BORDERING RACISM: A CONSIDERATION OF SO-CALLED BORDER MORRIS AND BLACKING UP

I was shown a photograph a couple of days ago that had captured two so-called “Border Morris” sides with their tatters and feathers and blackened faces, grouped together grinning at the camera against the backdrop of an ancient half-timbered building. The group looked about to burst into a chorus of ‘Dat Ol’ Man Ribber’ on the set of a 1960s bad-taste TV show. Sadly, the photograph was taken in Sandbach, Cheshire, in 2016.

 

The use of black face paint by some “Border Morris” sides is currently in debate on fb. It’s a good and necessary debate, but for some reason it has become personalised and my name has been dragged forward.

 

Not only has my name been pointedly mentioned, but some years-old photographs of me playing fiddle with the Domesday Morris side in my polite reciprocation of the Domesday Morris leader and his then girlfriend’s support of my one-time Full English music session at the Packhorse, Longport, have just been re-published. The re-publication of these photos is, presumably, a spiteful attempt to discredit my disapproval of the side’s habit of blacking up.

 

It should be noted from the photographs that I am NOT black face myself. For those few occasions I played for the Domesday side, I gave the issue the benefit of doubt and accepted their disguise theory as their excuse for blacking up. BUT, for myself I adopted an alternative, more-contemporary form of “disguise”, namely dark glasses, which is really no disguise at all.

 

At the one and only Domesday side annual business meeting I ever attended (I was never an official member) I voiced my objection to the side’s blacking up on the grounds that I believe it to be racist and stemming from minstrelsy. My view was vehemently supported by one of the Domesday’s paid-up members. The upshot was that the leader made the promise that the side would compromise, going forward, by only blacking up at certain (though unspecified) times of the year.

 

Let’s consider the “disguise” notion of blacking up for a moment:

 

The idea seems to be that as “Border Morris” was performed to collect money and that would be construed as begging which was illegal and punishable by law, some form of disguise was necessary to protect the identity of the participants. Soot was freely available and the liberal application of soot to the face allegedly became the chosen medium for hiding one’s identity.

 

So, it is claimed that in a village where everyone knew everyone, Joe, the six-foot, massively muscled blacksmith and Ned the four-foot-two, crooked-backed plough boy were suddenly indistinguishable from each other when they put soot on their faces!! Even if you do accept that very shaky disguise theory, surely, any disguise will do now other than blacking up and would avoid unnecessary racist connotations?

 

{Another irrepressible thought is: Why would anybody in the 21st century wish to celebrate the oppression of starving English peasants by the ruling classes?}

 

For me, it’s a no-brainer. ‘Is blacking up racist?’ goes along with other questions like: Did Elvis Presley love rock and roll; is the pope Catholic and does it rain in the Co-operative Republic of Guyana? It does not help the argument of the disguise theorists that historically the practice of blacking up was referred to by some as “niggering”.

 

I believe the disguise theory to be as laughable as the one about blackface being adopted to frighten the Welsh. Yeah, right, the Celtic wizards of the longbow with its lethal range 400 yards, are bound to leg it when confronted by sooted and yelping English men waving four-foot wooden sticks at them from across the border! (Oh, yes, that bloody yelping!).

 

{There is another possibility for the origin of the use of soot-blackened faces which I have not seen put forward in connection with “Border Morris” which, for balance, might be mentioned and that is the idea that it stems from early dancers representing themselves as beings from the ‘underworld’; demons and devils from the fires of Hell. But, though claimed for other traditions, the absence of any claims for it in “Border Morris” means it can be safely discounted from this particular debate.}

 

It has to be said that the whole notion of “Border Morris”, is highly dubious. It’s an academic proposition, NOT a proven historical fact.

 

In a paper published in the 1963 journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, E.C. Cawte commenting on some sketchy histories of Morris dance in Shropshire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire, suggested there were sufficient similarities in the traditions of these areas, coupled with sufficient dis-similarities with the traditions of other areas, for them to be classified by him as “Border Morris”. This was his theory, his proposition. Not solid proof, but perhaps a useful classification to offer folk dance historians.

 

It is important to note that Cawte reported that blacking up was NOT used by all the dance sides whose histories he studied. As every single “Border Morris” side is created by the gratuitous desire of individuals and NOT from the continuation of an unbroken tradition; is NOT practised by people with any direct lineage to the sides Cawte was researching, the decision to black up is also completely gratuitous.

 

In 1975, up jumps John Kirkpatrick who designs his own “Border Morris” side, the ‘Shropshire Bedlams’ based somewhat on E.C. Cawte’s theories and those of others and somewhat on his own creative inventiveness with sticks, top hats and black face paint. John was later to record: ‘. . . so much of what we do in the Bedlams is based on my personal views and includes stuff I’ve made up . . .’ The Shropshire Bedlams caught the imagination of the folkies of the era and thus, so called “Border Morris” became a fashionable pursuit of the middle classes, as it still is.

 

In the light of the recent fb argument, I sent the following email to Cheshire Halton and Warrington Race and Equality Centre:

 

Message:

This is a non-urgent message and I have no wish to take you from more immediate issues, but I will be grateful for your thoughts on an on-going debate:

 

Some Morris dancing sides that follow an alleged Welsh border tradition black up their faces. Those who are for the practice of blacking up point to the tradition of ‘disguise’ for its use. Those who disapprove of it, point to 19th century minstrelsy as its origin.

 

To me it’s a no-brainer. It seems blatantly racist and therefore extremely offensive. But, I know good people who think it is a harmless tradition with no racial overtones.

 

I will be very glad of any thoughts you may have to offer or for any guidance you may be able to give.

 

With thanks and all good wishes,

 

Terry

 

I got this response the next day:

 

Hi Terry,

 

Your e-mail has been passed to me to respond to. There is a fair amount of debate and discussion about this matter, in a similar way to the discussion about gollies and whether they are racist (which we are of the firm view they are).

 

The Morris dancers argue that the blacking up relates to a disguise as you say, others argue that Morris comes from ‘Moorish’ and that it was a parody of North African dancing…..and therefore inherently racist.

 

There is no straight forward answer to this – people in our own office of different ethnicities are divided on whether it is offensive. My view as the lead in the organisation would be that whatever its roots, things move on – if it is offensive to many people then why retain it? It’s outdated and the tradition should be amended in order to reflect current thinking.

 

Hope that helps…a bit!

 

Best regards

 

Shantele Janes

Director

 

I sent a second email to Shantele Janes:

 

Dear Shantele,

 

Thank you so much for your prompt reply.

 

You have given me such a balanced response, based not only on your own thinking but also on the perceptions of your colleagues. I am very grateful for that. Personally. I think the “blacking up” as being non-racist in origin is yet to be proved and would love to see it abandoned immediately. I hope I am right in feeling I can detect a bit of a sea change in attitudes towards it with more and more dancers being unsure about its use.

 

Yet, there is a curious obstinacy about a core group of offending border Morris sides in their reluctance to forsake “blacking up”. They claim it is about keeping traditions alive yet they create new dances for themselves, write new music for their new dances and employ modern instrumentation and newly created dress codes. So called Border Morris is not an unbroken tradition either, but one reinvented in the early 1970s through academic research and has been wrested from the rural labouring community by a succession of middle class folk dance enthusiasts.

 

In order to move the debate forward, do I have your permission to quote you, or the stance of your organisation? I would, given permission, quote you/Chawrec fully and fairly. The comments would be directed to the folk dancing community via social media.

 

I hope I am not taking up too much of your time with this.

 

With best wishes,

 

Terry

 

From which I received this response:

 

Hi Terry,

 

No problem. It has sparked some debate within our office too! You might want to read this – http://themorrisring.org/article/black-make-and-morris-dancing  you may have seen it before, but it is their official stance on it. My view is that traditions that are offensive and perceived as racist should be abandoned – even if the traditional reasons behind it were true ie the disguise issue, the things that have happened since then have led it to become associated with other racially offensive parodies – like the black and white minstrels, which is enough in my view to disassociate with this particular ‘tradition’.

 

I’m happy for you to quote me on any or all of what I’ve said in this or my previous e-mail.

 

Shantele Janes

 

That says it all for me. So wash the black paint from your faces and behave yourselves. Have your fun – for fun is all it is – without causing unnecessary offence and while you’re about it, do away with your fox tails and pheasant feathers and have a bit of respect for our wildlife too.

 

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