'Pop Goes the Weasel' is particularly useful for 'Spider's Web' as the dancers can be instructed to move on to the next person when they hear the phrase 'pop goes the weasel'.

There is no substitute for live music for almost any sort of public dance performance. Recorded music is generally of poor quality and frequently amplified beyond the capacity of the equipment used. With the ever present threat of entanglement a live musician can step into the breach and tailor the music accordingly equally tape recorders, CD players or MP3 players can generally be relied on to malfunction, especially at critical points in outdoor events. It should always be possible to find a musician to perform or train one up to play the fairly simple tunes needed. Music for traditional dance is considered in unit five.


Many schools have continued to celebrate May Day with singing, dancing and the crowning of a May king and queen. The recent introduction of a 'May Day' bank holiday has lead to a spate of fetes and festivals in which an increased number of people can participate. There is of course a political dimension present in many May Day events which has resulted in a whole new series of community based festivities.

A few villages have retained their traditional maypole, these tall slender shafts can be seen standing all the year round at Anstey (Wiltshire), Wellow (Nottinghamshire) and Barwick in Elmet (Yorkshire) amongst other places. The short maypoles with their hanging ribbons and attendant dancers seen at many modern celebrations are comparatively recent introductions from southern Europe. Maypole dancing using plaited ribbons were taught at a London teacher training college in the 1880' s where it had been introduced by John Ruskin after a visit to Italy, although it had been seen in London as far back as the 1830's. As new teachers went to jobs across the country the new custom spread with them. It is a testimony to their influence that this type of dancing has become accepted as an authentic; traditional English dance in less than a century. The practice of decorating trees, a possible precursor to the manufactured maypole, has continued with appropriate ceremonial in the villages of Aston on Clun in Shropshire and Appleton in Cheshire.

Garland bearing processions still take place in Abbotsbury (Dorset) on May 13th (Old Hay day) and Castleton (Derbyshire) on May 29th (Oak Apple Day which marks the restoration of Charles 2nd.) The Castleton garland is carried on the shoulders of a man on horseback who was in former times accompanied by morris dancers. In Helston (Cornwall) the entire village turns out to participate in the famous May day 'floral dance'. which is possibly a relic of the ceremonial carrying in of the maypole and other greenery or else a survival of some wider ranging luck bringing tour of the locality.

The west country towns of Padstow and Minehead are both homes to curious creatures which parade noisily through the streets, together with crowds of revellers, on and around the first of May. The Padstow  horse consists of a broad flat topped circular framework covered with a black cloth with a small painted wooden horse's head at one 'end'. The operator's head is covered by a tall conical black mask painted with red and white patterns in a way that is reminiscent of an animated version of some ethnic art work. The Minehead horse is the less well known of the two and is boat shaped and draped in sacking with brightly coloured roundels. The person's head is again hidden by a tall primitive looking mask. Parts of this mask and the top of the horse's body are decorated with long coloured strips of cloth. The horse has no head but sports a long weighted tail which it lashes about by swinging its body about. It is frequently claimed that both these strange looking constructions are of 'immeasurable antiquity' reflecting in outline at least the form of some ancient ritual. In fact it appears that their primitive appearance is the result of a kind of evolution towards greater abstraction that has occurred over the last 150 years. Engravings of the Padstow horse from 1835 and 1887 show how its shape has changed from something which is quite clearly derived from the sixteenth century tourney horse into the present day 'pagan monster'. The same is probably true of the Minehead horse which lost its head as recently as the 1880's. May Day in Padstow has become something of a tourist attraction so that the town is swamped with visitors much to the disquiet of some of the residents, on the other hand it is still possible to come across the Minehead horse accompanied by little more than a musician and its attendants or guisers as they are known.

The tourney horse was revived in something close to its original form by one D'Arcy Ferris who was responsible for organising and promoting a number of 'old English pageants' in the latter years of the nineteenth century. These events featured a variety of ancient customs including, together once again, morris dancers and hobby horses. Ferris was instrumental in introducing the tourney horse to the otherwise traditional morris team at Ilmington (Warwickshire), Sam as he is known is still galloping around today. Ferris restored an association which has been kept up by many sides dancing today who perform with horses in a variety of shapes and sizes as well as other beasts like dragons and unicorns. Hobby horses have also been seen restored to another of their old stamping grounds, the theatre stage, theatrical horses were used in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Richard 2nd, the National Theatre’s dramatisation of Flora Thompson's "Larkrise to Candleford". and more recently their magnificent ‘War Horse’ and the RSC’s 2009 production of ‘A Winters Tale’.

Many other events listed in the pages of the calendar will include processions and parades as integral parts of larger celebrations.

UNIT TWO - 'Ceremonial' Dance


Dancing can either be a social pastime enjoyed for its own sake or else it can be put on as a spectacle or entertainment. Social dancing is for everyone to take part in, there is little need for training of any kind and the accent is on enjoyment. On the other hand those dances which are presented to the public as something worth watching are generally performed by professional or semi-professional dancers who have probably spent long hours in rehearsal. In traditional terms this kind of dance as spectacle includes morris dancing in all its various incarnations and sword dancing. Since the folk revival it has been the practice to label these forms of dance as 'ritual' dance in the belief that they reflect something of the nature of long vanished pagan ceremonies. Now that this premise seems increasingly unlikely we ought perhaps to be searching for a less misleading name so ‘ceremonial’ is the term used here, evoking, as it does, the sense of a special event demonstrating a sense of purpose and occasion.

Morris dancing has a long and apparently complex history of which research has only been able to recover fragments. The story that can be assembled from those fragments points away from pagan rituals and towards the royal courts of medieval Europe. In 1149 Petronilla, the young Queen of Aragon, was betrothed to Ramon Berenguer of Barcelona. To celebrate the occasion a grand pageant was staged which included a mock combat between Christians and Moors. The Moors had been driven out of the town called Lerida only the year before, an event which was obviously still a cause for rejoicing by the Christian nobility. The 'Moorish' dance became a popular spectacle for it spread through Spain and into southern France and northern Italy. By the fourteenth century it was a recognised form of entertainment in European court circles. 'Moorish' or morris dancing was first staged at the English court towards the end of the fifteenth century. It appeared at almost the same time at the Scottish court of James II where the poet Dunbar wrote of those who tried to win favour at court:

“Some sing, some dance, some tell stories,
Some late in the evening bring in the morris.”

At the same time courtly circles particularly in northern Europe took their entertainment by watching ‘ring morris’ – a modern term – which involved five or six individuals performing a ring dance with violent, grotesque and jerky movements, if the contemporary engravings are anything to go by. In the centre of the proceddings is a fine lady frequently holding a ring or other token, there is a sense in which the performers are competing for her favour. Elementds of this may also have influended the developing traditon in Britain.

Morris dancing remained a common part of courtly revels during the Tudor and into the Elizabethan periods before declining in popularity and dropping out of favour. However, by this time the morris had been taken up by civic authorities who, always eager to copy those at court, used it as an added attraction in their own pageants and parades. The idea of a processional dance through the streets seems to have been already established by the performance of dances called the 'rout' and the 'rey' which were a sort of organised rampage based loosely on the earlier medieval dances of the 'follow my leader' type. It may well be that the development of morris dancing in the sixteenth and seventeenth century owed as much to these local dances as it did to the imported 'Moorish' one. There is a lot of evidence that points towards the popularity of morris dancing on civic occasions. We know, for example, that the Draper's Company provided morris dancers for London's midsummer watch eleven times between the years 1504 and 1545. It is hardly surprising to find drapers associated with the morris as to equip a team with all its necessary finery was an expensive business. The cost of the costume and the value placed on them is illustrated by instances of their being recorded as bequests in wills of the period.

The church was not slow to see the fund raising potential of a good morris team, there are a number of references in sixteenth century church accounts like this one from St. Lawrence's, Reading:

" …supplying ale, bells (by the gross), hats, 3yards of buckram, for livery and painting the morris coats."

Painted cloth was often used as a cheap substitute for more expensive embroidered material. However, as one sixteenth century commentator observed, "the morris was not long practised in the city, it went to country places". Morris dancing evidently spread outwards from a number of urban centres and was adopted by more rural communities as a suitable addition to occasion of celebration or merry making. It was the appearance of morris dancers in village festivals, where clearly things sometimes got out of hand, that provoked puritan writers into some of their finest flights of indignant prose…

"The men dress in… liveries of green, yellow or some other light wanton colour. And as though that were not gaudy enough, I should say, they bedeck themselves with scarves, ribbons and laces hanged all over with gold rings, precious stones and other jewels; this done they tie about either leg 20 or 40 bells with rich handkerchiefs in their hands and sometimes laid across their shoulders and necks…
Thus all things set in order, then have they their hobby horses, their dragons and other antiques, together with their bawdy pipers and thundering drummers, to strike up the devils dance withal: then march this heathen company towards the church and churchyard, their pipers piping, drummers thundering, their stumps dancing their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs fluttering about their heads like madmen, their hobby horses and other monsters skirmishing about amongst the throng and in this sort they go to the church… "

From 'Anatomy of Abuses' Philip Stubbes 1583.

Exciting though this all is we have already seen that Stubbes could be mislead in his reporting of events he wasn't really parry to. Interest was waning amongst the more sophisticated residents of the larger towns and cities so that Kemp's 'Nine Day Wonder', when the famous Shakespearian comic actor danced a morris jig from London to Norwich, was something of a revival even in 1599. Morris dancing had become the property almost solely of the provinces. A pamphlet published in 1609 in Hereford gives an interesting, although highly stylised, picture of England as a dancing country as well as advancing a claim to superiority…

"The courts of kings for stately measures: the city for light heels and nimble footing: the country for shuffling dances: western men for gambols: Middlesex men for tricks above ground: Essex men for the hey: Lancashire for hornpipes: Worcestershire for bagpipes: but Herefordshire for a morris dance puts down not only all Kent but very near (if one had line enough to measure it) three quarters of Christendom."

from "Old Meg of Herefordshire and Hereford town for a Morris Dance"

A picture painted around 1620 shows a troupe of morris dancers by the Thames at Richmond and gives a few clues about morris as it was performed at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Three male dancers are dressed in white shirts with bunches of ribbons tied about their elbows. They wear baggy trunk hose and stockings with bells fastened just below the knee. The dancers are accompanied by a pipe and taborer, a hobby horse and a fool dressed in a parti-coloured jacket with bells attached who is collecting money in a ladle. The person of the fool has persisted and is found in most modern teams, me probably began his association with morris dancing as the elected 'Lord of Misrule' who was a kind of master of ceremonies responsible for the organisation, if that is the right word, of any kind of revelry. The fool ,or in a slightly different incarnation, the clown is found in all manner of human societies from all periods of history. Another archetypal figure sometimes suggested as being present in the Richmond painting is that of the 'Shemale' - a man dressed in women's clothing. Transvestites of this kind seem to have been an essential part of many traditional forms of entertainment although their precise origins remain unclear. Stubbes thundered against those who "attire in women's apparel whom you do most commonly call may-morrions" in the sixteenth century and no doubt, other more gentile eye-brows were raised in the nineteenth century when many groups of mummers and sword dance teams had their Bessie or Moll. The opportunities for rough horseplay and other pranks involving a man dressed as a woman are obvious, one does not have to invoke some mysterious explanation involving fertility customs to explain their presence in these entertainments, 'drag' acts are popular today in many ways. We should also remember that this was still the era of boy actors playing female roles on stage. Given the close connection between the theatre and morris in its early years there may well be a carryover from the one to the other. Equally it is perfectly possible that she is a real woman!

Further insights into the nature of morris dancing in the sixteenth century come from the works of dramatists who used the morris to give a little local colour to plays with a rural setting, indeed one play "The Witch of Edmonton”  by Thomas Rowley and others (1621) is built around the problems besetting a morris team: keeping the team together, repairing the hobby horse and finding the best spots for dancing. In the "Lady of Pleasure" by James Shirley (1635) the excitement of city life is compared unfavourably with the tedium of living in the country, he tells of:

"How they become the morris, with whose bells, They ring all in to Whitsun ales, and sweat, through twenty scarves and napkins, till the hobby horse tire, and the Maid Marion, dissolved to a jelly."

References to the morris become increasingly difficult to find after the middle of the seventeenth century as it passes out of the sight of the urban literary classes and into obscurity until interest is reawakened towards the end of the next century. This is unfortunate as it appears that the intervening century and a half was a time of great change and development for morris dancing which seems to have become increasingly fragmented as its popularity diminished until it broke into a number of fairly well defined regional traditions each having its own variations on the dance and each gathering about itself a collection of associated customs. A tantalising glimpse of eighteenth century morris comes in a painting in Cheltenham museum from the 1720s. It shows the 'Dixton Harvesters' leaving the field where presumably they have been working and dancing in a line of six behind three sword bearers. They are wearing two diagonal sashes or baldrics and are waving handkerchiefs above their heads. In Gloucestershire and a number of other counties the morris was probably flourishing whilst in London a treatise on dancing by Gallini, director of dance at several theatres, written in 1765 dismisses morris dancing thus: “This diversion is now almost exploded being entirely confined to the lower classes in life and only kept up in some counties." It was also during this period that the long standing bond between the morris and the hobby horse was dissolved. By the nineteenth century there is no authentic record of the two appearing together.

By the beginning of the last century morris dancing had become diversified into six major regional groups. The degree to which morris had dropped from public view is demonstrated in the first publication to deal specifically with the history of the dance. Francis Douce for his "Illustrations of Shakespeare and of Ancient Manners - Dissertation III on the Ancient English Morris Dance " (1807) collected what information he could about contemporary morris including the earliest reference to a side which is still dancing: Abingdon. A  Mr. Waldren had written to him about dancers he had seen at Richmond in 1783.

"The dancers and the fool were Berkshire husbandmen taking an annual circuit to collect money."

Another of his informants, a Mr. Ritson, wrote, "I had been told they were common in particular counties, I never saw them myself, nor received any such information about the sport." This dearth of information lead Douce to write,

" ... it is extremely probable that from the present rage for refinement and innovation there will remain, in the course of a short time, but few vestiges of our popular customs and antiquities."

His confidants were some way from the truth as later accounts will show, he was one of the first of a long line of commentators convinced that they had witnessed the final breakdown of English tradition. In fact morris dancing had survived the pressures and upheavals of the industrial revolution and was to be found in a wide range of habitats from remote fenland settlements to the rising squalor and bustle of the industrial 'Black Country' of the West Midlands and the mill towns of Lancashire.

Cotswold Morris - the Nineteenth Century.

Of all the regional variants Cotswold morris is the best documented and probably most widely danced today. The teams were found mainly in the villages of Oxfordshire and east Gloucestershire towards the end of the last century, their distribution bears little relation to the Cotswolds in a geographic sense. Even within this comparatively small area there was a tremendous amount of variation from place to place.

The dancers numbered six or occasionally eight plus a musician who up to the middle of the century played the pipe and tabor. This combination was later superseded by more fashionable instruments. The dancers, in two equal files, performed with a variety of skipping steps, jumps and capers. The normal practice was to have 'common figures' (analogous to the verse of a song), which involved the dancers moving forward and back or the two files crossing over, alternating with a 'distinctive figure’ consisting of a particularly elaborate set of steps and jumps or perhaps a sequence of hand or stick clapping repeated in the same way as the chorus of a song. Many dances were performed with ,a handkerchief held in each hand to accentuate the dancer's arm movements. There were also a large number of stick dances for which the dancers carried one or two sticks anything from 30 to 90 centimetres long. Normally there would be a repertoire of fifteen or twenty dances each with its own tunes although sometimes the differences between them were slight, alternatively the leader or squire of the team might call out the figures during the dance so that there would not necessarily be' set order of figures for a given tune.

The costumes worn by morris dancers changed in various ways whilst keeping broadly in line with contemporary fashions. Morris dancers appeared at the coming of age party of the Marquis of Chandos in September 1844 at Stowe in Buckinghamshire and were painted in action by James Danby. His picture shows the dancers with dark high hats with ribbons, dark knee breeches and white shirts and stockings. They have blue and red baldrics (broad ribbons crossed over their chests, the name derived from the diagonally slung belt on which swords were hung) and cross gartering on their stockings in the same colours. The Duke of Buckingham was so impressed that he set about, "establishing morris dancing in all the villages in which he has property to any considerable extent.", an early example of a morris revival. By the latter part of the nineteenth century a white shirt together with white trousers had become the basis of most Cotswold morris costume. These shirts were often carefully made with tucks and pleats and where circumstances permitted were of fine linen. White trousers were some times replaced, presumably on account of the cost, by ordinary trousers. The explanation is often still given that morris dancers wear white to signify purity, this seems unlikely to say the least, there are sound practical reasons, as many sportsmen are aware, for wearing white: it is both cool and strikingly visible. Coloured sashes, rosettes and ribbons were worn over the shirt in a variety of ways. Hats were often worn, today Abingdon can be seen in top hats, Bampton in bowlers and Headington in cricket caps, a more up-market version of the flat caps they wore in the last century. As many as thirty or forty small brass bells were fastened onto leather pads which were then tied around the calves. Bells  have been part of a morris dancers equipment since at least the sixteenth century when customs returns show that they were imported in large numbers, indeed there are many examples of folk dancers from all over the world who use jingles of one sort or another to underline the rhythm of their stepping.

The teams originally danced for any festive occasion, for example Percy Manning tells how on, "the opening day of the mowing of Yarnton meadows there was formerly a festival with morris dancing shows etc., but these were discontinued more than sixty years ago" (about 1840). Morris dancers figured in the ‘Lamb Ale’ at Kirtlington where ceremonies centred on the 'sacrifice’ of a lamb which was then made into pies for the participants to eat. They were also part of the festivities connected with the Whit hunt in the forest of Wychwood in Oxfordshire during which the locals attempted to run down deer on foot. In many respects morris dancing was viewed as a sport and as such featured in 'Dover's Games' - the Cotswold Olympics, which were abandoned in 1851 because of rowdyism amongst the huge crowds that had taken to coming for a day out from the industrial centres of the midlands by excursion train. Often a morris side's major commitment was to a week’s dancing at Whitsun in and around their own and neighbouring villages and sometimes further afield. Long tours although very profitable had their perils. Rivalry between local sides could be intense and meetings could end with morris sticks being used as offensive weapons:

“On one occasion dancers from five different villages met at Minster Lovell to decide their supremacy when Leafield was victorious. These contests , friendly enough at first often ended after a drinking bout in a free fight in which the sticks carried by the dancers were answerable for not a few broken heads. Most dancers went on tour to different villages round their own, returning to their own villages at night. Encroachment on a district danced over by another band was bitterly resented and often caused battles. Many of the dancers would go up to London and the south to work at the early hay harvest and tramp northwards for the later harvest at home. During this tour they would give exhibitions of dancing and so increase their harvest wages."

from the Manning Mss. (Bodleian Library)

The dancers normally collected money from the spectators, in Bampton contributions are taken in exchange for a fragment of fruit cake that is carried round in a tin impaled on a sword. The possible financial rewards were obviously an important factor in maintaining particular traditions, hard times would bring out the morris dancers in an effort to earn extra cash, as happened in 1899 at Headington when Cecil Sharp had his famous first encounter with the morris. Eli and Wilfe Rolfe, dancing brothers from Bucknell recalled how at the end of a week's Whitsun tour they could pocket 9 shillings (45p) for a days dancing and this at a time when a week's wages for an agricultural labourer could be less than 12 shillings (60p). From a recently compiled biographical index of dancers and musicians it appears that the majority of dancers in the last century were indeed farm workers who no doubt were always ready to welcome some extra income, although it is also true that in the larger and more prosperous villages men from the semi-professional middle classes: self employed builders, carters, publicans and the like, took part in the morris. Some of the old dancers gave up when public attitudes changed so that, "nobody would give anything and it got like begging and that we didn't like." and " .... we weren’t patternised enough and that was why we stopped."

Although sides were generally based in a particular village they were often dominated by an individual or family who became well known for their morris dancing interests so that teams and their styles of dancing probably revolved around personalities to a greater degree than is generally recognised. It was not unknown for a dancer or musician to appear with more than one team, for example the pipe and taborer Nelson, who got so drunk once that he had to be tied upright to a tree so he could continue playing, performed with several sides in north Oxfordshire. Good musicians were much in demand and sometimes played on a strictly commercial basis for a sum of money agreed before hand.

Morris dancing was a predominantly male activity during the nineteenth century, however, despite the disapproval of contemporary 'society' a number of women did dance out. There were women's sides dancing at Spelsbury in Oxfordshire and Blackwell in Worcestershire and undoubtedly elsewhere prior to 1850, while the old squire or leader of Adderbury, William Walton, remembered the dance Princess Royal, "it was a man's dance but was often (bless you yes) danced by or with women."

Of the many Cotswold morris teams dancing before 1900 only a handful struggled on into the twentieth century. Bampton in Oxfordshire continued to dance out on Whit Monday, Chipping Campden of Gloucestershire danced out irregularly but normally fielded a side to dance at the local midsummer fair, Scuttlebrook Wake, Ilmington in Warwickshire had the remains of a side as did Eynsham in Oxfordshire, Abingdon, then in Berkshire were just about hanging on whilst Headington Quarry on the outskirts of Oxford danced intermittently under the influence of one William Kimber. Information was collected from several other villages which enabled, in the twenties and thirties, newly formed teams from outside the area to perpetuate something of their traditions. The main centres covered in this way were Adderbury, Ascott under Wychwood, Bucknell, Fieldtown - Leafield and Wheatley, all in Oxfordshire, Bledington, Longborough, Oddington and Sherborne, all in Gloucestershire and Badby and Brackley in Northamptonshire.

In 1934 six of these revival clubs: Cambridge , Oxford, Letchworth, Thaxsted, East Surrey and Greensleeves (London) came together to form the Morris Ring of England, a federation of clubs which attempted to bring together all those with an interest in morris and other 'ritual' dance.

Border Morris.

A form of dancing existed, along the Welsh Marches in the counties of Shropshire and Herefordshire as well as in the Forest of Dean and up the Avon valley into Worcestershire. Material has been collected from villages and small towns such as Much Wenlock in Shropshire, Brimfield in Herefordshire and Upton on Severn in Worcestershire, the tradition dying out as recently as the 1930s. Groups of dancers numbering from three to eight persons normally performed in public at Christmas time. They blacked their faces and wore workaday clothes decorated for the occasion with sewn on strips of ribbon. Sticks were often carried and used in dances which involved reels or figures of eight as well as other figures interspersed with stick clashing. Music was sometimes rudimentary being confined to simple percussion instruments like the tambourine or bones. Dancing of a similar type has also been recorded from the industrial towns of the West Midlands where unemployed or striking workmen danced to raise funds. About 1830 a morris dance was performed in Loveday Street, Birmingham by boatmen laid off by a hard frost whilst during the winter of 1835- 6 striking colliers with ribbons on their hats and jackets were reported dancing to the music of a fiddle.

Molly Dancing

Molly Dancing comes from East Anglian fen villages like Girton, Comberton and Little Downham, all in Cambridgeshire took place on Plough Monday, the first Monday after January 6th. The six dancers performed in their ordinary clothes sewn over with rosettes and sashes and did not wear bells. Accompanied by a musician and a 'shemale' called either Bessy or Molly, the dancers would tour the village. They were originally supported by men with collecting boxes to take the money and a team to pull round a plough, if money was not forthcoming an ungenerous householder could find his or her front lawn ploughed up! Some teams would converge on Cambridge's Market Square on Plough Monday morning to 'dance against each other' before returning to their own villages. The dances themselves were closely allied to the normal social dances of the area given new importance by placing them in a ceremonial setting. It appears that women also took part in the dancing, especial1y in the evening when the village would hold its own celebration. The tradition, like the Border Morris was last seen in the early 1930's.

Processional Morris

Processional Morris is fiound in Cheshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire. Just as morris dancing became associated with May Day and Whitsun further south and with Christmas to the east and west in the north west it became part of a summer festival, the annual rush-bearing. The custom of rush bearing originated at a time when most churches had a cold stone or earth floor which for comfort’s sake was strewn with rushes and herbs once a year. The occasion was one of general merry making hence the involvement of the morris. A decorated cart, laden with rushes was brought in procession to the church followed by morris dancers and the escorting crowds. With the introduction, during many Victorian church restorations, of boarded or tiled floors and central heating the custom declined. However, the idea of taking an annual summer holiday caught on amongst the cotton weaving towns of the area and the morris carried over into an urban industrial setting as it became part of the 'Wakes week'. The morris was further spread, around the turn of the century, particularly in Cheshire, by the institution of festivals and competitions in which teams could bolster civic pride and gain prizes. The first World War saw the disappearance of many teams from the area. Women had taken an active part in the morris presumably because of the greater social freedom fostered in a community where men and women shared the hardships of the factory floor. They were able to help to develop the tradition during the inter war years, teams of girls or boys were founded who copied either directly or indirectly something of the earlier dancing styles. Some of these teams survived, flourished and underwent further metamorphosis so that today there are a large number of sides participating in a form of competitive dance known as carnival morris. Other sides have concentrated on recreating the dance styles of earlier teams based on the recollections of surviving dancers. Bill Tidy's 'Cloggies', late of 'Private Eye' belonged to broadly the same tradition of dance although there has been, as far as we know, no attempt at their revival.

North West or processional morris as danced today by teams like Garstang, Colne Royal, Preston Royal (Lancashire) and Manley (Cheshire) involves as comparatively large number of dancers, eight to twelve, performing a selection of simple figures, crossing the double file over, casting out and so on with a lilting walk, a skipping step or a polka step. The dances are executed at a brisk pace with energy and precision and are controlled by a leader using a whistle, hand signals or calls. Dances in the North West were often the 'property' of an individual or family and there tended to be a lot of movement by dancers around  the area so that there is not the rigid distinction between different traditions that seems to be the case with say the Cotswold villages.

Current male costumes tend to be based on a white shirt with dark breeches and white stockings with black shoes or clogs. Broad sashes of brightly coloured silk or satin like materials are worn about the waist and across one shoulder while trimmings of braid together with a flower decorated hat complete the costume. Women's teams normally chose clothes which echo in some way the dress of the last century, calf length print skirts with aprons and mob caps for example. The dancers carry pairs of short sticks decorated with ribbons or slings made of wound cotton threads which they twirl around whilst dancing.

How to Perform 'Ceremonial' Dance

As Sharp said, ”the morris is not an easy dance" so there is really no substitute for being taught by an experienced dancer, however, many people have grasped at least the basics of dancing from the printed page. As we have seen there are many different regional styles of dancing so that the first step for anyone thinking of making a start could begin by seeing if there are any dances traditional to their area. If there is a local dance tradition the best plan is to approach a member of an existing team for tuition or join the team itself for instruction. The density of 'ceremonial' dance teams in the country is such that almost everybody is within fairly easy reach of one. One word of caution, there are many groups of male dancers who are still uncomfortable with any suggestion that women or girls should perform morris dances. This attitude is based partly on a misconception as to what these dances are really all about together with a measure of old-fashioned male chauvinism but is fortunately beginning to loose ground. The English Folk Dance and Song Society publish county based lists of addresses of dance groups in their annual 'Folk Directory' obtainable from them at their London headquarters. They are also able to provide details of other organisations with an interest in 'ceremonial' dance.

For those who for one reason or another have a group they wish to have taught yet cannot find anyone to help the following pages attempt to indicate a few starting points. Cotswold morris is given first place and most detailed treatment not because it is in any way superior to other varieties but because today it is the best known and most widely danced form as well as being the best documented. The evidence for the forms of Border and Molly dancing is fragmentary whilst morris in the North West is still very much a living tradition with a complex pattern of interrelationships between the old and new dances. Sword dancing is discussed below with instruction for a ‘starter’ dance. Many of the general points made in the section on Cotswold morris apply to the other types that are considered later on.

Cotswold Morris

Here are a couple of Cotswold morris dances based on the Adderbury tradition. The first is 'Constant Billy', a dance enlivened by a lot of clashing of sticks together, the tune is used in several other Cotswold dances. The second dance is a handkerchief dance 'Shepherd's Hay’ to another widespread tune. The terminology used in describing these dances, and those which follow, is based on that used in Lionel Bacon's 'A Handbook of Morris Dances'. Both dances have words that go with the music. These jingles were probably sung originally as an aid to the learning and remembering of the tunes and were often sung as part of the performance.        

Both dances are for six dancers who stand in two files of three facing the musician and are numbered:    

                          2   4   6  

MUSICIAN   Up     Down  

                          1   3   5  

The dances are put together rather like the verse and chorus of a song. The verse or common figure (common to most of the dances in a particular tradition) changes as the dance progresses and alternates with the chorus or distinctive figure (distinctive to a particular dance). The common figures are:

Foot up. The dancers face up the set towards the musician and dance in their files towards the music and then back into place, but still facing up. This is repeated.

Half Gip. The dancers face their opposites across the set and the two lines cross over passing right shoulders before backing into place. This is repeated passing left shoulders the second time.

Processional Down. The top pair of dancers, numbers one and two, turn and dance down the set in between numbers three and four before backing into place. This is repeated but the second time numbers three and four join in and lead down between five and six.

Processional Up. This is identical to processional down except that the movement is begun by the bottom pair, numbers five and six and is up the set.

Hands round. Dancers join right hands with their opposites then dance round in a clockwise direction until they are back in their places. The movement is repeated by joining left hands and dancing round anticlockwise until the dancers are again back in their places.

The steps. The simplest starting step is the 'single step' which is basically a slow and powerful skipping movement which achieves height off the ground but also accentuates the downward drive of the step. The sequence begin' with a hop on the left foot ( l - in the notation) followed by a step onto the right foot (R) and a hop on the right foot (r), there is then a step onto the left foot (L) and a hop on the left foot (1) and so on. This step is used in most of the other dances.

The 'double step' is the real foundation of all Cotswold morris and consists of three steps (RLR) followed by a hop (r), then another three steps starting on the other foot (LRL) finishing with a hop (l).

Either type of stepping can be used in two dances which follow.

Jumps are executed on the spot with the feet together. The arm movements in Shepherd's Hay begin with the hands held at shoulder level in front of the body with the arms slightly bent. On the first beat of each bar the hands are jerked sharply downwards coming to rest by the hips. The hands are then swung back up to their starting position so that they are ready for the next strong downwards movement. In the stick dances the free hand hangs loosely by the side whilst the right hand carries the stick by its middle in an upright position level with the waist.

Live music is an essential ingredient for an actual performance, indeed the musician should be an integral part of any team right from the beginning, their role is considered in detail in section 5.

Constant Billy
To begin: All dancers stand facing up for 8 bars of the A music then come in with a clash of sticks on the last beat of the last bar then with a hop on the left foot straight into ...
Common figure - foot up

Each half of the common figures ends with a clash of sticks. In the double step version single steps are used to back into place then the feet are slid smartly together before the jump which accompanies the stick clashing. Sticks are clashed between opposites by bringing the tips together just above head height. Care needs to be taken so that the sticks are not swung wildly otherwise someone could get injured.
The words for the repeat are "When the fishes fly over the mountains, that's when I'll see my Billy again."

Distinctive figure - Stick clashing.

The dancers turn to face their opposites. On the last beat of each of the first four bars of the B music they clash their sticks together, jumping with feet together a moment before so that the sticks actually meet while the dancers are in mid-air. This is followed by half a foot up.

Common figure - Half Gip.

Distinctive figure - stick clashing, as above.

Common figure - Processional down,

Distinctive figure - stick clashing as above.

Common figure - Processional up.

Distinctive figure - Stick clashing as above.

Common figure - Hands round.

Conman figure - Foot up

Distinctive figure - Stick clashing as above.

The dance ends with a jump on the last beat of the B music but instead of clashing the sticks together the dancers face up and cross their sticks to give an arch like effect. After holding this position for a moment or two the dancers lower them and walk round in a circle before being lead off by number one.

Shepherd's Hay
To begin: All dancers stand facing up for 8 bars of the A music then come in with three claps on the last three beats of the last bar. The claps are in front of the body, then behind, then in front again, then with a hop on the left foot it is straight into

Each half of the common figures ends with three claps, one in front of the body (ClpF) ,then behind (ClpB) ,then in front again (ClpF). The words for the repeat are "I can whistle, I can play, I can dance the shepherd's hey."

Distinctive figure - Hand clapping

The dancers turn and face their opposites then clap both hands together in front (ClpF),reach down and touch the slightly raised right foot, striking it with the fingers of the right hand (StrR),clap in front twice (ClpF, ClpF) ,then reach and strike the left foot with the left hand (StrL), clap in front (ClpF). Then clap in front again(ClpF) ,clap under the raised right knee (CuRk),clap in front (ClpF),clap under the raised left knee (CuLk) the clap in front, behind and in front again (ClpF, ClpB, ClpF).

This is repeated but this time on StrR the raised right knee is touched and on StrL the left knee.

Common figure - Half gip.

Distinctive figure - Clapping as above but on StrR and StrL touch the right and left hip, on the repeat touch the right and left shoulders

Common figure -  Hands round.

Distinctive figure - Clapping as above but on StrR and StrL blow a kiss using the right hand and left hand respectively, on the repeat wave twice with the right hand on StrR and twice with the left hand on StrL.

After the last clap the dancers turn smartly and face up the set with their arms raised for a moment then they are lead off by number one.

Morris dancing is essentially about energy, and drive, these are not necessarily synonymous with speed. Dancers should concentrate on stepping strongly and getting up in the air rather than covering a lot of ground at top speed. Uniformity is important in performance, it looks better if everybody is doing something 'wrong' together rather than three or four 'correct' dancers contrasting with a couple of wrong footed individuals. Attention to details such as keeping the lines straight and maintaining equal spacing between dancers does a lot towards creating an impression of power and dignity. The effect with children dancing is rather different, their natural speed of movement is faster than that of grown ups and they should be aiming for lightness and liveliness.

The costume. White shirts or blouses together with white trousers or dark breeches make a good basic costume. We know that in the past ordinary working trousers were sometimes worn, the modern equivalent would be 'jeans' which can be very effective providing they are not too worn. This can then be trimmed with ribbons and rosettes to produce a uniform appearance. Bells fastened above or about the ankles are essential and can be either fastened to a piece of tape or elastic that will slip over the foot or fixed onto rectangular leather pads which are then tied around the calves. Six bells per leg is really the minimum and many full size bell pads have thirty or more. Bells, in a variety of sizes are available from the E.F.D.S.S. and morris organisations. Handkerchiefs are generally white, although colour cab be used to good effect, and knotted at one corner. The knot is gripped inside the middle fingers of each hand to stop the handkerchief going adrift during the course of the dance. Sticks should ideally be of peeled willow from 60 to 90 centimetres long and about 3 centimetres in diameter, other woods should be treated on their merits although many of them are either to heavy or not resilient enough to make good morris sticks. Sawn up lengths of broom handle or dowelling have been used but are unpleasant to handle and can easily snap to produce wicked looking splinters.

The fool - Most sides employ a comic figure known as the fool who will caper round during the dances often parodying the dancers movements as well as cracking jokes with the crowd and keeping everyone in order. Traditionally the fool was supposed to be the best dancer although in modern teams he or she is most likely to be chosen for their other personal qualities. The fools costume should be sufficiently distinctive to set them aside from the rest of the dancers and sufficiently eccentric to denote their calling. Fools can be seen wearing clowns costume, rag coats, odd coloured socks, battered top hats or outsize boots. Some male fools, especially in non-Cotswold traditions will dress up as women. The fool often carries a short stick with an inflated bladder tied to one end and perhaps a horses tail tied to the other with which he assaults the dancers and audience alike. Real bladders are now very difficult to obtain from slaughter houses or butchers. They need to be well washed and then hung to dry for a day or two to take the surface moisture off. They can then be rubbed with linseed oil and stored in a cool dry place. When needed they can be inflated with a short length of plastic tubing inserted in the neck and then tied off with several turns of stout thread. For the squeamish balloons or inflated rubber gloves make useful substitutes provided they are not treated too roughly.

Most sides will collect money during the course of a performance end this is often a job for the fool. He will exhort the spectators to dip into their purses or pockets either on the understanding that they are buying good luck or else on the basis the more you give us the faster we will go away! Income gained in this way normally goes towards defraying the costs of running the side although many groups will also be collecting for charitable causes. In the past money was either collected in a ladle or else the hat was literally passed round. Alternatively a robust collecting box would be improvised from some sort of container or else purpose made. Today people collect in all kinds of receptacles from stainless steel potties to bed warmers.

The actual collecting itself has to be done in a fairly sensible way. The exact legal position is unclear although their are a number of sanctions that the authorities can impose on teams who make a nuisance of themselves. However, in the vast majority of cases sides dance and money is collected with no questions asked. If objections are raised one can only follow the example of the individual who announced boldly,” I have just been told that we are not allowed to approach you for money during our performance here this afternoon... I shall now take my hat off and place it on the ground before you. Please do not place money in it!"

Border Morris.

This dance is for eight people in two files of four does not represent any one tradition but contains elements drawn from a number of sources in order to produce a 'typical' border morris dance.

                            2    4    6    8
MUSICIAN    Up                    down
                            1    3    5    7

The figures are:

Casting up. Dancers numbers one and two at the top of the set lead their files round to the left and right respectively, dance down the length of the set and then back up the middle to place.

Casting down. As with casting up but the motion is reversed being lead by numbers seven and eight.

Lining Up. Numbers one and two dance sideways away from each other, numbers three and four move up into their place and then themselves move out sideways and are followed in turn by the rest of the set so that at the end of the first four bars of the music they are all in a line facing the musician. Numbers seven and eight then dance on up towards the musician and are followed by the others who dance in sideways before joining the set once more. The movement is complete when the set is once more in two files of four , but now in reverse order.

Line down. As line up but this time the movement is begun by numbers seven and eight facing away from the music and dancing out side ways away from each other. This has the result of returning the set to original order.

Reel. Numbers one and two and five and six face down the set while the others face up. Each file of four then dances a figure of eight starting by passing right shoulders at the ends of the set and passing left shoulders when they meet someone in the middle of the set. This continues until  the dancers are back in their starting places.

Circle. All the dancers circle round in a clockwise direction.

The step. The step for this dance is a vigorous hop step like the single step of the Cotswold morris but with the legs bent well back from the knee in preparation for throwing the foot forward and down to make the step. It is kept up all through the dance with stepping on the spot during the sticking.

The tune used is 'Lord of the Dance' although any tune in 8 bar phrases that will fit with a hop step will do.

To begin: All dancers face up the set for the first 8 bars of the A music before going straight into…

Common figure - Line Up

Distinctive Figure – Stick clashing

The sticks are carried sloped over the right shoulder during the common figures, during the distinctive figure dancers face their opposites and clash the tips of their sticks together by moving them alternately right to left then left to right rather like a forehand and backhand in tennis. The clashes (Cl) come on the first and third beats of each bar.

Common figure - Line down

Distinctive figure - sticking as above.

Common figure - Reel

Distinctive figure - sticking as above.

Common figure - Cast up.

Distinctive figure - Sticking as above.

Common figure - Cast down.

Distinctive figure - Sticking as above.

Common figure - Circle.

Distinctive figure - After circling the dancers close in and clash their sticks all together in the middle before ending with them all raised together to make the point and sides of a cone.

The costume. Rag coats worn over an ordinary shirt and jeans make an appropriate costume. The coats are best made by stitching large numbers of cloth panels, say 10 centimetres by 30 centimetres, in rows onto an old shirt until the fabric of the shirt itself is completely hidden. Border dancers often blacked their faces so its probably worth investing in a proprietary brand of theatrical make up or face paint rather than relying on the old stand-bys of boot polish, soot of burnt cork.

Molly Dancing.

Molly dancing is more akin to ordinary 'country' dancing, sets of six are in two lines of three as with the Cotswold morris. Again this dance does represent anyone tradition from anyone village rather it is intended to give something of the feel of Molly dancing.

The figures. are:
Lines forward to meet then back to place, lines forward to meet and cross over. Repeat back to place.

Single hand turn, like hands round in Cotswold Morris, join hands with opposite and turn clockwise then repeat with left hands turning anticlockwise back to place.

Double hand turn, as above but with opposites joining both hands. Top couple lead down the middle then back to place.

These figures can be danced in any order and repeated as long as the musician wants to keep playing. Each figure lasts for 8 bars of music. A bit more variety can be added by having the top couple swing down the set and take up position at the bottom thus leaving a new top couple every other figure. Any popular country dance tunes can be used, 'Brighton Camp' also known as 'The Girl I left Behind Me! is a good choice.

The costume. Dancers should wear ordinary working clothes, including if possible an old jacket and hat or cap of some kind that are decorated with ribbons and rosettes according to individual fancy. The leading couple were sometimes referred to as the Lord and Lady and should be more elaborately dressed than the others, the Lady being a man in women's clothes. More organised teams had sashes the colours of which were distinctive to their particular village. Like the Border dancers they sometimes blacked their faces.

North West Morris.

A team of eight dancers is most manageable although much larger sets can be seen as long as they are in multiples of four. Once more this is intended to give a flavour of this style of dancing rather accurately reconstruct it. Many of the dances were processionals and were danced through the streets, this particular version has been altered so that it may be performed within a restricted area.

The figures are:

Step up and back. The dancers face up the step and take four forward steps then four steps backward into place. (If this figure is changed so that dancers take eight forward steps and no backward ones the dance will naturally process as it goes on.)

Cross over. Dancers face their opposites and change places with them taking four steps. The lines then change back so everyone returns to place.

Stars. Groups of dancers join right hands in their groups of four and dance round clockwise until they are back in place.

Casting out. The top two dancers turn out and lead their files down round and back up to place again.

Corners. If each four were numbered thus:

                             2    4    2    4    2    4
MUSICIAN    Up                            down                   
                           1    3    1    3    1    3

then numbers one and four change places, taking two bars of music to do so, then numbers two and three change places then one and four change again back to place and numbers two and three do the same.

The steps. The normal step which is often kept to throughout the dance is a double step sharing a similar rhythmical pattern to the morris step but being different in detail. This step is most commonly known as the rant step, or sometimes the polka step, and the action is described as ranting. It is virtually impossible to describe but once seen is fairly easy to pick up. An alternative step that is much easier to begin with is a variation on the normal hop step, the difference being that the free, non-weight bearing leg is lifted, with the knee bent, high up in front of the body so that the knee comes up to hip level. Sometimes an ordinary brisk walking step is employed, on the stepping up for example.

The tune used here is 'Yankee Doodle'.

The dancers carry two short sticks decorated with ribbons. These are held in a relaxed grip, elbows bent so that the hands are just in front of the shoulders, during the ordinary walking step. However, during the single stepping the hands are jerked downwards on the first and third beats of each bar of the B music.

Figure - step up and back.

Figure - Cross over.

Figure - step up and back.

Figure - stars.

Figure - step up and back.

Figure - Casting out.

Figure - step up and back.

Often these dances could go on for some time as the dancers perambulations lead them on to new spectators so that the whole cycle of figures could be performed over and over again. To finish off the dancers should come to a halt at the end of this figure and cross their sticks overhead.

The costumes. The accent should be on the bright not to say gaudy with ribbons and sashes worn over white shirts and dark breeches or shirts.

Morris Dancing Today.

There is probably more morris dancing done now that any time in the past! The fact that the Morris Ring now has amongst its membership some 130 morris teams and that there are a further 120 or so women's and mixed sides shows something of the popularity of 'ceremonial dance' as a pastime. It is difficult to be exact but there are probably something like five hundred teams performing some kind of morris dance up and down the country. This represents a tenfold increase in the numbers of dancers since the early days of the revival in the 1920's. Many of these new teams have got off the ground since 1970 and most of them have been women's or mixed groups. The movement towards women's morris was resisted by some with a passion which must have appeared to the outsider to border on the fanatic. One of the centres of opposition has been the Morris Ring which went as far as to pullout of the E.F.D.S.S. when they issued a statement to the effect that women's morris was here to stay and that it represented a natural development of the tradition. There was a feeling that more time and energy was spent arguing about the rights and wrongs of women's morris than was given to improving standards of dancing or doing original research.

A second development during the 1970s and 80s was the revival of individual traditions in the towns or villages where they were first collected. Groups got together, often with the help and encouragement of knowledgeable outsiders to rediscover their own traditions of dance. In the Cotswolds for example, towards the end of the last century, there have been new teams dancing the old dances at Wheatley, Adderbury, Bucknell, Kirtlington, Eynsham, Ducklington, North Leigh and Sherborne. Regionally based teams have also sprung up specialising in Border and Molly dancing and we have already mentioned the vigour of tradition in the North West. Other teams are beginning to see the benefits of concentrating on one particular source for their dances and then beginning to evolve a style of their own.

On the subject of contemporary 'ceremonial' dance, for the sake of completeness it is perhaps worth considering the growing numbers of groups of drum majorettes that are to be seen at fetes and carnivals, in some cases replacing morris teams who thought they had a regular booking! These groups share a number characteristics with the 'traditional' morris team, there is the use of a striking 'uniform' to catch people's attention and provide spectacle, there are the complex steps and evolutions performed to popular tunes of the day, there is fierce inter-team rivalry, they even twirl sticks like the Brackley morris dancers. Yes, we have seen it all before.

Other 'Ceremonial' Dance Traditions.

So far we have concentrated in this section on morris dancing in its four different incarnations. There are, however, several other dance traditions, some of them quite widespread like sword dancing and some of them unique, like the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance.

In the North East of the country, in what were the counties of Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland, there are still to be found traditional teams of dancers who perform complex dances full of weaving patterns whilst all the time linked together by the swords that they carry. Sword dancing seems to have been widespread on the continent and examples are known from almost all over Europe. The earliest references come from northern Europe, particularly from the area that is present day Germany. These early accounts suggest that the sword dances, like the morris in England, was the property of the city trade guilds, especially those it seems with some connection with iron working, for example there are records of the Cutlers of Nuremburg and their sword dance from as early as 1350 and covering the period from 1490 to 1600. Similar references concern dancing in Brunswick in 1445 and Ulm in 1551,no doubt there are many others awaiting discovery.

There is a detailed account of a North European sword dance in Olaus Magnus' "History of the Northern Nations” from the mid-sixteenth century:

" …young men disport themselves in a rhythmic dancing measure moving with swords held aloft but sheathed in a thrice repeated round. Next they unsheathe their swords, lift them once more, and extend them from hand to hand: circling more sedately, the swords grasped hilt and point between them, they change their order and bring themselves into position for forming a hexagonal figure which they call the rose: this they undo forthwith by drawing back their swords and raising them, so that a square rose is formed over each mans head: finally they end their display by a reverse movement, dancing very rapidly and clashing the flat of their swords together with the greatest vigour. The time of the performance is marked by pipe or singing or both together: the dance is at first staid, then goes faster and faster till it ends at a furious speed."

Several of these early accounts explain how the dances ended with the leader of the team being lifted up on a platform of interlaced swords which were placed, presumably for stability, on the shoulders of one of the dancers. Both the interlocking of the swords and the placing of the lock so formed over the head of a dancer survive in more recent examples of English sword dance, some of which also retain an acrobatic  element.

At the moment we can only speculate as to the nature of the pre-medieval antecedents of these dancers if indeed they have any at all. The simple fact that these dances involved great difficulty implies that the performers were part of, a group who were familiar with and could carry swords and were in a position to practise regularly with them. This suggests, together with the fact that they seem to have had little relation to the agricultural calendar, that the dances were not the property of the peasant classes originally. The dance may be associated in some way with coronation customs where a new king was carried on the weapons of his nobles or knights. We just don' t know and have already seen the dangers of too much speculation in the warped and twisted tale of morris dancing.

The history of sword dancing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Northern Europe appears to be similar to that of morris dancing in England. E. K. Chambers in "The English Folk Play" published in 1933 was of the opinion that, "sword dancing was practiced by the guilds of many towns throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and only died out under religious opposition in the seventeenth century. From the sixteenth century onwards it is also found in villages and hear it still survives. "

Whether these dances were newly imported into the country side or had a parallel existence independent of the urban centres is unclear. It was about this time that sword dance seems to have got itself entangled with other traditional customs and pastimes in much the same way as morris and May Day were becoming associated in this country. A picture by Pieter Brueghel of a village fair in sixteenth century Netherlands shows a linked sword dance and a Saint George pageant going on almost next to each other. Even allowing for artistic licence it is not difficult to imagine ways in which the two groups could have got together to produce the kind of entertainment, drawing on traditional dance and drama, that survives to the present day.

English Sword Dance.

At some stage the dancers were brought into this country, it used to be thought, by representatives of the iron working trade coming into Northern England during the early years of the industrial revolution although this idea seems now largely discredited. There is some connection, or perhaps it is confusion, between morris dancing and sword dancing, an account from Shropshire dated 1652 speaks of morris dancers as 'sword bearers', a century later Dr. Johnson in his famous dictionary defined morris as "a dance in which bells are jingled or staves or swords are clashed.", swords were twirled in front of processions of morris dancers in the Forest of Dean in the last century and today's Bampton morris men carry one round with a cake stuck on it. It is possible that there was a third tradition of dancing that stood somewhere between morris dancing and sword dancing going under the name of Bedlam morris, this would consist entirely of stave or stick dances and seems to have fused with the other morris tradition to produce something like the Cotswold sides who danced with handkerchiefs and sticks. The oldest detailed account of English sword dancing currently available is found in a manuscript of 1779 which describes the sword play acted out at Revesby in Lincolnshire by the 'plough boys or morris dancers'.

This rather literary production brings together several different strands of traditional entertainment and includes mumming, morris and sword dancing in what seems a contrived hotch potch of events. The May 1811 edition of 'The Gentleman's Magazine' contains a short description of a North Riding sword dance performed by six young men dressed in white with a 'shemale' called Bessy and a comic doctor, the Bessy who interferes with the dancing at a crucial stage suffers a mock death and is presumably revived by the Doctor. Sir Walter Scott in his novel "The Pirate" uses a description of a sword dance, obtained from an earlier, perhaps eighteenth century, manuscript from Papa Stour in Shetland, where the dance is still performed. R. Willan in an article in 'Archaeologia' for 1814 gives a good account of a West Yorkshire sword dance:

"At merry nights and other festive occasions, they are introduced one after another by the names and titles of heroes... A spokesman then repeats some verse in praise of each, and they begin to flourish the rapier. On a signal given all the weapons are united or interlaced, but soon withdrawn again, and brandished by the heroes, who exhibit a great variety of evolutions,  being usually accompanied by slow music… In the last scene the rapiers are united round the neck of a person kneeling in the centre and when they are suddenly withdrawn, the victim falls to the ground; he is afterwards carried out and a mock funeral is performed with pomp and solemn strains."

Exhibitions by teams of dancers were given in the North West throughout the nineteenth century. An early 'revival' came through the efforts of D'Arcy Ferris who in 1886 organised the Ripon Millenary Festival and recruited the Kirkby Malzeard longsword dancers giving them new military style costumes for the occasion. Cecil Sharp collected many sword dances in the early years of the century visiting a number of Yorkshire villages including Kirkby Malzeard, Ampleforth, Grenoside, Sleights, Flamborough and Handsworth. There are teams active in all but the first two of these places today as well as in the villages of Loftus and Goathland. It is clear that during the last century individuals moving around the county were instrumental in founding many new teams as old ones died out. The relationship between the last two mentioned villages as illustrated in Trevor stone's book "Rattle Up, My Boys" shows the way in which new traditions can develop from a common stock:

performing regularly

Mr. Ventress, ex Goathland dancer moved to Egton c. 1840
died out c. 1900
John Featherstone, one of the men taught        
by Mr. Ventress moved to Loftus c.1860       
Many of the team moved to Derbyshire to work,
returned to Cleveland c.1890

Loftus team died out in 1917; members form new teams

Matt Seymour, Will Martin      Geo. & Robert Featherstone      Joe Winspear + Others

   No regular performances        Revived earlier tradition
   since late 1960's                        died out c. 1950

LOFTUS TEAM Present team formed in 1950 still performing regularly.

Costume originally followed the widespread practice of being based on everyday working clothes with sewn on decorations, however, from the middle of the last century some teams adopted a quasi-military style uniform. Other groups as at Goathland and Sleights favoured coloured jackets with a white sash around the waist while the fishermen of Flamborough wore their traditional working clothes, a knitted 'gansey' over their trousers. Contemporary teams consist of five to eight men who dance linked together with specially made blunt metal swords with wooden handles, in all just under a metre long. The dancers perform a continuous series of circling and interweaving movements which end with the swords being linked together to form a geometrical shape called the lock or sometimes the rose.

As we have seen the dances are sometimes presented as part of a which normally includes a comic wooing:

" King: Tonight I went to see Miss Susannah Parkin; She was so fine and gay,
But the dogs made such a barkin' I forgot all I had to say.
So I pray thee, honest Christian what next must I say to her?

Clown: Thou must give her gallant speeches And honestly must woo her."

-from the Ampleforth Sword dance play.

There is sometimes a mock death and recovery of the 'captain’, ’ king' or 'clown', after he has been dispatched by the other dancers who have formed a lock around his neck which they suddenly pull apart leaving the injured party to fall to the ground. Many people would like to see this as a relic of some ancient rite of human sacrifice ,however, as we have seen from the earlier continental examples swords were placed about peoples necks for the simple practical reason that they are needed to help support the weight of the leader, this may be a less blood thirsty explanation of modern customs. Where the play has been dispensed with a 'calling on' song is used to introduce the dancers:

"Good people give ear to my story, we have called for to see you by chance,
Five heroes I've brought blithe and bonny, intending to give you a dance.
For Earsden is our habitation, the place we were all born and bred.
There are not finer boys in the nation, and none shall be more gallantly lead."

- from the Earsden Sword Dance

Earsden in fact represents a different tradition of sword dancing that of short sword or 'rapper' dancing. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth century saw the beginnings of a new form of dancing amongst the coal mining communities of Northumberland and Durham. The miners performed dances with a five man team in which the long fairly inflexible sword commonly used further south was replaced by a shorter flexible metal strip with a handle at each end, called a rapper. The dancers, generally dressed in white shirts , dark breeches and with a coloured sash round their waists, created a complex series of movements exploiting the greater freedom given them by the more flexible linkage. The dance all but died out after the first world war but has since been revived both locally and nationally.

The music for both types of sword dance is played either on the fiddle or the melodeon or accordion. Unlike Cotswold morris there are normally a selection of different tunes that are played during the course of one dance. Popular tunes such as 'Pop goes the Weasel' ,'Cock O'the North', 'The Girl I Left Behind Me' and 'The Keel Row' are played for figures with names like 'One-turn-off', 'Raffally', 'Double-threedling' and the 'Woody Lock'. Although these dances can now be seen in many parts of the country at various times of year the traditional season for dancing out is over the Christmas period and through into the new year and Plough Monday.

There are several other groups of traditional dancers, an especially interesting group from Lancashire who have maintained a tradition of dances since at least 1860 are the Britannia Coconut Dancers from Bacup. Dressed in black tops and breeches with red and white hooped skirts and blacked faces they perform around their local streets on the Saturday before Easter to the music of a brass band. Of their two set dances one uses small wooden discs, fastened to knees, waists and hands to beat out a rhythmic accompaniment whilst the other is a garland dance for which the dancers carry floral garlands shaped like arches above their heads. Garland dances were once more widespread especially further south but this is the only survival. The dancing itself is allied to the nearby processional morris traditions.

Winster in Derbyshire is the home of a reformed team of morris dancers who are the sole surviving exponents of the Derbyshire morris. Since their 'discovery' by Cecil Sharp in 1908 they have undergone a number of revivals and have fallen, to a certain extent, under the influence of Cotswold morris. In Sharp's day they danced without bells and wore

“white flannel trousers and shirts; two sashes of different colours over the shoulders crossing the breast and back diagonally, the ends hanging down over the hips; rosettes of various hues on each breast and shoulder blade, on the navel and elsewhere, besides broaches and other ornaments affixed according to individual fancy."

In the early 1920's the team took to wearing' bell pads and since then the costume has been tidied up to make it look less 'tawdry'. The sixteen dancers form up in two files, the left hand one being designated 'the ladies' side’, with the dancers on that side wearing hats with an elaborate floral decoration. This may suggest that the dances were initially performed by a mixed side of women and men as was once the case in two other Derbyshire villages, Tideswell and Castleton. Mixed processional dances have also been recorded from Gisburn in Yorkshire and Altringham in Cheshire. Another relation is the famous processional 'Floral' or 'Furry' dance from Helston in Cornwall where on May 8th virtually the whole village takes part in the dancing. These forms of dance may have more to do with the kind of luck bringing visitations that were discussed in section One and were perhaps in some instances influenced by the more dynamic morris traditions, a process which we have seen continuing at Winster.

Another tradition that seems to stand midway between Cotswold morris from the south and processional morris from the north was recovered under remarkable circumstances in the ancient cathedral town of Lichfield (see the Journal of the E.F.D.S.S. 1957). The dancing seems to have been closely linked with the town's civic events and may have been a relic of one of the civic processions that were accompanied by morris dancers that were so popular in the sixteenth century.

A unique dance custom takes place in Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire on 'Wakes Monday' , the Monday after the first Sunday after September 4th. A team of six men together with musician playing a small accordion, a boy playing a triangle, a boy with a bow and arrow, a fool, a 'shemale' who carries a ladle to collect money in and a hobby horse of the tourney pattern, spend the day touring the area. They dance at farms, outside pubs and in the streets of the village itself. The dance consists of a simple procession which breaks into a serpentine turning motion leading into a formation of two opposing lines which advance on each other and retire before going forward again to cross over. The most remarkable thing about this ceremony is the fact that each dancer carries before him a massive spread of Reindeer antlers. Three pairs are painted cream with dark brown tips while the others are dark brown tipped with gold. The custom seems substantially the same as when it was reported on by Robert PIot in his 'Natural History of Staffordshire' printed in 1686. According to him the dancers went out at Christmas so the date seems to have been changed to fit in with the local Wakes week or fair. The mock Tudor costumes worn today were introduced in the 1880's, prior to this the men danced in their normal clothes with ribbons or strips of coloured cloth sewn on. Various theories have been advanced to explain this extraordinary event: a survival of a prehistoric hunter's dance, a religious ceremony to symbolise the struggle between darkness and light, a festival to commemorate the granting of hunting rights in the middle ages, nobody really knows.

UNIT THREE - Traditional Drama


In many places in the last century people's natural desire to dress up and enjoy themselves by acting out a part as, someone else was catered for by the production of short dramas called today ‘mumming plays'. Like many other aspects of our traditional culture these were seen as being in danger of dying out and so were widely collected. The plays came in two basic varieties, the most common was the 'Hero-combat' type of play where the hero, generally Saint or King George, takes on a villain known variously as 'Turkish Knight', 'Slasher' or 'Black Prince of Paradise'. One of them takes a tumble and is miraculously restored to life by a comic doctor. This type of play has been recorded from almost every corner of England as well as being found in some areas of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. They tended to be performed at Christmas at farms and large country houses, inside pubs and outside on the streets. Similar plays were put on at Easter when they were known as 'pace-egging plays' and in November as 'souling plays'. Slightly different in emphasis is the second type of play most commonly found in East Anglia and Lincolnshire which deals with wooing and mock marriages. These were often enacted as part of the celebrations on Plough Monday and might have been partnered by Molly dancing or sword dancing further north.

On first examination these mumming plays appear to be obvious survivals of some former pagan ceremony although there is some confusion over which one, was it a symbolic re-enaction of the triumph of light over dark to ensure the sun's return after the dark days of mid-winter or the commemoration of the sacrificial death of the sacred king in the guise of a vegetation spirit and his subsequent resurrection?

Both interpretations are subject to the same difficulty, namely that there are no reliable references to this sort of play existing at all before the mid-eighteenth century. There are a member of possibilities. Either the plays did exist in some form and were just not written about, or they are a survival of something earlier that we do know about but was different in some way, or they were newly invented some time in the post-medieval period. The slight evidence there is points to something between the last two options .

Amongst the earliest of the plays committed to paper is the Revesby play mentioned in connection with the sword dance. The play is considerably longer than the texts collected later and bears all the marks of having passed through and perhaps’ improved' by literary hands. Other texts show evidence that actors did borrow widely from more 'legitimate' theatrical sources, for example the Ampleforth play, last regularly performed about 1890 according to Cecil Sharp who collected it, has several lines taken from Congreve's play 'Love for Love' of 1695. R.J.E. Tiddy in his book "The Mummer's Play" (1923) reports that in the play from Mylor in Cornwall , "the Turkish Knight after being revived by the doctor breaks into a rhapsody taken from Addison's ridiculous opera 'Rosamund' the date of which is 1707." Many mumming plays were published in chapbooks , early examples of mass produced cheap literature, around the 1800's. There is obviously an intimate link between the plays as performed in the nineteenth century in the backroom of a village pub and the commercial productions of the entertainment establishment of the time, unfortunately nobody is quite sure who is influencing who. G. A. Powell writing in 1886 draws a useful comparison in the 'Folklore Record' for the year:

"I do not remember seeing mummers perform more than two or three times, and that must have been in 1815 and 1816; but in those days the speeches of the mummers were as well known to boys as 'Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle' and 'Little Jack Horner sat in a corner' are now known to children as nursery rhymes." - nursery rhymes being of course something else that was widely circulated by chapbook texts.

Another early version of a mummers play was noted by Percy Manning who had seen a manuscript copy of a play dated 1780 which had apparently been performed in the village of Islip near Oxford. This text, like the Revesby play has a very 'literary' feel to it and had obviously been written down under the influence of contemporary literature, although how far it departs from what was actually said in performance we have no way of knowing. Manning was also able to collect a version of the play as it was acted in the village in 1894. This differed from the earlier manuscript in several respects, ,the itch, the pox, the palsy and the gout' of 1780 becomes the nonsensical 'The hip, the pip, the palsy and the gout' by 1894. In a modern rendition of a similar play the formula has changed further as 'palsy' , a word now out of use becomes the more familiar 'parsley'. The are many examples of alterations to texts which have evidently come about both during the process of transmission, by word of mouth, from one performer to another, and in the heat of performance itself as the actor starts ad-libbing. Words which drop out of current usage were particularly prone to this thus 'I challenge you to field' ,  to the field of combat that is, becomes’ I challenge you to feel'. Some additions were made to keep up with the times or reflect on local events hence the inclusion of popular heroes and villains from the Napoleonic period such as Nelson and Napoleon himself, then there is this especially up to the minute introduction from Heptonstall in Yorkshire:

"In comes I, a suffragette,
Over my shoulder I carry my Clogs."

The majority of plays collected in the early decades of this century tend to be fairly short, throw the accent onto the action and contain a good deal of complete nonsense, or at least it was nonsense to the people who wrote it down. The actual vocabulary and phrasing of these plays and the remarkable consistencies in the texts from one end of the country to the other both appear to point us back towards origins based largely on the freely available printed word and therefore the late eighteenth century. However, the question remains, where did these printed texts come from and how did they gain such wide popularity?

To answer we must look towards older examples of popular literature and drama to search for the ancestors of the nineteenth century mumming play. In practice the search as conducted in the past by scholars like Chambers and Tiddy, and as continues today, has proved disappointingly unrewarding. One particular strand that can be traced further back lies in the character and actions of the hero, Saint George. We first hear of him in the fifth century A.D. as an officer in the Roman army who had been martyred for his beliefs during the reign of the emperor Diocletian. He was venerated by the church in the east and became a popular folk hero, notably in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. The stories that gathered around him, including the well known one about the slaying of a dragon, were brought back to England by returning crusaders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. His feast day, April 23rd, was declared a public holiday in1222 and he was made patron saint of the newly founded order of the garter in 1343. During the later middle ages many trades guilds adopted Saint George as their patron and pageants portraying him as. a paragon of chivalry and slayer of dragons became popular. The story of Saint George was also presented in more formally structured plays with written dialogue thus we hear of John Hoard priest from Basingstoke, who in 1511 was paid 2 shillings and 8 pence. for 'bearing the book' during performances of a Saint George play. Similar plays are known from the same period about the adventures of Robin Hood, a traditional English hero who seems to have been a genuine historical figure who became confused in the popular mind with stories based on fairy lore. These plays became associated with May day festivities in the sixteenth century thus we have 'shemales' with some of the morris teams of the time being referred to as Maid Marians.

Saint George's popularity was such that he was featured in many literary works like Spencer's massive allegorical poem,’ The Faerie Queene' published in 1590. Richard Johnson, 'an Elizabethan hack writer' produced a 'Famous History of the Seven Champions of Christendom' in 1596, a story which drew together a variety of national heroes. The Black Prince of Morocco, the King of Egypt and 'fair Sabra', the King of Egypt's daughter were all characters used by Johnson who were later to appear in mumming plays. The story of the Seven Champions was taken up by one John Kirke who had a play for puppets printed, using the same cast of characters, and apparently toured round the country with it. By these and doubtless many other channels elements from court and civic entertainments can be seen to be providing the substance for various examples of traditional plays. However, Saint George and his foes are only part of the story of the mumming play.

What is missing from the story so far is any instance of the climax to any mumming play, the death in combat and recovery at the hands of a 'doctor'. There are many stories recounted in medieval lives of saints about all sorts of wonderful cures including the one worked by Saint Nicholas on the dismembered bodies of three small boys who were reunited by being boiled together in a large pot, none of these really bear on the main problem. It may be that having exhausted all other explanations we have to fall back on the possibility that there could have been some sort of lingering folk belief which was revitalised in the new dramatic setting of the mumming play. On the other hand this element could have been introduced as a comment on doctors, a satire on religion or else purely because it gave people a thrill.

The final few minutes of most plays were often taken up by a series of characters who walk on introduce themselves and then stand around. These supernumeries who contribute nothing to the 'plot' perform a useful function in that they lengthen the play, provide extra parts for those who want them, and supply extra hands to help with the collection. They may also represent another survival from an older custom. Many early documents refer to mummers at Christmastime as revellers who dressed up in grotesque costumes and toured an area making luck bringing visits of the kind we have already examined, there is no suggestion that any sort of play is acted out although naturally Saint George or any of his opponents could provide an excuse for putting on fancy dress. John Brand in his 'Popular Antiquities' of 1813 wrote,

“Mumming is a sport of this festive season which consists of changing clothes between men and women who, when dressed in each other's habits, go from one neighbours house to another, partaking of Christmas cheer, and making merry with them in disguise.”

Such visits were often thinly disguised occasions for begging so perhaps thus the need for personal disguise. A further clue is supplied by a painting by Sebastian Vranx, a Flemish artist of the sixteenth century. His picture shows a small group of mummers in a winter landscape. They are lead by a small figure in fools 'motley' with a tall 'dunce's cap' on his head, there is a boy playing some sort of noisy accompaniment on a friction drum and a 'shemale'. He/she is hand in hand with a striking character in a black mask, with a foxes tail behind and an enormous black frying pan over his shoulder who could perhaps be the Belzebub, a direct descendant of the medieval devil of the same name, who appears in the English mumming' play with the lines:

“In comes I, old Belzebub,
Over my shoulder I carry me club,
In my hand's a frying pan.
Don't you think I'm a funny old man?"

The characters who put in a tail end appearance may well have had a separate existence as wandering luck visitors before fusing with the more dramatic elements of the hero-combat play.

The mummers who went round with their play in the last century made some effort to dress for the part. At first they made do with the traditional expedient of sewing ribbons and rosettes onto their clothes. Towards the end of the century, however, two main styles of costume had evolved. The first was derived form the earlier costume and was the same idea but taken to great lengths so that the whole body was enveloped in streamers of material to give a slightly uncanny effect.
.A cheaper alternative was to substitute strips of newspaper for cloth as can be seen in the case of the Marshfield 'Paper Boys' from Gloucestershire who still perform their traditional play in the streets of their village. The second type of costume made an attempt to dress the characters in something approaching a naturalistic way with varying degrees of accuracy. King George for example was often dressed in an old military tunic brought back perhaps from the interminable campaigning abroad that marked Victoria's reign. Similar use was made of other odds and ends of discarded clothing, Slasher could find himself wrapped in an old dressing gown with a towel round his head, Turkish slippers on his feet and an outsize cardboard scimitar in his hand.

Once equipped and rehearsed the group of men would begin their tour. Women seldom if ever participated as actors although the record is far from complete. It certainly caused a stir when the 'heroine' of Hardy's "Return of the Native" dons mummers costume to gain admission to a Christmas party! One of the primary reasons for going to all this trouble of getting a play together was understandably enough to collect money, a little extra cash at Christmas would have been as useful then as it is today. Actual details of the performance itself are given in the practical. section which follows.

Other forms of mumming are known from certain parts of the country, for example, pubs in the area between Derby and Sheffield were visited by groups of men during the Christmas holiday season to act the 'Derby Tup'. The actors gathered round one of their number who was disguised as a sheep - the Tup. The company sung about its marvellous attributes and after some dialogue a pretence is made of killing it. The performers then made a collection. This custom can be traced back to the 1840s and is still thriving having been taken over by groups of youths.

In some regions such as North Oxfordshire mumming partially died out after the First World War to be replaced, for a short time, by something called 'niggering'. Groups of men, inspired by what was then popular in the music halls, would black their faces and tour round with an assortment of musical instruments and a collecting box. This they hoped to fill in recompense for the rendition of contemporary, half-remembered 'minstrel' songs. This in its turn had largely vanished by the 1930's.

How to Perform a Mumming Play.

Of all the forms of folk entertainment the mumming play is one of the easiest to stage yet at the same time most rewarding; it needs neither specialist knowledge nor expensive equipment. The text that follows is a composite version which incorporates the most commonly found episodes from the hero-combat play and some of the favourite lines. It has been divided up into sections to demonstrate the way the thing is put together, obviously it should be performed as one piece without breaks.

1) The Presentation. ( Enter Father Christmas)

Father Christmas: Room! Room brave gallants,
And give us room to sport,
For in this room we wish to resort,
Resort and repeat our merry rhyme,
For remember good sirs it is Christmas time.
Be he welcome, or be he not,
I hope old Father Christmas will never be forgot.
To the sound of the fiddle,
And the beat of a drum,
Make way my friends and let our merry actors come. (Enter the company)

The players perform their play indoors or out. Normally the play begins with the minimum of announcement so that it is important that the individual making this opening speech establishes a claim on whatever acting space is available and draws the attention of an audience before the main characters speak. The rest of the actors will have either formed a ring already or will walk into one should they be making an entrance from elsewhere. Each actor steps into this ring to speak as his part comes up and retires to the outside of the arena when he has finished.

2) The Challenge. (Enter Kin George)

King George: I am King George, who from old England sprung
My famous name around the world has rung.
Many bloody deeds have I made known,
Made giants shake and quake upon their thrones.
I have searched this land both round and round,
But a man my match I never have found.

(Enter Slasher)

Slasher: I am a valiant Turkish knight,
And Slasher is my name,
With sword and buckler by my side,
I hope to win the game.

King George: The game? The game?
It lies not in thy power,
I'll chop you into mince meat
In less than half an hour.

Slasher: You sir?
King George: I sir.

Slasher: Take out thy sword and try sir.

Mumming plays offer tremendous scope for audience participation, as they announce themselves King George and Slasher should be greeted by cheers or hoots depending on one's political leanings.

3) The Combat.

( They fight, Slasher falls.)

The success of the combat depends on the skill of the individual players who really need to 'choreograph' their fight as would professional stuntmen, there could be some pre-arranged signal just before one of the swordsmen makes a low sweep his opponent has to jump over. In many ways quite slow movements look best conveying some feeling for the weight of the weapons and the power of the blows. The fight can also be an excuse for a little knock about comedy, it depends on the style of the production. Eventually Slasher is struck down, again best and safest if at a prearranged signal, and may expire as dramatically as he likes.

4) The Lament. (Enter the King of Egypt)

King of Egypt: I am the King of Egypt
As plainly doth appear,
I’ve come to seek my only son,
My only son and heir.

King George: He is slain.

King of Egypt: Who did him slay,
Who did him kill,
And on the ground
His precious blood did spill?

King George: I did him slay,
I did him kill,
And on the ground
His precious blood did spill.

King of Egypt: Alas, alas, what have you done,
You've slain his father's only son.

5) The Cure.

King George: Is there a doctor to be had?
Five pounds for a doctor.

All: There isn't one.

King George: Ten pounds for a doctor.

All: There isn't one.

King George: Fifteen pounds for a doctor!

(Enter Doctor)

Doctor: In comes I, old Doctor Brown ,
The finest doctor in the town.

King of Egypt: What makes you the finest doctor?

Doctor: My travels sir.

King of Egypt: And where have you travelled?

Doctor: Italy, Sicily, France and Spain,
Twice round the world and back again.

King of Egypt: What is your fee to cure this man?

Doctor: Fifteen pounds it is my fee, but Jack if you be an honest man,
I'll only charge ten of thee.

King of Egypt: What diseases can you cure?

Doctor: Allsorts.

King of Egypt: What's allsorts?

Doctor: The itch, the pitch, the parsley and the gout.
If a man's got nineteen devils in his skin I'll fetch twenty of them out.
I cured Sir Harry of a hangnail almost fifty five yards long,
Surely I can cure this little man.
(Opens bag)
I have here a little bottle,
Let a drop run down thy throttle,
See thou art not quite so slain,
Arise brave Slasher and fight again.

Slasher: Oh my back

Doctor: What's up with thy back?

Slasher: My back is wounded,
My purpose confounded,
My body is beaten and sore,
The like was never seen in old England before.
Farewell King George, I can no longer stay,
The bell it calls down yonder lies the way.
(Exit Slasher and Doctor)

The doctor is normally made to stand out in some way from the other characters: if the rest are disguised with paper streamers he will be dressed in black frock coat and top hat, where the others speak habitually in verse the doctor often speaks in prose. The cure itself presents another opportunity for comic relief as the doctor removes a selection of likely and not so likely medical instruments from his bag.

6) Multiple Combats.

King of Egypt: King George, King George,
Yea do not be so hot,
For now thou knowest not whom thou hast got.
Oh, he will tame thee of thy pride,
And lay thine anger too aside.
Step in Black Prince of Paradise,
Arrayed in all thy might,
Step in Black Prince of Paradise,
And put King George to flight.

(Enter Black Prince of Paradise)

Black Prince: I am the Prince of Paradise, Born once of high renown,
Soon shall I fetch King George's lofty courage down.
Before King George shall be received by me,
King George must die to all eternity.

King George: Stand back thou foul and fearful dog,
Or by my sword thou'llt die.
I'll cut you up as small as flies,
And send you over the seas to make mince pies,
Mince pies hot, mince pies cold,
I’ll stretch you out upon the floor,
Before thou'rt three days old.

Black Prince: How canst thou cut me up as small as flies,
and send me over the seas to make mince pies,
Mince pies hot, mince pies cold,
How canst thou stretch me out upon the floor
Before I'm three days old?
Since my head is made of iron,
My body lined with steel,
My hands and feet are plates of brass,
I challenge thee to feel.

(They fight, Black Prince falls.)

Black Prince: Pardon me, pardon me King George,
For I am wounded sore.

King George: Yes, I’ll pardon thee if thou go out, And come again no more.

(Exit Black Prince)

Often one or more further opponents are introduced for the hero to match himself against, this probably arises out of a desire to prolong the action of the play and gain a bigger collection at the end. Sometimes a dragon is employed to assault King George.

7) The Quete and collection.

( Enter Belzebub)

Belzebub: In comes I, old Belzebub,
Over my shoulder I carry a club,
In my hand a frying pan,
Don’t you think I'm a funny old man?

(Enter Big Head)

Big Head: In comes I who never came yet,
With my big head and little wit,
Let my wit be ever so small,
Me and my club will hammer them all.

(Enter Little Johnny Jack)

Johnny Jack: In comes I, little Johnny Jack,
With my wife and family on my back.
Out of nine I've got five,
And all the rest are starved alive.
Big Head, Big Head, there’s a war wherever we go.

Big Head: Where, where, where?

Johnny Jack: Here, here, here. (Kicking him)

(Enter Little Devily Doubt)

Devily Doubt: In comes Little Devily Doubt,
If you don't give us money I'll sweep you all out.
It's money I want, it's money I crave,
If you don't give us money,
I'll sweep you to your grave.

All: We are the merry actors that traverse the street,
We are the merry actors fighting for our meat.
So gallants all sat round the fire,
Dip into your pockets and treat our desire,
Dip into your pockets and see us alright,
Dip into your pockets,
Good luck and good night.

A collection is made amongst the onlookers towards the end of the show. Collecting was an important part of the custom, not only because the actors could do with the money but because the audience thought that in some way by contributing they were buying good luck. Sometimes the actors stand and sing a seasonal carol or other traditional song while the hat is passed round.

If you intend to put on your own play the first steps are obtaining a script, casting the characters and learning the words. The text above can be used without permission or else a more local version can perhaps be copied from books such as Tiddy or Helm listed in the bibliography.

No great dramatic talent is needed to perform in a mumming play, indeed in many ways the play is weakened by anything as subtle as acting, on the whole shouting is best, as the plays are often put on in noisy pubs or clubs or out in the open air, a really loud speaking voice is essential. Characters should be especially noisy when announcing themselves or issuing challenges. Performances on stages or using microphones and amplification should be avoided as they are totally alien to the spirit of thing, unless you are offered a lot of money of course.

The actors will normally enter in a line and form a circle, four metres or so across and facing inwards, each actor steps into the circle to deliver his lines. As we have seen comedy plays an important part in the action but can sometimes come to dominate the whole play leaving it a sort of poor relation to pantomime. Whilst there are several opportunities for audience participation: cheering or booing the combatants, replying to the doctor's patter, contributing to the collection, on the whole it is better if the actors do not address the audience directly as their words will be lost on the majority, generally they should 'play to the sky'. This effect as well as good all round projection can be encouraged by practising out of doors with everyone at least twenty metres apart. This will also bring home the need for all gestures and poses to be exaggerated in much the same way as they are by the student of mime.

The Costume. There are three basic approaches to costume for a mumming play:

i) The traditional rag-coat or set of streamers can be based on an old shirt to which either strips of different coloured materials can be sewn or lengths of newspaper or wallpaper stuck. A tall cone of rolled card can be similarly decorated in the same way as a headpiece. The total effect of these costumes, especially if the play is acted 'straight' can be very impressive and slightly threatening.
ii) A representational style of costume will attempt to dress the combatants in something approximating to medieval armour, the doctor in traditional top hat and dark coat and Father Christmas in his red robe and bushy white beard, any book on theatrical costuming will have plenty of ideas.

iii) Contemporary costumes come into their own when an attempt is made to give the play a modern topical feel. The doctor might be given a white coat and crack jokes about the National Health Service or private medicine. The Turkish knight could be an oil rich sheik in opposition to a bowler hatted Saint George, one word of warning however, the rampant nationalism and blatant colour prejudice of many plays whilst questiopnable in the context of a reconstruction of a nineteenth century custom can become very offensive when brought up to date.

Props. If fight scenes are going to look good a lot of care needs to go into the production of the weaponry. Some semi-professional groups have invested in blunted iron swords and tinplate shields which produce most satisfying clangs when struck. Most performers will have to make do with wooden swords and hardboard shields as their resources are limited. Swords can be made from thin wooden laths cut to length and with a blunt point worked at one end. All edges should be well sanded and the wood either oiled with linseed oil or primed and painted. A handle can be made by binding the other end with tape. Broader shapes like that of a scimitar can be cut with a jig-saw from six millimetre plywood although again great care needs to be taken to ensure that all splinters and rough edges are smoothed away. Shields can be cut from three millimetre hardboard and painted. As they may have to take a lot of punishment it is worth making sure that the handles are well fixed and comfortable to use. A length of upholstery webbing held in place by glue and a couple of wooden blocks screwed in place makes a serviceable grip.

The doctor will need a number of comic props to carry in his large black bag or suitcase that is traditionally labelled 'Tosspot H.D.'. Tools of the trade include a giant pair of forceps as well as an outsize saw and syringe. Some practitioners pull strings of fabric filled sausages from inside the victim's coat while others will pretend to extract a tooth or two. The players with walk on parts towards the end of the play should carry the necessary equipment, frying pan, club or broom. Little Johnny Jack with his family on his back carries dolls in a basket or else has them strung across his shoulders. Finally some groups carry about a large mat or old rug for outdoor performances so that the sufferers can die with dignity and stay clean.


Traditional mumming plays can still be seen, at Christmas mummers tour Bampton and Headington in Oxfordshire, Crookham and Overton in Hampshire and Ripon in Yorkshire and of course Marshfield. At Easter they appear at Midgely and Brighouse in Yorkshire whilst at Antrobus in Cheshire the play is performed on All Souls' Day in November. In addition there are large numbers of plays, revived or imported, acted throughout the country in schools, folk clubs and of course where they belong, on the streets.

The whole concept of street performances has been taken over in recent years and revitalised by theatre groups, many of them overtly political who see in street theatre not only the excitement of the setting but also the potential for communicating with the mass of ordinary people.

UNIT FOUR - Traditional Music and Song.


Music dance and song always been essential ingredients of any sort of festival or celebration as well as being sources of entertainment for all classes of people. Before the arrival of technological wonders like the phonograph, the wireless and most amazing of all talking pictures, entertainment had to be largely self made, especially in rural areas and amongst the poorer classes where there were less opportunities for concert going for example. Most children in the days before organised schooling would grow up knowing a selection of songs and tunes from the common repertoire of their community. Specially gifted individuals might go out of their way to acquire new songs and earn for themselves a reputation as an entertainer.

At anyone time the traditional musician's stock of songs would include pieces that had been passed down orally for many generations as well as popular tunes of the day that may have caught his fancy. As time goes by these 'hit' numbers will themselves be handed on to a new generation of singers and in this way become part of the body of traditional music. Because the tunes were often passed on without reference to a written score they were in a continual state of change. This 'evolutionary' process coupled with a sort of 'natural selection', in that only the best tunes would be learnt and remembered, meant that traditional music had a freshness and originality even in the best known tunes.

Many people have the impression that the typical folk singer of the pre-technological era , were heavy agricultural labourers pausing at the door of some country tavern only long enough to scrape the mud off their boots before launching into some lengthy ballad. In fact folk of an ages and occupations from the young railway clerk to the elderly factory hand would sing when the occasion demanded it, folk song has never been the exclusive property of the countryside. Many women were fine singers with a large repertoire but fewer opportunities to show off their talents.

In England most instrumental music was played as an accompaniment for dancing. It never developed quite the subtlety nor complexity of, for example, Irish music which evolved somehow independently of its initial dance forms. Most English folk music was free from harmony , the provision of a basic melody line with a simple rhythmic accompaniment is best illustrated by the instrumental combination that was the mainstay of this kind of music for many hundreds of years, the pipe and tabor. The pipe has just three finger holes and is held and played with the left hand alone. The system of fingering together with the technique of over blowing meant that a range of around an octave and a half was possible. A small drum or tabor is hung either on the unused little finger of the left hand or in the crook of the elbow and is played with a single drum stick held in the right hand. This arrangement meant that the melody and backing beat were literally in the hands of one man. The pipe and tabor was a popular combination from early medieval times up until the last century and was heard wherever straight forward portable music was required.

By the middle of the nineteenth century fashions were changing and the pipe and tabor dropped out of use. Many old morris dancers when deprived of the whittle and dub's simple tune and steady beat simply gave up. Into the place of the pipe and tabor came a variety of new instruments of the free reed family, the mouth organ, concertina, accordion and melodeon. These were all based on a principle first exploited on the continent in the second quarter of the nineteenth century whereby a note is produced by directing a stream of air over a thin metal strip called a reed that was free to vibrate at one end. All of these instruments were imported into this country in vast quantities during the later half of the century. They were cheap, reliable, easy to play and tremendously popular. The concertina and melodeon made a particular impact on traditional dance music. Both use bellows to pump the air and a system of keys to uncover the reeds and sound a note. The melodeon was especially well suited to this kind of music, as it sounded two notes for each key pressed, one on push and one on draw, it had to be played in rather a staccato fashion which gave plenty of drive to the music. The more sophisticated piano-accordion largely supplanted the melodeon in other forms of popular music although they continue to exist side by side in the world of folk music.

Another much used instrument was the violin, or fiddle as it is generally called in folk circles. The fiddle had been used for country dance music since its 'invention' in the seventeenth century and of course it had medieval ancestors. The hammered dulcimer was another string instrument but worked on a totally different principle. A large number of wire strings were stretched across a wooden sound box each string tuned to a certain note. It was played with a pair of wooden beaters in much the same way as a xylophone is. The bagpipes were widely used for outdoor processional and dance music up to the seventeenth century but their popularity waned until the only English survival was the Northumbrian small pipes, a set of pipes blown not by the mouth as with the great Scottish pipes but by a small leather bellows held underneath the arm.

Percussion when used was supplied by drums, often old military side drums, tambourines, triangles and bones - a couple of polished sections of rib that were rattled together between the fingers of one hand. Other instruments of a more classical nature from the brass and woodwind families were used in church music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but do not seem to have been widely employed for playing traditional music.

The small locally based brass bands that became increasingly common towards the end of the last century were sometimes recruited to help out with established customs like the Helston Floral Dance or the Bacup Nutter's dances. Some of the early collectors were able to record tunes on primitive wax cylinders using the new phonograph, Percy Grainger was a particular pioneer here. As recording techniques improved some traditional musicians had their music marketed commercially on plastic discs that revolved 78 times a minute thus paving the way for some of the superstars of the folk-rock world.

The enormous number of traditional English folk songs that have been collected cover a wide range of subjects from seduction, courtship and marriage to the perils of life at sea. Some are songs of protest while others commemorate some historical event, songs could be just four lines long and comic or ballads of tremendous length and tragic. The books of Bob Copper from the Sussex village of Rottingdean demonstrate the place of these son;-s in the social life of his community. A particular seasonal event like the sheep-shearing brought its own crop of songs while other songs would be associated with certain individuals. They could be called on, once an evening's drinking was underway, to give a rendition of their favourite number. More recent writers such as Michael Pickering have pursued the idea of songs in their social context suggesting that songs have had a vital part to play in confirming the attitudes and opinions of working class people.

A few songs are either part of an established custom or have, some would claim, traces within them of some sort of ritualistic past. The most familiar of such songs are the traditional carols of Christmas although carols were sung at Easter and in May as well. The Padstow hobby horse performs it antics to the strains of a May carol with a particularly obscure set of words and an insistent primitive sounding drum beat while the celebrations at Helston begin with another carol called 'Hal-an-Tow' which includes verses about Robin Rood and Saint George. Other May carols were suns to accompany the garland on its rounds. Carols and folk songs of a more general kind were an important part of most luck visiting customs like wassailing and again there are several songs specially tailored for just that purpose. As we have seen mummers used to sing any suitable song while the hat was being passed round. Some morris teams sang snatches of doggerel verse at the beginning of some of their dances as in this bizarre piece from Headington:

"Take an old woman and roast her,
And baste her well with cheese,
Then set her out on a cold winter's night,
I'm sure that old woman 'ould freeze,
Then bring her in next morning,
Set her in a bundle of straw,
Then set fire to the bottom
I'm sure that old woman 'ould thaw.”

At Adderbury they sometimes sing all the way through their dances, an exhausting business.

The preservation of English folk song again owes an enormous debt to the labours of Cecil Sharp who published the first major study of the subject, “English Folksong; some conclusions" in 1907. He was responsible for collecting in total some 4,977 performed tunes of which 1,619 were published. Other collectors of the time like Lucy Broadwood, Frank Kidson, the amazing Alfred Williams and the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, were all at work saving what they could of what was considered to be a national heritage. Most of this important work was done with notebook in hand, the collectors, as trained musicians, were able to write down the notation for the songs they heard. Clearly an oral tradition of music is not bound by the conventions of formal music and so the collectors frequently had to modify the songs, sometimes unconsciously, to fit with their own musical preconceptions. It was not until 1908 when Percy Grainger published an article on 'Collecting with the Phonograph' that truly objective study of folk song could begin. It became clear to him that each song, indeed sometimes each verse, had its own identity and was a unique piece of creative endeavour. Grainger saw the advantages of recordings like this:

"The very greatest boon of the gramophone and phonograph is that they record not merely the tunes and words of fine folk songs, but give an enduring picture of the live art and traditions of peasant and sailor singing and playing together with a record of the dialects of different districts, and of such entertaining accessories as the vocal quality, singing habits and other personal characters of songs."

Unfortunately much of the work of these first researchers is marred by the facts that they sometimes censored the material they collected and were very selective about what they thought qualified as a folk song and that they rarely, if ever, noted any details at all about the singers background and the social setting of, the singing itself. Collecting and analysis of folk music continued both here and abroad through the decades following the First World War facilitated by the introduction of easily portable tape recorders. New insights came into the nature of phenomena such as the industrial folk song through me work of authorities like A. L. Lloyd. Folk song achieved a kind of notoriety as a result of some of the commercial recordings that made them sound like art songs and generations of school children were taught them from a carefully selected cannon. Fortunately a second revival was at hand, new folk clubs followed later by electric folk bands were able to restore to folk music much of the vigour it had lost in the earlier decades of the century.

How to Perform as a Musician or Singer.

Most musicians find an outlet for their urge to perform in anyone of the numerous folk clubs that can be found in most cities, towns and even a few villages. The format of an evening in one of these clubs tends to be much the same wherever it is found. Most clubs operate some kind of membership scheme where members are admitted at a reduced cost or have priority when it comes to a big event, they all, however, welcome new members or visitors. They will often book guest performers for the evening who will be paid a fee but will only take up a small part of the full time available which can be from 7.30 to 11.00. The rest of the time is filled by members of the audience who get up and fill a spot of about five minutes with a couple of songs or three tunes or even a monologue or two. These 'floor singers' will let the organiser on the door know they are willing to perform and are then normally admitted free of charge. A few visits will soon reveal a lot about the kind of music and the styles of delivery that are best received.

Solo Singing. The sight and sound of the old village worthy, pint in hand murmuring some old song about turnip hoeing and the long-haired bearded 'folk trendy' trying to recreate the same uncertain tones with a finger in his ear are part of the popular mythology about folk singing which unfortunately has its roots in fact. Host recordings of old traditional singers make very hard listening for anyone with an ear for music, this is of course not the fault of the singers, many of them were in their seventies or eighties when recorded and noticeably past their best. Club singers on the whole cannot claim the excuse of advancing years and again their singing can be equally awful. Despite ideas to the contrary, perhaps fostered by music time at school, folk songs in the traditional English mould are not easy things to sing. There are a number of common errors which from the listeners point of view can make an evening in some folk clubs an evening of trial and tribulation. These include: forgetting the words to a song, mumbling an apology and then going on to forget the words of another song; singing in voice that sounds too obviously trained and 'operatic' and is, therefore out of place; using a different accent to sing with, such 'impersonations' rarely work; wading through long tedious ballads of more than twenty verses; producing songs,’ what I wrote last night’, which need either polishing up or polishing off and taking ten minutes to explain the words of a song that can be sung in two. Other common faults include taking another ten minutes to tune up the guitar, that’s after explaining the words, and singing through an unnecessary P.A. that distorts the words so they cannot be heard anyway.

Obviously, the pitfalls awaiting the aspiring folk singer are many yet to redress the balance it must be said that there are many singers, most of them amateurs who manage to give performances that are both entertaining and inspiring, how is it done? The most important thing about a folk singer is that they should appear as natural as possible in every respect - they use their normal singing voice without resorting to fake dialect, if they have a natural dialect, so much the better. People with naturally poor voices should not stand up and sing before a paying audience even if it is only folk music, on the other hand an untutored voice sounds far better than a highly trained one in this context. The singer chooses songs whose backgrounds are understood and for which they have a natural sympathy, most sea shanties for example have been so badly sung in the past that the whole art has been brought into disrepute. A good singer will ensure a balance in their choice of songs, long followed by short, mournful followed by cheerful and perhaps traditional followed by contemporary. All songs are thoroughly rehearsed and the words committed to memory, nobody incidentally, or almost nobody, sings from printed words.

Solo singing is one of the hardest yet potentially most rewarding forms of traditional entertainment, folk songs deal with the whole range of human experiences and can be used to plumb emotional depths rarely accessible to the amateur performer in other fields, so it is worth persevering. Don't worry about a couple of initial disasters if you genuinely feel you are improving, seek advice and don't trust entirely to your own ear. Often singing in a group is an easier way of starting as the effect of a number of voices is to iron out the worst of the irregularities.

Playing a solo instrument to a captive audience poses something of a problem for those with a primary interest in traditional English music. As most of the tunes around are either from songs or for dances the purely instrumental approach must necessarily be incomplete, the audience are missing out either on the movement of someone's body or on the story that goes with the tune. This means that the instrumentalist has got to work even harder to overcome these handicaps.

Beyond being able to play their instrument really well the musician needs to choose a varied selection of tunes, some well known, some unknown, some new, some old, real virtuosos can keep an audience enthralled for hours, everyone else should aim for short pieces to leave them wanting more. If you can do it change instruments for some numbers. There is, of course, safety in numbers so again beginners might prefer to find or found a group. Group playing means that there is scope to vary the sound by giving particular instruments the lead in certain tunes. Extra interest can be generated by careful harmonising and playing in parts although too elaborate an effect would be rather contrary to the spirit of the music. Again it is unusual to see people playing folk music from a printed score. Some especially talented individuals find that they can sing as well as play an instrument and even do the two at the same time and so achieve variety simply by changing from an accompanied to an unaccompanied song and then on to a tune.

Instrumental playing for people to dance to comes in two main varieties: playing for 'ceremonial' dance displays and playing for social dance.

Playing for 'Ceremonial' Dance.

The crucial thing to remember is that the music is always subordinate to the dance, it is a vehicle that carries the dancing along but does not lead it by the nose. If the music intrudes too much on the audience's consciousness it causes the dancers to change their natural style of performing then it is doing a disservice to the spectacle as a whole. Most morris teams performed with a single musician, originally the pipe and tabor player, this was probably because most of the time only one 'qualified' musician was available, indeed some of them used to be in demand to play for more than one team and could hire themselves out. There are, however, great advantages in having one specialist musician who is an integral part of the team and understands the dancing. Dancers and musician should practise together and reach an understanding about what feels right for their particular style of dancing in terms of tempo, accents on the rhythms and so on.

The dance musician can be expected to provide a clear, precise, steady sound free from to much ornamentation and 'fussiness' to guide the dancers without dominating them. To achieve this a team has got to find one or possibly two musicians who are prepared to grow with the side and practice long, hard and frequently with them. It also means that the leader of the dancers should be the final arbiter in matters musical deciding how well it fits in with what the dancers are trying to do, he must also, of course be prepared to listen to the musician’s advice.

The beginner first needs to learn the tunes and should do so if possible from watching a group dance and preferably without reference to printed music. This underlines from the very start the interdependence of the two. He or she should put in plenty of practice with the dancers watching their movements, and particularly their feet, carefully. They should be working towards a sense of the performance as a whole rather than as two separate aspects, the music and the movement. The foundation of all dance is rhythm so the beginner should aim for a strongly accentuated style of playing. Sometimes the addition of some simple percussive accompaniment can help at this stage. As a musician becomes more confident with the instrument and the tunes there will come a natural desire to elaborate and ornament the tunes which is fine so long as it does not detract from the basic role of the music.

Playing for social dancing.

Once more the relationship between the musician and dancers is of paramount importance although there are several differences in emphasis. The playing in this case is not for the sake of spectacle or display but enjoyment and that should never be lost sight of. Usually the musicians and the dancers will be meeting for the first time and so both parties have to work quite hard to establish a relationship, unfortunately it is normally the musicians who have to make all the running. Although there may be a few experienced dancers on the floor most people at the average barn dance are out and out beginners or have only done it once or twice. Personal qualities aside the musician has to make sure that the music is lively, at the right speed, with a clear rhythmical structure, in short easy to dance to. The musicians should lead, encourage and excite by their playing while at the same time being sensitive to what is happening on the floor so that they can if necessary change tempo, alter the pattern of the tunes and even stop and start again, to suit the dancers.

It is an old and much quoted piece of advice that one should pick out the best dancers on the floor and play to them, this is fine but an eye also needs to be kept on the worst dancers on the floor too who presumably paid the same price to come in.  We have been referring to musicians so far and it is normally the case that three, four, five or more people get together to form a band for playing for folk dance. The work load of playing for an evenings dancing of possibly four or five hours have to be shared. In a band not only can individuals take a break in some numbers but by doing this they can make sure that there is some variety in the sound during the evening.

To play for social dancing, be it for one or two dances at a harvest supper or a full five hour programme, makes for a commitment for a lot of work in preparation. Tunes need to chosen carefully to fit the dances. Some experienced bands have such a wide repertoire that they can work with any caller and have tunes on the spot for any dance chosen. However most bands starting up tend to have their own caller and make their own selection of dances. It is worth sticking to one or tunes to each dance possibly ones that are traditionally associated with each other possibly trying out new mixes. This way you will avoid what John Kirkpatrick calls 'medley mania' where one tune merges imperceptibly into another and the whole thing rather watery.

A single tune chosen carefully to fit with the evolutions of a certain dance and then played with everything the band can give it is to my mind the best recipe for a memorable evening. There is also a lot to be said for sticking to the same few tunes and playing them over and over again until they become second nature. It is only by being able to forget what his fingers are doing that the player can really give his or her full attention to the music in its wider context. This is not to say that no new tunes should be learnt or that the repertoire should become narrow and static, but it does mean that everyone should thoroughly know all the music. There is little profit to be had in working out too many complex arrangements, it is remarkable how little the average dancer hears of the music, they are concentrating on their feet or, on the people around them and are often only aware of the music as a kind of rhythmic background.

In practical terms a format should be agreed for starting the music, one chord, a count down, a blast on a whistle, and signals agreed to indicate a change of tune or the approaching end of the dance. More information is given about individual instruments below and about social dances and ceilidhs in general in Section Five.

Choosing and playing an instrument.

Although any instrument can be used to play folk music in practice some are noticeably more popular either because they have a traditional background or because they fulfil some definite musical need. Many people learn an instrument through formal lessons in the traditions of classical music and in some cases are able to make a very successful transition to folk playing. However, one of the strengths of folk music is that it exists independently of any formal music structures indeed the majority of most folk musicians, even those of the highest calibre, are either self taught or have had a few impromptu lessons from experienced players. Nobody should feel barred from beginning folk music on the grounds that they have no musical background or training, it could even be an advantage.

The actual choice of on instrument will depend on a variety of factors, not least the depth of the intending purchasers pockets. Here is a brief analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of those instruments normally played by folk musicians, this list is limiting in a sense as almost any instrument can be used to good effect, nothing should be discounted just because it is unusual.

i) The pipe and tabor. This is one of the most appealingly fundamental of all musical combinations and appears at first impossible to play - the pipe has just three holes and as for hitting a drum held in the same hand at the same time. In practice the pipe is surprisingly easy to get a tune out of, the business of over blowing while keeping the same finger position means that a lot of notes can be tried out quite quickly, very useful if you are working something out by ear and searching for the right note. Tunes 'written' for the pipe and tabor, and that includes most of the morris tunes of the Cotswolds, seem to fit naturally into a simple pattern of fingering and blowing. Once the left hand has become fairly confident the right hand will gradually. start to feel its way towards a rhythm, perhaps just tapping the side of the leg at first and then moving onto the drum. Very cheap yet quite serviceable examples of the three hole pipe can be bought from the E.F.D.S.S. and other outlets for a few pounds or so. Tabors, if you can find them are rather more pricy although there are a number of simple techniques and books to help, for making your own drum.

ii) The Six Hole Whistle or Penny Whistle or Tin Whistle or Flageolet. To hear this instrument at its best it is necessary to turn to the traditional music of Ireland where skilled players make it sound as good as the most golden of flutes. It is cheap, easy to get hold of and straight forward to pick out tunes on. Whistles are readily portable and make quite a good sound for dancing to, more so if partnered by a drum. Whistles come in particular keys so a battery of them must be kept if you intend playing with someone else who might want to change key. The G, D, and C whistles are probably the most useful.

iii) The Recorder. The recorder is included here as one of the most widely taught, some might say mistaught, of all instruments through its popularity in schools. Although it is fully chromatic, that means you should be able to play in any key on it and not have to keep swopping your instrument around, its tone is softer than the whistle and does not carry so far. Even so in the absence of any other instrument it should always be considered perhaps again in partnership with a drum for dancing and amplified in some way for other applications. Fairly good plastic recorders can be had for under ten pounds in the treble range although the bigger ones come quite expensive.

iv) The Bagpipes. The traditional Northumbrian pipes are neither easy to play or cheap to purchase, say a thousand pounds minimum, however, in the hands of an enthusiast they produce a wonderful sound.

v) The mouthorgan is a cheap popular instrument that almost everyone owns at some time in their life even if it is only a toy plastic one. For the serious player they come in a variety of sizes and tunings at a price of from twenty pounds to fifty pounds. When played well and with energy they make quite successful instruments for dancing to, especially if amplified in some way. Its capabilities as a solo instrument are well known although it is no longer quite as popular as it used to be, perhaps we could look forward to seeing it used more in folk music.

vi) Concertinas. Concertinas come in two versions. There is the English concertina which will play the note when a button is held down, irrespective of whether the bellows are blowing or sucking. Then there is the Anglo-German concertina, often abbreviated to 'Anglo', which produces two notes from each button, one on press and one an draw. Both have hexagonal end pieces where the buttons are set joined by a folded leather bellows.

The English concertina tends to be hard to get hold of and very expensive, a thousand pounds or more for a good second hand and much more new. The Anglo is available in several cheap models most of them made abroad. Prices can be as low as seventy pounds but there is obviously a corresponding drop in quality. The English concertina is fully chromatic whilst the Anglo comes in a couple of keys.

The concertina is essentially a close quarters instrument and needs to be played energetically out of doors say or in competition with its bigger relations the melodeon and accordion.

vii) The Melodeon. The melodeon is based on the same plan as the Anglo- German concertina in that it has separate notes for press and draw. The oblong wooden ends bear one, two or sometimes three rows of buttons on the right hand end for playing the melody and a few buttons on the left hand end which give a rudimentary base accompaniment. Because of its larger and more robust construction it is considerably louder than the concertina, indeed played with feeling it is louder than most instruments. This together with the slightly jerky style of playing make it an excellent instrument for dancing do providing as it does plenty lift and drive, it is, unfortunately somewhat limited when it comes to playing other types of music. Sometimes stops are added to the melodeon so that different voices can be brought in and out, typically an octave above or an octave below what is being played. Straps are normally used to help support the instrument. Prices begin at around two hundred pounds for a starter melodeon and can go up to several thousands for bigger models.

viii) The Piano Accordion. The piano accordion is probably the most familiar of all the free reed family, underneath the right hand is a piano style keyboard 'while under the left is a series of buttons designed to give a wide range of base chords. It is a very versatile instrument in the hands of a skilled player but somehow seems doomed to produce a rather woolly sound a lot of the time lacking the pronounced rhythmic emphasis of the melodeon. It is the largest of its family and some of the more comprehensive instruments take a lot of carrying around. The cost of one can vary from around a couple of hundred pounds for a student model to several thousand for a big professional model. It could well be the instrument to choose for somebody brought up on the piano who now wants something more portable  for playing for a dance group.

ix) Percussion. There is nothing in English tradition to compare with the virtuoso playing of the Irish single headed drum the bodhran on which complex rhythms are beaten with a double headed stick. However, there are a number of percussion instruments that can be played to good effect as part of an ensemble or to back up a solo instrument. Options include: drums of various kinds ranging from a full, and very expensive kit as might be played with a dance band that had electric leanings to a single snare or bass drum that are more portable; tambourines and shakers and rattlers of other kinds including morris bells; spoons or bones for clicking together and even the triangle. Even such comparatively simple instruments as the tambourine and triangle can, in the right hands, carry the music along.

x) The Guitar. Although some iron fingered individuals, like Martin Carthy have played morris music on the strings of a guitar it is not really something that can be recommended. In the folk world the guitar is used primarily as an accompaniment either to the voice in the case of the acoustic guitar or to the other instruments in a band with electric guitars especially the bass. Prices vary enormously from tens to thousands of pounds but in the case of a very cheap guitar you almost certainly get exactly what you pay for. There was a time when scarcely anyone would even consider getting up to sing without a guitar clasped to their chest, however, over the last few years it seems to have lost its total dominance and made way, at least in part, or more interesting accompaniments like the harmonium, double base or psaltery.

Although coming from different cultural traditions both the banjo and the mandolin have found a place for themselves in folk music. The banjo's repertoire is mainly drawn from American popular music although it can make an effective rhythmical backing instrument for many traditional English dance tunes. The mandolin is much used for fingering fast jigs and reels usually with an Irish flavour.

xi) The Violin or Fiddle. The violin is one of the world's most flexible and expressive instruments and this is reflected by the fact that of all these 'folk' instruments it is the hardest to master and play really well, but having done that you can play practically anything on it from lightening fast jigs to heart rending accompaniments to tragic ballads to powerful morris music. English folk fiddle playing has in the past differed significantly from classical playing, single notes tend to be bowed by single strokes, open strings are played as drones to give the music extra depth when playing say out of doors for dancers, little use is made of vibrato and the grip and stance are frequently all 'wrong'. Most folk players will use wire rather than gut strings for their robustness and fuller sound. Fairly basic mass produced fiddles can be bought for around a hundred pounds but most people tend to buy their instruments second hand.

xii) The Hammered Dulcimer. This was once a pretty popular instrument in some areas of the south and east of England. It has been described as a piano turned inside out. If you enjoy tuning strings this is your instrument. They don't come cheaply and there are not too many of them around although they are instruments that can be usefully home made. The technique of playing with a pair of wooden hammers is similar to that used on a xylophone.

xiii) The Piano. The piano has been included both because it was and in some ways still is one of the most widely taught of all instruments and because nearly all of the early published folk music was in arrangements for piano. Until the guitar took over the piano was the usual instrument for accompanying the solo singer but it never really sounded at home in folk music, there is perhaps something too disciplined and unforgiving about the keyboard in normal hands. Having said that it must be recognised that some inspiring performances have been given using the piano as an almost percussive backing sound.

xiv) Miscellaneous. Ultimately there really are no 'right' instruments for playing folk music, historically people have picked up the instrument that was cheapest or most fashionable and the music changed accordingly. Today many exciting effects have been achieved by using unusual sounds. Many dance bands, for example, are importing brass instruments to add extra 'Oompah' to their sets. There has been over the last fifty years a tremendous revival of interest in medieval music and several instruments like the crumhorn, recorder and medieval bagpipe have been introduced back into folk music. Sometimes other instruments from the orchestra are used like Sue Harris's oboe while other people have brought in folk instruments from other lands like the bombarde from Brittany or the Celtic harp from Ireland. In short if you can play it, and play it well, no matter what it is, there is probably a folk group somewhere who are looking for just that sound.

Buying an instrument.

Many musical instruments, particularly of the more sophisticated kind can. be appallingly expensive. Unless you and your bank manager are set on spending a lot of money on a thousand pound accordion, and providing you haven't been lured by the simpler and cheaper pleasures of the penny whistle ,now retailing at around £5.50, it is worth considering the options open to you.

Having decided on the direction of your musical bent the best thing to begin with is to try and persuade someone to lend you an instrument so that at least you can see if your fingers cover the holes or whether you can get it under your chin. Only after having decided on your compatibility should you consider parting with any cash. You could try going to a well stocked music shop and buying what you want over the counter. New instruments should be unworn and in good mechanical order but you will, of course, be paying full list price with all the various mark ups and overheads written in. If this is the case at least you can console your self with the thought that you have some chance of recompense should things go wrong. On the other hand it may be worth visiting the small corner music shop who will almost certainly have to order what you require and may be willing to negotiate a discount with you, this really means buttering them up first and promising always to buy your strings or whatever from them in the future. There are some establishments which specialize just in folk instruments and are able to offer fairly substantial reductions on list price from the manufacturer because of the volume of business they do in particular lines.

If you want something really unusual like a hammered dulcimer or a set of Northumbrian pipes it is probably best to go directly to the maker who is probably running a one man business from a small workshop or even his home. Addresses of the specialist shops or individual makers can be found in the folk press, either the magazine 'English Dance and Song' or the 'Folk Directory' both published by the E.F.D.S.S. or mostb easily by searching on-line.

The greatest potential money saver of all is buy second hand although this also involves the greatest  risks. It should first be remembered that many folk instruments, say belonging to a morris musician, are subject to a lot of wear and tear and can soon come to the end of their useful lives, of course no instrument is ever past saving but extensive repairs can cost more than a new instrument. Real bargins can be picked up if you are willing and able to scour junk and antique shops but if you are in a hurry it is probably best to go to a specialist dealer in second hand instruments, their reputation should give you some protection. If you are just starting out and know very little about your chosen instrument it is a good idea to try and persuade someone who has some experience to come along with you and advise, this applies also to private sales made through the pages of your local newspaper. With fiddles particularly an 'expert' will be able to tell you that the battered specimen in the showcase with no strings and scuffed varnish is a very fine instrument indeed and will more than repay a little renovation, or else that it has no potential at all. In fact most musicians in the course of their careers end up buying a couple of dud instruments and learn valuable lessons from the experience, however, if you are just starting out it is best to start with the best you can afford.

Collecting Oral Material - Songs and Stories.

Were it not for the efforts of those collectors active during he early years of the century the musical life of this country would be sadly impoverished, they felt they were saving the last remnants of a nearly extinct culture. It comes as some surprise them to learn than almost eighty years on collectors are still active recording different aspects of folk music , dance and drama in this country. It is still possible to collect useful material about the past from older folk and equally important to make observations on current activities that will form the archives of the future. As the notebooks of the pioneering collectors go the work can be arduous and frequently frustrating. Alfred Williams in the introduction to his "Folk Songs of the Upper Thames" published in 1923 describes some of the hardships and rewards:

"The work of collecting songs is laborious and tedious, though it is also interesting and pleasurable. I have everywhere met with much kindness and hospitality, especially amongst the cottagers who possess a real enthusiasthm for songs and works of the intellect...  They are always anxious to provide me with hospitable entertainment . The greater part of the work of collecting the songs must be done at night, and winter is the best time, as the men are then free from their labours after tea. This necessitates some amount of hardship, for one must be prepared to face all kinds of weather, and to go long distances. Some idea of the amount of travel necessary to the work may be gathered from the fact that in nineteen months I cycled more than 13,000 miles. In frost and snow, fogs, rain and on sultry summer nights I have journeyed along the dark roads, and climbed the steep hills bordering the valley, with the bats, the owls, the hares and the foxes."

More recently Michael Pickering tells of his attempts to interview the last surviving singer whose songs were collected earlier in the century by Janet Blunt. She refused to see him on more than one occasion saying that she did not want to be bothered with the past, when she died her unique fund of knowledge was lost forever. How then does the modern collector go about their business and how can a novice get involved?

The first step is to decide what it is you are really after. As we now know to our cost just noting down the notes and words of a song is a bit of a dead end, to make sense of the song or story or play or any thing else the researcher needs plenty of background information. In a sense what you are collecting is people, not words or notes, most of the early collectors never grasped this which is why there is such an enormous question mark over much of their work today. Perhaps the easiest way to ensure that your work says off on the right foot and has some definite point to it, is to join one of the many local history groups that are investigating the recent past through the reminiscences and memories of older members of the community. The folklore is but one aspect of the endlessly rich and varied pattern of the past that you are trying to untangle so you may find yourself part of a project that is designed to recover all sorts of information, not just the song you had been after. This is very good discipline and will do much to stop the beginner plunging off down blind alleys that lead nowhere really useful. Topics like joining up during the Second World War or life in the pre-privatisation railways offer scope for a detailed follow up of a 'folk' interest in conjunction with a wider study. Working with a group which will presumably be lead by an experienced historian will give you some insight into the many checks and balances that have to be built into valid historical research
Once you have your aims and objectives sorted out you will be able to plan your first expedition.
i) Preparation. Having fixed some of the boundaries of your research it is essential to do as much background reading as you can, one of the arts of collecting lies in knowing what are the right questions to ask and this can only come from knowing your subject. If you want to know about t he extent of folk singing amongst the domestic staff of a large Edwardian country house you will need to know something about the parlour maids day before you can make sense of their leisure time. You should also assemble a collecting kit comprising' of a notebook, plenty of pens and pencils, a portable tape recorder, a camera and a pack of reference materials for stimulating discussion; old photographs, domestic articles, old newspapers, clothing or even musical instruments if you think they could be useful.

ii) Introductions. The hardest thing of all is actually finding the right people to talk to. An established project will probably already have sources of information 'on tap' but even they had to start somewhere. In the old days apparently it was easy, the collector would park his bike outside some lonely village pub, stroll in and start buying drinks and soon found himself chatting to the last surviving member of the village's morris team. Well, perhaps it wasn't quite that easy but certainly circumstances have changed today. Although there are more octogenarians around few of them are to be found in the back room of the local pub. This is not to decry the public house as a source of informants, everyone could be potentially helpful, either in their own right or as in introduction to someone else they know. Conversation with the locals can be a great source of insight and information but don't expect it to happen all at once, the cardinal rule is take your time and get to know people. In fact the best place to begin, for this very reason, is in your own locality with people you know, your elderly relations perhaps or even yourself! It is a really useful exercise to sit down and recall everything you can about your school days for example, national service, the first radio or television programmes you can remember, speak your memories into the recorder or write them down, you never know they could be the beginnings of an autobiography!

If you have to start completely 'cold' with no contacts at all there are various ways of getting started. An advert or notice in the press will sometimes attract attention1even better is to persuade the editor that your work merits a feature article in his next edition, many local papers are only too pleased to be approached in this way with interesting material. Visits to old people's homes or clubs can prove useful, people are normally keen to talk about themselves and once their interest in a particular topic has been awakened they are often able to refer you on to someone else who knows much more about than they do.

iii) Interview Techniques. Having made a contact and arranged an interview it is important that one should go about it in the right way. You do not go to a person for information the way you would go to a newspaper or reference book, if possible the first meeting should be a mainly social occasion, you can introduce yourself and let them know, in general terms, what your interest is. The conversation may then flow naturally along useful lines or it may not, no matter, arrange your next meeting and make it clear that you would like to discuss particular questions, explain what steps you will be taking to record the conversation and gain their approval.

Many people are quite happy to chat away in the presence of the familiar cassette tape recorder which is, of course, the  best medium for recording, preserving not only every word but also details of accent and intonation. Some subjects, especially amongst the elderly are inhibited or even upset by the use of a microphone in which case it will either be necessary to make written notes as you go along or in some cases write up the interview immediately afterwards.

At the second meeting you can, hopefully, really get down to business. It is helpful to have written down, at least in outline, details of the matters you wish to bring up and the questions you want to ask. It is important that your session does not come to resemble an interrogation, with a little tact and sensitivity the conversation can be steered round towards the areas that interest you and queries inserted into it. Too detailed a questioning will lead your informant into the trap that caught many of the early folk song collectors out, that of giving the questioner the information they think he wants, possibly exaggerating or distorting the truth for good effect and suppressing potentially useful material because they feel it is outside the range of the researcher’s interests. Naturally account also has to be taken of the natural human 'weaknesses’ that are present whenever we tell someone else a story. Most collecting encounters will be comparatively brief affairs and hopefully pleasant ones some of which may develop into life long friendships.

So far we have considered just the collection of the spoken word, should you be fortunate enough to come across someone who may be able to sing, play or dance for you the situation becomes much more complex. Picking up all the subtleties of an unaccompanied song or a piece of  fiddle music calls ideally, for a recording system rather more sophisticated than the portable cassette recorder from the cheap end of the market, you may need to borrow equipment or call in outside help. The best way to record any performance, especially of dance is on a digital video . Dance steps can, like music, be recorded using a system of notation but it is on the whole a specialist business. If you do come across something really worthwhile you could get in touch with the E.F.D.S.S. who might be able to help you contact a more experienced researcher for help and advice.

iv) Following up. After your first working meeting the first step is to make a transcription of any recording or notes you may have made. You can then check details against other published sources, newspapers for example for corroboration of important dates, church registers and Somerset House for family details. If you have a mass of names and dates and laces which are likely to be referred to again or by other informants then it is useful to begin compiling a card index or a computer based database. Having completed this initial assessment of material it should then be typed out with the transcription accompanied by whatever explanatory notes are relevant. Important tapes should be copied and manuscripts duplicated. In addition to these records of field work there will presumably be at some stage a report which attempts to give a general account of the subject you are studying, synthesised from a variety of collected sources. Research of any kind is utterly futile unless it is 'published' in one way or another. If you feel that your work is of especially high quality or of unusual interest then you may be able to find a commercially produced journal that will publish it. Articles of general interest can be submitted to the magazine "English Dance and Song" while more academic pieces are printed in the E.F.D.S.S. s Journal. There are also many county or regional based 'Proceedings',' Transactions' or 'Newsletters' catering for historical subjects. If all else fails you should 'publish' yourself by making several copies of your typescript and then offering copies to your local library, museum or county record office. The Ralph Vaughan Williams Memorial library at Cecil Sharp House holds a lot of archive material and some published work in manuscript form, again if you have something you feel is particularly significant they may be interested in a copy. Finally the option available to everyone these days is to put your work on-line. It is vitally important not to work in a vacuum, one the one hand you may be duplicating work that has already been done and on the other if you are onto something original other worker's efforts may give you useful insights into your own.

v) Other kinds of collecting. There is vital work to be done not only in salvaging the record of the past but also in contributing. towards the record of tomorrow. An account of a week spent following round a locally based rock band may not thrill the worthies of your historical society but in collecting and preserving material of this kind you are laying up a treasure for generations of social scientists, historians and even folk-lore specialists that are to come. Logbooks or scrapbooks about the local morris team including details not only about bookings and dances but also about the occupations of the dancers, the way practices are run and events at the A.G.M. are potentially valuable documents when the story of the folk revival ultimately comes to be written.

Collecting of a kind can be carried on through the medium of other manuscript material and printed material. Old newspapers have been studied to good effect for details about old customs, given the vast numbers of local papers published in the last century there is still an enormous scope for original research. Also from the Victorian era come quantities of topographical literature, much of it unpublished, dealing with the history of this village or that town, frequently in great detail.

Some people collect in the sense of gathering material for their own use as performers of folk music. A repertoire can be built up in a number of ways. One of the best is simply to listen to others singing, either live or on record and pick things up by ear in the time honoured manner. You can maintain direct links with the traditional past by listening to some of the historic recordings of traditional musicians that are on the market. Other people prefer to turn to published books or magazines for their choice of songs or tunes, some musicians have mined the rich seam of music found in tune books of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that are preserved  in libraries. Many performers prefer to specialise in some particular aspect of traditional or popular music like sea shanties, Victorian parlour songs, ballads or songs from a certain region while others favour a more eclectic approach. Whatever the case the important thing is to develop a repertoire that is personally satisfying and publically will be entertaining.


Folk music seems to be a bit of a crossroads today, there are still plenty of folk clubs around which offer a platform for the singer of traditional or not so traditional songs, although perhaps not so many as there once were. The ‘giants' of folk-rock who performed in bands like Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span are still around but something of the old excitement has gone, so what are the new avenues for development? Many 'folk' musicians are looking in new directions for their inspiration, to the Cajun music of Louisiana, to the Blues of the twenties and thirties and back to mainstream rock music. 'New' instruments have provided fresh starting, points, a decade or so ago it was reproduction medieval instruments, today it is the sound of brass. One musician, Ashley Hutchings, has been responsible for finding new ways for popular music from the past to be used in modern theatrical productions, especially at the National Theatre. The last ten years has also seen the arrival of many new folk dance bands, most of them amateurs working in a given area with a musical line up that owes more to the Beatles than to Cecil Sharp. The rift that exists between many of these new groups, who play mainly to Parent Teacher Associations or Sports and Social clubs, and some of the’ older' bands normally associated with the E.F.D.S.S. is so great that the two have almost become totally separate traditions. The Society has been indulging in some soul searching to try and determine what can be done to bring the many thousands who enjoy playing and dancing to the 'electric' style of music under its umbrella without alienating those amongst its members who cling to a more sedate past. There is a fear that the second wave of the folk revival is running out of steam without really having made much of an impact. Today the real thrust of popular music is being carried on the shoulders of those bands who are the lineal descendants of traditional music through 'punk' music, rock and roll, skiffle, the blues, and 'American folk song, just pick the loudest, most discordant and totally offensive group you can think of, they are the ones!

UNIT FIVE - Feasts and Festivals


We have already seen many of the different ways in which 'folk' have come together to celebrate certain seasonal events. In addition to the happenings on May Day there were festivals of various types held at Midsummer, on the completion of harvest, at Christmas and at Easter and on a selection of other 'red letter' days throughout the year. There were also celebrations of such 'moveable' feasts as weddings, coronations, jubilees and popular victories either in a political or military sense, all of which gave the populace an opportunity to set aside some of their everyday cares and enjoy themselves. They needed for preference plenty of good food, lots to drink, music and dancing, good company and the chance for couples to slip away occasionally to be on their own.

The safe completion of harvest has always been an occasion for feasting and festivities. Since the mid-nineteenth century when the Reverend R.  S. Hawker, vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall revived an old service of thanksgiving for Lammas day, August 1st, the harvest festival has been regarded as a church event which has also found its way into schools. Whilst the celebrations themselves are today basically Christian in nature clearly the urge to rejoice on the successful completion of the harvest has been with us as long as people have needed to store sufficient food to survive the long cold winters of the temperate climate. There is little evidence to indicate the exact form these early and no doubt 'pagan' celebrations took, however,  in the last century great ceremony was attached to, for example, the carrying home of the last sheaf of corn. The actual cutting of the last of the standing corn would be carried out with great care, sometimes all the reapers would stand around in a circle and hurl their knives at once. Then someone would take the corn and would either bind it together to make a 'Maiden' decorated with plaits and possibly a 'gown' or they would weave it into a 'Knack' or 'Neck'. These could then be carried aloft and placed onto of the final wagon load of sheaves to be carried back to the barns. Some of the corn was further plaited either as love tokens or favours to be given to a sweet heart or into ornamental shapes for hanging at home and bring good luck.

The day would close with a harvest supper frequently staged and financed by the local landowner who had after all most to profit by a good harvest. Such was the party given by Bathsheba Troy in Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd":

"Tufts and Garlands of green foliage decorated the walls beams and extemporised chandeliers and immediately opposite a rostrum had been erected bearing a table and chairs. There sat three fiddlers and beside them stood a frantic man, with his hair on end, perspiration streaming down his cheeks and a tambourine quivering in his hand.”

- and of course there was food:

"What a feast it was. Such a bustling in the farm house kitchen for days before hand; such a boiling of hams and roasting of sirloins; such a stacking of plum puddings made by the Christmas recipe; such a tapping of eighteen gallon casks and baking of plum loaves...  Laura's father used to say that the farmer paid his men starvation wage all the year and thought he made it up to them by giving them that one good meal. “

from Flora Thompson' s "Larkrise to Candleford"

Parties like these were sometimes broken up by intervals either for entertainment by individual singers or dancers or else for social dancing for all to join. Individual performances by dancers included morris jigs which were routines based on the normal morris step but often incorporating something special in the way of stepping. Closely related was the 'Baccapipes' jig, another solo dance using careful stepping over a pair of crossed clay pipes and the Broom dance where an ordinary broom was danced over and then picked up and twirled in the air. Other dances concentrated rhythmical stepping either in ordinary shoes or in clogs from which grew the clog dancing that was a feature of English music hall and the tap dancing that was popular in the 'Top Hat and Tails' style of musical of the thirties and forties. These individual displays of skill were not only called for to enliven social gatherings but were developed into competitive 'sports' in the case of step and clog dancing in fact it is still possible today to become the world clog dancing champion.

There would also be dancing for everybody to join in, purely for the sake of enjoyment, although some may have had more dubious motives...

"Dancing is practised to make manifest whether lovers are in good health and sound in all their limbs" from "

Orchesographie" 1589.

Social dancing for whatever reason has been a source of pleasure for all classes of people for many centuries, as far as the dances of the common folk are concerned their history goes back at least as far as the MiddIe Ages when linked chain dances and circle dances were popular for 'as many as will', dancing was a group activity rather than something that people paired up for. At some time in the late fifteenth century a new fashion arose for dancing in couples which lead to behaviour that was later to bring down the wrath of the puritan clerics:

"Dancing is the vilest vice of all, and truly it cannot be easily said what mischiefs the sight and the hearing do receive hereby, which afterwards be the causes of communication and embracing. They dance with disordinate gestures, and with monstrous thumping of the feet, to pleasant sounds, to wanton songs, to dishonest verses. Maidens and matrons are groped and handled with unchaste hands… "
John Northbrooke.

Dancing of this kind is familiar to us from the examples in the paintings of artists like Peter Bruegal (C.1525 - 1569) which capture country dances in full flight and abandon. The Elizabethan period also demonstrates the link that was to continue down the centuries between folk dance and fashionable dance. Country dances became 'all the rage' at the Elizabethan court, initially it seems as a spectator sport and later, after a little polishing, as something the nobility were expected to be proficient in. As one might expect the process worked in the reverse direction and something of the restraint of court dancing rubbed off on folk dance.

Dancing was again frowned on during the period of the English Commonwealth in the seventeenth century but this did not prevent John Playford publishing on of the first and certainly the best of the early collections of country dances in his "The English Dancing Master" of 1651. This was followed by a whole series of similar manuals which together with the activities of itinerant dancing masters did much to popularize country dancing amongst those classes who would not normally associate themselves with the peasantry and their entertainment. The eighteenth century saw a further proliferation of the English country dance as they swept the fashionable salons and ballrooms of Europe. In the nineteenth century the Continent retaliated by exporting a whole series of dances that were themselves largely based on folk dance, the waltz , polka, mazurka, and so on, dances that were to dominate the dance floor until the coming of new dance styles from America in the twentieth century.

Meanwhile country people and to a certain extent the urban working classes were enjoying their dancing much as they always had done , dances were often pursued with determination and endurance, the figures were simple but enlivened by vigorous stepping

"As to the merits of Soldiers Joy there cannot be, and never were, two opinions... this melody at the end of three quarters of an hour of thunderous footing still possesses more simulative properties for the heel and toe than the majority of other dances at their last opening."

Thomas Hardy - "Far from the Madding Crowd"

Something of the enjoyment gained from country dancing by the teeming population of Victorian London is captured in this description of the dancing both at Greenwich Fair by Charles Dickens in "Sketches by Boz" (1837):

"There is no master of ceremonies in this artificial Eden - all is primitive, reserved and unstudied. The dust is blinding, the heat insupportable, the company somewhat noisy and in the highest spirits possible...  The dancing itself beggars description - every figure lasts an hour and the ladies bounce up and down with a degree of spirit that is quite indescribable… the gentlemen, they stamp their feet against the ground, every time 'hands four round' begins go down the middle and up again, with cigars in their mouths and silk handkerchiefs in their hands, and whirl their partners round, nothing loath, scrambling and falling, and embracing, and knocking up against the other couples until they are fairly tired out and can move no longer."

By the end of the nineteenth century even these 'simple' pleasures had begun to pall - when Cecil Sharp began to collect country dances it was commonly believed that they were virtually all but extinct. Sharp thought he knew why:

"The state schools, the railways are causes which have lead to the depopulation of the country villages and are rapidly changing, some would say debasing the taste of the past generations of those that is, whose ancestors were both guardians of our traditional music and natural pastimes. In the village of today the polka, waltz and quadrille are steadily displacing the old time country dances and jigs, just as tawdry ballads and strident street songs of the town are no less surely exterminating the folk song... “

"Country Dance Book' Part One (1909).

Fortunately the situation was not quite as critical as he imagined, dances continue to be held in some parts of the country on the same social footing, and in some cases the same tunes and dances, as a century ago. Their efforts to revive what they saw as a vital aspect of national culture lead the early collectors and later the E.F.D.S.S. to publicise and popularise country dancing both the traditional kind and the more stately measures of the rediscovered dancing masters like Playford. Sharp was particularly keen on encouraging the use of folk dance in schools. In retrospect this has been regarded as an unfortunate move contributing much to the belief that folk dance was something inflicted on generally unwilling school children by elderly school mistresses in felt skirts and plimsolls. Subsequent developments did a lot to reinforce this stereotype, demonstrations of dances that were after all meant for participation made people think of folk dance as something really rather dull, dance clubs where the accent was on accuracy and deportment as distinct from having a good time fostered the impression that folk dance was essentially a 'nice' activity, and bands who killed the vital elements of excitement and spontaneity in the music all lead to the much quoted opinion that one should "Make a habit of trying everything at least once except incest and folk dancing." Having said that despite widespread popular misconception the championing of folk dance did lead to, many thousands of people taking an interest in the subject to such an extent that in the twenties it could be described as a 'craze'. The revival also lead to the concept of festival being given a new dimension for those interested in folk. Days, weekends and eventually weeks were organised where interested groups could come together to perform for each other and the public as well as having training sessions and meeting socially.

How to Run a Barn Dance.

Today many organisations such as sports and social clubs, P.T.A.s and political or charitable bodies recreate something of the flavour of the old time village dance by booking a folk dance band for an evening's entertainment. A barn dance or Ceilidh as they are sometimes called leave many advantages over the formal dinner dance and the totally informal 'disco'. Not only are the dancers suitable for all age ranges but the comparative simplicity of the dances means that in the hands of a good caller even the most inexperienced of dancers can enjoy themselves on the dance floor. The variety of dances are such that there should be some thing to satisfy those with a lot of energy to burn off as well as the ones who prefer something less energetic.

The first step is to find a venue for the dance and book a band. For many community based organisations this is not problem because they will already have their own premises available. If you are looking round for a hall a few points need bearing in mind. The room needs to be fairly spacious; remembering that sixty people in ten sets of six for a folk dance take up far more room than sixty people jogging about to disco music. Often there are regulations about the maximum number of people permitted on the premises for safety reasons and sound limiters may be fitted to power supplies to limit the noise.
It helps if the ceiling is high, to dissipate the noise and heat, and the floor wooden, it can be very difficult to get going on say a concrete floor which puts no spring into the dancers steps at all.

Most people would not even consider holding a dance without a bar so if one is not available on the site you will have to see about getting a licence and finding someone to run the bar. This can be a very time consuming process unless you know someone like a publican who is prepared to take the job on. There is little profit for them to be made out of the average folk dance so if they are not doing it for you as a friend you may have to pay them a little for turning out or guarantee that you purchase so much beer or whatever. Most organisers like to put a break in half way through the evening for food and refreshments to be served although the bar is normally open all the time. Sometimes there is a kitchen at hand where you could prepare your own hot soups, jacket potatoes and so on. Some people like the burden of preparing the food to be taken right off their shoulders by employing' professional caterers to do the job. Some groups organising dances say to raise funds for charity may get a discount on the hiring of a hall others will have to pay full price which can vary enormously but. usually averages out at around ten to twenty pounds an hour.

Having found a venue and made arrangements for the date and time, most dances are held on a Saturday or Friday evening normal hours being from 7.30 or 8.00 to 11.30 or midnight, you should then contact a band. There are some bands who advertise nationally in the folk press or operate through an agent however, in both these cases you may end up paying a large sum for something which could equally well. have been found nearer home. A big 'name' band could well cost you £1000 pounds or more for an evening and they may require travel expenses if their journey is a long one. Local bands on the other hand who specialise in dances for small groups will almost certainly cost you significantly less, around £300. Names and addresses are often available from secretaries of other local organisations who have had barn dances in the past. There are probably three or four bands in your area and by gathering information in this way you may be able to assess their comparative value. If this type of enquiry proves unprofitable you try contacting any folk clubs or dance teams in your vicinity to see if they have any contacts. If all else fails many bands are listed in the E.F.D.S.S.'s directory and you can search the internet

When contacting a band it is important to spell out exactly who you are and what you are expecting, some groups may be reluctant to play for complete beginners while others make a feature of this kind of work. On occasions bands have been booked for barn dances on the mistaken belief that were going to play country and western music so both parties were disappointed. Most bands will lay on a complete evenings entertainment including the music for dancing an M.C. or caller who gives detailed instructions before and during each dance and a variety of songs and tunes to fill intervals between periods of dancing, however some bands come without their own caller and one will have booked separately. Normally a tentative booking is taken over the phone which is then confirmed by the organiser in writing. The band will in turn write back probably nearer the date to confirm arrangements from their end. Some bands rendered cautious from earlier disappointments will send out a written contract for you to sign so they are covered in the event of last minute cancelations or non-payment of fees. Some organisers try and negotiate a reduction in the band's charges on the grounds that the event is for charity. Some bands will agree to this if it is a cause particularly dear to their own hearts but it must be borne in mind that most bands are charging rock bottom prices considering the capital they have to invest in equipment, the distances they are travelling and the hours they are putting in, so do not think too hard of them if they refuse, especially  as most of their work will be for other charitable organisations of one kind or another.

Having made all these preliminary arrangements it is vitally important that the function is to be a success socially and financially that it should be well publicised. If it is a members only event they should all be informed well in advance and reminded at regular intervals. It helps to sell tickets in advance so whatever the weather conditions on the night you have some income pocketed already. If you are relying on attracting in the public as paying guests you will need to work even harder. Posters will need designing printing and fly-posting or placing in local shops and other centres. Many people, because of the cost of commercial printing either do-it-themselves with photocopiers at home or in the office or else make use of the plain paper copying facilities found in many office shops where posters of up to A3 size can be run off at a cost of 30 to 50 pence each. Again someone should try and sell tickets beforehand either by post or perhaps by having them for sale in for example the local music shop. Tickets purchased in advance are often sold at a small discount compared with the cost of tickets sold on the door. Sometimes the local press can be persuaded to feature the forthcoming dance somewhere on their pages and there is, of course, the option of buying advertising space in the papers.

On the evening of the dance somebody will have to be there early to let the band in so they can set up, there may be other early arrivals, people to set up the bar, caterers and so on .The band will need someone on hand to advise on things like power supplies, and discuss matters like the programme. Most dances get off to a slow start so if you have advertised an 8.00p.m. start do not be surprised if the hall doesn’t start to fill up until an hour later. The musicians will probably play some tunes and when the caller feels that enough people are ready they will try to get them on their feet and dancing. This is the most taxing part of any caller's work as there is naturally always some reluctance at first when it comes to joining in.

Each caller has their own technique for starting the ball rolling but is tremendously helpful if a few of the organiser s are about so they can take a lead in getting the first few dances off the ground, from then on the evening will almost run itself. Children are often an asset when it comes to making a start but at the same time their parents should realise the importance of keeping them under control not only for safety's sake, they can come grief under the feet of a set of adults galloping past, but also so everybody can hear and understand the caller’s instructions.

Most modern bands play lively exciting music but some may be over amplified. If the sounds are distorted or just plain noisy don't be afraid of asking them to turn down, You can always make some excuse about he neighbours. If you have a break for food most performers will be glad of the chance to take a rest and share in the refreshments. Few people really appreciate just how gruelling it is to play dance music of this kind for four or so hours. Many organisers will take advantage of the break to sell raffle tickets to raise extra cash. The caller and musicians will expect to be paid, in cash, at the end of the evening. Even if the evening has been run at a loss the money should still be forth coming, after all it is harder to play for an empty room than a full one. All that is left then is the clearing up.

Here is a checklist for ensuring a successful dance:




Date booked for


Times booked for









Media contacted


Run by

Licence applied for



Unlocking and locking

On the door

On the bar


Clearing Up

Doing a complete evening’s entertainment is really a job for the professionals or at least semi-professional as most dance bands are. However, you may want to include a few dances as part of some other event, a harvest supper, a school concert, a village fete in which case the cost of booking a band cannot be justified. The answer is to do it yourself. As with all forms of dancing a 'live' instructor is by far the best so the chances are that enquiries perhaps through the E.F.D.S.S. will unearth someone who is prepared to come along probably with a bunch of CDs under their arm and do some teaching. If for any reason this does not prove practical the following instructions for a few simple English country dances could be quite useful.

How to dance a country dance

The five dances described in this section use the five main formations of English folk dance. They are the 'Circassian Circle' - a circle dance, 'Cumberland Square Eight' - for square sets, 'Grandfather's Clock' - a progressive long ways whole set dance, 'Nottingham Swing' - a progressive long ways duple minor set dance, and 'Pat-a-cake polka' - in a free range version.

Tunes are often interchangeable between dances providing they are of the same length and broadly the same rhythmical character. The tunes normally come in eight bar phrases, two different phrases can be put together to make a complete tune in which case the first eight bars are called the A music and the second eight bars are the B music. Sometimes the A and the B music can be each sixteen bars long. In the past traditional folk dance in England was marked by complex stepping patterns. Today most people use a light skipping step, a lilting walk or a heavy hop step depending on the dance.

i) Circassian Circle - circle dance.

Music: sixteen bar jigs or reels such as 'Davy Nick Nack', 'Bobby Shaftoe' , 'When Johnny Cones Marching Home Again' and 'Football Crazy'.

Couples make one large circle facing inwards, the men with their partners on their right.

A1 (Bars 1-8) All join hands and in towards the middle four steps and back.

B1 (Bars 9-16) Women into the middle and clap on fourth step and back, repeated by men.

A2 (Bars 1 - 8) Swing partners.

B2 (Bars 9 - 16) Promenade (take your partner for a walk) around the circle in an anti-clockwise direction.

This sequence of figures is repeated until everyone has had enough.

ii) Cumberland Square Eight - Square dance.

Music: Sixteen bar jigs such as 'Cock 0' the North I,' A Hundred Pipers' and' My Love is but a Lassie Yet'

There are four couples in each set, in a square formation all facing inwards.

A1 (Bars 1 - 8) Head couples link hands and gallop eight side steps across the set and then back.

A2 (Repeat) Side couples do the same.
B1 (Bars 9 - 16) Head couples join right hands in the middle of the set to make a right hand star and turn, eight steps, in a clockwise direction. Then join left hands and turn back eight steps retiring to place.

B2 (Repeat) Side couples do the same.

A3 (Bars 1 - 8) Head couples join hands in the middle of the set to make a circle of four and circle clockwise (Sometimes dancers form a very tight circle with the men linking arms behind the women's backs. This is called a basket)

A4 (Repeat) Side couples do the same

B3 (Bars 9 - 16) Everybody joins hands to form one large circle and circles clockwise.

B4 (Repeat) Everybody turns and promenades with their partner back to place.

You may then repeat the whole thing as many times as you wish.

iii) Grandfather's Clock - Progressive Long ways whole set dance.

Music: The sixteen bar A and B phrases of the song 'Grandfather's Clock' the last sixteen bar C phrase is not used

Sometimes the basic dance vocabulary can be shuffled around to make 'new' dances to fit particular tunes. This dance was made up for four couples standing in two files with partner facing partner so that the men are all on one side and the women all on the other. The top couples are those in each set who are nearest the music.

A1 (Bars 1 - 8) The lines walk forward to meet then back, twice. (Bars 9 - 16) Couples join right hands and turn clockwise until they are back to place, then they join left hands and turn anti-clockwise back to place again.

B1 (Bars 1 - 8) The top couple swing down the set between the other dancers and take up position at the bottom of the set.

(Bars 9 - 16) Everyone faces their partner and claps their hands, then they clap right hands with their partners, clap their own hands again, claps left hands with their partners, clap their own hands again, clap behind their backs then clap both hands with their partners together.

This can continue for some time with a fresh top couple each time as the old one retires to the bottom of the set.

iv) Nottingham Swing - Progressive Long ways Duple Minor Set Dance.

Music: Any strongly accented sixteen bar tune suitable for a hop step, for example 'Lord of the Dance, Paddy McGinty's Goat' , 'Click go the Shears'.

This dance is for 'as many as will', partner facing partner in two long lines. Couples then group themselves into sets of four, starting with the top four couples nearest the music. Vii thin each group of four the couple nearest the band are the number one couples and the others are the number two couples. Sometimes dancers are asked to join 'hands four from the top', in other words by joining hands in their circles of four they can easily see who are number ones and who are the number twos.

Dancers perform with a strong hop step almost all through the dance.

A1 (Bars 1 - 4) The number one man and the number two lady join together with an elbow grip and turn round in a clockwise direction a couple of times before they return to place.

(Bars 5 - 8) Repeated by the number one lady and the number two man.

B1 (Bars 1 and 2) Number one couples take two side steps down between the number two couples, then two side steps back to place. (Bars 3 and 4) The number one couples cast out and round behind the number two couples then back into the line but now are one place further down the line.

(Bars 5 - 8) All couples swing partners on the spot.

As this sequence is repeated the number one couples move down the set and the number twos move up it. When they reach the bottom of the set number ones stand out of the dance for one turn and then rejoin now as number twos. Similarly when the number twos reach the top of the set they stand out for one turn rejoining as number ones. This will go on until everybody is worn out.

v) Pat-a -cake Polka - Free range couple dance.

Music: 'Nursery rhyme’ tunes like 'This old man’,’ Little Brown Jug' and 'When I First Came to this Land" work well for this dance.

Couples dance round the hall wherever they choose to go. Partners take each other in a ballroom hold.

A1 (Bars 1 - 4) Couples strike the ground with the heels of their leading foot, then with their toes, this heel and toe sequence is repeated and followed by four side steps.
(Bars 5 - 8) Couples face in the other direction and repeat this sequence back in the other direction.

B1 (Bars 1 - 4) Partners clap their right hands together three times, their left hands together three times, both hands together three times and then they clap onto their own knees three times.

(Bars 5 - 8) Couples Polka or skip or shuffle round to find a new place to begin again.

And so it goes on.

There are a number of folk dance groups who practice and even hold dances entirely to recorded music. Of course if live music is utterly unobtainable, bearing in mind that the average school recorder you could with a little practice knock out a few basic tunes, then recordings will have to be used. A CD player with a good quality amplifier and large speakers is the best option although many people will have access to MP3 players where a dedicated playlist can easily be assembled. There are many suitable recordings available from the E.F.D.S.S. and a range of other recording companies.
Initially when learning simple folk dances the accent should be very much on enjoyment, as long as it is possible to work out which direction you are supposed to be moving, you will be able to get through the dance. Once dancers learn to relax and respoind naturally to mthe music the steps will gradually come. It is best to begin each new dance by walking the figures through rather than just l;istening to a lecture on the subject. Having got a feel for the dance it is just as well to launch straight into it with music. It is usually necessary with beginners to call instructions during the course of the dance as well, at least for the first four or five times through. The live musician can be a great aid to successful learning as they can play the tunes through bar by bar to correspond with the figures that are being walked through, in this way everyone can see how the music fits the movements of the dance.

The person who has taken it upon themselves to do the calling must be able to make themselves heard, roaring above the sound of the music and the clatter of feet, not to mention the chatter of excited voices, can be a wearing business. Those who are not blessed with a professional public address system may find they can make do by running a microphone through a music centre, it is sometimes possible to get a voice over effect while the music is actually playing on the machine , otherwise you could always borrow a regular P.A. system.

How to Plait a Corn Dolly.

Each season had its own appropriate decorations. For ordinary folk this consisted of whatever they could find around them in the way of natural materials, wild flowers, foliage and in the autumn, corn. Once the idea of making corn into an image of some kind had evolved it is not difficult to see it developing into a decorative art form in its own right. Different regions produced their own variations of the basic straw plait.

Modern farming techniques have resulted in the abandonment of the long hollow stemmed varieties of wheat necessary for corn dolly making as it is unsuitable for combine harvesting. Kits are available from some craft shops but these are very expensive. The best way to get your hands on the correct variety would be to contact the National Farmers Union or the Guild of Straw Plaiters locally, their addresses are usually to be found in the phone book, from the library or on-line. If this fails some craft magazines carry adverts for suppliers. People with large gardens find it quite easy to grow their own. Varieties to look for are 'Squarehead Master' , Maris Widgeon' and 'Kalibri'

To make a corn dolly you will need the ear and the stem of the corn as far as the first node. This node should be cut off and the outer leaf and remainder of the stem discarded. It is helpful to grade your corn at this stage into three or four different thicknesses, otherwise the dolly will be uneven. If the corn is freshly picked it should be possible to plait it straight away, if it is dry it will need soaking in a shallow bath of cold water for about 45 minutes, before wrapping in a damp towel to stop it drying out while you are working it. Do not soak the corn upright in a bucket as the resulting air bubbles will weaken the stem and cause it to split.

You will need a sharp pair of pointed scissors, raffia and ribbon for decoration. Traditional colours for the ribbons are red green and blue.

i) The Four Straw Plait. Tie four well matched straws together with raffia just below the ears. Hold the ears down between two fingers of your left hand ( if you are right handed) with your palm uppermost. Spread out the four stems as if they were pointing to the four points of the compass. Fold South across to lie parallel with North, then fold North down to take South's place. Fold East over to lie parallel with West, then fold West over to take its place. This can continue until the end of the stems is reached. All four ends are then drawn together and the whole plait twisted round to form a coil or a knot. The stem ends are trimmed and tied in position with raffia. The plait can be decorated with a small bow of thin coloured ribbon.

ii) The Spiral. Spirals can be plaited with five, seven or nine straws although the five straw plait, is the easiest to start with. Tie five well matched straws just below the ears then hold the ears down between two fingers as for the four straw plait. Spread the straws out so that they are pointing outwards in a star shape. Starting, with the straw nearest to you, and travelling round anti-clockwise, fold it over the next two straws. Take the second of these two straws and pass it over the next two and so on. Gradually a square shape will appear in the middle. You can then make the spiral bigger by crossing the next stem over one piece of corn instead of two and lying it parallel to the second one, this is then drawn out and around the next stem and on to lie alongside the one after that. When the spiral is big enough you can decrease it by placing the stems of corn inside the next one rather than lying alongside. When the spiral becomes very tight select the four best stems and plait them as for the four straw plait. This will form a loop to hang the dolly from, the ends being twisted back and tied with raffia before adding the decorative bow of ribbon.

You will need to join pieces of corn to make this shape by inserting the narrow end of the new piece into the end of the old stem. This should be done at a corner so that the next fold covers the joint.

How to Survive a Folk Festival.

Festivals in celebration of many aspects of folk music, song and dance are held largely during the summer months from one end of the country to the other. They are normally advertised well in advance, indeed most are annual events, together with a long list of invited guests and details of other attractions in the way of competitions, exhibitions and workshops. There are often reductions on tickets purchased before hand, most people buying 'season tickets' which will gain admission to all events. As festivals are usually spread over a long weekend and sometimes a whole week most people have to find themselves accommodation. Places in hotels or guest houses can be difficult to find at some of the most popular festivals but many people prefer to camp anyway to save cash. and savour the atmosphere. Free camping is generally made available to season ticket holders. If you are going to camp it is a good idea to arrive as early as possible as there may well be competition for the best spots, either closest to or furthest away from the communal toilets depending on your inclination. Life can be very difficult for those camped next to the morris team who think they can drink more, sing louder and stay up later than anyone else and are determined to prove it, so don't be afraid to pack everything up and move, it is easier than remonstrating with morris men. Generally there are areas set aside for family camping which tend to be quieter.

Most of the big festivals have several things going on simultaneously at venues sometimes a mile or more apart. A timetable and possibly a map will be produced to guide you round the various events and will repay much careful study. There will invariably be some clashes between things you want to see so it is important to work out a list of priorities. The best general advice is not to try and see to much, the over enthusiastic end up confused and exhausted. Workshops are run for beginners to acquire the rudiments of some skill or other from fire eating to clog dancing. These are rarely very rewarding as they tend to be over subscribed and often poorly thought out although they can be a lot of fun if not taken too seriously.

The most valuable thing about the average festival is the opportunity to mingle with and meet people who share a common interest and who may well be prepared to pass on a little of their experience to the new enthusiast.

Today. Many people derive a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from traditional dance, music and song either on a small scale at a village barn dance or as participants at one of the large folk festivals, but as we have seen there are tensions within the folk movement which often come to the surface at gatherings of various kinds. Many male morris dancers have got no time at all for female teams and some members of women's morris sides condemn all men as chauvinists, established folk dance bands are horrified by the raucousness of their modern electric counterparts while they in turn just cannot believe that anything so sedate can possibly be described as dancing, there are groups whose idea of tradition is that the past must be preserved at all costs who have a fundamental disagreement with those who see tradition as an up to the minute living breathing entity. The English Folk Dance and Song Society stands in a rather unenviable position, right in the middle, desperately trying to cater for all view points whilst trying to attract in the thousands of potential members it knows are out there. In a sense this is all very healthy for controversy and debate are evidence of deep feelings and strongly held beliefs, on the other hand perhaps the way forward lies in forgetting arguments about principles and getting on with enjoying the practise.


This calendar has been compiled in order to list, with their dates, many of the customs described in this book together with a number of other events which have not been covered in detail. Most customs that continue to be maintained by church or civic authorities, like Royal Maundy Thursday or the Lord Mayor's Show, have been omitted although they share much in common with 'folk' customs. Also left out are the sort of personal observances that could be classified as superstition rather than as a true community event, even though they might have some sort of seasonal basis like April Fool's Day.


Mari Lwyd - visits houses in South Wales during the first week of the month.

Wassailing - certain villages in the West Country on Twelfth Night.

The Haxey Hood Game - In the hood game played on January 6th by the men of Haxey (Lincolnshire) and its surrounding districts compete for the possession of the 'hood' a long piece of thick rope encased in leather. The game is presided over by a fool and twelve ‘boggans' lead by a’ king boggan’. Events begin with the smoking of the fool who is stood on a stone pedestal and wreathed in smoke from burning straw. The king boggan then throws up the hood and the person catching it must attempt to carry it to his home district represented by a local inn. Rivals try and wrest it from him. If a boggan gains possession the game has to be restarted. Several lesser hoods are played for before the main one which decides which side is the victor. The origins of the game are not clear although it has several parallels with the Shrove Tuesday football matches.

Plough Monday - The Monday after Twelfth Night.


Pancake races - These occur in many places on Shrove Tuesday including Newbury (Berkshire), Northfleet (Kent) and Olney (Buckinghamshire). The last of these involves a race from the market square to the church and is said to date from 1445.

Hurling - On Shrove Tuesday the game of hurling is played in Saint Columb (Cornwall). The game originally took place in the streets and resembled a very haphazard game of football. The small ball was made of cork and covered with silver. It could only be passed by tossing or hurling. The game now takes place in the town's public park.

Football - Once a widespread custom Shrove Tuesday football now takes place at Sedgefield (Durham), Alnwick (Northumberland), Ashbourne (Derbyshire), Atherstone (Warwickshire) and Corfe Castle (Dorset). The game is usually played throughout the village which is divided into two areas. Each area has its own team and goal. The object of the game is to carry the ball into ones own goal by any means available! On occasions teams have to traverse obstacles such as high walls, ploughed fields or even streams and rivers to achieve this end. A slightly different set of rules operates at Atherstone where the people play as individuals and try to retain possession of the ball for themselves. The custom was suppressed in many places on account of rowdyism and the damage caused by the hundred or more players but not before it evolved into modern association football.

Shroving - In many parts of the country Shrove Tuesday was seen as another opportunity to beg from neighbours and groups would go round calling for gifts of pancakes or the ingredients thereof. In places this was accompanied by threats of bombardment with missiles such as stones and broken crockery.


Pace-Egging - Eggs were associated with Easter long before those of the chocolate variety were introduced. People, particularly in the northern counties, went from house to house asking for eggs. In some areas this was accompanied by a Pace-Egg play, closely related to the Christmas mumming play, which presumably enhances the custom by giving greater value for eggs. Yorkshire is a county which boasts several of these plays, examples coming from Midgely, Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd, Heptonstall, Todmorden and Brighouse.

Other egg customs such as egg rolling and egg shackling  (a sort of conkers game played with hard boiled eggs) and egg decorating also take place at Easter.

Britannia Coconut Dancers - Easter Saturday, Bacup (Lancashire)

Bottle kicking and Hare Pie Scrambling - This is an Easter Monday Custom maintained at Halation (Leicestershire). The event begins with the assembled crowd 'scrambling' for pieces of two hare pies which are given by the rector as a condition of his tenancy of a piece of land in the village. Three barrels are the brought out, two containing beer and one empty. The game which follows closely resembles Shrove Tuesday football with the first full barrel replacing the ball. Once this has been won the empty barrel is played for and at the end of the game the final full barrel is taken to the market place and shared by the two teams.

Hock tide - Hock tide on the second Tuesday after Easter was originally a day when collections were made for the church and rents and other dues paid. By the nineteenth century the custom had degenerated into something of a free for all in certain areas with the men capturing the women and only releasing them on payment of a penny or a kiss and vice-versa! Hungerford (Berkshire) still mark the day with a civic festival which retains the element of payment by a kiss.

Morris dancing - Day of dance in Adderbury (Oxfordshire) nearest May Saturday to Saint George's Day.

Hobby Horse Festivals - On May 1st the horses at Padstow and Minehead parade through the streets.

Many other events have been transferred to the May Bank Holiday. Furry Day - Communal dancing takes place in Helston (Cornwall) on May 8th.

Morris dancing - Dancing takes place on the Whitsun Bank Holiday at Bampton (Oxfordshire) and at the Kirtlington Lamb Ale on the first weekend after Whit.

Castleton Garland Ceremony - The procession through the village takes place on May 29th or Oak Apple Day, a name given to commemorate the restoration of Charles II.

Grovely Forest Rights Procession - On Oak Apple Day the villagers of Wishford Magna (Wiltshire) celebrate their right to gather wood by dancing with faggots outside Salisbury Cathedral and stating their claim before the alter. A procession through the village is held upon their return. Many old May day customs such as decorating the houses with greenery and hauling a decorated bough to the church have been preserved at Wishford.


Midsummer Bonfires - Bonfires a lit across Cornwall on Midsummer's Eve. It has been suggested that the many fire festivals found in this country represent the attempts of primitive man to reinforce the strength of the sun at crucial times during the year.

Well Dressing - This occurs on Midsummer's day, June 24th at Hope (Derbyshire) and at other times of the year in other parts of the county. At Tissington it takes place on Ascension Day, at Buxton on the Thursday nearest to Midsummer day and at Dore on old Midsummer's Eve, July 4th. Well dressing has a long history in Derbyshire and demonstrates the importance people placed on having a good water supply. It is felt by some that well dressing is a relic of pagan worship of water spirits. The dressing is a complex craft involving the formation of pictures, usually on a religious subject, using many thousands of flower petals on a base of wet clay above the well.

Banbury Hobby Horse festival – On the first weekend in July hobby horses from across the country gather in this Oxfordshire market town.

Bawming the Thorn - On old Midsummer Day a thorn tree in the village of Appleton Thorn (Cheshire) is decorated with garlands, posies, ribbons and flags and is then danced round by the villagers. This custom is similar to the Oak Apple day event at Aston-on-Clun (Shropshire) where a large Black Poplar is hung with flags fixed to long poles. Both customs are said to have their roots in ancient tree worship.


Rush bearing - The Saddleworth rush cart is taken out on the third weekend of August in Oldham (Lancashire).

Burning of Bartle - Each Saturday nearest to Saint Bartholomew’s Day, August 24th a larger than life sized effigy is paraded around the village of West Witton (Yorkshire) before being taken and burnt on a bonfire.


Horn Dance - The Abbots Bromley horn dancers turn out on the Monday following the first Sunday after September 4th.


Souling - Children in some parts of Cheshire and north Shropshire still, on All Souls’ Day, November 2nd, go round souling. This is another of the begging customs we have already met with in the case of Shroving. Originally soul cakes, put out for the souls of the dead, who were believed to return on this night, were collected as it was widely believed that the giving of these cakes in charity would somehow benefit the departed. Souling plays like the one still performed at Antrobus (Cheshire) seem to be another instance of importing a mummers' play to make the evening's collection more profitable.

Bonfire Night - On November 5th the sky is lit up across the country by the glow from bonfires and the explosion of fireworks. Perhaps the most impressive of the many community organised events is (Sussex) the procession and bonfire display at Lewes. An equally spectacular event takes place at Ottery Saint Mary (Devon) where the men of the village, swathed in damp sacking, run through the streets carrying blazing barrels of tar on their shoulders. When the heat becomes too much the barrel is passed on to another runner and so on until the huge communal bonfire is reached. Although these ceremonies are kept up in the name of an early political terrorist, whose effigy is still burnt, Guy Fawkes, many people believe that the lighting of fires at this time of year is a survival of a pagan custom. The collecting of 'pennies' for the guy seems to have taken the place of the other begging practises.

Turning the Devil's Boulder - The villagers of Shebbear (Devon) believe that a large boulder outside the church must be turned over once a year on November 5th. to the accompaniment of discordant clanging from the church bells, otherwise terrible misfortune would befall the community.


Mumming - Traditional performances of mumming plays can be seen at Bampton on Christmas Eve and Headington on Boxing Day (Oxfordshire). The ‘paper boys' from Marshfield also perform on Boxing Day.

Sword dancing - Christmas is the traditional time for performances of sword dancing. The teams from Handsworth and Grenoside (Yorkshire) are out on Boxing Day.

Tar Barrel procession - On the last night of the year the men of Allendale troop round the streets carrying blazing half barrels on the end of long poles. It is often said that this is a survival of an ancient Celtic fire festival but it has been shown to date from the last century.