Introduction Historical Background
UNIT ONE - Parades and Processions History
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 Today
UNIT TWO – ‘Ceremonial' DanceHistory
How to Perform:Cotswold morris Border morris Molly dancing North West Morris
A Sword dance
Other Dance Traditions
UNIT THREE - Traditional Drama History How to: Put on a Mumming play Today
UNIT FOUR - Traditional Music and Song History
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 History
How to: Run a barn dance Dance country dances Survive a folk festival Calendar of Folk Customs
List of Festivals
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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.
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)
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.”
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
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
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
| Active 1800 - 1900||Active 1900 -1930|
|Cotswold Morris||105 ||5|
|Sword dance (Long)||46||6|
|Sword dance (Rapper)||11||5|
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:
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.
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'.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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'
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 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.
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
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:
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
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.
” 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
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
” 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.
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
Shillings 8 Pence
Horse tails and manes 7 Pence
to stuff boots
3 Shillings 4
Bits with bosses
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:
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
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
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.
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
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.
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:
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
from John Vicar's "A Looking Glass for Malignants"
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.
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.
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’
'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."
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
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.
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
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'.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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'.
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. Today.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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."
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…
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.
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
"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"
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!
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
"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
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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
“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
from the Manning Mss. (Bodleian Library)
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."
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
Both dances are for six dancers who stand in two files of three facing the musician and are numbered:
MUSICIAN Up Down
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:
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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
Circle. All the dancers circle round in a clockwise direction.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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
1 3 1 3 1 3
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.
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
The tune used here is 'Yankee Doodle'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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. "
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.
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
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:
GOATHLAND PLOUGH STOTTS
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
Seymour, Will Martin Geo. & Robert
Featherstone Joe Winspear + Others
NORTH SKELTON TEAM
No regular performances Revived earlier tradition
died out c. 1950
LOFTUS TEAM Present team formed in 1950 still performing regularly.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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 History.
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?
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
"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
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
"In comes I, a suffragette,
Over my shoulder I carry my Clogs."
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?
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.
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
“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?"
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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)
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
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.
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.
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.)
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
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!
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?
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.
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)
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)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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. Today.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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. Today.
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 History.
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
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:
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
from Flora Thompson' s "Larkrise to Candleford"
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 "
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
"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…
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.
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
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
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"
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):
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
"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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Here is a checklist for ensuring a successful dance:
Date booked for
Times booked for
Licence applied for
ON THE NIGHT
Unlocking and locking
On the door
On the bar
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
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
i) Circassian Circle - circle dance.
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.
(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.
(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
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.
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.
Any strongly accented sixteen bar tune suitable for a hop step, for
example 'Lord of the Dance, Paddy McGinty's Goat' , 'Click go the
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.
(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.
(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.
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.
'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.
(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.
(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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. CALENDAR OF FOLK CUSTOMS
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.
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
Plough Monday - The Monday after Twelfth Night.
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
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.
- 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
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
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)
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
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.
other events have been transferred to the May Bank Holiday. Furry Day -
Communal dancing takes place in Helston (Cornwall) on May 8th.
dancing - Dancing takes place on the Whitsun Bank Holiday at Bampton
(Oxfordshire) and at the Kirtlington Lamb Ale on the first weekend
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.
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
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
Banbury Hobby Horse festival – On the first weekend in
July hobby horses from across the country gather in this Oxfordshire
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).
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.