Growing into flamenco

After recent excursions into other genres of musicking around the world (Iran, Uyghur, Hélène Grimaud, Noh, Polish jazz, and so on), it’s always wonderful to come back to the Rito y geografia del cante series on flamenco—what a great achievement it was!

I gave a roundup of my posts on flamenco here. We might also incorporate it into our consideration of improvisation. Many of the programmes in the Rito series focus on bulerías. I’ve already explored this genre in some detail, but the programme Fiesta gitana deserves a separate post.

It features several lengthy sequences in the setting of a bodega: the Utrera sisters (regularly featured in the series), with Miguel Funi, accompanied by Pedro Bacán; the Perrata family, with some fabulous dancing, accompanied by Pedro Peña; Manolo Jero, Juan Morao, Juana la del Pipa, and Tío Borrico; and El Chozas. And for rhythms, don’t miss the sequence (from 21.05) at a cooperage in Jerez (cf. martinetes)!

But most exhilarating is the street scene near the opening (from 1.26) with young flamencos in Seville. How wonderful to grow up in such an environment, surrounded by (and receptive to) the domestic culture of one’s family elders, a world of pain and joy—singing, clapping, dancing, and guitar all one seamless whole. Another genre to consider along with those in Growing into music!

Indeed, the series devoted a whole programme to young flamencos. Niños Cantaores features enchanting vignettes: (from 5.45) Antonio de la Marena singing seguiriyas accompanied by guitarist Moraito, (from 9.36) comments from Carmen Montoya introducing bulerías and rumbas featuring her daughter Carmellila, (from 19.37) Manuel Morao introducing his son Manuel Moreno Pantoja, and (from 26.09) Luisa Peña Soto’s daughter La Macanita, with comments from Camarón (himself part of some great family scenes towards the end of this post):

With the filming matching the majesty of the subject, the point is not stardom but the whole environment of domestic and street culture.

Mary Lou Williams

 

MLW

Laudably, in his fine BBC Radio 3 series Composer of the week Donald Macleod often features female composers and performers (Hildegard of BingenÉlisabeth Jacquet de La GuerreLili Boulanger, Meredith Monk, to name but a few; see also The T-shirt), who have been generally neglected. In jazz, female singers have featured more prominently than female composers and instrumentalists; so last week’s programmes (here) on Mary Lou Williams (1910–81) are all the more welcome.

From the Composer of the week website:

A prolific composer and arranger, she was also a gifted pianist. A master of blues, boogie woogie, stride, swing and be-bop, Williams was quick to absorb the prevailing musical currents in her own music, naturally able to exploit her ability to play anything she heard around her. It is this restless musical curiosity that defines her own compositions, and led her to become friends with and mentor many younger musicians, among them Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Born around 1910 in Atlanta, Georgia, Williams grew up in Pittsburgh, where she had to overcome racial segregation, gender discrimination and the disadvantages of an impoverished family to realise her musical ambitions. Learning to play entirely by ear, she was performing locally by age six. Barely into her teens she was touring professionally as a pianist, living proof that—contrary to the prevailing views—women really could play jazz as well as men. But her artistic success came at some personal cost, with instances of domestic abuse, two divorces, a gambling addiction, and the ongoing strain of trying to support her extended family, all taking its toll over the years. After taking a spiritual path, she spent some years trying to rehabilitate addicted musicians, and developed an interest in writing sacred jazz pieces, and after a long career of some sixty years she took on the mantle of educating future generations about the cultural roots of jazz.

Over the course of the week Donald Macleod follows Mary Lou Williams as her life and musical pathways intertwine, from the early years playing Kansas City swing, to embracing be-bop, religion and modern jazz.

When she was around three years old, sitting on her mother’s lap as she played the harmonium, suddenly Mary Lou Williams reached up and replicated exactly what she’d just heard her mother do. It was a defining moment. Williams’ future had just been decided, and in her own words, “I never left the piano after that.”

MLW
The Composer of the week survey features a variety of fine music, with her style constantly evolving. Programme 4, “Music for the soul”, explores her spiritual epiphany—complementing that of John and Alice Coltrane—with works such as Hymn to St Martin de Porres and Mary Lou’s Mass—note the 1964 Folkways album Black Christ of the Andes. And here’s a Greatest Hits album:

See also the documentary Mary Lou Williams: the lady who swings the band (Carol Bash, 2015)—trailer here:

 

Meredith Monk

MM

Pursuing my New York theme, another great female composer on the splendid T-shirt is Meredith Monk (b.1942).

Donald Macleod’s ever-engaging coverage on BBC Radio 3’s Composers of the week makes a useful introduction; see also this appreciation from Tom Service. Here’s an extensive playlist:

Some tracks I like:

Porch (1970):

Songs of ascension (2008):

Hocket (1990) (cf. here):

Here’s a playlist for her opera Atlas (1991):

Monk’s sound world has affinities not only with minimalism (cf. here, and here) but with folk and early music. Apart from music, theatre, and dance, her work in film is also striking. Here’s an excerpt from Book of days (1988):

And to complement my Halloween post, here’s Scared song (1986):

I love the way New York (and indeed London) has room for this kind of thing alongside Blondie, Madonnapunk, and so on—genre-bending, always dissolving boundaries.

Some remarkable female vocalists feature prominently in my Playlist of songs, such as Nina Hagen, Barbara Hannigan and Enza Pagliara.

 

 

Two guttural vocalists

While Private passions is generally more satisfying (see e.g. the contributions of Philippe Sands, Tanita Tikaram, and Vesna Goldsworthy), episodes from Desert island discs led me to two remarkable vocalists. [Note: author’s source for popular culture appears to derive almost entirely from the demure echelons of the BBC—Ed.]

Gary Kasparov’s selection led me to the Russian actor and singer Vladimir Vysotsky (1938–90):

WOW. As the wiki article comments:

With his songs—in effect, miniature theatrical dramatizations (usually with a protagonist and full of dialogues), Vysotsky instantly achieved such level of credibility that real life former prisoners, war veterans, boxers, footballers refused to believe that the author himself had never served his time in prisons and labor camps, or fought in the War, or been a boxing/football professional.

How could the Soviet system encompass such alternative performance culture, when nothing remotely so challenging emerged in China until after the demise of Maoism? This playlist contains many searing songs from him. Just as Nina Hagen makes me want to work on my German, Visotsky makes me want to learn Russian.

Meanwhile I’m grateful to the brilliant Elif Shafak for introducing me to the Canadian singer Alissa White-Gluz with the Swedish “melodic death metal” band (another instance of the subtle taxonomy of popular music!) Arch enemy:

More material here for Voices of the world

Northern soul 北靈

YSR

Inspired by Detroit 67, I’ve been reading

  • Stuart Cosgrove, Young soul rebels: a personal history of northern soul (2016).

In all kinds of wonderful ways, this book does my head in. [1]

Quite rightly, devotees of northern soul will be underwhelmed if I describe it as a diachronic ethnography based on participant observation—which is just what it is, like some of the great works of ethnomusicology…

Cosgrove captures the buzz of his addiction:

Saturday passed slowly as I browsed around local market stalls. The night slowly fell and we walked through the backstreets of Stoke along cobbled terraces. The army of leather feet resonated like a drum solo, building percussion in our speeding heads and raising the adrenaline of anticipation. A swell of people hung by the door of what looked like a wartime cinema, and a blackout curtain seemed to have closed across the north of England. It was virtually impossible to make out faces or detail; everything was sound. A pounding noise escaped through the doorway and the wild screeching sound of saxophones pushed through the fire escapes, desperate for air. We paid at the ticket booth, but even in the foyer, an intense heat much like an industrial oven scorched through the thick aggressive air, and the noise was so pure, so fearless and so commanding, it dragged you inwards into a scrum of lurching bodies: hot, wet, and demonic. This was in every respect the Devil’s music, and I had travelled hundreds of miles from home to sip with the deranged serpents that slithered so gracefully on the floor. There was no going back. No music later in life would ever touch its uniqueness, no rock concert could match its energy, and no rave could come close to its latent illegality. This was northern soul: the reason they invented youth.

Themes
Of all the diverse tribes of popular music, this scene is just as alien to me (and, I surmise, to Alan Bennett) as the spirit mediums of Guangxi are to a scholar trained at a Beijing conservatoire (for China, I broach the issue of insider/outsider status here, here, and here).

Ethnomusicologists like Nettl and Small highlight music as a social activity, and McClary valorizes the physical, bodily response to music as a caveat to the cerebral, disembodied, “autonomous” bias of WAM.

Basic to the northern soul experience were the all-nighters hosted by clubs throughout the north. They may evoke the “red-hot sociality” of festivals worldwide; but such club scenes also broaden our picture, in that live music is subsidiary. At the heart of northern soul was live dancing, athletic and technical—amazing dancers like car mechanic Frankie “Booper” New, at the Torch:

It was as if NASA had invented a device that could drill into the surface of the moon, and the device was a sixteen-stone guy from Widnes.

Some visiting live bands made memorable appearances, but recorded music was more common. After all, a multitude of bands, often inspired by old blues records, were being formed (not least in the north), creating all kinds of new music; but here the point was not to try and form your own soul band—the fetish for rare Motown discs was sacred. Nor did club-goers care to keep pace with the ever-changing tastes of black Americans, for whom both blues and soul were mere staging posts in a constantly evolving scene.

Thus DJing assumed a crucial role (akin to that of the conductor?), with fanatical, driven DJs like Ian Levine and Ian Dewhirst. Another basic element was the amphetamine scene. While not hesitating to depict its squalor (the Wigan toilets “resembling a war zone”), Cosgrove naturally refrains from moralistic prurience. Andy Wilson, a northern soul pioneer from Harrogate who spent much of his formative years at Wigan Casino, going on to become senior lecturer in Criminology at Trent University, “is now an expert in drug subcultures. He always was”. A model of participant observation, then.

Obscurity and obsession
Alongside the sweaty hedonism of northern soul, just as important was the craving for obscurity—not just any obscurity, like seeking out early blues, but “rare soul”—rougher, less polished than the mainstream Motown sound. Even the origin of the term “northern soul” itself, commonly attributed to Dave Godin, is somewhat arcane (pp.25–6).

Cosgrove lovingly details the nerdiness of the scene: “compiling lists and recording obscure detail is part of the everyday autism of northern soul”. OCD was rife. He even provides a suitably nerdy Glossary.

One of the cardinal rules of the northern soul scene is a respect for obscurity and those who die young. […] Northern soul cherishes its role as savior of the neglected—rescuing some acts from being almost wholly forgotten while plucking others from semi-obscurity and giving them the status of gods.

Ill-fated singers like Linda Jones and Darrell Banks were idolized. Cosgrove also pays tribute to some of the casualties within northern soul itself.

He notes, and shares, the jihad mentality, “the Hezbollah rituals that defined the scene”:

Eclectic tastes were rarely tolerated on the northern soul scene, which by the mid seventies was hardening into a zealous sect with its own strict rules. […]

One night, a DJ was brought in front of the crowd charged with playing a Bowie record; he was given a stern warning and a second chance, but there was a noisy faction on the committee who wanted him hounded through the streets in sackcloth and then burned at the stake outside H Samuel. I was among that zealous throng and I have not mellowed since.

Northern soul devotees shared a virulent aversion to the mainstream as embodied in Top of the pops; they were creating their own charts. Meanwhile in a parallel universe, Morris dancing was enjoying a revival, and my own nerdy tastes were for Boulez and Zen scriptures. The northern soul collectors remind me rather of scholars poring over the cataloguing systems of the Daoist Canon, or WAM bores who can’t help citing Köchel numbers.

At a certain remove from the quest of Oxbridge academics for neglected Renaissance church music, northern soul addicts were on a different kind of “early music” craze. Trapped in a mythical past, they were also on a constant quest for new material from that past.

Cosgrove notes the importance of rail and road networks (“You can go everywhere from Wigan train station”, as DJ Richard Searling commented), the impact of immigration, and the scene’s distinctive fashion sense. Chapter 7, elegantly titled “Soul not dole” after a Doncaster club, explores the effects of the miners’ strike, with the story of pit closures running in tandem with the high points of northern soul. There’s a cameo for Grimethorpe, whose brass band was to be immortalized in the film Brassed off. And the heyday of northern soul coincided with the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror.

Unlike punk, which was more openly anti-authoritarian, the northern soul scene has often been written about as if it “floated free” from the politics of the day, but the reverse is true. The northern soul scene was rooted in the industrial towns and cities of Britain, which across the arch of time faced unprecedented waves of deindustrialization.

The book has more on the relation with punk:

Britain’s two greatest subcultures had much in common. Both were underground and frequently misunderstood. Northern soul had grown up organically across a period of ten years since the height of the first-generation Mods and was a subculture that was more authentically the product of young people themselves, often hiding from authority, dodging the drug squad and attending self-managed clubs that were only sparsely advertised. Punk was largely contrived and skillfully managed in part by [Malcolm] McLaren, driven by his genuine love of New York garage bands and an opportunistic interest in anarchism and the Situationist movement.

He cites Paul Mason: “we were using the black industrial music of the late sixties to say something about our white industrial lives in the seventies”. I think also of the intriguing Finnish affinity for tango.

Though—like Daoist recluses—the northern soul crowd prided themselves on shunning outside attention, the scene was soon discovered by media moguls like Tony Palmer, whose 1977 film This England: Wigan Casino divided opinion:

Echoing Alan Bennett’s lament, Palmer

added smouldering furnaces, decaying coalfields and derelict canals—overwrought historical imagery that the citizens of Wigan had long since tired of.

But amidst ongoing debate over “purists not tourists”, the Casino soon became a casualty of economic recession.

Cosgrove’s passion for the music is always evident too:

If the beginning of the night was hectic, the end was emotionally more subdued: it was regretful, solemn, almost elegiac. By 1973, it had become established practice that all-nighters would finish with “3 before 8”: these were three soul songs to mark the end of the night, played as the clock reached 8am and the morning light sliced through the skylight windows in the decaying roofs of the Casino.

Discussing them in sequence, he gives pride of place to the second-to-last song in the set, Tobi Legend’s “Time will pass you by”:

Venues
The chapters describe the heydays of the legendary clubs in turn. In the early days they came up against another kind of fundamentalist, James Anderton (“God’s copper”), with his moral crusade to clean up Manchester. The Twisted Wheel there became “the template by which all subsequent northern soul clubs were judged: the intense atmosphere, the rare soul music and the extravagant dancers”. It was succeeded by the Golden Torch Ballroom, a converted cinema in the suitably obscure venue of Tunstall, near Stoke-on-Trent:

The interior of the Torch also told a story of change, not least the collapse of traditional religion and the rise of youth culture. It was a small hall with marble pillars and a balcony overlooking the wooden dance floor. It had started out as a church, before becoming a roller-skating rink and, in the immediate post-war period, morphing into the Little Regent Cinema. Local soul fan and businessman Chris Burton changed its use again and it became a Mod club, and then eventually an all-nighter whose influence stretched across the Potteries, to Lancashire in the north and the Midlands to the south.

Many clubs

aped the patterns of older working-class institutions—electing committees and treasurers, and holding nights in fading workers’ clubs, miners’ welfares and industrial social clubs.

Next the baton was taken by Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca, with their musical policies competing. Describing the rise and fall of seaside venues, their decline complementing the rise of foreign package holidays, Cosgrove gives an evocative portrayal of Blackpool, “a wonderland of donkey rides, kiss-me-quick hats and venereal disease”.

He sings the praises of the all-nighters at the Top of the World in Stafford, a late flourishing of the scene from 1982 to 1986, and serving as a bridge between the warring factions. By now he had moved on to a media career, joining the drift to London—a city pithily described by a friend as “just like Barnsley but with more wankers”. He continued to collect rare soul:

After a few days in Washington DC I had perfected a modus operandi that has served me well over many years in America. Written down on paper, it sounds like the machinations of a serial killer, but here goes…

In Birmingham, Alabama he has an epiphany as he discovers a rare copy of the DC Blossoms’ “Hey Boy” (Shrine, 1966) in an inauspicious-looking store minded by an inscrutable assistant:

For northern soul collectors there is nothing more visceral than a “find”. A sudden surge more emotional than meeting an old friend, more powerful than an away goal, and more satisfying than sex itself. I stared in wonder at the light blue label and the iconic burning Shrine logo. I checked for vinyl cracks and deep scratches, but whatever its wandering history, the disc was virtually pristine and had survived its orphan years with no damage. The paint that had splashed over it like semen on a truck driver’s T-shirt had stained the sleeve, but the record itself was flawless. It was a moment of sheer unadulterated joy. I had an uncontrollable urge to snatch the Kool cigarette from the woman’s hands, kiss her peachy lips, rip off her velour pants and make urgent love to her over the cash register. But sense prevailed. I calmly gave her another dollar bill and waited obediently for my fifty cents change. As she handed me the loose coins, her lips curled into a chubby smile, and she gave me the most generous grin I’d seen in three days in Alabama. It had the look of post-coital ecstasy—the look of true love.

Of course, as he notes, northern soul collectors were far from alone. Such initiatives had

a hundred-year history of collectors and black-music pioneers scouring the backwoods of America, visiting brutal prisons, outdoor chain gangs and hidden rural villages, searching for blues performers and for early recordings. […] Northern soul was not the unique leader I had imagined; it was part of a long legacy of trying to collect and catalogue the very best of the African-American heritage from jazz, to blues, and on to soul.

In 2009, just as Frank Wilson’s “Do I love you” came up for auction,

the National Gallery of Scotland had secured the £50 million it needed to prevent Titian’s 16th-century masterpiece Diana and Actaeon being sold at auction. Fearing that Kenny Burrell’s copy of Frank Wilson would also leave Scotland, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek feature for the Sunday Times arguing that northern soul was as worthy of public investment as high art: “Comparing a soul record to a masterpiece by Titian will seem ludicrous to the uninitiated. But leave aside the mores, prejudices and snob value that separate high art and popular culture, and the strange world of northern soul bears very deep similarities with art. Both are driven by collectors who are fixated by rarity, authenticity and the provenance of their collections. So far, both have also resisted the pressure of recession and the value of collections has either increased or held strong. Words like rare, original and limited edition exist in both communities. Respected dealers existed in both worlds and auctions are a familiar mode of transaction. Art and soul share a culture where fakes, bootlegs and shady attempts to replicate the look of original works are not uncommon.”

Cosgrove mentions the multitude of new underground subcultures, like warehouse parties, the Carolina beach scene, the Chicano low-rider scene, and the rare groove scene in London—where the 100 Club also played a major role.

By the millennium, there was a new and lasting schism within northern soul, the latest division in a series of civil wars: those who wanted to look back to the grand days of the past and saw northern as a revivalist and reunion scene; and those clubs that kept the torch burning and insisted on new discoveries and an upfront music policy. Each new era brought with it ever more demanding clubs. […] Many thousands of people who had drifted away from northern soul returned to swell the ranks of new faces who had discovered the music via the scooter scene and still more who had lasted the journey and never left.

The final chapter, opening with the excellent quote

Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born,

describes how social and digital technology has given the scene a new lease of life—YouTube, Facebook groups (where he notes in particular “I used to Go to Stafford All-Nighters”, a veritable popular history project), Mixcloud, and so on.

For all his fundamentalism, Cosgrove admires the new generation:

Younger and brasher than the survivors on the scene, are passionately engaged in the scene and its origins, but have a healthy disregard for its arcane rules: the chin stroking, the soul police regulations and the grumpy insistence that yesterday was always better. […]

The worldwide web has been kind to northern soul. What was once a scene restricted to cardboard boxes and wooden crates in a few obscure clubs is now a global phenomenon, and the footprint that was restricted to a few hundred miles of the industrial north of England now has worldwide reach.

Popular all-nighters now sprung up in Germany, Spain, and Japan (cf. the punk scene in Beijing).

Fran

Fran Franklin.

As to gender, while many female singers from the Motown heyday were worshipped by aficionados (as long as they weren’t too well-known), there were few female DJs, and we find little portrayal of the lives of female dancers—like the young Pat Wall from Rochdale, an early denizen of the Twisted Wheel:

While swimming, she would imagine the body turn at the end of a length as part of a dance routine and would simulate the northern soul “swallow dive”. She often practised in the kitchen of her mum’s council house, mastering the smooth sliding style across uneven linoleum, and within a matter of weeks she would compete with any of the Twisted Wheel’s young men. Her dance trucks were mesmerising and her unassuming smile, whispering the lyrics as if she were praying, as if there were no greater music in the world, made her stand out in a crowd of older and brasher men.”

Another regular on the scene was none other than Jane Torvill, who described her 1984 Boléro at the 1984 Winter Olympics as “the dance of my life”—but as Cosgrove gleefully observes, “that had already happened nearly ten years earlier on the floor of Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room.”

As the obscure civil war raged, a more benign figure on the scene was Mary Chapman, who hosted events at Cleethorpes Pier—also including a 1976 appearance of the Sex Pistols as the moral panic over punk exploded. And the much-loved Fran Franklin (1961–2014) gives perceptive insights in documentary footage. More recently, female DJs have become important on the scene.

On film
As usual, however evocatively one writes about music (or ritual), it’s still a compromise: silent immobile text can never approach the sensation of the lived experience (cf. China). Among myriad finds on YouTube, following Tony Palmer’s 1977 This England, try

  • Paul Mason’s tribute Northern soul: keeping the faith (BBC, 2013):

  • Northern Soul: living for the weekend (BBC, 2014; some breaks in sound):

Note also Ian Levine’s YouTube channel.

* * *

I’m rather envious that they coined the term northern soul 北靈 before I could use it for the ritual groups of Hebei and Shanxi, but ethnographies like this can inspire us (obscurely, as ever) in documenting pilgrimage networks and temple fairs in China. Echoing northern soul aficionados’ aversion to the mainstream, I essayed an arcane Strictly spinoff here.

And as I write, I also delight in the wondrous Bach orchestral suites in a live broadcast from the Proms, alternating with new compositions inspired by them. Though from an utterly different social milieu, devotees of Bach—whether amateur concert-goers or nerdy professors poring over manuscripts and watermarks—have more in common with the early music movement of the northern soul scene than one might think. Up to a point…

 

[1] Apart from numerous websites, other books on northern soul include

  • David Nowell, The story of northern soul: a definitive history of the dance scene that refuses to die (1999)
  • Elaine Constantine and Gareth Sweeney, Northern soul: an illustrated history (2013, complementing the former’s feature film).

 

 

More Riot grrls

BK

Bikini kill. Photo: Pat Graham.

As an abrasive counterpoint to my recent series of posts on ritual in 1950s’ China, and to follow the setting of Red detachment of women to Bikini kill’s Rebel girl, here’s another fine playlist for the riot grrrl movement (Like I’d Know)—also including tracks from Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, L7, Huggy bear, Sleater-Kinney, The frumpies, Le tigre, The gossip, and Perfect pussy.

SK

Sleater-Kinney. Photo: Bob Berg.

While delighting in all manifestations of the Terpischorean muse, and wonderful as it was for me to be playing Bach and doing fieldwork in rural China, I can’t help feeling I was missing out on a lot. Still, the scene endures: here’s a great playlist of more recent bands (see also here). And Bikini kill are on a reunion tour, with a second gig at Brixton tonight.

Under the punk tag, see e.g. The slits, Nina Hagen, and New musics in Beijing. For such songs within a wider context, see my own playlist.

Ethnography at home: Morris dancing

female dancers

Esperance dancers. Source: EFDSS, via https://frootsmag.com/hoyden-morris.

Why bother traipsing halfway around the world, I hear you ask, when our very own Sceptered Isle offers such potential for pursuing the local ethnography of seasonal ritual?

Our folk culture may be a rich and ever-evolving topic, but Morris dancing has long been a national joke. Here I’ve churlishly suggested it as a suitably disturbing English riposte to the magnificent All-Black haka. I suddenly understand why some Chinese people may initially be reluctant to engage with their folk culture (see e.g. here and here).

Morris dancing comes round every so often as a drôle topic for media coverage—this article by A.A. Gill may not impress academics, but it’s brilliant, evocative, and strangely respectful writing.

I’m reminded of the topic again by a recent BBC4 programme, engagingly titled For folk’s sake.

One could almost mistake the May procession, with its bowery palanquin,
for a rain ritual in Shaanbei.

Now, I take a keen interest in calendrical rituals—indeed, as Easter week approaches, Bach is in store, and it’s a busy season for ritual in China too. But I’m not alone in tending to consign Morris dancing, with its incongruous juxtaposition of hankies, bells, and silly hats with beards and beer, to a long list of embarrassing genteel eccentricities of the English, along with The Archers. But like any social activity performed by Real People it deserves serious study, in the context of social change in England since the Industrial Revolution, and even a preliminary exploration is fascinating. [1]

The wiki entry makes a useful starting point. Whatever the etymological connection between Morris and Moorish, it does seem, Like Life (cf. Stewart Lee), to have come from abroad. It’s part of a group of genres that includes mummers’ plays, sword and stick dances, and so on.

Gender and class
Though there is evidence of female Morris dancers as early as the 16th century, male groups predominated. I’d like to learn more about the 19th-century decline; anyway, by the early 20th century the women who soon became the driving force of Morris learned from surviving male performers. From wiki:

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Lancashire tradition was taken up by sides associated with mills and nonconformist chapels, usually composed of young girls. These lasted until the First World War, after which many mutated into “jazz dancers” [note the cryptic quotes].

Mary NealAfter severe losses in World War One (when some entire village sides were killed) the female dominance increased, with women now teaching men.

In 1895 Mary Neal (1860–1944; website here; see also Lucy Neal’s project and this nice article) founded the Espérance Club, a dressmaking co-operative and club to enrich the lives of young working-class girls in London:

No words can express the passionate longing which I have to bring some of the beautiful things of life within easy reach of the girls who earn their living by the sweat of their brow… If these Clubs are up to the ideal which we have in view, they will be living schools for working women, who will be instrumental in the near future, in altering the conditions of the class they represent.

Cecil Sharp (1859–1924) first experienced Morris at Headington Quarry in 1899. Mary Neal began working with him in 1905, but their outlooks conflicted, and she soon joined the WSPU (for the Espérance’s modern reincarnation, see here). Vic Gammon encapsulates the conflict in his review of Georgina Boyes’s The imagined village culture:

Mary Neal, middle-class reformer, socialist, and suffragette who sees the possibility of reviving folk dance among working-class girls in north London, is defeated by Cecil Sharp, professional musician, Fabian, and misogynist who spread the activity of folk dancing among the young genteel, making vernacular arts fit bourgeois aesthetics.

These clips from 1912 feature the sisters Maud and Helen Karpeles, co-founders of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, as well as Cecil Sharp, and George Butterworth, who died in the Battle of the Somme:

But as in the world of work, male groups soon came to dominate again. The all-male Morris Ring was founded by six revival sides in 1934. And between the wars, for John Eliot Gardiner’s father Rolf “mysticism, misogyny, and Morris dancing formed a coherent whole in which nostalgia was a spur to action”. Whether he would have approved of The Haunted Pencil, with his AfD comrades, I couldn’t possibly comment.

Meanwhile Stella Gibbons and Elisabeth Lutyens took a more cynical view of genteel “folky-wolky” representations of English folk culture (note also Em creeps in with a pie).

Following World War Two, and particularly in the 1960s, there was an explosion of new dance teams, with some women’s or mixed sides. A heated debate emerged over the propriety and even legitimacy of women dancing the Morris; and mainly on the left, critics disputed the method of Sharp’s work as they pondered the perilous concept of “tradition” (as they do). But as in most walks of life, despite bastions of male conservatism, the creative participation of women is again becoming a major driving force, as you can see in this fine article by Elizabeth Kinder.

Boss Morris

Click here for a short clip from Berkhamstead in 1950, with pipe and tabor sadly mute. And this was filmed in Thaxted (“hub of the universe”), c1958—just as collectivization was leading to calamitous famine in China:

All this may seem quaint at any period, but all the more so in the Swinging Sixties. For folk’s sake shows glimpses of a 1966 festival at Thaxted—just as revolution (not least the Cultural Revolution) was in the air, alongside jazz, soul, the Beatles… The Saddleworth rushcart festival features in For folk’s sake—here’s a clip from 2014:

And as with folk traditions in China and worldwide, Morris survives alongside newer genres like punk (for punk in Beijing, see here).

holm

Source: David Holm, Art and ideology in revolutionary China (1991).

Indeed, a survey of the many English villages with teams somewhat resembles our documentation of ritual groups in particular counties of China—or the rich local dance traditions like yangge (among several genres using handkerchiefs and sticks!), Boat on Dry Land, Bamboo Horses, and so on, with their common ritual connections—covered at length in the provincial volumes of the Anthology for dance:

  • Zhongguo minjian wudao jicheng 中国民间舞蹈集成,

with over 30,000 pages there alone, besides all the related material in the volumes for folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, and instrumental music.

Among the main regional Morris traditions are Cotswold, Northwest, Border, and Plough Monday groups in Yorkshire and the east Midlands (all the sides have instructive websites)—and as in China, their styles are often distinctive to individual villages. Four teams claim a continuous tradition predating the revival: Abingdon, Bampton, Headington Quarry, and Chipping Campden. In the 1930s at the important centre of Thaxted, the sinologist Joseph Needham championed Molly dancing.

Only now do I recall that my granddad took me to watch mummers in Wiltshire (at Colerne? Marshfield?). Indeed, his home village of Potterne still has a group. It’s a very blurred childhood memory, by which I seem to have been underwhelmed; but did it sow a seed?

Nutters

The Britannia Coco-nut [2] Dancers of Bacup (“Nutters”; see e.g. this article) have a venerable history that inevitably attracts controversy (no less inevitably, one of the transmitters is called Dick Shufflebottom, who celebrated fifty years of service in 2006). A.A. Gill’s description of the Nutters is classic:

They are small, nervous men. And so they might be, for they are wearing white cotton night bonnets of the sort sported by Victorian maids, decorated with sparse ribbons. Then black polo-neck sweaters, like the Milk Tray man, with a white sash, black knee-breeches, white stockings and black clogs. As if this weren’t enough, someone at some point has said: “What this outfit really needs is a red-and-white-hooped miniskirt.” “Are you sure?” the dancers must have replied. And he was. But it doesn’t finish there. They have black faces, out of which their little bright eyes shine anxiously. On their hands are strapped single castanets. A single castanet is the definition of uselessness. The corresponding castanet is worn on the knee. To say you couldn’t make up the Coco-nutters would be to deny the evidence of your astonished eyes.

The dance begins with each Nutter cocking a hand to his ear to listen to something we human folk can’t catch. They then wag a finger at each other, and they’re off, stamping and circling, occasionally holding bent wands covered with red, white, and blue rosettes that they weave into simple patterns. It’s not pretty and it’s not clever. It is, simply, awe-inspiringly, astonishingly other. Morris men from southern troupes come and watch in slack-jawed silence. Nothing in the civilised world is quite as elementally bizarre and awkwardly compelling as the Coco-nutters of Bacup. What are they for? What were they thinking of? Why do they do these strange, misbegotten, dark little incantations? It’s said that they might have originally been Barbary corsairs who worked in Cornish tin mines and travelled to Lancashire, and that the dance is about listening underground, a sign language of miners. And then there’s all the usual guff about harvest and spring and fecundity, but that doesn’t begin to describe the strangeness of this troupe from the nether folk world.

Do watch the Nutters on YouTube.

Again as in China, the Morris vocabulary is suggestive, with teams, sides, squires, bagmen, fools, beasts. At least England hasn’t yet fallen for the Intangible Cultural Heritage flapdoodle (we have our pride). Still, even without it, contentious arguments about “authenticity” continue to fester. And even now there’s still considerable opposition to admitting women. FFS.

I might be tempted to make the music share the blame. Of course, it is what it is, irrespective of the impertinent tastes of outsiders; but it often seems to endow the proceedings with a twee comfy feel that conflicts with the edgy (“pagan”?!) atmosphere of the dance itself. Once mainly accompanied by pipe and tabor, fiddles and melodeons became more common. The gritty new sounds of great musos like Jon Boden don’t seem so relevant to most Morris sides—though again, see Elizabeth Kinder’s article. I’d love to hear a Bulgarian version—accompanied with suitably complex metres by zurna and davul, relatives of early English pipe and tabor.

For the BBC2 documentary Tribes, predators and me, it was a cute idea to show footage of Morris dancing to tribespeople (click here).

* * *

Of course I’m merely dabbling here. But is this the kind of thing that urban educated Chinese people think I’m doing in their country?

In a way, it is: cultures change, in China as in England. The brief of the ethnographer is the same: to document the whole history, down to today, of local traditions amidst ongoing challenges to community cohesion through social and political change. We both have blind spots about our own cultures, further muddied by patriotic posturing and our reactions against it. It’s not that I can’t see the “value” of Morris, just that I’ve inherited negative associations. While plenty of English writers have debunked the myth of an unspoilt Victorian Merrie England, in China the “living fossils” nostalgia, referring to a Golden Age of much greater antiquity that bears even less relation to rural life there, is still touted by heritage pundits. For the awful cliché of “international cultural exchange”, see here.

And whereas in China I’m keenly aware of major dates in the rural calendar when temple fairs may be held, I’m not alone in being completely estranged from the seasonal rhythms of English life; only Bach cantatas manage to educate me.

This may be a particular issue for the English. In Hungary the táncház revival has become popular; and it would seem natural enough for an American studying old-time music in Appalachia to find continuity when working on China.

The world of Morris and English folk-song culture, like that of Newcastle punks, is no more “home” to me than are the rituals of the Fujian countryside for an educated Chinese from Beijing. But whereas local ritual in China still seems to me an intrinsic component of local life, Morris dancing has long seemed a quaint byway in my whole experience of England. Of course, when pressed, I can quite see this is wrong. OK Guys, I’ll take my culture seriously if you take yours…

Anyway, just think, as you board a rickety bus to a poor Hunan village in search of household Daoist rituals, you could be sitting in a sunny Oxfordshire pub courtyard nursing your pint as you take notes on the magnificent ritual spectacle unfolding before you—complete with its “feudal superstitious colourings” 封建迷信色彩.

 

See also my haiku on Morris dancing. For a roundup of posts on the English at home and abroad, see here; and for more on Heritage movements, here.

 

[1] Useful background includes the research of Vic Gammon; Georgina Boyes, The imagined village culture: culture, ideology and the English folk revival (1993/2010); Trish Winter and Simon Keegan-Phipps, Performing Englishness: identity and politics in a contemporary folk resurgence (2013); numerous publications from the English Folk Dance and Song Society, e.g. here; Theresa Buckland, ” ‘Th’owd pagan dance’: ritual, enchantment, and an enduring intellectual paradigm” (2002). On class, gender, and national identity, see also this (cf. Stewart Lee!). For innovative performance-based studies of clog dancing, see the work of Caroline Radcliffe. For an accessible introduction to the English folk scene, see The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia, and Pacific, “England: folk, roots”, and regular features in Songlines and fRoots.

For further refs. on the wider context, see Helen Myers, “Great Britain”, in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (The New Grove handbooks in music, 1993), pp.129–48. Among many fine compilations of British folk music, note the extensive Topic Records series The voice of the people (here on Spotify).

[2] Pedants’ corner (or is it Pedant’s corner?): the form “coconut” seems more common (as on their own website)—I can’t find a ruling on the hyphen, but it seems suitably eccentric (but was it eccentric then? That’s the perennial question!).