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Morris dancing and blacking up

David Cameron posed with a group of Morris dancers with blacked up faces recently. It caused something of a stir.

To be fair to Lola Okolosie she did a good job of analyzing the origins of Morris dancing, including the real historical origins of black face dancing, which has nothing to do with minstrel shows, Billy Cotton or the painful history of British racism.

What was missing, of course, from her account is a significant and important fact; most of the English folk dancing tradition is fake, an artificial synthesis of badly remembered traditions appropriated by performers and enthusiasts for their own purposes.

In that regard the black face Morris tradition is no more authentic than, say, Eric Clapton singing Crossroads with the words changed to reflect his experience, which is, of course, exactly what he does, and does very well, to the point where some black performers acknowledge his skill.

Now, the idea of the prosperous middle classes of Banbury dressing up as black face Morris dancers at a country fair or folk festival is pretty preposterous, when all’s said and done. Divorced from its historical roots, it’s a pantomime, more Goldie Looking Chain than Robert Johnson. Actually I’m being unfair to the Chain there; with their half arsed attempts at knowing self reference and their Newport slang and observations they are at least rooted in some kind of reality.

It’s not alone though. The English folk revival that ran alongside the rise of Morris dancing in the 60s and 70s was not immune to fakery and a casual lazy approach to language that saw lyrics changed or songs cobbled together for nothing more than musical or lyrical effect. Being told by a Steeleye Span fan that I’d got the lyrics of Blackleg Miner wrong because I sang ‘Divn’t gan near the Seghill mine’ was English folk in a nutshell; apparently if the Span sang Cleghill it must be right.

The fakery of the English folk tradition is, of course, a subset of the fakery that is Englishness. Sit in with a Northumberland folk band and you’ll quickly realise that it’s not an easy place for a guitarist in the mainstream English tradition. Even a simple rant has a feel and shape that is not designed for modern instruments, sitting in a tradition of fiddle, pipe and flute playing that doesn’t need heavy handed rhythmic strumming. The English folk canon is cobbled together in a way that makes no sense, and has no central theme or purpose; for every Kathryn Tickell or Rachel Unthank there is a legion of amateur hacks bashing away at a  tune because they like it, or because it’s easy to play, with no more meaning or context than an old man in a grey overcoat whistling a tune as he carries the post along Tinpan Alley.

So any time you hear a politician, or a journalist, talking about English traditions run away quickly dear reader, because they’re making it up as they go along. There is no English tradition that encompasses Cornwall and Northumberland, Shropshire and Norfolk. There is no tradition that explains the beautiful Celtic churches of the coastal north and the Romanized towns of the south. There is no single tradition that can explain all that has happened between the Tweed and the Thames, or the Severn and the Ouse. Any wise historian will write of the English peoples, not the English, and hedge their remarks about with as many caveats as the reader can bear.

Except one tradition, that is. If there is a  defining feature of Englishness it is a tradition of tolerance, of acknowledging our foibles, failings and differences, that made it possible for a place called England to emerge out of its Viking, Saxon and British communities. Of course that uncomfortable birth came complete with an acute awareness of race, of an implied superiority to the neighbours dismissed as foreigners, the Welsh,because, to be blunt, they had lost. An astute historian of the English might note, too, that an awareness of England’s mongrel roots crippled its culture by making it constantly aware and subservient to more powerful traditions elsewhere, so that English literature was dominated by imported European motifs and style. FromBede to Beowulf and onwards, the style reflected that this island was a staging point and refuge, constantly affected by migration and a rootlessness that made its cultural consumers long for something with the stamp of quality. Arthur was a British history cloaked in French poetry and courtly romance; Shakespeare a constant adapter of Italian dramas.

Even the English folk revival was a reflection of the obsession of the post war generation of academics with history and culture from below, the antithesis of what they perceived as the hegemonic culture from above, an analysis imported from continental Europe by a communist movement devoid of any intellectual depth of its own between the wars. Gramsci had, doubtless, many faults, but he must also bear some of the blame for an English folk revival that quickly slipped into pastiche and irrelevance, the same ignorant re-enactment of a forgotten past that gives us the Banbury Morris men posing for a selfie with the Prime Minister, utterly unaware of the irony of re-enacting a tradition of poor people undermining authority and resisting poverty by posing with an authoritarian politician who’s determined to use poverty as a way of making people like him wealthier.


5 comments on “Morris dancing and blacking up

  1. ValeryNorth
    October 17, 2014

    Lots of points I’ve thought about in passing before with my own relation to folk music (especially as a guitarist/singer!)

    I think folk and oral tradition too often get packaged up as something that only happened in “the past”, as though there is now a single, locked, “true” version of what the material is. I prefer to think about how those concepts are still alive and working today. It’s well-documented how traditional songs evolved over time and grew regional variants to suit the needs of time and place, so I don’t think it’s illegitimate for modern singers to adapt the songs for their own and their audiences’ purposes. Even in the age of social media and digital transmission, I think oral tradition continues in some form, with an original performance producing “grandchildren” (I don’t think retweeting a retweet counts, but people giving their own version of a story/performance and re-transmitting in that way).

    On the other hand, the main thrust of your piece seems to be about people who forget where the material originally came from. I’ve seen evidence that several fans of boybands seem to think that those bands wrote the songs they sing cover versions of. It is all too easy for proponents of a “revived tradition” to make a similar error.

    You also point out, I think, the inverse error of believing oneself to be a continuation of a tradition instead of having created a new one that uses some of the same materials. Several groups throughout history seem to have done this, of course.

    All valid points, and lots to think about. Thank you for writing the piece.


    • cartertheblogger
      October 17, 2014

      I think we probably do agree on a lot Valery – especially around the idea of songs being adapted or changed in an organic way. I also think new songs often sit well alongside old songs – Springsteen’s Youngstown for instance fits well alongside Blackleg Miner, and I can think of a few songs that can fit well into a ‘folk’ set.(Chance by Big Country is a huge favourite when played in DADGAD.)

      I also think an honest process of adaptation of other people’s material is entirely valid, so long as it’s an honest process and not an attempt to claim canonical authority.


  2. Pingback: Traditions invented, preserved or living | Valery North - Writer

  3. Pingback: Traditions invented, preserved or living

  4. Pingback: Is performance always artifice? | Valery North - Writer

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This entry was posted on October 17, 2014 by in Uncategorized.

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