Back to Black
Jason Hill, legend of the British folk scene has been a long-time supporter and promoter of traditional and contemporary folk music through his folk clubs and concerts as well as being a fine folk musician in his own right.
I emailed him for his take on blackface Morris dancing and received this reply:
The supporters of blacking-up claim that it is “traditional”. I have three points to make in answer to that.
1. Traditional does not equal good or acceptable. Fox hunting is traditional, but it is an evil and unacceptable practice.
2. The proponents of blacking-up claim that it originated as a ritual disguise created by daubing soot on the face. However, border and molly sides that black up (and the Britannia Coconut Dancers) use full theatrical makeup rather than daubs of soot, clearly inspired by 19th-century minstrelry. (There has been some research on this: see Chloe Metcalfe’s article: To Black up Or Not to Black Up? A Personal Journey)
3. Traditions are not static: they evolve. In the 17th century, morris dancers wore Elizabethan costume and were accompanied by pipe and tabor (see attached picture, dated 1600). Costumes have changed. Musical accompaniment has changed. It is time for face-painting to change. Black is not the only colour.
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I have also emailed the Chief Constable of West Mercia. The West Mercia police have passed my emailed to Cheshire and Staffordshire forces. I await replies which I will publish as soon as I get them.
I asked, in particular, for their attitude towards serving officers taking part in blackface Morris dancing.
It could well be that blackface Morris dancing constitutes a public order offence as behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace. We shall see.
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