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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Morris On - Morris On

posted by on February 7 at 14:30 PM


Morris, decended from the word “moorish”, describes a type of folk singing and dancing performed in England. Very rhythmic, Morris dancers usually use props such as long sticks or swords, and sometimes hand-kerchiefs to beat out the time of the dance or to use in some form whilst dancing. Morris dancers often dress up in outfits that are related to the regions they come from, Cotswold, Border Areas and the Northwest of England. English records, according to Wikipedia, mention morris dancing as far back as 1448. It can probably be seen today all over England at various folk festivals and once a year at Folk Life here in Ye Olde Seattle.

Some morris dancers in costume.

Ok, sounds geek-ish enough.

Move on to Morris On, an album of folk music performed by Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Dave Mattacks, John Kirkpatrick and Barry Dransfield with help from a certain Shirley Hutchings (né Collins).

I’ve prattled on before about folk/rock and the combinations of the two conventions, but this album is brilliant, often hilarious, meshing of the two styles. This really is a folk album that rocks (as opposed to a rock album that folks). Though folk svengali Hutchings is the real force behind the creation of this album, it would be unremarkable without the metronomic drumming of Fairchild Convention’s Dave Mattacks whose loud and boisterous playing propels all players on the album to great performances. Thompson’s guitar work is fairly background here as these are dances and not meant for intricate solo work, but the group is awesomely tight even so, and Hutchings fantastic basslines work as one with the brash Mattacks all the way through.

Lyrically the album plays all the british folk cards in spades, with the exception being that the songs are more about sexual canoodling (one song, “Cuckoo’s Nest” is so blatant that it nearly makes me blush to hear these guys sing, about planting their faces in it….) then the death and despair so often associated with the british folk scene.

Let’s not forget to mention Dame Collins (I mean Hutchings. Why did she use her married name on this recording?) who guests on two tracks, calling out the young gentlemen to dance. I can say nothing about Shirley that hasn’t been said a hundred times before. As usual her stark voice, ever-so-slightly out of tune/touch brings immediacy to the tracks.

A note about that cover: It shows all of the members wearing traditional morris dance costumes from different regions of England, but updates them with modern amenities. So Ashley’s musical morris is playing the Flying V, Kirkpatrick’s chimney sweep has a vacuum cleaner, Thompson’s Robin Hood a crossbow, etc.

But what is the tranny Mattacks about? Well, apparently it is a tradition in some Morris troupes to have a “Fool” who dresses in women’s clothing, usually something fairly ruffled and pink, but always with a big pair of mens boots on too. The fool usually dances in a special morris dance called a “Molly” dance. Below is a picture of a real Molly dancer.


And here’s a video of a bunch of guys wearing g-strings doing a morris fertility dance. It’s fucking CUH-RAY-ZEE!

Samples from Morris On can be found at my blog here.

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I wasn't halfway into the first paragraph of this review before I started saying to myself "talk about Dave Mattacks, damn it, Dave Mattacks". Patience, Fnarf, patience. Thanks for this.

There's some good stuff about these guys in Joe Boyd's recent "White Bicycles". Boyd produced Fairport and a bunch of other folk-rock stuff from the era (including Nick Drake).

I actually prefer Fairport's pop stuff, especially with Sandy Denny, better than this kind of weirdo folk hybrid stuff, but it has a wonderful swing to it.

I think Morris dancing is actually derived from a 15th-century British attempt to imitate the North African (i.e., Moorish) tribal dancing that some people saw on their travels. Of course, much of this same music got miscegenated back into African music when, as Appalachian white folk ballads, it came into contact with American slaves and their proto-blues.

Posted by Fnarf | February 7, 2008 5:03 PM

The dance itself is ancient. There are references to it throughout all of Europe, back to the time of Ancient Greece - thought not by the name Morris dance. As well, there is a horn dance in Mexico that is very similar. These come from an agricultural traditions and the world was agricultural with all it's rites and rituals before later religions supplanted them.

The name occurred rather late in the scheme of things. There was a great popularity in naming things after the Moors, mimicking them and making fun of them,... once they were made to leave Europe of course.
During certain times of year, in Old and Ancient England, the peasants would put on pageants that mocked the land holders, the local officials and anyone else that usually they weren't allowed to contradict. They would also make pageants about current events and heroic fantasy,... (such as fighting off the Moors)
One tradition was the Mummers plays, where the dancers would come to the landholder's house (local lord), Morris dance, sometimes do a pageant and have dinner at the lord's table all without speaking and usually in blackface (though customs in different villages and counties differ.)

Most often the items used in Morris dance were kept in parish church. The dances were outlawed under various religious leaders- Cromwell, for instance. And the horn dances in particular, were strictly outlawed when the peasants lost their hunting rights. (Only the landholders were allowed to hunt deer).
The dances almost did die out. They were resurrected by Cecil Sharp, who's passion was folk music and dances. He traveled to different villages and talked to the old men,.. some of whom only remembered seeing the dances as children. They taught him what they could and it became an academic pursuit for a good while.
This is one reason why so many times the dances are done without the energy and passion that a fertility rite would inspire. Old men taught them to scholars. Academia is not known for it's dancing passion.

Fertility... It is said that the hand-kerchiefs are representative of the head of the grain. So the higher one jumps the higher will grow the grain. It is also said that it represents sperm. The bells awaken the spirit of the land, and scare off any evil. The sticks, the same.

Posted by Batanita | February 8, 2008 9:18 AM

In the same series of recordings are:
Son of Morris On,
Grandson of Morris On, and
Great Grandson of Morris On

Posted by Dragan | February 12, 2008 5:06 PM

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