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Transcript of Bringing in the May

Transcript of video presentation by Jennifer Cutting

Hello, I'm Jennifer Cutting. I'm a musician and an ethnomusicologist in the American Folklife Center. For many, many, years, I've been celebrating May 1st, or "May Day," by getting up before sunrise to do Morris dancing, an English custom brought to America by folk dance teachers in the years before World War I.

Like the Maypole, Morris dancing was a May Day custom celebrated in England in the late 1700s, but it's mentioned in Europe as far back as the 12th century. So, when I came to work one May Day in my Morris dancing attire and found a photograph in our collections of another musician celebrating May Day in England some seventy years ago, and he was dressed very much as I was dressed in that moment, it was a very strange, but a very good feeling. It made me see myself as a link in a chain that stretches a long way back into the past, and that will continue a long way into the future.

In Britain, the celebration of spring has a very long history. The old Celtic festival of Beltane signaled the end of winter and the coming of summer. It was the time when the cattle were turned out to their summer grazing pastures. Later, when the Romans occupied Britain, they introduced their own May feast for the worship of Flora, the goddess of flowers, and Maia, the goddess of spring for whom the month of May is named. So gradually, the rituals of the Roman floralia were blended into Celtic Beltane rituals as a May festival. The result was the celebration of May Day and the traditions that developed around it.

For instance, "Bringing in the May" meant going out into the woods and fields on May Eve, the night before May Day, to gather flowers and greenery for decorations, and also to enjoy the many amorous possibilities of an unchaperoned night in the woods.
By the Middle Ages, every English village had its Maypole. The earliest Maypoles were tall trees stripped of their branches, and one village would vie with the next to show who could produce the tallest one. On May Day itself, the Maypole served as the centerpiece for sports, dancing and games that took place around it.

Both May Eve and May Day were traditionally a time of letting your hair down and getting a little crazy, of acting out your spring fever. But as early as 1240, the Bishop of Lincoln complained in writing that too many priests were also joining in the fun! Later, the Puritans in both Britain and America disapproved of Maypoles as quote, "a heathenish vanity of superstition and wickedness." In fact, when Thomas Morton raised a Maypole on Boston's south shore in 1627, he was promptly arrested by Myles Standish and eight men from the Plymouth Colony.

Maypoles were finally banned in 1644 by the Puritans, who gleefully went out and chopped them all down. But, maypoles came right back in with the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, when Maying as a custom re-emerged. In the 1700s, Maying waned again, and then took a different turn in the hands of middle-class Victorians who, by the mid-1800s, were waxing nostalgic about the simpler joys of their rural ancestors.

But Victorians being Victorians, they purged Maying of certain of those simpler joys, and turned the celebration into a kind of polite, pretty children's pageant. By then, the Maypole had acquired its ribbons, and school children on both sides of the Atlantic would dance around it every May Day and plait, or braid, the ribbons. At about the same time, there was a very visible tradition of village Morris dancers in the English Cotswold region. Nowadays, Morris and Maypole dancing are still popular ways to celebrate the coming of spring, both in England and, more and more, as transplanted traditions right here in America.

Two collections in the Folklife Center document the beauty and the spirit of these British and American May celebrations: the James Madison Carpenter Collection and the Anthony Grant Barrand Collection of Morris, Sword, and Clog Dancing.
The Carpenter Collection is historical. James Carpenter did his collecting in Britain from 1928 to 1935. The Barrand Collection is contemporary. Anthony, better known as Tony, Barrand started documenting Morris dance traditions here in the U.S. in 1975, and is still collecting now in 2003.

The two collectors are an interesting study in contrasts. Carpenter was an American who went to the British Isles intending to stay for one year, but stayed for six. Barrand is an Englishman who came to study in America, discovered the seasonal dance customs of his home country alive and well here, and stayed for life. Carpenter motored across England and Scotland in his Austin Seven Roadster dressed in a jacket and tie, and introducing himself as "Dr. Carpenter from the Harvard College in America." Barrand, however, drove a Dodge Dart and was usually in the "participant observer" role, often having an assistant run the camera, while he played the "Fool" dressed in women's clothing, and was referred to by his fellow dancers as "Mother."
Both collectors worked with the state-of-the-art technology of their time. Carpenter captured music and spoken word recordings on wax cylinders with a battery-powered Dictaphone recording machine, black & white images with a camera, and text on a small portable typewriter. Almost 70 years later, Barrand captures color moving images and sound simultaneously with the latest digital video formats.

Carpenter and Barrand also have a lot in common. Both had Ph.Ds, taught at universities, and were interesting mavericks with a creative bent. But the main thing they have in common is that both collectors did a great job of capturing the amazing energy, exuberance, and persistence of these springtime dance and music traditions.

Let's look more closely at the most identifiable symbol of May Day: the Maypole. Here's a wax cylinder recording from the Carpenter Collection of a children's ring game song called "Round the Maypole."

The Carpenter Collection is particularly rich in images of Maypoles with ribbons. We have beautiful images of Maypoles from half a dozen English Cotswold-area villages from the 1920s and early '30s that show the continuity of Maypole traditions. Here is a May Queen and her court under an elaborate Union Jack canopy in the village of Shipston-on-Stour in 1924. And here's a broader view of the same town square on May Day four years later, with the May Queen and her court in the background, looking on at the Maypole dancers. Now here we are in the same village again in 1930, mid-dance when the dancers have wound the Maypole ribbons halfway down the pole.

In Maypole dancing, the dancers doing different combinations of dance steps called figures, gradually weave in and around each other so that the ribbons that are attached to the top of the Maypole interlace to form different patterns. And certain patterns became kind of institutionalized, especially with the advent of instruction books, and those patterns have names such as Barber's Pole, Single Plait, Spider's Web, Three in Hand.

Originally, though, Maypole dancing was a plain circle dance without ribbons. These clips filmed at Barrand's own wedding in Vermont in 1975 show a Maypole being raised, and as in older times, it served as a centerpiece for the dancing that took place around it. A Maypole has continued to serve as the centerpiece for the American Morris Ales in Marlboro since 1976. Documentation of such gatherings, or "ales," forms a big part of Barrand's collection.

I often get asked, "OK, why's it called 'Morris'?" There's really no simple answer to that one, though Morris probably comes from the word "Moorish." And from the time of the Crusades, all over Europe, "Morris," "morisco," & "moresca" were all words that described festive activities that were not typically part of Christian worship.

Morris dancing had its heyday in the mid-19th century in the Cotswold region of England, where the style that most Americans are likely to see originates. It was then that the costume or "kit" of white shirt, white pants, bells, and hats with ribbons and flowers took on its current form. The dancers wear brass bells on their legs, and dance with either knotted hankies or sticks.
In Carpenter's day, the dancers wore flowers around their hats, and rosettes and ribbons on their kits. And modern Morris dancers like to do this as well, but also like to decorate their kits with shiny pins & slogan buttons, some custom-made, such as these given out as souvenirs to those who attend Morris dancing "Ales." Anything goes really, as long as it appeals and says something about one's identity.

Taken together, the Carpenter and Barrand collections allow a unique look at the sights and sounds of May Day traditions that have been actively maintained on both sides of the Atlantic for nearly 80 years. Carpenter's images and recordings capture the young English men and women who continued to keep the singing and dancing in healthy shape from its medieval origins into the twentieth century. In person and on recordings, some of those dancers and musicians shaped the traditions carried on by the Americans in Barrand's films several generations later.

You'll notice that when Carpenter was in England it was primarily young girls who did the Maypole dancing and men who did the Morris dancing. Barrand's collection reflects the change that happened on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in North America, that the Morris is now just as likely to be performed by women as by men, and by people of varying backgrounds and ethnicities. Otherwise, the Morris remains much the same. Many of the same dances are being done to the same words and music, dancers still dress as they did in Carpenter's day, and fiddle and accordion are still used to play the instrumental accompaniment. Let's look at this continuity in May traditions using Carpenter's photographs and recordings, and Barrand's moving images.

Here's a 1928/1982 time warp: "Constant Billy" was a favorite dance & song of the Morris men in Bampton, Oxfordshire, where Carpenter recorded this version from one of his main informants, Ilmington singer and fiddler Sam Bennett who was famous for being able to play the fiddle and dance a jig at the same time! Constant Billy was still a favorite in 1982 in Putney, Vermont, where Barrand filmed Arnold Woodley's Bampton team on a visit to the US.

Carpenter made the earliest recordings of William "Jinky" Wells, of Bampton, who was probably the best known of the old Morris fiddlers to survive into the twentieth century. He first played for Bampton in 1899 and was their senior musician and trainer until 1953. Here's his rendition of a tune called Bonny Green Garters.

This tune has the same spirit in Barrand's film of American Morris and garland dancers at the 1980 Marlboro Morris "Ale," an annual gathering of North American and English teams.

Carpenter saw these girls in the Cotswolds doing Morris. They were probably trained by Sam Bennett. This photo that Carpenter took shows a figure in the Ilmington ribbon dance, "Maid of the Mill."

Here's the same dance being done by American women in 1984. You can hear Barrand as the Fool jokingly introduce it as "the laundry dance" because the knotted handkerchiefs look like laundry hanging on a line.

Both these collections offer much more than the spring traditions you've seen here. The Carpenter Collection, for example, is hands down one of the most important collections of British folk song and folk drama made in the 20th century, and also one of the largest. It also contains some Anglo-American and African-American traditional songs and tales as well.

The Barrand Collection not only documents Morris traditions, it's also very rich in materials on sword dancing, mummers plays, and old-style wooden-shoe or clog dancing. But the most important aspect of the Barrand Collection may be the way it captures many of the same Morris and sword teams dancing every year over more than a quarter century, letting us study a living tradition as it evolves over time.

The traditions documented in these collections are still part of many people's lives, including mine. Learning and doing is still the best way to keep a tradition alive. But the American Folklife Center's preservation efforts make it possible for people all over the world to study the history of these traditions and to keep this wonderful material from our archives... right here in our own feet and fingers!

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  July 20, 2010
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