Folk traditions should not be treated as fossils that are too brittle to evolve, argues Emma Rock.
David Cameron found controversy and divided opinion this week by posing in a photograph with a Border Morris side wearing traditional black face paint in Banbury, near his Oxfordshire constituency.
Many in the folk world will have greeted this latest gaffe with a frustrated sigh as once again commentators are polarised to the left and right. On the one hand we have left wing writers pointing out the obvious racial connotations of blacking the face, and, on the other, the right declaring that this is an example of political correctness gone mad and an assault on English tradition.
For members of the folk community what seems consistently absent is a more balanced argument that neither consigns all English folk dance to the dustbin, nor provides convenient cover for nationalists and racists.
Most Morris dancers will be able to tell you that the origin of blacking the face goes back to farm labourers who wanted a disguise from their bosses while begging and busking during the winter. However, it is also very possible that it was an attempt to mimic the North African dances that were probably Morris’s inspiration.
Either way, the vast majority of present day Morris performers who do black their face do not do so as a racial comment but because it is seen as part of the tradition. On the whole the Morris community is not welcoming to extreme displays of nationalism. On the contrary, facial disguise is more often linked to acts of rebellion against the rural rich and mostly heralded as part of the appeal and menace of performing these dances.
My own family have been heavily involved in Morris and English folk music for the last three generations. I grew up in a Morris village in Cameron’s Witney constituency and went to school with children who Morris danced. Contrary to popular perception, however, Cameron has not always been supportive of Morris. It would be an exaggeration to say all Morris is working class, but it certainly is not a pastime patronised by the rich, such as fox hunting or other field sports.
While local youth clubs were closed down, Morris has also suffered. The gentrification of traditional pub venues into wine bars and restaurants has made them often actively aggressive towards Morris. At the same time some Tories have actively sought to exclude Morris performers from public events, such as Lord Coe’s decision to keep Morris out of the 2012 Olympics. It’s not hard to see why when Morris dancers feature heavily in local left wing events such as the annual Levellers Day.
Origins and development
The earliest evidence of Morris dancing in England dates to somewhere around the 1500s. It was certainly known of during Shakespeare’s time, as is documented by the exploits of Globe Theatre actor Will Kemp who Morris danced from London to Norwich.
Most modern speculations on the origins of Morris suggest it may have come from a form of Moorish dancing. This certainly seems to fit with similar forms of dance from around Europe that date back to the height of the Muslim presence in Spain. One thing that is fairly certain, however, is that Morris is not pagan nor anything like that old.
Modern Morris dancing, while retaining some of the early trademarks such as bells, hankies and sticks, has changed hugely in the few hundred years it has existed. By the late 19th century most Morris in the South of England had died out completely with only a handful of dancers continuing it.
Since the 20th century Morris has undergone several revivals and now represents a broad church of both style and opinion. Among this are Cotswold (perhaps the most famous, who wear white and coloured sashes), Lancashire Clog, Long Sword, Rapper (from the mining communities of the North East), East Anglian Molly and Border, from the Welsh border region. Of these only Molly and Border have groups that regularly blacken their faces.
From my experience Morris is not a re-enactment of ancient ritual but a dance form that looks to the past, embraces new ideas and provides an outlet for artistic expression. There is often a divide between generations, as demonstrated by the stark contrast between the more formal men-only “ring sides” and younger mixed groups often based around universities.
Given the innocent intentions of many of those who do black their face, it would be easy to dismiss any criticism of the practice as “political correctness” and an attack on tradition. But I think it is important that we stop and think about the repercussions of wearing black face paint.
We do not live within a world that is free from racist oppression. Race is still on the agenda, be it racially motivated violence or institutionalised discrimination against black people in virtually all aspects of British society. When looking at a picture such as this, the first connection most people outside the folk community will make is that of race.
Only a few years ago Nick Griffin and the BNP tried to hijack folk music and use it as means of pushing their racist agenda. It is to the credit of the folk community that his ambitions were thwarted, thanks to widespread support for Folk Against Fascism which inspired the support of overwhelming majority of the folk scene.
A living tradition
So the question is really whether it is more important to continue a tradition unchanged, or to avoid a practice that could be mistakenly perceived as racist statement. For me it’s certainly the latter.
Morris dancing is a living tradition, and like any tradition it survives by adapting and making itself relevant. Dancers are no longer begging farm labourers or miners – they now perform for fun instead of money. The music has changed too, bringing in influences from other genres. Even the accordion, a characteristic instrument associated with Morris, has only been part of the tradition since its invention roughly 100 years ago.
So given that Morris changes all the time, what is stopping us from making this particular modification? Many Border and Molly sides either do not paint their face or opt for alternative colours to black. The Border Morris side Boggarts Breakfast paint their faces blue. The Molly group Gog Magog use different bright colours, which for me contributes their wacky style. Others opt for patterns, such as Pig Dyke Molly, though their take could be seen as a reference to the rock band KISS.
There are wide variety of different options for Morris sides who don’t want to be subject of this debate, or wish to make a gesture towards the sensitivities of racism. Our tradition is only in danger of dying out if we treat it like a fossil that is too brittle to evolve. It’s a strong, vibrant form of dance, and it will not be hurt or destroyed by wearing blue, green or purple on the face in place of black.
And that small change may be part of ensuring that Morris is a welcoming place for people of all ethnicities – and grows for generations to come. One of the dancers pictured with Cameron spoke to the Independent about her make-up. When asked why she used a black stripe rather than full black face paint, she replied: “In deference to my daughter-in-law. She’s very sensitive because she’s a black American and is a bit confused by it because it’s not an American tradition.”
• Emma Rock is a folk artist and socialist in the IS Network. A version of this article was first published on the IS Network website.