In Full . . .
Tradition we fully intend to uphold
Posted on September 29 2014 at 11:59:07
In the 25 years since the formation of Alvechurch Morris, the side has never been the subject of any direct accusation of racism until the publication of the September edition of The Village (Village Views, ‘End this Morris tradition’).
In the face of such an inappropriate and ill-informed attack on the tradition, the side and its members, I felt that an immediate counter response was demanded, lest anyone should believe that the myopic views and opinions expressed within this letter were, in any way, factual.
The black-faced tradition of English folk dancing is no stranger to such controversy, at a national level, where the racist spotlight has most recently been directed at the Britannia Coconut Dancers, last Easter.
On this occasion, both the prospective Parliamentary candidate for Rossendale and Darwen, Will Straw, and the sitting MP, Jake Berry, came out in support of the Coconut Dancers, declaring that there was no racist intent.
In fact, Mr Straw went further to say that “People who claim it offensive for rural English dancers to blacken their faces are ignorant of history”.
So putting the subject of racism to one side for a moment, let us consider the tradition and its history.
The black face tradition in English folk dancing is found across the length and breadth of the country from the aforementioned Coconut Dancers in Lancashire, to the Molly dancers in East Anglia, the Sweeps along the South Coast, the Mummers in Cornwall, and, our own Welsh Border Morris.
Throughout the history of Europe from the Middle Ages onwards, there is mention of the Morris tradition.
One of the earliest references in English literature is in a book of 1510 – The Booke of all maner of Orders concerning and Erles House – which says: “If a Morris is to be performed it should take place after disguising.”
This concept of disguise is supported by the received knowledge associated with the Welsh Border Tradition, where it is widely understood that the Morris dancing was performed during the winter months when outdoor workers in rural districts were prevented from working due to the weather conditions.
In the days before a welfare state, no work meant no money, which, in turn, meant no food on the table. The workers turned to busking, effectively begging for money. In these circumstances, it was important that their identities were kept from their neighbours, their employer, and, most importantly, the authorities.
In other parts of the country, the black face seems to have been an occupational hazard. Clearly chimney sweeps were most commonly to be found with blackened faces after a day’s work, hence the tradition in the South.
In Cornwall, and Lancashire, where the dancers were drawn from mining communities, a black face was to be seen everywhere after a day spent down the pit.
There is a suggestion from modern commentators that, during Victorian times, the black face was adopted as a result of the popularity of black minstrels in the music halls.
However, this theory can have little credibility when considering that Morris dancing was performed in small rural communities at a time when people rarely went further than the nearest market town, and when television and radio did not exist and even national newspapers were rarely circulated outside the towns. The chance of these people being “on trend” is risible.
The weight of evidence in favour of the black face as a disguise seems to be overwhelming, but surely, a painted black face, by itself, cannot be considered racist.
A shaven headed individual with the “Cross of St George” painted on his face could be racist by association, as a declared member of the BNP, or he could be a fervent supporter of his national sports team.
To be considered racist, there must be behaviour and belief, as well as a painted face. Whilst Alvechurch Morris may paint their faces, there is certainly not any racist behaviour or belief amongst any of the members of the side, nor in any other black-faced Morris side with whom we have been associated over the years.
Alvechurch Morris has been together for 25 years, enjoying every one of those years, and we have been supported and appreciated both locally and further afield by those we have entertained. We fully intend to uphold the tradition into the future.
Brock, Foreman, Alvechurch Morris