Tradition matters. In a way I wish it didn’t, a world in which we could pick up and put down customs at the drop of a hat would certainly be a more harmonious one. It would also be far more empty, a joyless trudge through time with no festivals, no holidays, and no town criers. I like traditions, but they can be problematic; it is the nature of traditions that they are abandoned only rarely, because without continuity they are nothing.
I want you, if you’re unfamiliar with British folk dancing traditions, to bear the above paragraph in mind when I tell you that some Morris sides still perform in blackface.
I’ve been brought up in a family deeply involved in folk music in general and Morris dancing in particular. My Dad started Pigsty Morris in 1987 and my Mum has been a clog dancer since 1976, my brother and sister enjoy ceilidhs and folk festivals and, though I have drifted away from it over the years, I still have a fondness for some of my childhood memories of the folk scene. In the interests of full disclosure I should point out that Pigsty Morris have never performed in blackface.
‘Well?’ I hear you say, ‘when are you going to get to the point?’
Fair enough. There is a debate currently raging about the use of blackface amongst the Morris community.
At first I could not comprehend why this was even in question. It’s blackface. A historical blot that I instinctively find uncomfortable at best. What mad ideas have led Morris dancers to think they can get away with blackface when Al Jolson and the Black and White Minstrels have almost been deliberately erased from the cultural history of the western world?
Well, actually, a few things. None of them are good enough, nothing could be, but they might explain why the debate is raging instead of long over. Also I should point out that I don’t believe anybody in the debate is deliberately racist, honestly, you’ve largely never met a more strident bunch of liberal lefties in your life.
Firstly; like most things to do with Morris dancing, the actual reasons for it are a mystery. It almost certainly doesn’t have roots in racism. Some people say that blacking up began as a kind of crude disguise, a way to hide your identity from meddling priests or landlords. I think it was more likely something to do with industry, miners meeting to practice at the end of a shift and adapting it to be part of their costume. Maybe that’s all wishful thinking. Maybe it has racist origins, maybe not, maybe there’s no real reason beyond a simple way to make your costume more striking and outlandish.
Secondly; it’s a tradition. It’s at least a couple of hundred years old, maybe more (people tend to write a lot of authoritative pieces dating the origins of Morris dancing, they have wildly different dates and are never backed up with any kind of solid evidence. It’s a mystery, and I’m okay with that). If you become, by dint of effort, the guardian of a tradition then it is your duty to defend it. It’s a good thing to do, preserving traditions serves a useful purpose.
Well… everything else really. I used to quite like it when I was a child. A white child. I even used to like their dogged determination to ignore the changing times when I was a teenager. I understand their trepidation, but Morris dancing is a living tradition, and life is change.
I also understand why the people doing it might be so upset. There is a tacit suggestion that they are racist in urging them to stop doing the thing they’re doing. They think ‘I’m not a racist, I’m the person doing it, therefore it can’t be racist.’ There’s reason there, but there isn’t logic.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the pro-blackface camp: you are wrong. Right now I can just about understand that you’re trying to maintain a tradition and that’s very much a part of what you’re supposed to do. But if you keep this up it will start to get dismal. That instinctive urge you feel to keep blackface is the same urge that keeps bullfighting in Spain and dog restaurants in China. I get it, I get why those traditions carry on, but I understand even more why they shouldn’t. And please know that if you don’t stop, soon, the rest of the world will begin to notice and you will very publically be on the wrong side of history.
So why not start a new tradition? Why not wear masks? You’re a creative bunch, I’m sure you could come up with something awesome. Why not burn a few pots of shoe polish every year to commemorate the time you used to do that crazy thing?
I’m sorry you’re losing a part of your performance, I’m sorry you feel that it lessens the importance or the art of Morris dancing (which it absolutely does not), but it’s time to put this one to bed. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.
And, now that’s out of the way, it’s time to deal with the Morris Ring.