Border Morris, a radical tradition
by Kevan Manwaring
Border Morris is an evolving tradition, which has its roots in the Welsh Marches and the counties where it was originally identified (Herefordshire; Worcestershire; Shropshire) by E.C. Cawte in an influential 1963 article. Cawte was the first to define this distinctive form of Morris, proposing the term ‘Welsh Border Morris’. The prefix has been dropped over the years and now ‘Border Morris’ denotes any Morris-style dance performed with sticks (never handkerchiefs) by predominantly black-faced dancers dressed in ‘tatter-coats’, with a simply-stepped, repetitive choreography, and delivered with much whooping and gusto. Although it is predominantly a tradition of the Welsh Borders/Cotswold Edge there is evidence of such dancing farther east: ‘In 1850 Northamptonshire morris team sometimes danced with sticks, ‘flourishing and brandishing them about’, and dancing round the sticks laid on the ground. This was called Bedlam Morris. Possibly this took place somewhere near Brackley. The source is not clear.’ As a Northamptonshire lad now living in Gloucestershire, I feel heartened by this – it makes me feel I am connecting to my roots by dancing in a Border Morris fashion.
The presence of Border Morris in Gloucestershire has been questioned by some (although there is an unconfirmed account of the young Gustav Holst watching Border Morris, with blackened faces, dancing outside his Cheltenham home), but I feel that it is essentially a movable feast, and to bind it to a particular place or style is a mistake, missing the point entirely. The very idea of ‘borders’ is the epitome of liminality – a threshold place betwixt and between: a place of peril and transformation. Border Morris must retain its edge if it is to stay true to its defining spirit.
The great innovator, John Kirkpatrick, was inspired in part by Northamptonshire’s Bedlam Morris to start his own influential side in Shropshire in the early 70s. And this is the style which as ‘gone viral’ to use a modern term – and is the style I now dance with Styx of Stroud, the Border side I belong to – so full circle (or ‘Brackley Roundabout’)!
It’s worth looking at Kirkpatrick’s approach in more detail The Border Morris style which Cawte identified was given a contemporary spin by John Kirkpatrick with his Bedlam Morris (an approach articulated with provocative wit in his 1979 article, ‘Bordering on the Insane’), who advocated a looser, more eclectic magpie-ish approach: taking what they fancied from existing dancers and customizing them to suit their tastes. This was tantamount to heresy in the conservative circles of the Morris Federation and Morris Ring. Kirkpatrick’s iconoclastic, ‘punkish’ approach was perhaps indicative of the time (the mid-to-late 70s). The Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ could not seem further from the bucolic idyll perpetuated by the jingle of bells, squeezebox and fiddle and clack of sticks on a summer’s day outside a pleasant country pub, but Bedlam Morris’ (Kirkpatrick’s group) radical approach to dancing turned Border into the punk of Morris: emphasizing speed and energy, phallic-dancing pushing the bounds of taste, jeans and trainers worn beneath the more ‘traditional’ Morris regalia to blend the traditional and modern (‘the fusion of new and old that I was searching for’, JK), the hollering and lusty clash of staves an antidote to what he memorably described, in contrast to traditional Morris, as: ‘far more ferocious and flamboyant than this mincing middle-aged antiquated eye-wash.’
To Kirkpatrick’s initial discomfort, Border Morris sides began to pop up adopting his general approach, but customizing it to their tastes. Yet this is the spirit of Border Morris and the reason why it continues to flourish whereas many traditional Morris sides are sadly dying out. Alot of the more traditional sides have ageing members and a problem with recruitment, although the age issue has apparently never been a problem for Border, if the report of a super-annuated side is to be credited: an account of a side in Hereford from 1609 which reports the members being between 96-120 years old, with an average age of 103!
Certainly many of the sides in the ‘mainstream’ Morris scene do look geriatric, but when you see them jigging about in a vigorous manner with broad grins and cheeky twinkles in their eyes you realise that Morris-dancing is the perfect way to stay lithe of limb and spirit. Most of all it evokes an ageless joie-de-vivre, which beyond all intellectualising, academic hair-splitting, and politically-correct hand-wringing is the over-riding impression one gets from watching it and, even more, from joining in. It is damned good fun and, in a boringly sensible and norm-core modern age, wildly impractical, uncommercial, and slightly bonkers.
With Border Morris there is a frisson of the wild – a pagan, chthonic energy bursting forth in broad daylight. The blackened faces, outlandish costumes, swirl of rags and tatters, mock battles, shrieks and hollers, boom of the drum, relentless tune earworming its way into your mind, convey something of a dream or nightmare, our collective Shadow brought out into the light.
In terms of my own research (which currently is focused on the Scottish Borders) there is an overlap of motifs, in terms of the longing, liminality and transgression I see recur in the ballads and tales of the Lowlands (and the Southern Appalachians, where many of the songs and stories were taken). Certainly in the latter two are tangible in any Border Morris dance: liminality, in terms of watching something from the Borders, often at ‘liminal’ times of the year most importantly May Day, bordering on good/bad taste, in/sanity, and ancient/modern; transgressive, in terms of the possibility of sex and violence which lie beneath the dances – which take that energy and transforms it. The transgression for some would also be in the apparent appearance of racism, a controversy which lingers around Border Morris like an elephant’s fart in a room – which I will address below.
In brief, then. The blackened faces associated with Morris has been associated with the notion that Morris dancing was actually a bastardisation of ‘Moorish dancing’ (The modern spelling Morris-dance first appears in the 17th century; but the earliest references to its etymological ancestor, Morisk dance,moreys daunce, morisse daunce, start to appear in the mid-15th Century, when there was a fashion for ‘Moorish spectactle’). There is a tantalising possibility that such dances were just called ‘Moorish’ simply because they seem wild and pagan, something ‘exotic’ or ‘other’, and that was merely a contemporary analogy, like saying one film reminds you of another – but with the important caveat that: these dances were probably more ancient that, but were only defined as such at that point. The point at which something gets written down does not necessarily fix in stone the point at which it came into being. Convention demands that we are bound by the paper trail, but can make educated guesses about what isn’t there. We are, after all, pattern-makers by nature. Another theory suggests it is to do with disguise: because begging was made illegal (Vagrancy Act of 1824). In lean times out of work farmworkers and itinerants would would ‘guise up’ – using the easily available materials of soot and grease – an effective way to keep ‘mum’, to anonymise oneself (a strategy deployed by the Mummers Plays, which usually involve outlandish disguises). A third, rather dubious, theory is that the blackened faces are directly related to the Music Hall traditions which culminated in the notorious ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’. This last one has been vehemently defended by the likes of Chloe Metcalfe, but the fact is there is too much evidence of disguises being used centuries before any such phenomenon to accept that is the reason. The first two factors seem most likely to have influenced Border Morris over the centuries; the third seems a trendy theory wheeled out by academics wanting to make a name for themselves (akin to the tubthumping Marxist critique of the Folk Tradition, Fakelore (Harker, 1979), which Georgina Boyes took up the cause for in her influential treatise, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival, 2010). Yet no one can categorically say there is a single ‘smoking gun’.
As with any tradition there is an element of syncretism – a jackdaw creed which will shamelessly filch anything if it’s fit-for-purpose. This includes modern pop culture such as Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series, which features Morris (Guards, Guards; Reaper Man; Lords and Ladies, etc), and Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood Cycle (which has inspired a morris side, and even a type of bells). It has spawned what has been called ‘Dark Morris’, which is more amusing than it sounds, basically adopting a satirical, Pythonesque approach to the whole thing. This has given rise to sides inspired by Biker culture (Hells Angels Morris), Neopaganism (Vixen and Wolfshead Morris), Fantasy (Mythago Morris), and Steampunk (Steampunk Morris). Border Morris has become a meme – one that is continually absorbing cultural influences: a modern ‘Celtic’, if you will. With no official set of parameters beyond the bare essentials (sticks, rags, blackened faces) each side customizes, and each individual member tailors, adding their idiosyncratic accretions to their costume (e.g. fairy lights adorning top hats at Chepstow Wassail, January 2016). This is part of the appeal – personal creative expression within a group, and subculture where, critically, idiosyncratic quirkiness is accepted. Border Morris is very much in affinity with a Bowie-esque ‘kookiness’, a broad church where difference is celebrated. Critics of Border Morris’ ‘unPC-ness’ need to realise this. The vast range of iterations as witnessed at any large-scale Morris event (Hastings Jack-in-the-Green; Upton-on-Severn Folk Festival; Chippenham Folk Festival, etc). is a celebration of diversity, of local distinctiveness as championed by the environmental N.G.O. Common Ground.
Any association between black faces and people of colour (a term so bland as to be meaningless – unless you live in a black-and-white movie we are all people of colour) is in the eye of the beholder – it is certainly not in the consciousness of the performer. There is an important difference between the colour black and shades of brown/diverse flesh tone. If anyone has problem telling the difference then they probably need their eyes (or shaky beliefs) testing. Black has a symbolic value, as seen in diverse, indigenous cultures around the world e.g. the Kanak tribe of New Caledonia (Nanson). It often denotes the Underworld, death, night, the ancestors, and many other things. Across many of the First Nations tribes of North America black face paint denotes ‘victory and strength’, and as warpaint ‘power, aggression and strength’.
The fact that the word ‘black’ has come to mean people of colour and rarely the actual colour black is an example of what is called semantic bleaching. Now, when we see black it is perhaps inevitable, though incorrect, through cultural conditioning, to associate the colour black with people of colour, but this link within the individual’s mind, and is not one that dancers are responsible for. Tags are prescriptive, often prejudiced, and limiting – hence the resistance by many within the intended demographic against the controversial B.A.M.E. (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) acronym. The same with ‘L.G.B.T.X.’. Who does not wish to be seen and accepted as an individual, not a type? Labels make people lazy. They stop you looking or thinking. The designated is mentally pigeon-holed. They stop being perceived as the unique human being they are. Self-definition is the only safe and acceptable option. So let’s not get signs mixed up with signifiers. Let the sign point where it wants to. N.B. in Border Morris sticks are directed at fellow stick-wielders, nobody else! We are only play-fighting amongst ourselves. Mock-combats transform antagonistic energies, as in the dance popularly known as ‘Feud’.
The fact of the matter is that many Border Morris wear the black because it gives them a degree of anonymity when dancing in public, and it’s as simple and as innocent as that. People can project whatever they want onto Border Morris – who become Rorschach inkblot tests to the onlooker’s subconscious. The overwhelming consensus is that ‘people of colour’ do not seem offended by Border Morris, indeed delight in it (and a fair few dance in Morris and Mummers themselves). It would seem, from numerous anecdotes within the Border Morris community, to be only white people who seem bothered and wishing to complain. Who then, pray tell, is the liberal academic complaining on the behalf of? Of course, any form of prejudice needs challenging – but what often is just a form of Postcolonial posturing is just another form of ‘othering’, of imperialist patronisation (the unelected spokesperson speaking on behalf of an imagined wronged minority). Let’s hear it from horse’s (or Mari Lwyd’s) mouth.
Dancing in a Border Morris side one feels inside a tradition. One might feel nervous, excited, preoccupied with the technicalities of the dance, the practicalities of the performance space, the next beer or bowl of chips, the friendly faces in the crowd, and a plethora of other concerns – but never about the colour of the face-paint you are wearing. Because, as the performer, you cannot see that – you’re on the inside looking out. Even facing a fellow dancer you are more likely to be concerned with the position of the sticks than anything. What seems extraordinary to onlookers has become normalised to those within the group. And for those dancing it feels joyous – a selfless public act. This is the spirit in which Border Morris is danced: light-hearted anarchy offering, briefly, a shattering of the status quo. For those who question its validity or rationale, all I can say is: have a go. Come and clack sticks and let’s have a beer afterwards. We’ll see how you feel about it then, once you’re on the other side of the mask.
Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 12.04.2016
Styx of Stroud: https://styxofstroud.com/
- C. Cawte, ‘The Morris Dance in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire,’ Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Dec., 1963), pp. 197-212.
John Kirkpatrick, ‘Bordering on the Insane’, Confessions of a Shropshire Bedlam, from English Dance & Song Vol 41 No 3 1979 (cited on http://www.johnkirkpatrick.co.uk/mo_BorderInsane.asp)
Chloe Metcalfe, ‘To Black Up or Not to Black Up: A Personal Journey’, The Morris Federation, Winter newsletter 2013, https://www.academia.edu/5468139/To_Black_up_Or_Not_to_Black_Up_A_Personal_Journey
‘Morris Dancing’, Pepys Diary website: http://www.pepysdiary.com/encyclopedia/6217/
 EC Cawte, ‘The Morris Dance in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire’, 1963.
 ibid, 1963: p197.
 Bordering on the Insane, Confessions of a Shropshire Bedlam, By John Kirkpatrick, from English Dance & Song Vol 41 No 3 1979.
 And I have seem Mummers actually change the usual ‘Saracen or Turkish knight’ to something less obviously charged, such as ‘Bold Slasher’, to avoid any obvious Islamophobia. This shows a sensitivity and cultural reciprocity which Morris and Mummers are rarely credited with.