Old Traditions, New Directions

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 11, 2008 — 4 Comments

The Independent has a feature up on the tradition of Morris Dancing, specifically how two troupes are bringing a decidedly modern aesthetic to these venerable folk traditions.

The Hunters Moon Morris

“Morris dancing is a joke, isn’t it, with a hey nonny no? Beardy men with beer bellies prancing about in white stockings, waving hankies? Very twee. But try telling that to the men and women of Hunters Moon, here by the Sussex coast looking like the devilish spawn of Hell’s Angels and medieval mummers. They are part of a secret revolution in morris dancing, transforming the most easily lampooned of English eccentricities. Fresh rivalries are emerging, as younger men and women reinvent “the morris” in startling ways – including, as we discover during a mad dash around southern England on May Day, the world’s first Gothic morris troupe – or “side”.”

The Wolf’s Head and Vixen Morris.

The article profiles the decidedly Pagan-oriented Hunters Moon Morris, and the gothic Wolf’s Head and Vixen Morris. Journalist Cole Moreton describes Wolf’s Head and Vixen as looking like a “boozy, woozy gathering of the Sisters of Mercy fan club”, but they, like the Hunter’s Moon troupe, are trying to reclaim Morris dancing from a static and sometimes oppressive vision of English history and culture.

“One reason for the recent growth of Border morris is that it is easier to learn (while more spectacular) than other forms. Another is an increase in the number of British neo-pagans, many of whom are drawn to it. “We quite consciously work with ideas of shamanism,” says [Wolfshead founder Philip] Kane. “It’s a form of ritual theatre, a magical space embracing both dancers and audience.” There are radical politics at work too: he sees the dance, and “neo-pagan carnivals” such as the Rochester Sweeps, as a way of resisting the “complacent nostalgia” of Englishness “founded on the detritus of imperialism, Christianity, racism and xenophobia”. His England has more primitive, inclusive roots, and for him the morris is a way of expressing that.”

Of course there are still several traditional Morris “sides” (albeit aging rapidly) performing in England. Unlike the Pagan and goth troupes, they see what they are doing as safely within the bounds of their Christian faith, and downplay any esoteric aspects connected to Morris dancing by folklorists in the past.

“So, what do they think they’re up to? Norman Hopson, the 56-year-old squire, is a technical manager for BT but has the no-nonsense manner of a bluff countryman. “Some say the handkerchiefs are there to frighten away spirits, and the same for the bells,” he says. “We say they are there to accentuate the movements.” Nor is there anything mystical about his experience of dancing: “I see myself as a street entertainer.” … Hopson doesn’t see it as a symbol of fertility, or anything else, thank you. “The Long Man is a local landmark,” he says. “It’s just a carving on a hill. I don’t think it has any further significance.” The side’s bagman, Alan Vaughan, puts it more strongly: “We would go against that pagan idea,” he says. ‘Traditionally, morris dancing has been connected with the church. I personally have danced in Durham Cathedral.'”

Of course the pagan and esoteric undertones to modern Morris dancing (true or not) are irrevocably wrapped into it thanks to folklorists like Cecil Sharp, who felt that folk-traditions were cultural fossils of England’s primitive past (what Ronald Hutton calls the “geological model” of human culture). This notion of pagan survivals helped pave the way for the emergence of modern Pagan religion, and still casts a long shadow in the public mind when considering Morris dances and other folk traditions.

“The folk singers of today … are the last of a long line that stretches back into the mists of far-off days.”
Cecil Sharp, English Folk Song: Some Conclusions, 1907

Nor is England the only place where Pagans and other subcultural groups are staking their own claims to the Morris legacy. Pagans in America, most notably in California, have started up their own Morris traditions. Before long, the Victorian folklorists may turn out to be prophets, as more and more Morris troupes embrace a Pagan aesthetic.

PS – Speaking of traditions, today is Mother’s Day. Check out my post concerning the holiday from last year, I think it says all I want to say about the subject.

Jason Pitzl-Waters