by SIMON PIPE
William "Merry" Kimber is barely known outside the morris and folk communities today, but there was a time when he was the subject of national media attention... Britain's first celebrity bricklayer. He was acclaimed for his concertina playing and for his fine, upright dancing; a reviewer in Musical Times described him in 1911 as "nothing less than a Greek statue .... his grace and movements are absolutely classic".
Within a few years of being discovered by the folk music collector Cecil Sharp on Boxing Day, 1899, this ordinary working man from the obscure Oxfordshire village of Headington Quarry found himself propelled into the loftiest social circles:
"....but the best that I can remember as I enjoyed most, was when we danced before King Edward and Queen Alexandra and the rest of the Royal Family at Chelsea Pensioners' Hospital. It was a grand day and it turned out a success with me and the students from the Polytechnic .... but after it was over, we went to tea in a marquee. I sit with Mr Sharp and two more ladies and on my right was the King and Queen Alexandra. After we'd had tea King Edward turned to me, he said, 'I've no doubt,' he said, 'Kimber,' he said, 'that I've seen your father dance in Oxford when I was at Christ Church.' I said, 'I know you have, Your Majesty, because I've heard my father talk about it.' "
The story is told in a substantial booklet written by Derek Schofield. It makes absorbing reading, and there will be few in the morris who have nothing to learn from it.
The booklet accompanies Absolutely Classic: The Music Of William Kimber, a CD which includes inevitably, the ubiquitous Country Gardens. The tune first came to public attention after Sharp heard Kimber playing it; decades later, a sickly-sweet re-working of it even entered the hit parade. One wonders what Kimber might have made of the pop version, given his response to Percy Grainger's orchestral setting of the tune: "All he's done was to murder it."
The man who became known as The Father Of The Morris had some strong views on the dance, too, some of which are expressed in archive interview recordings featured on the disc. He was openly supportive of women's dancing, for instance, at a time when very few considered it acceptable. As he pointed out, it was only when Mary Neal sought out the dances for her London factory girls in 1905 that the morris revival actually began.
Kimber's playing was highly distinctive, and quite unlike the music to which the morris is danced today. John Kirkpatrick has contributed a track to the CD, having practised hard to emulate Kimber's style. In the album notes, he recalls his first impressions on listening to the archive recordings, years ago: "At first hearing, Kimber's music seemed rather starchy and straight-laced to my arrogant young ears ... and taken at an incredible lick."
Morris tastes have changed, and whilst the music is undoubtedly worth hearing for its historical value, and for the insight it offers into the character of the Headington Quarry tradition at least, many present-day dancers and musicians may find it is not an easy listen.
These differences with the modern styles have been exercising the mind of Dave Townsend, of Mellstock Band fame. "I was asked to do some transcriptions of Kimber's music for the CD booklet," says Dave. "In fact, to be truthful, I asked Derek if I could do them. Kimber's playing was so complex, and so full of vitality and so full of unexpected things, I thought it would be a good idea to write it down so people could really see what was going on in the music. I was amazed at how much more there was when I came to actually transcribe the music. In fact it got so complex I had to get someone else, Andy Turner [of Magpie Lane and the Geckoes dance band], who plays Anglo concertina, to help me work out how Kimber was doing the things that he did.
"It's lovely, light, brisk, neat playing ... so unlike most playing that you hear these days. It's so full of vitality. They seemed to have danced quite fast, and he played quite fast for them to dance to ... this is music that gets you off the ground.
"People playing for morris these days are often thinking about the music of the melodeon revival particularly, which was more perhaps to do with social dance than morris music; and also thinking about the music for the more spectacular, high-capering traditions, like the Longborough tradition represented by Old Spot Morris, for example. I think people have forgotten the sheer excitement that can be got from dancing neatly and briskly.
"There's a lot to be said for listening to the music that's there on Kimber's recordings. His playing is, in so many ways, completely definitive."
The present-day Quarry dancers can also be heard on the CD, dancing to John Graham's accordion. Naturally, they were present at the launch of the CD at their favourite haunt, The Mason's Arms. They performed dances including Rigs O'Marlow and Bean Setting, just as, it's believed, their predecessors had done at Sandfield Cottage in 1899.
Peter Davies is the side's present bagman. "I was in Margaret Road School," he said, "and I was taught to dance by William Kimber, in the 1950s. He was a grand old man. His son used to come and teach as well.
"He used to drink a fair old ration. Mind you, we all drank in our younger days. It was a good excuse to be able to go in the pub under-age when you were a morris dancer - always admitted in kit.
"I'm very proud of it, and glad it had a help in building the morris revival."
John Graham had also learned the morris from William Kimber, at Headington Secondary School. He's been the principal musician for the side since William Kimber died on Boxing Day, 1961, and in the album notes, says he has based his own playing on the dotted rhythms of his great teacher.
Alan Kimber-Nichelson started out as a folk dancer before taking up the morris and then marrying into the Kimber family. "Of course, being connected to the kimber family is something of an interest," he said. "The tradition is here in Headington, we keep things going .... and a good few of the members have been dancing now for over fifty years."
Quarry dancers can't help but be aware of the special place their side has in the morris, but for all that, their motivations in dancing are the same as those of many thoughout the world. "I think, the comradeship," said Terry Mills. "We all get together and it holds families together as well ... you know. We've had very good times together. My wife [Julie] is a Kimber. Her uncle danced and her father was a fool once for the side, and so there's quite a connection there with our family."
There was special applause, during the dancing, for one man who was almost duty-bound to perform a solo jig: Chris Kimber-Nicholson, the great-grandson of the man who taught the morris to Mary Neal and the girls of The Esperance League, and the only direct descendant of Kimber in the side today.
"I've been dancing with the team he founded since I was six years old," he said, "so I've been dancing 17, maybe 18 years. It's very nice to be associated with a figure who was so important in history, really. You do get asked to speak and you do get asked to perform dances on a number of occasions and quite often people make a point of who you are, so it's a little bit of added pressure.
"If William Kimber was to see the morris dancing today, and the show that we've performed tonight, I think that he'd be quite pleased with the way things have gone. I've no doubt he'd pick us up on a few points but I think generally, he'd be quite happy."
For one man, the evening brought out a flood of reminiscences: Jimmy Gordon, a Scotsman now in his nineties and revelling in memories of his long involvement with an English tradition. He'd come to Headington Quarry as a woodwork teacher at Margaret Road School, having secured the job, it seemed, largely because of the morris: "When I got the job at Headington, William Kimber used to be at the school every week, teaching the boys in his morris dancing team. I wasn't very good at job interviews but anyhow, I was there in the headmaster's room, and my rival for the job was a student from Loughborough, so I was a self-taught teacher and I thought I'd got no chance against this Loughborough rival. But I didn't know that the headmaster was for me, because he knew I played the fiddle and would be able to play with William Kimber. I got the job and William used to come to school every Thursday, I think it was."
Jimmy recalled escorting Kimber to his home round the corner at four o'clock one winter's day. "He was a wee bit tottery, so I said, 'Oh, take care, William, there's two steps here.'"
Mr Kimber - a bricklayer by trade, who laid the foundation stone of Cecil Sharp House - didn't need telling. He stepped back, surveyed the school, and demonstrated that he knew the building better than most. "He looked up and he said, 'I built that, from there to there, and old Charlie so-and-so built that from there."
There was a similar experience in Oxford. "We went to the Morris Motors pavilion .... it's going to be condemned now. We were going perform there with the boys, so I arrived there, and oh yes, we stop outside the building and he looked up and said, 'I laid the first brick here myself.'
Pressed for for more anecdotes, Jimmy thought for a while and came up with a gem. "We were out at a village, Little Wittenham. One night we were playing with the morris-dancing men in the local pub, and there was an old local with his fiddle there, trying to play in with him, and of course they wouldn't wear that, you see. So they thought, 'How can we silence him?', and this is what they did. He went to the toilet and left his bow and fiddle on the table, and when he'd gone they got a candle, and rubbed it up and down on his bow. So he didn't play any more." Jimmy laughed. "It's a good one, isn't it?"
Evidently, in old age, Merry Kimber's memory began to fade. "William was just over 80, and he was beginning to forget. I've got sympathy with him now because I'm 90. Sometimes he couldn't remember the tunes, and I had to remind him, just to start them, to give him a start. And that happens to me now."
One guest went home from the evening tired, but beaming. "My name is Sophie Lynch," she said, "and I'm Mister Kimber's daughter. I remember my dad years ago when we used to sit and watch him play and dance. That's all I know, lovie."
How had she felt, hearing such fine talk about her father, and watching the dancing again? "Oh, it was a lovely show today. I did like that very much. That brought back happy memories. Yes ..... lovely. "
Adapted from an article published in Morris Matters magazine, July 1999.
©1999 Simon Pipe, Mark Rogers, The Outside Capering Crew