A quick introduction to morris dancing

Morris dancing is—.

Oh, hell, I haven’t finished the first sentence and already I’m in trouble.

Morris dancing divides people. You love it or you hate it, and if you hate it you go out of your way to make fun of it. It’s one of those things people in Britain compare to Marmite, a brownish paste that’s made in Britain (6,000 tons of the stuff a year, filing some 50 million jars) and that you can spread on toast and eat if you like it or run from, screaming, if you don’t. No one’s neutral about Marmite.

No one’s neutral about morris dancing either, but morris dancers turn out at fairs and festivals with their bells and sticks and streamers and flowers, and they dance as happily as if they knew for a fact that everyone loved them. You can’t help admiring them for that.

Or I can’t anyway. And I want to present this as neutrally as possible–especially since I’m not in love with morris dancing but people I like are.

Rare sighting: a relevant photo here at Notes. These are morris dancers at the Royal Cornwall Show. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Morris dancing is an English tradition. And a Cornish one. I add that because some people consider Cornwall English and others very emphatically don’t.

How traditional is traditional? I’m not the only person who can’t answer that. The Morris Ring writes, “The earliest confirmation of a performance of morris dancing in England dates from London on 19 May 1448, when ‘Moryssh daunsers were paid 7s (35p) for their services.’ ” The S is shillings. The P is pence. Your guess is as good as mine what that bought back then. They may have been highly valued and they may not have been.

A Wikipedia entry dates Cornish morris dancing back to 1466, but it doesn’t give a citation.

In the Elizabethan era (that’s 1533 to 1603), it was already considered ancient.

According to RattlejagMorris, its origins are lost, but there’s no evidence to associate it with pagan festivals, as some people do. “Very little is known about the dances per se, though there seem to have been two types: a solo dance, and a dance in a circle around a ‘maiden’ (who could have been a man in women’s clothing) for whose favours the dancers compete.

“By the early sixteenth century morris dancing had become a fixture of Church festivals. In mediaeval and Renaissance England, the churches brewed and sold ales, including wassail. These ales were sold for many occasions, both seasonal and sacramental—there were christening ales, bride’s ales, clerk, wake and Whitsun ales—and were an important means of fund-raising for churches.”

Which isn’t immediately relevant but it’s interesting, so I left it in. And all that drinking seems to have given it a raucous reputation.

Later in the century, it became associated with May Day and village festivals and fetes.

By the nineteenth century, it had gone into decline, but some villages managed to keep it alive. When it was revived toward the end of the century, it was used as part of an effort to build up the mythology of Merrie Englande. In the early twentieth century, its fortunes rose with an increased interest in folk music and dance, and women as well as men began to take part.

Some morris dancers black their faces. The first time I saw this, I assumed it was part of the racist minstrel show tradition of white entertainers pretending to be black, which started in the U.S. but took hold (and still casts its long a creepy shadow) in Britain as well. I couldn’t think of any better way to react than to pretend they didn’t exist (I know: great moments in political activism), but Wild Thing went over to a dancer and asked about it.

She–or maybe it was he; I don’t remember–told us (and I’m paraphrasing heavily) that It came out of the time when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans suppressed Whitsun ales, morris dancing, and anything else where people might be in danger of having fun. Besides, morris dancing had a whiff of pagan carrying-on about it. The dances continued in either secret or semi-secret, but the dancers blacked their faces to disguise themselves.

However, other explanations also circulate.

Border Morris page on Wikipedia says (or said when I checked), “During the hard winters of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, out of work labourers and builders sought to anonymously supplement their income by a bit of dancing and begging. The use of blackface as a form of disguise is established in early eighteenth century England. In 1723 it became a capital offence under the Waltham ‘Black Act’ to appear ‘in disguise, either by mask or by blackened face.’”

Another theory traces the word morris to Moorish and suggests the earliest performers were mimicking North African dancers, or a Moorish king and his retinue. And yet another theory traces the black faces to the minstrel shows. In support of this theory, morris dancing is recorded to have been referred to colloquially as “going niggering”.

Yes, I’m using the word. We’re talking about racism and we need to talk about what we’re talking about. Look it in the eye, friends, because it’s still with us.

A few songs that morris dancers use, like “Old Black Joe” come from minstrel shows, although most are far older.

My best guess is that an older tradition, or more than one of them, crossed paths with the minstrel shows until now it would be hard to tease the strands apart.

If you look, you’ll find quite a bit of public argument about whether white dancers appearing in blackface is inherently racist. No one’s asked my opinion, but here it is: Whatever its origin and however innocent its intent, it’s time to stop doing it. Even if it has to do with Cromwell or disguise for some other reason, audiences will be bringing a whole different set of associations to it, and whether you mean to or not you’ll be aligning yourselves with some really unsavory elements of our culture. Which is another way of saying that you’ll be passing them on, regardless of what’s going on in your mind.

And no, I don’t really expect anyone to listen to me. There seems to be a cast-iron conviction among a category of white people in Britain that if they don’t intend anything racist by [fill in the blank, including a few songs I hear sung, which should be left to a folk music preservation society but retired from active use], then to hell with the impact it has on other people or the world at large, it’s not racist. Because they mean well.

And some—although by no means all—of them genuinely are people of goodwill.

That sound you’re hearing? That’s a long and frustrated sigh brushing across my keyboard.

But let’s go back to morris dancing in general so we can end on a cheerier note: It never made much sense to me until G. explained that morris clubs were just drinking societies with a dancing problem. I’m not sure how many morris dancers would agree with her, but it made an odd kind of sense to me.

I can’t swear that she’s right and I’m happy to hear from anyone who wants to correct me. Or her. Or anyone else.

On any subject.

99 thoughts on “A quick introduction to morris dancing

  1. I’d never heard of morris dancing at all until I read this post, and I think one of the possible explanations you provided, about older traditions gradually becoming intertwined with more negative connotations, is an interesting one. It seems to me like this happens to other aspects of culture and the arts more than it seems, but I can’t put my finger on any specific examples at the moment. Nevertheless, it’s a really good point you raised.

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    • I’m trying to think of an example and not coming up with anything either, but I do know that traditions get passed down long after the reasons for them have been lost. If an example pops into your mind, let me know, would you?

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  2. I agree about the blacking up – it’s time to stop. You can’t excuse something simply by calling it traditional. After all, it was traditional to hang children for theft, but we managed to grow out of that.

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    • My pleasure. And thanks for the note.

      Since morris dancing’s something people either love or hate, I could find you some folks who’d envy you for never having heard of it. Not to mention some who’d think it was tragic.

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  3. Informative, thank you. There was an Uncle Morris on my Dad’s side of the family, and my Aunt Bertha had a Morris chair. (Yes, I really had an Aunt Bertha, rest her soul. And a Great-Aunt Bertha as well.) What , if anything, doe the chair have to do with it ?

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    • In the interest of completeness, I googled Morris chair, and I’m pretty sure they’re too heavy to dance with. So I’d say it has nothing to do with it. But my grandmother’s name was Bertha, and when a grandchild was named after her she said, “Why did they have to give that beautiful baby that horrid name?”

      My grandmother–just for the record–was not a morris dancer and had almost surely never heard of it.

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  4. I’ve always quite enjoyed it when I’ve seen it, but I’ve never gone out of my way to come across it.

    You didn’t mention the other slightly unpleasant aspect of it – they’re all men. I know women have been allowed to join a few very progressive sides, but they’re a very small minority. You’re more likely to see a woman in the accompanying band than wielding a hankie or a stick.

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    • Good point, and something I didn’t get into because I don’t understand where things stand at this point. There are, I think, all-women sides (called I forget what) as well, although I don’t know how common they are.

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    • Hi, as a regular reader and female morris dancer (border, masked not blackface) I have to say that there are two morris dancing “organising bodies” the morris ring and the morris federation. The morris ring is old fashioned and only allows single sex sides (mainly men but I think some are women only) the morris federation allows and encourages mixed sides.
      I am in a mixed side, we whack pretty big sticks pretty hard!
      http://www.mythago.org.uk/

      I probably know as many (if not more) female morris dancer than male ones and most of them don’t have flowery hats…

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        • I don’t mind you saying that :-D we get that a lot. I think it has something to do with not being able to see any real facial features :-)

          The stories are all supposedly traditional myths and legends…I do get to play a dragon fairly often though which could be considered scary…

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            • What struck me in that post is that it was written by a teenager who made up part of the beast, and they’d been asked to open a small lunch place, if I remember right, because that would bring it luck. As a kid, I’d seen what I remember as dragon (although it might’ve been lion) dancers in New York’s Chinatown on Chinese New Year, but I never stopped to ask myself who was doing this and why. What the post managed to do was draw me into the experience of perfectly ordinary human beings who gave up some of their time to perform this way.

              It’s funny how easy it is to see the surface without ever asking yourself who’s under there and what it’s like.

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            • ahh yes, There is definitely a parallel there!

              we are a bunch of generally perfectly ordinary people who put masks on and wave big sticks about on a regular basis, and people quite often don’t stop to ask who we really are. They stop at the mask and assume we are scary or pagan or some such thing…

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          • Not being able to see faces and the scary clothes and the black. It all adds up.

            It all fits with the idea that morris dancing isn’t as innocent as all those men dressed in white waving hankies around would have us believe.

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            • Morris dancing isn’t that innocent really… it was generally begging with menaces or aggressive begging with a bit of dancing thrown in…

              the white and the hankies (I believe) cam in after the Victorians sanitised the whole thing. Which is also why women were no longer allowed…Victorian women weren’t allowed fun!

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            • I didn’t know that about the Victorian period. (Not that women weren’t supposed to have fun but that they introduced the whole hankie thing and the white clothes.) But have you ever seen what Greek dancers do with a handkerchief? It’s enough to make you rethink the whole thing–there’s nothing fou-fou about it.

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            • They’re the line dances. In at least some of them, the second person in line holds a kerchief or cloth or whatever for the first in line, who trusts his (it’s been a him when I saw them, although may that have changed by now) weight to it and does spins and low, fancy steps.

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  5. I love your friend G’s explanation. That’s perfect. I’ve not seen many Morris dancing troupes perform but those I have seen did not don blackface. The abandonment of that tradition by those individuals at least suggests to me an acknowledgment of the racist underpinnings of their use of blackface. After all, it’s no small thing to give up part of a tradition you’ve preserved for centuries. One of the troupes I’ve seen also allowed women to dance so perhaps they were progressive Morris dancers and had given up misogyny and racism. Or perhaps they were just that desperate for members.

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  6. As an avid Terry Pratchett fan, I first encountered Morris Dancing in his Discworld novels… or variations of it as only he could dream up. “The Morris Dance is common to all inhabited world in the multiverse. The imperative is felt by deep-sea beings who have never seen the sun and urban humans whose only connection with the cycles of nature is that their Volvo once ran over a sheet.” Terry Pratchett.

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  7. Before I agree with you on the whole balckface thing, I want to mention something about English/Cornish. I’m reading a book about the history of a railroad tunnel and it says that it was built using Irish and Cornish laborers. When I saw that, my first thought was “aren’t Cornish laborers, English?” Of course, by some measure, so are the Irish, but I wouldn’t make that mistake.

    Anyway, blackface? WTF? sorry, it’s time to stop stupid stuff.

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    • Okay, the Cornish/English thing. The answer is, it depends who you ask. Legally, Cornwall’s part of England. It runs on English law, which Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland don’t. On the other hand, it was a separate country, with its own language, until it was swallowed sometime (I think–I should do more research) before the Norman conquest. The last native speaker of Cornish died in 1777. There’s talk of the central government devolving some powers to Cornwall, but what that’ll mean and what it’ll be worth are anyone’s guess. Not to mention what it’ll cost Cornwall in return, because rumor has it that it will involve agreeing to some very bad proposals on the NHS.

      Cornwall’s still often called Kernow–its name in Cornish–and has a nationalist party, Mebyon Kernow. I tried translating mebyon online and broke the internet. So, yes: Cornish laborers were not English. Cornwall’s known for fishermen and miners more than laborers (the saying is, anywhere in the world you find a hole in the ground, you’ll find a Cornishman at the bottom of it, digging), but when times are hard, people will take whatever job’s available.

      As for WTF–yes, WTF indeed.

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  8. I detest many things that – even if unintentional – have an implication of racism, such as golliwogs (the toy, and the little logo on a certain brand of Marmalade), and the b&w minstrels. I have known about Morris dancers all my life having first seen them on holiday as a child but it was only recently – last year, I think – that I knew anything about them blacking their faces as I’d never seen any do it. In a way I agree with you… and in a way I don’t. If it’s going to offend the majority of people then yes, it should stop – or perhaps the performances should be prefaced with some history and an explanation before proceeding. But to my mind it’s like the difference between a blackboard and a chalkboard. They are both black and they both have chalk used on them, but I was brought up with ‘blackboard’ and don’t find it in the least bit offensive, while a younger generation who weren’t brought up with it, do. Why can’t both camps be catered for? To me, a ‘blackboard’ is simply an inanimate object that happens to be black, it is not a person.

    There’s a pub in a small town some miles from where I live that has, for centuries, been called ‘The Black Boy’. It was recently bought and the new owners wanted to change its name to something else (and have it in Welsh instead of English) but all the locals signed a petition to keep it as it is. And the meaning of the name of it? On the sign is an image of a child blackened from soot: it’s about a chimneysweep. (Which of course is yet another ‘no-no’ of today, and so it should be!).

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    • I wouldn’t hold out for a majority being offended before we change things. We arrive at the present moment via a long history of racism and of offensive language being used as a way to remind people that they weren’t good enough to be part of the club. So if someone whose life has attuned them to racism finds something offensive, anyone who hasn’t lived that life would be smart of listen. That doesn’t mean the person objecting will necessarily be wise, smart, right, and honest–but they may well know something the other category of people doesn’t.

      Sorry–I’m trying to be brief about something complicated, so I’m not writing particularly gracefully.

      I’ve never heard anyone object to the word blackboard. Are you sure that isn’t like Boris Johnson’s straight bananas? The story about the pub’s interesting, and I have no idea what I think the right thing to do would be.

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      • Yes, certainly people who’ve been on the receiving end of racism will feel differently. Agree completely. How to explain that to people who don’t ‘get it’ though? I’ve never succeeded and it’s not for want of trying.

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        • I know. I’m struck with how different the arguments here are from the ones in the States, though. One of the primary beliefs here is that if I (whoever the I of the moment is) don’t have any bad intent, then [fill in the blank] is okay. It’s an argument I never heard in the U.S.

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          • I’ve thought about that a lot, Ellen, particularly recently with all that’s been going on in the UK (won’t go into that, will just make my blood pressure rise) and I think it probably has to do with how regionally-orientated we are here – one set of people in one region doesn’t seem to know how others in another region feel… sometimes the view is even smaller, too. I know several people who have such narrow opinions of the outer world but have had no direct experience of much of it.
            A question: your blog is mostly humorous with a ‘serious edge’, yes? So… which way do you prefer the comments to go? Only I’ve a tendency to get too serious sometimes and I don’t want to wreck what I presume you’d like to remain light-hearted posts with over-serious comments. Or am I on the wrong path here?

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            • Thanks for asking, Val. Humorous with a serious edge is a good description, and I’m happy for comments to go wherever they go. Some of the comments on this one have taken issue with me, and that’s fine. So far we’re not biting each other or throwing things, and I’m happy for it to go on. I do bite back–at least whenever possible–when bitten, so if that happens it could actually be interesting.

              Having said that, I love the funny comments. And like any other fool, I love it when people agree with me, but I think it’s more valuable when we can at least try to talk out our differences. Which is a long-winded way of saying that whatever you want to say is fine with me. I like hosting conversations. I like it when something I write moves people to write, to think, to make jokes, or to tell me I’m wrong.

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  9. what an edifying post. I associated Morris Dancing with folkies back in the ’70’s and as I was a disco diva i held them in utter contempt. Then, on a trip to London in 1980 and while having a brew at Blackfriars Pub near the Blackfriars Bridge, my husband and I were adopted by a group of dancers and we accompanied them from pub to pub. I was in charge of hat-passing. They also put me in the middle of their circle and danced around me but I, having had several pints by then, was oblivious to their charms. As was my husband. Thanks for conjuring up a happy memory, Ellen.

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    • Great story, and it reminds me that although I don’t really like the dancing, the people who do it are so damned happy about doing it and, for the most part, so damned likable that it’s hard to hold onto any sort of dislike. I mean, who am I to spoil the fun?

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    • Thanks for the link. I first saw them in Minnesota, at a May Day festival that the Heart of the Beast puppet theater held (and still holds) every year in south Minneapolis, which started with a very home-made parade (huge, wonderful puppets; lots of kids and adults in amazing hand-made costumes) and that ended with a loosely organized festival in a park. The morris dancers would, inevitably, show up with their bells and their sticks and their white costumes, and the rest of us would look at them and think, What??

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  10. I know of the Bacup Coconut dancers, but the many Morris groups whose performance – in and out of the pub – I have seen have all worn their natural skin colour.
    From chatting to them – in pubs – they were keen to talk about their pastime, but there was no mention of blacking the face: I do wonder whether those who write the articles one consults are making a mountain from a molehill in the interests of being seen to be aware of a problem.
    Growing up in the days when letting house notices stated `No dogs, no Irish, no blacks`I am all too aware of racism…but I don`t turf out obscure corners to look for it. It is quite evident enough in everyday life.
    Thinking about the all male troupes my mother, born in 1916, told me that they were taught, boys and girls, to dance the morris at school together with other delights such as Gathering Peascods. No sex divide as far as the school was concerned but I doubt that many of the pupils ever had the leisure or the interest to pursue dancing afterwards.

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    • I see morris dancers not infrequently around here (not around every corner, but they do show up) and I can only remember one troupe that wore blackface. But I don’t feel I’m digging into obscure corners to find problems. That troupe has stayed with me, in a skin-crawly way, as does Padstow’s annual “Darky Days” (yes, really) festival. I think the issue’s real and the conversation’s very much worth having.

      Gathering peascods? Now that I’ve never heard of. And for anyone else who hasn’t, here’s the dance on YouTube. There’s a song that goes with it, but if anyone’s singing the words, they’re getting drowned out.

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  11. It seems to me that there can be no absolute rule about removal/retention of possibly racist cultural icons. It’s all about who chooses to cause offence to others, and who chooses to be offended by others. And also how we interpret said cultural icons – sometimes without taking the trouble to understand their history (as in the “Black Boy” pub example above).

    These days golliwogs are interpreted as a racist caricature, which is how they were originally conceived of course. But when I was a child in 1950s Britain there was in fact no obvious racist context to golliwog dolls. They were just a particular sort of soft toy doll that you gave to a a small child as a comforter, like a teddy bear or rag doll. My mother knitted one for my sister and I, and we called him Freddy and played with him a lot. We were never aware that Freddy was meant to be anything other than what he was – a knitted doll that happened to have a black face. In fact,we soon decided that Freddy needed a companion, so we asked mum to knit us another golliwog who would become Freddy’s twin brother Harold – except that he had a white face. Now you could interpret this as an attempt by my sister and I to bring about racial harmony, but that’s far too sophisticated for a seven year old and a five year old. No, we were just two young children trying to apply some logic to how the world works.

    I was brought up in Birmingham (UK) in the 1950s, and there were a good few Caribbean and Indian people living in the city even then, but as a child, I never once made any connection between golliwog dolls and any of these people, nor did any adult of my acquaintance ever point out the connection to me (that’s not to say I didn’t have one or two racially prejudiced relatives – it was part of the cultural landscape in those days). Now I’d never dream of advocating the return of the golliwog (a la UKIP/DUP “let’s go culturally backwards”), but I don’t feel guilty about golliwog dolls being part of my personal history, because I know there was no racial context in it for my sister and me.

    The other day I watched a BBC TV program about Japanese art and culture, and it featured a traditional actor who performed with his face covered entirely in pure white makeup. It now occurs to me, that if Japan had a large immigrant community of North Europeans (which it clearly doesn’t right now), would said community be justified in pushing for this type of theatre performance to be banned on the grounds that “whiting up” was offensive to the “white” minority? Well, I guess it could happen.

    In the end, we have to have a continuing debate about these things, but it needs to be about achieving consensus, rather than the “winners” being the people who shout loudest, as so often happens.

    As for the morris dancing, I did that at junior school. It was indeed an all-male activity, but I’ve since seen quite a few all female morris groups, so maybe we need not despair too much!

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    • I can’t think of a reason in the world anyone should feel guilty about having had a golliwog doll. But I don’t believe the feelings of the people who had them as children aren’t the issue. I’m much more inclined to look to the feelings of the black and brown people whose image they mocked to figure out if they’re benign, neutral, or damaging.

      The Japanese tradition of white makeup is very different. It predates, I believe, any contact with anyone whose skin could be described as white (however inaccurately–I think it was E.M. Forster who suggested pinko-gray), and although Japan has its own strands of racism (against Koreans; against gaijin), it has no tradition that parallels the U.S. and British minstrel shows, which are what made blackface an issue.

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      • Yes, I agree with all of that. What I was trying to say is that it’s often too easy for people to give offense to others through not making the effort to understand cultural differences and accommodate them, and equally it’s easy, for the same reason, to take offense when it may not have been intended. So I can imagine a (hypothetical) situation where some North European immigrants to Japan who haven’t taken the trouble to understand Japanese culture, and in particular the history of Japanese theatre dating back to the Edo period, would in their ignorance choose to be offended by Japanese actors whiting-up.

        I always thought the BBC’s minstrel show of the 1960s and 70s was truly awful, but interestingly when I was at primary school in the late 1950’s, I had an exchange teacher from Canada who loved negro spirituals and she taught our class to sing them. She told us all about how this music evolved, and of the suffering that black slaves went through on the plantations. We loved the songs too, so she decided to get us to put on a concert for the whole school. For authenticity she got all of us nine year olds to “black up”, or perhaps I should say “brown up”, using a mixture of Cadbury’s cocoa and butter. It looked weird, but it tasted good! Now there were no black children in our outer suburban school, so I’ve no idea whether it would have offended the Caribbeans who lived in Brum at the time, but certainly no offense was intended. We all enjoyed the concert, and those of us in the choir experienced what it was like to be a different colour – we almost felt like slave children. So I guess context and intent are what matter in this sensitive cultural dance.

        Oh, and I don’t have the golliwogs any more. I’ve no idea what happened to them, but they are missed.

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        • It’s interesting how quickly conversations about racism turn to who’s offended, but offense isn’t the only–or even the primary–issue to think about. I think the reason all this is so charged is the long history of racism, by which I mean not just offense but oppression, exploitation. In the U.S., slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in jobs and housing and you name it, the legacy of which is still very much with us in forms that range from police shootings to low pay. In Britain, the legacy includes the empire, slave trading, and discrimination in jobs, housing, and so forth. So we can maybe think of the things that give people personal offense as the match, but the rest of that as the kerosene.

          Your story about your teacher–it sounds like she imparted some valuable lessons, but the performance part of it? It makes me want to put my head in my hands and leave it there for a good long while. I do understand that she meant well, and that her students were good hearted and saw no harm in what they were doing. But, but, but, but, but.

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          • >Your story about your teacher–it sounds like she imparted some valuable lessons, but the performance part of it? …

            Well I suppose we have to accept that this was how it was in those days. We can’t imagine doing anything like that now, and it just goes to show how far attitudes have changed (mostly for the better) in western societies over the last sixty years. The spirituals concert I’m talking about took place in 1961 I think. Over the subsequent fifteen or so years, there was a sea change in British society, reflected in a wave of positive legislation, much of it brought about by the pioneering Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins: the abolition of capital punishment, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, relaxation of abortion laws, the equal pay act, the sex discrimination act, and not least, several race relations acts. Britain pre-1960s and post-1960s are very different cultural landscapes in many ways.

            Sometimes it’s hard to understand how people and societies in the past could think and do the (to modern sensibilities) awful things they did, but the cliche is still true: we can’t change the past but only learn from it. Doubtless in a hundred years time, our descendants will look back at the early 21st century and despair at some of the attitudes we had.

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            • I’m sure they will.

              After I responded to your comment, I started remembering the pseudo-Indian headdresses etc. that my brother and I had when we were kids–given to us by parents who were, for their time and place, enlightened about ethnicity and culture. Either they saw nothing wrong with them or they figured they’d fight the battle in other ways.

              Not to mention the games of cowboys and Indians, based on the TV shows we watched. The Indians’ job was to shoot an imaginary arrow or two and then lie down on the floor and die. I’m sure, somewhere off stage, my parents were asking each other what to say to us, and when and whether.

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  12. There are many bad jokes about Morris Dancers and I have a couple of good friends who are very serious about it, so I need to be careful! Frankly, I think it looks silly sometimes, but I have also seen dances that make me smile and even some that are very dramatic. Incidentally, I saw an entire parade of female Morris Dance sides a few years back – and there are mixed ones too – so, if it was once an all-male habit, thankfully, they have moved on. Overall, it’s a good thing to remember our traditions, but I think the term ‘racist’ is often used too casually for something that is very nasty indeed. Britain has always been a nation of hybrids and we should remember that and be proud of it, as well as proud of how people have shown their common humanity during recent tragic events. I’m not sure it’s racist for Morris Dancers to black up their faces; it would be racist if they only allowed blue-eyed, blonde-haired, pale-skinned people to join in. Here’s an interesting clip of the Old Glory Molly Dancers – warning this shows men wearing black make-up https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1AMFzjcTLc8

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    • I do understand what you’re saying about having friends who are serious about morris dancing and therefore having to be carful about it. Believe me. Where I’ll part ways is in accepting the face blackening. It may or may not be racist in its origins, but somewhere along the line it flowed into the racist stream of minstrel songs and “blacking up.” It’s time to abandon it. Racism takes many forms, and exclusion is only one of them.

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  13. The idea of morris men leaping out from around every corner has been making me smile at the visions conjoured up. Especially if they have the fool with the bladder of lard with them…
    I was thinking back to mothers account….I notice that the school did not have them dancing to `cuckolds all awry`. That would have been a bit much for the 1920s…but we were taught it at school.`

    While I have no doubt that racists jump on any chance to exhibit themselves and imagine that anything called Darkie Day would be an opportunity to do so there are legal means to deal with them and societal pressure can be brought on the organisers to emphasise the origins of the festivities – the winter solstice, I imagine – rather than the modern connotations which may have become attached to it.

    You note the British and American attitudes differ: I imagine that they would.
    Speaking as an outsider to American culture – so open to any correction – it strikes me that there is a huge feeling that one must compensate for the guilt of a racism associated with slavery.
    In Britain there is not, in my experience, that feeling as the British managed to enslave their own people quite successfully without using the word.

    Racism, then, is racism without the hangovers of history…which may explain your finding that people say that they have no racist intent, so whatever it is is all right.

    Racism is rife here in Costa Rica….no one wants the Gringos….and they don`t even provoke hatred by dancing the morris…

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    • The people who defend Darkie Days will be happy to tell you that it has not racist intent. As will the people who sell golliwogs. Oh, hell, don’t get me going.

      In the U.S., yes, you’ll find whites who feel guilty at the legacy of slavery. You’ll also find quite open racists, and racism wrapped inside it’s-just-how-thing-are. And some whites who, like me, don’t fit into any of those categories. Guilt’s no use to anyone, so as much as possible I’ll pass, thanks.

      A bladder filled with lard? Ack! I’ll pass on that as well if it won’t hurt your feelings.

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      • You haven`t had to duck a bladder of lard when both parties are inebriated…..?

        So guilt plays no part then?
        Personally I will bear guilt for injuries I have done, but not for those over which I have had no control….but (liberal) Americans I have met down the years seem to have suffered from a guilt over slavery and economic dominance which seemed to me to be counter productive.
        Get on and do something about the situation now rather than wallow in the past.

        Intent is all. If you are organising a solstice event and racists push in…then you get them out. You have the law and society behind you. No need to let a tradition die because it is misused.
        But you need a bit of gumption not to be messed around either by racists or those falling over backwards not to be regarded as such.

        My feelings are unlikely to be hurt…a sensible exchange of views hurts no one.

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  14. I know I am late to the party on this one, I have been hiding on a mountain in wales, recovering from a weekend of morris dancing :-)

    I must have mentioned before that I am a morris dancer! I am a border morris dancer and it is border sides that traditionally black their faces (we don’t but I’ll come to that shortly). This tradition as far as we know is a form of disguise and we will explain it and explain it because noone means offence by it. We also admit that we don’t really know the origins of the tradition.

    I can completely understand why it can be seen as racist. I can also completely understand the argument that says just because it wasn’t meant that way doesn’t excuse it. it is problematic because it can have a lot of negative connotations which are extremely hard to explain away. If it is offensive to people then is is offensive, whether it is intended to be or not. It is a difficult and confusing topic and I have read and read and read discussion after discussion on the subject!
    That being said, i have never personally met anyone who is offended by it. We are not blackface, we are masked, but we have danced out with sides who are and we have had audiences from a huge variety of backgrounds who have spoken to us about it and not seemed offended by it. I know this doesn’t mean they aren’t and I know that it doesn’t mean that people aren’t offended and just quiet about it.
    The only people who seem to be offended by it from what I have seen are white middle class people.

    However…after saying all of that, I can see both sides, but… I wouldn’t be comfortable blacking my face.
    I wouldn’t do it for all the reason you have outlined, it just doesn’t sit right.

    There are a lot of sides who have moved away from the traditional all black to black and another colour patterns to attempt to distance themselves from it.

    this seems to be turning into an essay, sorry…

    I mentioned i belong to a masked border side, we where black with black full head covering masks which all have a tree painted on the front. I am not sure if I have ever sent you a link but I’ll find a video…we are not particularly traditional :-D
    http://www.mythago.org.uk/

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  15. My Brother lives in Birmingham (UK) and they recently had morris dancers in the city centre displaying their skills. Some did have blackened faces and some spectators took offence at this perceiving it to be a racist gesture. While I understand it’s origins may be innocent it’s by the by, in a multiracial society is it really appropriate. Yes they could simply ask the dancers what’s the story behind it but would you if you were of ethnic origin? Would you want to approach them and ask are you ridiculing me? Just because it’s ‘tradition’ doesn’t necessarily make it acceptable in this day and age. On the other hand I’m all for Marmite!

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    • We’re going to have to part ways on Marmite. I think. The truth is, I’ve never tasted it. And I’ve never tasted Coke. As a kid, I couldn’t bring myself to–it looked so nasty. And as an adult I never saw a reason to. But I agree about the dancers. Not many people will ask–or be present for an explanation if one’s given. They’ll be left with their assumptions, as I would have if Wild Thing hadn’t asked.

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  16. Morris dancing is done by proud Anglo-Americans in the U.S. In Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Area Transit Association used to have (may still have) its own troupe of “Metro Morrisers.” Berea College also had a morris dance troupe when I was there. I never saw anyone blacked-up, although most Metro drivers are naturally Black and don’t have to white-up if they dance (but most of the Metro Morrisers looked White to me). Still, the name always meant “Moorish,” and troupes including men unconvincingly costumed as women and animals seem traditional, so why not some dressed up as Moroccans too. The bells suggest jesters and probably always the idea of “We’re clowning so we can say all kinds of politically incorrect things that wouldn’t be safe to say if we didn’t have masks and bells on.”

    Some British West Indians go in for English Things like morris dancing (which my husband never did), cricket (which he did in youth), and chess (which he did all his life). Wanting home rule for their native islands does not keep them from enjoying their British Heritage! What about dark-skinned British Subjects from the former colonies? Do they participate in these dances?

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    • Not as far as I know, but then I live in an absurdly white part of the country, so I’m not the best person to ask.

      That’s interesting about Berea College–which if I remember right is known for keeping folk arts and traditions alive–having a morris troupe. It would, I’d assume, speak to the power of English traditions in the Appalachians.

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