Sunday, August 16, 2009

Finalé! from Gary Thomas at Broadstairs Folk Week

Friday, the final day of the Broadstairs Folk Festival, even as my friends across the pond are beginning the three-day Philadelphia Folk Festival, which is my usual venue at this time of year. Astonishingly, the English weather has held through the week -- sunny, warm, and barely a sprinkle of rain. In sum, perfect music festival weather, especially here by the sea (actually, the English Channel, to be perfectly accurate).

Well, I've been avoiding bringing up one English tradition, but it cannot be avoided at an English folk festival -- Morris dancing.

Morris, as it is simply known, is where teams, called “sides,” perform choreographed dances to the accompaniment of concertinas and fiddles and sometimes other instruments. The dancers have bells strapped on to their legs as they dance in a circle, waving handkerchiefs and clapping sticks together. The dancers are costumed in what might be called English lederhosen -- shorts with suspenders, white shirts, decorative ribbons. They are often seen with ale tankards clipped to their belts. (Drinking plays a significant part in Morris. I can't envision people taking it up sober.)

The dancers are mostly male, but there are female Morris sides. There are also great stylistic differences between regions. I've even seen a Morris motorcycle side who looked like a cross between Hells' Angels and Florida beachcombers. A tough crowd -- they clap together lead pipes rather than sticks.

No one knows how old Morris dancing is or its exact origins. Claims of pre-Christian tradition are dubious, but mentions of it are found in 15th century manuscripts. It was revived in the early 20th century thanks to the efforts of the great English folklorist Cecil Sharp. (Sharp was a key figure in digging out the ballads of the American southern mountains and documenting their similarities and roots in English, Scots, and Irish songs.)

Morris has its fierce adherents in English folk circles who see it as carrying on a great folk tradition. It also has just as vociferous detractors who find it all just a bit pretentious or silly. (Original joke: What is the crime of murdering a Morris dancer? Morriscide.) However you see it -- and you WILL see it at any English folk festival, and at any time or locale -- it is fascinating with a kind of bouncy infectious cheer. In fact, as I write this in a local pub (the only place in Broadstairs with a Wi-Fi connection) there is a Morris band playing. And it is quite conducive to drinking pints of strong beer. Cheers!

Great workshop this morning with Lynn Heraud and Pat Turner, two ladies with exquisite close harmonies, on “Songs Across the Pond.” It was like a very small university class, really, with all of the perhaps 8 attendees contributing songs. As mentioned earlier, versions of American and British/Scots/Irish songs traveled across the Atlantic and, in some cases, back again. This musical crosspollination has been an enduring theme here at Broadstairs Folk Week.

Tonight the big finale is the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (after the March of 100 Ukuleles thru the narrow streets of Broadstairs). Let's hear it for superfluous strumming!

I should not let this pass without thanks to the Broadstairs Folk folk, and in particular festival director Jo Tuffs, and to all the great musicians who bother entertained and taught me.
And a very special thanks to my hosts, fellow musicians, and dear friends, Dave and Carol Partridge. I have known Dave and Carol since we discovered each other while working in Pakistan 19 years ago, where musical evenings were one of our only forms of entertainment (we even did a concert at the American Club in Peshawar). They have been the souls of hospitality in showing a heathen Yank around the byways of English folk music. The pints are on me!

Gary Thomas
August 14, 2009
Broadstairs, England

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