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The joy of sessions

and other observations made by SIMON PIPE in a column for Morris Matters magazine, July 1998.

I WROTE an article for a local magazine the other day and began it with a verse from The Happy Man, one of the old Adderbury songs. It's attributed to one of the village dancers, and reading the words, one might fancy he was singing of a night out with the morris.

How happy's that man, that's free from all care,
Who loves to make merry, who loves to make merry
'Oer a drap of strong beer

With his pipe and his friends, puffing hours away
Singing song after song, 'til he hails the new day
He can laugh dance and sing, and smoke without fear
Be as happy as a king, 'til he hails the new year.

The pipe referred to is clearly the whittle and dub, which is still puffed to good effect in Adderbury, and I suppose the "smoke" must be a reference to the steam that rises at the end of a night when a dancer takes his shoes off. But as for the singing .... anyone would think it had become socially unacceptable. Perhaps it's because I go out with the wrong teams, but these days I seldom see the fake beams tremble above a roaring rustic chorus of Sloop John B, and it's a tragedy that would be worthy of the direst of ballads, if one felt the urge to dirge.

It was the singing that drew me into the morris, when the Frome Valley men rolled up at the village pub in Dorset one night. For all I can recall, it may may have been one of the finest demonstrations of the capering arts ever to be executed on a steepish slope, but I can't say it was a life-changing experience. Afterwards, though, the beer flowed and so did the songs, and I was caught. The musicians squeezed the last fluid ounce from their boxes and Lenny Leggett sang The Ugly Ducking (the rude version) and it felt like I'd tumbled on some some secret society. Which I had, of course.

Thereafter it seemed that every morris night I ever went to, with Frome Valley or Great Western or whoever, the air was filled with improbable harmonies and every throat proclaimed how its owner liked to rise when the sun she rose, early in the maw-aw-ning.

Liars, the lot of us, but it was wonderful.

Cornish nights with Trigg Morris were my favourites. When Vic Legg and a few others sang, there was mellow contentment all round. I don't remember folk songs featuring very much, unless you counted Lonnie Donegan. It takes a worried man to sing a worried song, as Vic sang often ..... but on Thursdays the only worry was that the singing might stop long enough for the landlord to cry Last Orders. And "Time, gentlemen, please" was taken to mean "Time, gentlemen, please, for a twenty-minute medley of the skiffle greats."

In the evening, by the moonlight, you can hear those Trigg men singing .....

Every man knew every word, and then it would be Goodnight, Irene, and then Goodnight Ladies, and merrily we'd roll along.

But nowadays, as often as not, the dancing ends and the musicians go into an exclusive huddle and by closing time, half the dancers have already gone home. Once, that would have been unthinkable. The best sessions give space to singers and musicians, and everyone's happy (even the poor punters, I dare say). Without the singing there's not the same sense of unity; of conviviality; of all being pals together. There's no euphoria.

In my tyro days, in the early Eighties, the singing was as vital a part of the morris as the fool or the beast. And in my view, when the singing's absent, so is a vital part of the spirit - of the morris and of the team.

I expressed this view the other day to a dancer from a side that was having a recruitment crisis, and ventured the thought that teams that sang might be more successful at attracting newcomers, because they had more fun. Maybe the same spirit infected their dancing, too.

The team in question was a non-singing side. Almost. I won't name it, for fear of spoiling the surprise for anyone yet to enjoy it. But I was told how one member of the side would quietly bide the evening away, and then stand to give an awesome rendition of Danny Boy, the like of which you wouldn't expect to hear in a pub.

Me, I was near-moved to tears, simply hearing the story on the phone. Fancy not being a singing side, I thought, when one of your number was a professional in the opera.

I'D NOT long returned from my first-ever visit to the May Day festivities at Hastings - a brilliant weekend of morris and more - when a Jack-in-the-Green came to my own doorstep. Actually it came in a small padded envelope in the hands of a postman who had lamentably failed to drape himself with foliage for the occasion, but it was an exciting visitation nonetheless: the fourth album from the Oxfordshire group Magpie Lane.

One of their previous albums, Speed The Plough, had been praised thus in Sing Out! magazine:

"If there were a pub session in heaven, it would sound like this."

If you're familiar with Magpie Lane - they've gone down a storm at Sidmouth and Towersey - you need only know that in my view, the new Jack-in-the-Green album is every bit as good as those that have gone before. I'm no music expert, though, so that's as much critique as you'll get from me.

Once again, the album features some morris content, and once again, I much prefer it to material I've heard on albums such as Morris On. It's just a personal view, but I'll venture that this is because the band stays closer to the style and instrumentation of the music as it's actually played for dancing. Listening to it on a CD, though, can be a revelation: I always found it such an effort to dance Bampton Flowers of Edinburgh, for instance, that I never really noticed the beauty of the tune. Here, though, here it shines through in the lively fiddling of Bampton's Matt Green - whose feat of playing the tune while dancing is a highlight of Magpie Lane's seasonal concerts in Oxford.

The other morris tunes featured on the new album are The Cuckoo's Nest from Sherborne and The Rochdale Coconut Dance.

Most of the material on the album is drawn from Magpie Lane's celebrated May time concerts, and thus has a summer flavour.

The band was formed almost inadvertantly. "Magpie Lane first came together," producer Tim Healey tells me, "solely to record an album of Oxfordshire songs and tunes, The Oxford Ramble. We'd no plans at that time to do anything more than a couple of promotional concerts and go our seperate ways. We weren't even sure, at the outset, whether to give the band a name. But the gigs went so well, and the album got such favourable reviews, that we decided to continue on a seasonal basis." Which is happily in keeping with the seasonal nature of the morris, of course.

Tim didn't say in his letter exactly why the album was recorded in the first place. I do recall that he did the research himself and extracted material from the traditions of the Oxford colleges, for instance, as well as the more-conventional folk sources. But out of that one-off enterprise have come the band's regular Christmas and May time concerts at the Holywell rooms in Oxford, which have a cult following, and also the Beautiful Jo record label, which Tim runs.

Morris tunes featured in The Oxford Ramble include Old Molly Oxford, Princess Royal, Wheatley Trunkles, and Banbury Bill; Old Tom of Oxford is played on Sam Bennett's fiddle, which had been loaned by Arnold Woodley of Bampton.

There's also an Adderbury medley from guest fiddler Chris Leslie, whose own fiddle jig is a highlight of the Adderbury Day of Dance each April. Personally, I wish more teams featured such speciality items in their repertoire.

It's all great stuff, with the second album, Speed The Plough, extending beyond Oxfordshire but otherwise continuing in the same vein, with four morris tunes. Album number three, Wassail! A Country Christmas, is understandably slightly different in character.

"The morris element crept in," Tim's continues, "because Oxfordshire folk music incorporates such a strong morris element, and most of the band members have some sort of morris background.

"Ian Giles was with Ducklington. I can't remember who Tom Bower was with. And Joanne Acty had some sort of morris background with a women's team in Kent."

Band member Andy Turner (also of the dance band Geckoes) is a past competitor in the Sidmouth jig competition.

"We've maintained a strong morris element because it adds an extra dimension to our repertoire," says Tim. "Besides Matt's jig, and occasional jigs by Andy and Ian, we have our own 'obby 'oss [dubbed Shergar], who features at May time concerts alongside our Jack-in-the-Green. Christmas concerts have often included the Bampton Mummers' Play."

Magpie Lane first appeared on CD in 1993, but I suspect the band's not as well known as it deserves to be among the morris community. In fact, I'd go as far as to say they've done the morris a service by helping many outsiders - and me too, even - to a greater appreciation of its musical wealth.

There's a curious omission in all this, however, that leaves me strangely uneasy. In four albums, they've never once done The Wild Rover.

Doubtless it'll be the title track on album number five.

BEAUTIFUL JO Records have also put out Chris Leslie's own albums of astounding fiddling. One of them, The Gift, includes an exquisite setting of the Adderbury tunes Black Joke and The Buffoon.

Arguably Chris's main claim to fame, however (besides now being a member of Fairport Convention), is that he always wears brown shoes when dancing with Adderbury Morris Men. Pretty radical, eh?

WHAT I'd really love would be a new album devoted solely to morris-related material. It needn't feature only the dance music; there could be songs such as The Nutting Girl, and instead of merely the brief snatches of chorus sung at the start of the Adderbury dances, I'd like the full lyrics. And maybe some of the classic session songs. But with none of the electric folk-rock treatment that morris albums have had in the past, thanks. If there has to be a drum beat, let it be the haunting beat of a tabor.

Computer-simulated, of course.

I ONCE knew a professional clown by the name of Kevin Brooking, a beguiling American who never quite seemed to slip out of the foolish state. He told me how on visits to the bank, he'd use the pen on the counter and then pop it into his top pocket. His business done, he'd turn to leave, and be jerked back by the little chain securing the pen to the counter. He did it, he said, because it created a small moment of magic for the person who saw it.

I've since come to feel the best encounters with the morris are those that have that same feeling about them; of an extraordinary happening in an ordinary place. When the magic works, I'm sure it has more to do with the setting and the occasion than with anything as prosaic as the technical quality of the dancing. And it's more likely to work on a weekday evening at some out-of-the-way pub than on the main stage at a big festival.

Most morris sides have a lot to learn about playing to an audience, but there'll always be the sour-souls who brush straight into the bar without a pause.

A good session should have the same magic for a person who stumbles upon it by chance, but again, there's no pleasing some people.

Some time ago I blundered into a back room of a pub, well away from the dancing outside, and found two of the finest fiddlers in England engaged in the most breathtaking duet; it seemed it they could barely stop the music boiling over.

A head poked round the door, and quickly retreated. "Don't worry," the barmaid was heard to say in the next room, "they're going in a minute."

If two members of one of the greatest of all folk bands can get a response like that, I don't feel morris teams need feel so bad when people brush-past. Some people just don't want any magic in their lives.

THE BEST apres-morris singing I've enjoyed in recent years has involved visiting American teams. The first occasion was with Wake Robin and Grand Union Rapper by the canal-side in Bedfordshire. I sang for the first time in years, and the great thing is that Wake Robin have gone back home to America, so I'm unlikely ever to hear the tape recording they made.

The second was in June 1998, with the Minnesota Traditional Morris Men one balmy weekday night. They'd just been to the Chipping Campden ring meeting and were full of enthusiasm for the "brotherhood" of the morris (doubtless the kind of brotherhood that embraces both sexes). I'd run into them ahead of the evening's dancing while cycling home from work, and they'd said how they hoped there'd be a good singing session in the pub that evening.

The dancing was terrific. Not the highest technical standard I've ever seen, perhaps, but full of character and performed with more open enjoyment than you'd normally get from an English side. One of the best dances featured a kind of Mexican wave that swept down one side of the set and up the other, followed by a call that brought grins all round from the audience. The shout wasn't "half gyp" or "rounds", but "freestyle!" For just a few bars the set disintegrated as they all did their own thing. It was a hoot, but I suppose that now Minnesota have done it, no one else will be able to.

We finally made it into the pub, and the singing didn't disappoint. We even ended the night with a poem.

Best of all, though, was the Minnesota fiddler's party piece: Lads-a-Bunchum, I think it was, played in whatever style we yelled out. We had French Canadian, Ukrainian Cossack, Kletzmer, I think even flamenco.

It was only when I got home I wished I'd called out, "Whale song."

I HAVE in front of me a morris handout that tackles the Big Question as deftly as any I've seen.

Where did the morris come from? No one really knows; probably it came from the same place as the English themselves; that is, from some other place. By now it hardly matters; what's important is that you enjoy watching us as much as we enjoy dancing for you.

As America's oldest side, the Pinewoods Morris Men of Massachusetts have had a good thirty-five years to think up that one. They've just completed their fourth UK tour, and their dancing was full of assurance. Two of them stayed in our humble home (next time I'll buy some decent coffee) and they were great company.

On the final evening it emerged that one of our guests, David Conant, was a third-generation morris dancer - the first in America. His father, Rick, had fooled with Pinewoods; and Rick's mother was Lily Conant, one of the three disciples sent out to the United States by Cecil Sharp during the First World War.

David said he wouldn't pressure his own children to dance (when have I heard that before?), but I couldn't help reflecting that his oldest son, at five years old, had almost reached the age at which David began learning his first double-steps.

I'VE BEEN trying to write a handout myself, and I'm beginning to think I'll need thirty-four years to get it right. One of the drawbacks of a being in a side called The Outside Capering Crew is that the name doesn't convey as much to an audience as, say, Yourtown Morris. I mean, what is a caper?

Having looked it up in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, I'm very tempted to write that it's the pickled bud of Capparis spinosa, and leave people scratching their heads (you stick it on a pizza).

I liked these definitions, though:

caper - 1 a playful jump or leap. 2 a fantastic proceeding; a prank

They must have seen us dance.....

Links:   Beautiful Jo Records  

            Minnesota Traditional Morris

1999 Simon Pipe, Mark Rogers, The Outside Capering Crew

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