Tag Archives: too close for comfort

Teach Me How to Boogie #3: Morris Dancing

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.

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Filed under chris randle, dance, music

Working in Close-Up: Fiery Furnaces, Patti Smith, Will Munro, Tracy Wright

by Carl Wilson

When I first saw Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces perform, I was (like many others) reminded of Patti Smith. But it’s in the angle of E.F.’s nose and the insolence of her mouth and the willfully untended hair, not in her voice really. E.F. has a well-bred, kids’-TV-meets-cabaret approach to singing a story, like a book on tape, her consonants so crisp it’s like they’re sweating little beads of tart apple juice. It’s more as if Edith Nesbit fronted a rock band, or Edith Wharton. Still, Smith and the Fiery Furnaces both build word-drunk narratives over a musical scaffold from the heavier end of classic rock (though in Smith’s heyday those classics were new); and they both depend on partnerships between a woman who sings and a guy who plays guitar. Smith’s most famous collaborator is Lenny Kaye, though there have been others. Eleanor Friedberger’s foil is Matthew Friedberger, her brother.

When you hear or see Patti Smith, you know that for all her generosity, she’s also a diva. The songs are her stories, the music the altar on which her words are burned and transfigured. It can be inflected, recharged, reframed by different partners, but its essence is singular. When I first heard the Friedbergers, by contrast, I imagined that the process of making music for them was like a couple of siblings goofing around with a tape recorder and making up stories.

Later, my impression shifted. Maybe Matthew was the controlling creative interest and Eleanor a performer/interpreter. But then on their most recent record, I’m Going Away, Eleanor apparently wrote the majority of the lyrics. Such a back-and-forth makes as much sense as any sort of specialization between a creative pair; my desire to get at the truth about their method – was Matt really some kind of Richard Carpenter figure, the music nerd exploiting his beautiful singing sister? – was my own problem. It was a compulsion to pin the artists in place. (The better to explain you with, my dears.)

I dropped in to see the Furnaces again last night at the Drake Underground in Toronto. The place was only half-full, surprising for a band that used to crowd much bigger halls. Their excursions into long-form suites, one of them based on recordings they made with their grandma, seem to have worn down the more fickle listeners’ patience, even though every record the past few years has been praised as a “return to pop form.” I hope it doesn’t make the FF’s feel that they’re on any kind of downward drift. They certainly don’t play like it. They must appreciate having an audience instead that’s mouthing along with every multisyllabic line.

The band (with Jason Lowenstein [Sebadoh] on bass and Robert D’Amico on drums) doesn’t make it easy for the would-be karaoke singer to follow the bouncing ball, the way it collages their recorded tunes together live into non-stop rolling medleys (I thought of Gilbert & Sullivan more than once, and Glee) that change from show to show. That element is, no matter who contributes what, perhaps the most fascinating outgrowth of this living study in collaboration. It’s difficult to know, but there seems to be no solid set list; Matt would just veer into another song at the tail end of the last, and with a practised grace, Eleanor would land on the first, wordplay-packed line as if she’d known what was coming and had already baked it a cake. Serve and volley; call and response.

Eleanor stands in the traditional place of the preacher, at the centre of the stage, to whom Matt plays choir director (or talk-show band leader); it’s not a role reversal in which second banana is secretly boss, because once he’s called the cue she once again has primary command (instrumentals are brief and gestural). It’s more like Lester Young and Billie Holiday, maybe – each power sovereign in its canton within the federated state of the song. Even on record Fiery Furnaces songs seem built like a collective of interconnected duchies or archipelagos, and the jumps between locations can weary. They’re a band whose albums can give you jet-lag.

It’s pure speculation but it seems like all these stratagems – and more I haven’t mentioned, especially an album coming out this fall called Take Me ‘Round Again, on which they cover their own songs but re-write each other’s parts – spring from the special nature of inter-sibling collaboration. Perhaps you have to play a lot of games to keep it seeming fair, like dividing up the ice cream evenly. You be the Nazi this time, I’ll be the Allies.

I’m fascinated by familial or romantic collaboration. It’s difficult enough to collaborate with friends, as on this new blog. I’ve been to the outskirts of that even-closer experience, but seldom deep inside. I was once in a band with two of my best friends, one of them an ex-, along with her brother. The interpersonal dynamics were one of the reasons we played only two shows in three years. I’ve been an assistant, a doorperson, a driver, a publicist for other intimates, but usually stayed a step back from the cauldron, kept my potions to myself. I’m not sure whether I think that a lover or family member would know too much about me to take my input seriously, or if I fear that they’d find out too much to go on loving me.

But the prospect definitely spooks and thus beguiles me. When I look at the McGarrigle-Wainwright family, or Toronto’s husband-wife Lullaby Arkestra, or the Furnaces, or any number of other such partnerships, it’s as if they have superpowers. I might over-mysticize the art that results. There’s a sci-fi aphorism that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Perhaps the same could be said of any art that is sufficiently free of fear.

This doesn’t require the conventional kind of family. I am thinking of two people that my city, Toronto, has lost, far too young and almost exactly a month apart, to cancer: One was Will Munro, an artist and party organizer and more, who managed to remap queer (and straight) life in this city. It looked like he was doing it just by getting people to dance in different places to different music. But that wasn’t it. Will was doing it by loving people’s differences more than their similarities; the effect just radiated out, and enabled others to do as he’d done. He died May 21.

Another is Tracy Wright, an actor who brought her sharp, soulful presence to all she touched, whether an experimental performance piece, TV series or movie. She collaborated with loved ones but she also made loved ones of collaborators, a category you could say extended to much of Toronto’s theatre community, as evidenced by the benefit performance of Brecht’s Galileo staged in her honour last month. She was meant to star in it, as Galileo, but then surgery was scheduled and she ended up watching over Skype from her hospital bed. She died this morning. Perhaps her talent was too sharp and particular to attract popular fame; as Galileo apocryphally said, “And yet it moves.”

These days it seems like divas, grand as they are, are too much with us. A sister playing an intricate game of musical catch with her brother shouldn’t be mistaken for and measured by Patti Smith because of her haircut. I hope that because of the way they shared their too-brief creative lives, like siblings or lovers, not bosses or stars, Tracy’s and Will’s spirits will still move and stir among us. Perhaps with enough circulation, enough give and take, this can somehow set to right what, at the end of a sad day, seems so very out of balance.

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Filed under carl wilson, music, other