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Monday, 20 October 2014

David Cameron and the border morris side: why is morris dancing so little understood?

'The demonisation of morris dancing is a peculiarly English form of class warfare'

David Cameron had his picture taken with some black-face border morris dancers last week and a kerfuffle ensued.

Was it racially edgy? Much of the mainstream media seemed initially unsure, being apparently unable to play the "some of my best friends are morris dancers" card: I can. (Stand up, James Creaser.) Moreover I was unafraid that border morris dancers blacking up their faces was racist for the simple deductive reason that you couldn't find a more politically correct crowd than folkies and morris dancers: the question of whether border morris is racist has doubtless been discussed over and over again and if it were an issue, someone would be calling for a ban. But they're not. So either it isn't racist or there isn't enough evidence to make a case. The interesting part was that the Guardian – the natural political home of most folkies – didn't sense this in its bones. It took a few days before Martin Kettle was able to say something less than standoffish about morris.

By that time border morris dancer James Bell had also written a frankly enormous blog post on the subject, in which he tied himself in knots and, in the process, posted a brilliant video of Christopher Walken dancing (thanks!). Because of James's direct involvement it's interesting to read what he has to say. But he basically didn't know if black-face was racist. What I learned from his peroration was, once again, that morris dancers are a very politically correct, extremely nice bunch of people who really don't want to offend anyone, which is kind of where I started.  

Every country's relationship with its traditional music and dance is essentially its relationship with its own past. The Germans have a huge problem with their folk music as it was recently appropriated either by the Nazis or the communists, depending on which side of the east/west divide they were on. But the English are nearly as uneasy, which takes some thinking about. 

I mean, how come morris dancing is so widely thought of as ridiculous? Is it really any sillier than dressing up in lederhosen, playing the bagpipes or any number of other European traditions?

I would suggest this: the greatest trick the British ruling class ever pulled off - as an intrinsic part of the steep class distinctions we choose to maintain in the UK - was making its underclass ashamed of themselves, the sound of their own voices and their traditions: hence the collective national cringe over our folk song and dance. What could be more embarrassing than morris dancing to anyone but the proudly thick-skinned and the contrarian? It's hard to imagine. If you attacked anyone else's folk traditions you'd be under suspicion of racism yet it's OK to attack the harmless pastime of your own underclass, branding it ridiculous over and over in order to try and suck the pride from it. The demonisation of morris dancing is a peculiarly English form of class warfare. 

Such is the success of this false class consciousness that even Terry Eagleton, the supposed Marxist, said in the Guardian the Saturday before Cameron's black-face episode that if he were king for a day he would execute morris dancers. Thanks a fucking lot, Terry. I mean, what kind of Marxist offers, even in jest, to execute a bunch of his own comrades? An English Marxist, is the answer. One who has been successfully denatured by the ruling class he once opposed. I know that most morris dancers are able to have a laugh at themselves but on this occasion I'm being humourless on their behalf because I think it's important.

The story of England's rural working class has always been a lot about emigration and exile, people turfed off the land and dispossessed: it's just that as soon as the English working class successfully left England they became American, Canadian, New Zealanders, Australians and more. We love our sailing songs because they're a massive part of our history and if there is any shame to be located in the morris perhaps it is that these guys with the hankies, these are the guys who stayed and tried to make a life for their families despite the desperate conditions that had driven their brothers and cousins abroad. They compromised and stayed. 

Still. There has been a folk revival over the last decade that could be partly attributed to the comfort that any kind of tradition provides during a recession, partly to that emanation of the English public school system known as Mumford & Sons and partly due to the relatively recent introduction of some folk music awards at the BBC: awards that are taken insufficiently seriously and need a big dose of transparency as a mark of respect for the musicians, the audience and the tradition.  

It's just ironic that it should be David Cameron who had his picture taken with the border morris side as - if we believe the narrative about concealment - he's the one they were blacking up to avoid.

* If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in this about a wonderful film called Way of the Morris.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

Monday, 6 October 2014

John Ball and Sydney Carter: the motherlode of English folk politics

Sometimes, looking at David Cameron's gammony face, it is hard to believe that Britain has 700 years of revolutionary politics behind it. But it does.

It rustled in the William Morris undergrowth of my background. I've had three grandparents – one with us still – who were active in Labour politics and who between them had a collection of Labour movement pamphlets dating back many decades. From childhood I met words like "socialist" (which meant being nice to people, according to mum) and "Fabian" (those who believe in inflicting socialism on the working class because it's good for them, I gathered, unable to tell whether this was a joke. It was – but only a good one because of the truth buried in it). The words' competing nuances came to life around the family dinner table, especially with my grandparents after we moved to Norwich. The city was a bright red dot in a blue sea on election night, mainly as a result of the university based there, and until I moved away after school I was under the misapprehension that "Tory" was a term of abuse, not knowing that they also referred to themselves in this way. This makes me smile now.

As an undergraduate I worked for Harriet Harman as a researcher for a few months: months that I seemed to spend mainly retracing Harriet's movements, trying to find the spot where she had most recently abandoned her handbag.

One of my most treasured memories of my course at Leeds is of finding a first edition of William Morris's A Dream of John Ball in the stack under the Brotherton Library and realising that I knew it and its beautiful illustrations (see above) even though I'd never seen it before.

What I am trying to say is that Labour politics is my hinterland. And that hinterland is a dimension of this country that coexists spectrally, a misty gauze of hope and expectation that lies over the landscape, as much a part of Britain as the version of it familiar to bankers and property developers – more permanent because the need for it is greater.

And Sydney Carter's song John Ball is the motherlode of English revolutionary politics in folk music, it seems to me.

It kicks in after about eight minutes: my favourite version of the song so far, by The Old Dance School. At the Warwick folk festival in 2013 the song's harmonies rang in my ears in the beer tent for the best part of three evenings and I saw The Old Dance School play their powerfully ecstatic version of it more than once. I assumed to begin with that it was a traditional song because the lyrics seemed smoothed by time and their meaning evoked religion through the lens of ethical socialism. There were lots of versions...

It wasn't traditional though. 

What it is, is a story about John Ball, the hedgerow preacher who inspired the peasant's revolt in the 14th century, the ex-communicated priest who told his congregation that "Now is the time" in such a way that many of them laid down their lives alongside him and Wat Tyler. His revolutionary, proto-socialist ideas lived on after his death at the hands of Richard II and can be traced forward to the nonconformism of the civil war and from there to the new world. In a nutshell

"Labour and spin for the fellowship you're in. Labour and spin for the love of one another. When Adam delved and Eve span who was then the gentleman?"

Work for the dignity it gives you and to support those whom you love, and never forget where we all came from – and where ultimately we're all going. When The Old Dance School plays John Ball, a part of me would like to sing it with them but another chokes and wells up with emotion, making it impossible. It makes me feel a little foolish but there you go.

But far from being a traditional piece, the song was written by Sydney Carter – who is probably best known for also having written Lord of the Dance – and John Ball was written in the 1960s and recorded for the first time, I believe, by John Kirkpatrick and Sydney Carter in 1981 on the album Lovely in the Dance.

Sydney Carter died in 2004 after a long and eventful life. But, probably because I learned my politics from my forebears, it made sense to me to ask what kind of a man he was of his only son, Mike Carter, who is a consultant paediatric neurosurgeon in Bristol these days.

When I Googled Dr Carter there was a lot about parking fines at his NHS hospital trust: it seems that the same non-conformism that led his father to write so many songs that found their way into my hymn book at school – If I needed a neighbour and One more step among them – had led the son to be the kind of person who does not mind making some waves.

"It was a very corporate-minded trust that expected us to work on two sites but made no provision for parking," he explained when I caught up with him. "Eventually Jeremy Hunt announced that they had changed their tack."

Perhaps inevitably Carter is also a part-time musician, a multi-instrumentalist with Peter Mouse's House Band, which seems to do a lot of weddings and revels in the accolade of being Bristol's second-favourite covers band. "I knew the story of John Ball as I was growing up – I heard it from dad. And then we sang a lot of dad's songs at school. Mum was a teacher at Bessemer Grange Primary in Dulwich and even though the repertoire of dad's stuff is usually to be found in schools, ours was much greater than usual.

"John Ball was a preacher who was excommunicated for his anti-church views. He felt one should be living the life of Christ and that those who had everything and did not share it were not living the life of Christ. And he felt that the church at the time was supporting the rich and not the poor. This was at a time when the discrepancy between the lives of the rich and the lives of the poor was at its greatest ever. The Hundred Years War against France was going on and it was incredibly difficult to finance. There were three poll taxes – which were regarded as a terrible injustice by many people. This was a time, you see, when many were born into servitude and had no prospect of getting out of it.

"So in a way what John Ball was preaching was a form of liberation theology, of the kind that Cardinal Romero used to espouse in Latin America and a little bit like the present pope, who gets rid of all his riches and walks around in the streets of Rome." But there was very little precedent for it back then.

Carter said that he deals with his father's estate and the royalties due to it. "John Ball seems to be coming up more frequently all the time – it's great that it's been picked up by contemporary performers." The first version Carter mentioned was Chris Wood's, though he seems to hold a candle especially for one by Wood and Karine Polwart, which I can't seem to find on the web.

He also mentioned Crow on the Cradle, which is performed by Show of Hands.

And then wondered out loud whether they had picked it up from Jackson Browne, who sang it at Madison Square Gardens in 1969, after which it appeared on his live album.

"Dad and I were incredibly close. He was extraordinarily kind, incredibly intelligent: a polymath. He knew everything about everything, it seemed to me as a child, and came from a very humble background himself: he got to Balliol through a series of scholarships. He was very influenced by Quakerism but I'm not sure he would call himself a Quaker. He didn't think you should respond to authority unless it was in the right and that established religion was too didactic... A lot of his beliefs are my beliefs. I was brought up to call things if they were wrong."

Thoughtfully, Mike also provided this family snapshot, which includes his mum, Leela: he was an only child and this was, essentially, the fellowship they were in.

* If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy this one, about folk music in Afghanistan. Or this one, which is about why the Germans have such a difficult relationship with their music.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

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