on the Insane
Confessions of a Shropshire Bedlam
By John Kirkpatrick
from English Dance & Song Vol 41 No 3 1979
"The practice of re-writing a folk-song is abominable, and I wouldn't trust it to anyone," said Vaughan Williams, "except myself." Substitute "dance" for "song", and you may begin to appreciate the magnitude of this present author's particular abominations. For this is the tragic tale of the gross debasement of a fine arm of our national heritage; of the plundering of archives with a view to prostituting all that was found there; of the schemings of an evil, twisted mind that dared to think that these dances were not worthy to be preserved as they stood on the library shelf; of the contamination of ancient ways with the newfangled ideas, even the deliberate invention, of an arrogant, self-opinionated upstart-me!
But first we must set the scene.
Shropshire 1973. Enter our hero with his lovely assistant, Sue Harris. The fierce local patriotism that fires all immigrants to this part of the world immediately takes hold, and the hunt begins for songs, tunes, and dances of a Shropshire origin. Morris dancing appears to exist in a regional variation-Border Morris but previous experience and observation show that this is generally regarded at best as a novelty and at worst as a joke. We must investigate further ...
Meanwhile the South Shropshire Morris Men beckon, and spasmodic visits to their practices ensue. Despite the modest confines of their title, they had at this time no other competition in the County, and performed their Cotswold Morris in the time- honoured tradition of the EFDSS and The Morris Ring. Following, as it did, a two-year absence from regular dancing, I found myself making a rigorous assessment of the Ring conventions of style and presentation which this honourable team had adopted. Twelve formative and action-packed, years with The Hammersmith Morris Men in London had left a legacy of strong personal preferences in the matter of morris dancing, and many pig-headed notions were already firmly entrenched. As these were all made manifest later in the Shropshire Bedlams, they deserve an airing here.
Energy. Everyone agrees that what we are dealing with is the relic of an ancient fertility rite. It is supposed to bring luck. Its performance should thrill and excite both dancers and audience. There should be a sense of urgency and vitality in the air, an electric atmosphere. It should be an uplifting and entrancing experience. At the last Ring Meeting I attended (as an onlooker) the amount of energy expended was more appropriate to the bowling green than the village green. There was no passion, no fire, no communication of joy or lust for living. Young men are given to excess. Any team I taught would have to be far more ferocious and flamboyant than this mincing middle-aged antiquated eye-wash.
Speed. I have always felt that much of the potential grandeur of the individual movements in Cotswold Morris is denied because the speed of dancing is too fast, Snatched dancing may impress the uninitiated but it often conceals lack of ability, and indicates a coarseness of approach and a failure to grasp the essence of the medium. The more time each step and flourish is allowed, the greater the heights of exhilaration to which an expansive dancer may soar. And the greater the individual freedom to interpret according to the whim of the moment. Spontaneity must be an acceptable ingredient in a definition of folk music.
Eighty Years On. Which leads me to question the generally felt obligation to adhere strictly to what Sharp and the other collectors noted in their travels. Their work was monumental, and all of us now are profoundly in their debt. But what they pieced together from fragments of a dying art is now a well-established practice. Some experiments based on what our great-grandfathers were doing are surely permissible, even desirable, if the Morris Revival is to be anything more than a museum showcase. I doubt if the Morris of 1899 was exactly the same as that of 1819. The difficulty for us in 1979 is to capture the spirit of the original in whatever amendments we choose to impose on its form. A tricky task, and one not fully appreciated by some modern morrissers who have tried out new ideas.
A traditional morris dancer would have had a much less cluttered view of his art than those of us who, in a radically changed social atmosphere, learn these dances for pleasure. The general practice of the EFDSS and The Morris Ring has made it a virtue to be conversant with every different type of ritual dance and to excel in executing each one perfectly according to the letter of the law. In doing so we lose what every traditional dancer must have possessed by right, namely the ability to immerse himself totally in the overall spirit of the dance, and to allow the instinctive faculties of feeling and emotion to overwhelm the thinking, intellectual approach which we, in the Revival, cannot avoid as long as we are trying to remember which hand movements and which steps we are supposed to be doing in the particular dance of the moment. Traditionally there were no traditions. You danced the Morris as you knew it. It was an act of surrender. Any innovations were governed by the strict limitations, in our terms, of the dancer's experience.
I believe that we should impose similar limits on ourselves. Each team should have one style and do nothing else. There is plenty to choose from after all. Only then can we hope to experience the same sort of feelings as the old dancers, and hope that in time the spirit that moved in them may move us towards an ideal state where exuberance and spontaneity are tempered by discipline and discretion.
Meanwhile, back in Shropshire ...
In May 1975 the Gloucestershire Old Spot Morris Dancers visited Clun May Fair. They are athletic, precise, sexy and spirited. Some local Sixth Formers are so impressed that they ask their Folkie teacher where they can learn this sort of thing. Folkie teacher, not aware of the South Shropshire Morris Men's existence, approaches the only person he knows who might initiate his pupils into the mysteries of the art. No prizes for guessing whose eyes light up with glee! Here was a heaven-sent opportunity. There was an unexplored local tradition; there was a nucleus of keen young people with no preconceptions about dancing; and there was me, dissatisfied with morris generally, anxious to try a fresh approach, eager to put Shropshire on the morris map, and maybe in the process show people a thing or two. All the omens were favourable. I set about my homework with a happy heart.
Sources. First and foremost there is the article by E C Cawte in the EFDSS Journal of 1963, "The Morris Dance in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire". His list of references is enormous and following them up proved to be a lengthy but fascinating process. There are a few notations of dances in Roy Dommett's leaflet Other Morris (in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library) some of which later appeared in Lionel Bacon's Handbook of Morris Dancing published by The Morris Ring. Apart from this handful of complete dances, there is a mass of fragments and snippets of things. There are some overall similarities, but on the whole each dance stands on its own. So I decided to impose a unity of step and style, and then fit the information to that, rather than start with the collected material and work towards some kind of synthesis of all the disparate elements.
As with many features of the Bedlams' dancing, inspiration came to me whilst walking our dog. On this occasion Sue and I had stopped off on one of the many journeys we are obliged to undertake in the course of our business, so that she might suckle our infant son. We were on the edge of the village of White Ladies Aston, which had yielded one of the fullest and most interesting dances of all in the Border tradition. While Shep terrorised the local rabbit population, I hit upon a system of stepping taking up two bars of music, so that four steps, twice off each foot, filled eight bars. In terms of the evidence available, this has no justification whatsoever in the morris of the Border Counties, nor of anywhere else come to that, although I did notice recently that the step occurs fleetingly in one of the Bacup Coconut dances. As a regular feature in these dances it is totally my invention.
This stepping had a spacious rhythm of its own which naturally affected the pace of every movement and figure. The whole process slowed right down. It was open, rolling, flowing. It made Cotswold Morris seem cramped, frantic, and jerky. It was a deliberate move away from what already existed and it needed time to instil itself in the blood before any specific dances were attempted.
The dog thought I was bonkers. In order not to lose sight of him altogether, the first dance that arrived was a processional. It was based on sword dance figures and I put it to a tune from Regency Brighton. Qualms of conscience decreed that in future, perhaps a little more attention might be paid to local information.
Looking back now at the original material, the way our dances came together seems totally random. Bits of this were added to bits of that to make a new hybrid. More bits made another. Any remaining bits were slung together as the basis of a third. Then onto another source and start again. I offer no defence or apology for taking these outrageous liberties. It just felt right at the time, at that stage in the development of our style and repertory. And there was the constant inspiration flowing from out the mists of the Shropshire Hills to keep me on the right track, filling any gaps in the dances with a considerable sprinkling of home-spun fairy dust. Homework over.
St Swithun's Day, July 15th 1975. Our first meeting in Clun Memorial Hall. There were a few sixth formers, a couple of teachers, one or two waifs and strays and, merciful heavens one girl! Next time there were three girls. Next time five. It soon became apparent that there would be enough to have a separate team. So after a few joint meetings Sue took her women off to Clun Parish Room to form Martha Rhoden's Tuppenny Dish. This is not their story, but the two teams have always been inseparable and the one cannot be thought of without the other. So, in passing, I'll just say that of all the women's teams I've seen, there is none more spirited and vigorous, yet more graceful and feminine than our Martha's. Send them victorious.
Shropshire Bedlams. The men's team was expanding too, in numbers and ideas. I was determined to throw out all conventions and preconceptions from my previous dancing days, so I introduced alternatives to the usual "once to yourself", and the habit of walking round in a dignified circle at the end. A well trained observer may be able to spot these departures from the norm in our performances. But we needed a name to encapsulate our identity, and luckily there was just the thing lurking in Shrewsbury Public Library.
The account books of the Shrewsbury Glovers' Company contain some entries which puzzled an eagle-eyed antiquarian, styling himself "Shrowsbury", who brought them to light in 1911 in a publication called Bye-Gones relating to Wales and the Border Counties. "In 1688 one shilling was paid to the 'Bedlam Morris', and the next charge is ten shillings for 'ye bedlom morris'. In 1689 five shillings were received by the 'Bedloms'. What were these bedloms?" The correspondence columns buzzed with speculation until finally "O.Y." declared that they must have been morris dancers, quoting recent parallels of the usage of the word in Northamptonshire, and ending "the phrase may, therefore, be safely added to the records of words used in Shropshire". Correspondence closed.
At the time I was convinced that the reference was to "Shropshire Bedlams" but like a lot of other things, this must have been wishful thinking. But it was a good name nevertheless. It struck exactly the right chord. It was an authentic link with the part; it indicated where we came from; it was a welcome change from "The So-and-So Morris Men"; and it implied a certain lunatic element which was developing in the team anyway. What's more, it was a name to live up to, and we immediately started making as much noise as possible - by whooping and yelling, by covering our arms with bells and waving them about wildly, and by having a fair amount of percussion with our accompanying music. It was a wonderful racket. And then there was the way we looked.
Costume. Picking out some of the more commonly mentioned points of fashion among Shropshire morris dancers, I arrived at black top hats decorated with feathers, tattered jackets, and, later, one ring of bells below each knee. And, of course, blackened faces and hands. (it was a black dog. Good job we didn't have a Dalmatian!) For a while I wasn't sure what to wear on our legs, until one of the keen young lads came to practice wearing his hat and jacket, with blue denim jeans and white pumps. It looked great. And it was just the fusion of new and old that I was searching for. It symbolised the whole approach of the team.
The effect of this costume is quite magical. The black face, under a black top hat, obliterates all recognisable features of the dancer. The jacket disguises the shape of the body beneath, especially with a lot of spinning and arm waving. Add the blue legs, and from any distance it becomes difficult to focus on anything except white feet flashing about. Best of all, it could not be confused with the costume of any other team, even at two hundred paces on a foggy morning.
Music. Not all the dances available had tunes attached. Some that did exist did not seem to suit our style. Luckily there was an untapped source of local tunes noted by Cecil Sharp from John Locke, a fiddler who played all over South Shropshire and North Herefordshire until about 1930. All his brothers played, and two sons of one of these brothers live just outside Clun where we started practising. There are now only two or three of his tunes that we don't yet use in either of our teams. Very often the tune has given us the name for the dance which would otherwise be known only by its place of origin. (Nothing can be more boring than giving a casual passing audience a potted lecture about where your dances come from. We should try and preserve a little mystery. If they want to know they'll ask.) Sometimes the nature of the tune has suggested a dance idea. Either way, Fiddler Locke's magnificent and unusual tunes could not have been tailor-made to fit our dances more exactly.
Singing during the dances seems to have been pretty common, so we do a bit of that, just for the odd verse and chorus. Some of our verses are odder than others, and it will come as no surprise by now to learn that they are often impossible to find, even in the deepest vaults of Cecil Sharp House.
St. Swithun's Day 1979. As I write, our fourth birthday has just passed. Definitely older and possibly wiser. Within such a short time there have been many changes. We have gained a brother for the infant son, and lost the Memorial Hall under the fire regulations. A gleaming replacement has just been finished, with a floor like an ice rink. Shropshire now sports eight morris teams - four of men, three of women, and one of boys - and heaven is now full of dancing dogs since Shep took off there under the wheels of a car.
The turnover in personnel in the team has been remarkable. Only a few who attended that first practice now remain, and the original Sixth Formers are now job hunting with their freshly earned college qualifications. Nevertheless we have a good number of dancers, and the influx of new members forces continual reappraisal of what we're doing, which is vital now that the first creative thrill has mellowed. I find it difficult to keep tabs on the general progress of the dancing, although my occasional forced absences through work do mean that I can come back to it all with a fresher mind. For some time we've been practising in a room which is far too small and which has been adversely affecting our standard of performance, but now we've found a better hall and can look forward to a general improvement.
Apart from the processional, which is for any even number, we have a repertory of fourteen dances, for sets of three, four, six, eight, ten and, most recently, nine. They all use sticks apart from two with clapping, one of which involves other parts of the, body as well as the hands. Although I still have a few ideas for dances up my sleeve, I feel in some ways that we have too many already, for the reasons I set out earlier. It's difficult to live up to one's ideals, principally in the matter of balancing the need to keep sensible limits with the equal need of sustaining interest and enthusiasm. Still, thinking about it keeps me on my toes and if I was completely satisfied with the way things were something would be very wrong.
On the whole I'm pleased and proud of what the Bedlams have achieved. The point has been made. A new morris has been created by clothing old bones with our own peculiar flesh. Our dancing has had the impact I hoped for. Messrs Cawte and Dommett have indicated their general approval, while others have been totally bewildered. Both reactions are very welcome.
Suddenly, there is a great interest in Border Morris. Rumours reach me that our steps are being taught as authentic and our dances are being pinched. Some teams have gone back to the same sources and reached their own conclusions. It's all there for the finding. There is still an enormous amount of raw material waiting to be moulded into shape by somebody with vision, not only from our own area but from all over the country. Don't be downhearted. All this could be yours for only a few days' research. Get yourself ready and go, man, go.