by Chris Randle
A few months ago, I gave my dad a burnt CD for Father’s Day. It was an old compilation I’d stumbled across online: BBC’s Folk on 2 Presents Northumbrian Folk. Northumbria (or Northumberland) is the region in Northeast England where he grew up, and its location on the country’s symbolic map is akin to Quebec’s position in the Francophonie: not just poor but tacky too. The much-mocked dominant accent seems to lilt and burr at the same time. The landscape is windswept, sparsely populated and severe; one of the most popular tourist attractions is the wall Emperor Hadrian built to repel the local barbarians. It might be projection, but I sense that my dad still feels some ambivalence about the place. Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, who was born two years later and a few miles away, wrote a song about the Newcastle Catholic school he endured: “This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave.”
The gift delighted my dad, though, and now it fascinates me. One of its strangest tracks is “The North Walbottle Rapper Sword Dance” – not, sadly, blue-eyed snappin’ but rather a Northumbrian variation on the English folk tradition of morris dancing. While the LP’s field recording sounds like a series of rapid-fire clatters and inscrutable calls, these directions for the North Walbottle version show how intricately rapper routines are structured. Several years ago I traveled to a church in Toronto’s east end semi-regularly for the English folk dances held there, and in the beginning I marveled at their heavy regimentation. But the friend who introduced me to the whole thing had grown up amongst morris men, and those guys are yet more rigorous about their crafts (choreographic, communal, libational). I blearily watched a few of them lock swords at dawn one May Day, equally theatrical in their way as the goths playing pagan nearby.
Like Christmas, Thor comics and lots of other fun things, morris dancing itself is often believed to have pre-Christian origins. When did you ever see so many people wearing bells outside of The Wicker Man? According to John Forrest’s History of Morris Dancing, however, the earliest recorded reference to any moves by that name is from 1458. Forrest writes: “Almost as soon as the idea of pagan origins was developed, competing hypotheses emerged, based on very different agendas. The classicism of the seventeenth century, for example, sought an origin for morris in classical antiquity, the commonest hypothesis being that it was invented by Pyrrhus, son of Achilles.” A Moorish antecedent was mooted too; even before mass culture, some paranoiacs viewed popular entertainments only as corrupting “miscegenation.”
The mythic pagan origin of morris feels right, at least. The dances are redolent of an ancient, ley-webbed England, a land where some druid might bless the harvest by dragging his sickle across your throat. The fact that this place is mostly imaginary doesn’t preclude its potential vividness. Scotsman Grant Morrison included stray references to villainous Morris Men in a recent Batman & Robin storyline (along with a much more prominent Northumbrian rogue, King Coal), inspiring one of the bloggers at Mindless Ones to write: “They are inescapably creepy…it is clear even to children that their treasured accoutrements and mannered, over-rehearsed and curiously arrhythmic movements are intended to carry meanings readable only by other Morrises, and the darkling gods of yesteryear themselves…Their ossified yearning for a lost, or probably entirely invented and phantasmic Merrie Englande, also feeds in to discourses about cultural conservatism, purity and superiority that personally makes me feel uncomfortable in a very concrete and political way.”
Yet an invented past doesn’t have to be a purely reactionary one, in morris circles or any other ones. Sunderland, my dad’s hometown, is intensely proud of its industrial history, the shipyards and coal mines that were long since hollowed out. There’s a monument in the shape of a miner’s lamp outside the local football stadium. My dad is an unsentimental man, though, and I bet he prefers the slyer version of this story from “In the Bar Room,” another Northumbrian Folk selection: “In the bar room, in the bar room, that’s where we congregate / To drill the holes and fill the coals and shovel back the slate / And for to do a job of work, why I am never late / That’s providing that we do it in the bar room.” If we can’t erase the traces, we can always smudge them.