From regular Guest Blogger Colm Redmond
It is striking how often references to English cultural traditions are couched in a language of loss. This is palpable, for example, in journalist A A Gill’s elegiac account of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance:
Down a winding cobbled street from the church trips the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, the most evocative and strangely dramatic of all morris dances, performed for hundreds of years, conceivably for thousands. They are led by a single fiddler, dressed in a rag coat, playing a tune that is childlike and simple, but also full of sadness and an ethereal, mordant power, like the soundtrack of a dream. Behind him come men carrying antlered fallow deer heads in front of their faces. Behind them, a man-woman, a hunter and a hobbyhorse. They dance in silence, slowly. ...
[Another well-known, and controversial, tradition is] …the Britannia Coco-nut Dancers of Bacup, Derbyshire, whose blackened faces are part of an outlandish and unique costume that includes ‘decorated clogs with bells, long white socks, black velvet knee-breeches; a white skirt decorated with red horizontal bands; a white hat adorned with red or blue braid, pom-poms, and feather’.
observations: One of my tasks at Clothes In Books is to write about books the original blogger, and other guests, might not. And today’s book definitely fits that remit. Performing Englishness is not a novel, and it’s not really in the business of “entertaining” anyone, although it does. It’s an academic work and written in a very formal way, and it discusses how successive folk revivals, particularly the current one, have affected the way the English (as distinct from the rest of Britain) feel, and are perceived and organised and self-identified.
The writers (including friend of the blog Dr Trish Winter) are musicians as well as academics, and most of the book centres around English folk music. But dance comes into it too - not just Morris dancing, which is used as a convenient catch-all title for many different English styles, but Border Morris and Molly, to name but two others. The matter of the costumes worn by folk dance “sides” was too good to miss, for CiB.
Elsewhere in the book there is a reference to a major question about different sides’ distinctive costumes: whether they carry handkerchiefs or not. But there are more noticeable specialities, such as the Britannia men’s skirts and the strange assortment of outfits at Abbots Bromley.
One problematic area is the highly controversial practice of blacking-up, whose origins are mysterious. Many modern Morris and Molly sides, who wish to maintain the face-painting tradition without doing something they consider unacceptable, get around it by painting their faces blue or green or in extravagant styles to go with the extravagant costumes. The brilliant main pic is of a member of the Pig Dyke Molly, at the Sidmouth Festival in 2012. It’s used here with the very kind permission of the photographer Richard Powell, who lives in Sidmouth. You can see more of his work here: and lots more pics of the Pig Dyke Molly, in their wild black and white costumes, on Google and Flickr.
There are numerous videos from Abbots Bromley on YouTube, including an extract from the Unthank sisters’ 2010 BBC documentary Still Folk Dancing… After All These Years. Strangely, the clip that most resembles Gill’s description is also the most flagrantly inauthentic - performed on a noisy Maryland sidewalk by an American side:
This clip from the Unthanks’ programme shows the Bacup dancers and includes some explanations:
The description of their costumes, quoted in Performing Englishness, is from a 1990 article by Theresa Buckland in the Dance Research Journal. The b&w photograph was taken at Abbots Bromley, no later than 1914.
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