Monday, 3 July 2017

This Girl Can Morris Dance!, by Steph West

Project manager, Steph West, recently visited Dr Lucy Wright's solo exhibition on the theme of 'Fluffy Morris' at Cecil Sharp House. Here she tells us more about the tradition and the show... 

My first experience of ‘fluffy’ or ‘carnival’ Morris dancing was seeing it on a one of the dance talent show programmes on TV. I was amazed when they described themselves as Morris dancers; they looked just like cheerleaders and they were dancing to American pop music! I’d been involved in Morris dancing for nearly my entire life, but I’d never seen anything like that. I have to admit that at first I thought it was a joke and I’ve since heard a lot of people from the ‘traditional’ Morris teams express ridicule towards this form of Morris, or at least dismiss it as ‘not really traditional.’ Perhaps due to this attitude, Fluffy Morris has remained separate from the wider Morris community and is not well known outside its North West heartland.

However, it could be argued that Fluffy Morris is one of the few dance traditions that has maintained ties to its roots and to the community that originally instigated the dance form. It is a fascinating example of how a traditional expression can change and evolve over time. Rather than trying to recreate a past era, as most other traditional forms of dance attempt to do, Fluffy Morris has unconsciously adapted to incorporate contemporary fashions. However, underneath the sequins and the glitter, the origins of the North West Morris dance form can still be seen in the precise figures and incredibly neat polka step.

More recently the wider Morris community has taken notice of this style of Morris, with Platt Bridge Morris Dancers performing to great acclaim at the rebooted ‘Dancing England’ showcase earlier this year. The dance has also been the focus of an exhibition currently on display at Cecil Sharp House, where I was able to visit on a recent trip to London. ‘This Girl Can’ Morris Dance!: Girls’ Carnival Morris Dancing in the 21st Century by artist and ethnomusicologist Lucy Wright features contemporary photographic works, as well as a range of artefacts and archival photographs.

The photographs on display show Fluffy Morris in all its sparkly glory, demonstrating the preoccupation with appearance that has almost as much emphasis placed upon it as the dancing. Above all, Fluffy Morris is intensely competitive and the photographs that I found most intriguing were those that showed the End of Season results ceremony. In particular one photograph shows the Trophy display, a vast array of enormous shining trophies, which are apparently revealed to great fanfare and even indoor fireworks!

Though my own tastes and personal experience of Morris dancing lead me to find it all somewhat kitsch, it is undeniable that the existence and history of Fluffy Morris helps to demonstrate the major role that women have played in the performance of Morris dancing in the North West of England. The use of the Sport England ‘This Girl Can’ campaign logo in the title of the exhibition subtly introduces this theme; and archival photographs, many taken from The Morris Ring Archive, show teams of girls, women and even mixed teams from as early as 1905. It makes me wonder if perhaps one reason why Fluffy Morris has been largely ignored by the broader Morris dancing community is because it challenges the widely held belief that women’s and mixed Morris is a recent phenomenon, and the hopefully less widely held belief that women should not participate in Morris dancing.

Visiting Lucy’s exhibition has been great food for thought when contemplating our own exhibition, which will similarly be made up of both new contemporary works and archival material. Yet, this is not the only similarity between the two. Both seek to explore traditional expressions that have their roots in the past, but are very much relevant and alive today; expressions that are continuing to change and evolve, sometimes even influencing and inspiring the creation of new traditions.

This Girl Can Morris Dance is on at Cecil Sharp House, London, until 30 July.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

On the trail of the Oss, by Anna FC Smith

I have just returned from an intense trip to the West Country, attending some of the May Day festivities that I have long yearned to see. Luck had it that I was down that way for a hen do weekend and so arranged to meet with Doc in Padstow, Cornwall, for the first of their Obby Oss Days. I’d wanted to meet with Doc and gang on the Sunday evening for the night singing but given the nature of my weekend this wasn’t possible. Instead, we met with him on the Monday in a little cottage he had hired with friends.



The weather was fairly miserable, so everyone was taking a break in the dry after having already spent a morning following the Oss around town. This was Doc's 55th time at Padstow, and he and his friends discussed the custom, alongside other customs including Crying the Neck, as we sat around and drank tea. Doc and his friends are all genuinely cool! I know this is a trivial sounding compliment, but I had such a great time hanging out with them all and listening to their knowledge and tales, they are simply the epitome of cool in my world. We listened out for the drumming to see when the Oss were on the move, leaving when we heard the intoxicating beat calling us out.



We joined with the Blue Ribbon Oss. Some of its supporters were decked in flowers and wore blue tourist style anoraks over their outfits. The drums and other instruments were inside plastic bags to keep off the incessant drizzle. The streets were packed and there seemed to be as many people documenting the event on their phones as there were revellers. There were lots of youths drinking, singing and running about like any festival or party, but to the same repeated song, which goes round again and again. The Maysong is a very catchy tune and surprisingly you don’t get bored of it (well, I didn’t). I thought it was interesting how the teasers dance with the Oss in a ‘festivally’ or ‘ravey’ kind of style and the whole event has a revelling atmosphere. Doc told me that the Blue Ribbon Oss was originally the 'Temperance Oss' but that soon after its first appearance, its supporters were as debauched as the other groups.



At one point, we were with the Oss as it was beaten down and so the song lulls into its gentle verse, ‘The Night Song’. I looked up and watched an old lady singing to a baby in a window overlooking the street. I couldn’t help but well up, witnessing the passing on of a custom from one generation to another.

We went in and out of the cottage all day, losing Doc most of the time because he was in prime position at the front of the crowds. We finally saw the two Oss meet beneath the maypole in the centre of the town, and they raucously danced together in the middle of a heaving crowd. They broke branches and flowers off the maypole and after they continued their journey up the hill, I collected them as souvenirs. We left Doc to continue the next few days of the festival in Padstow and headed over to Devon and Somerset.



Doc had given me the number of Paul Wilson, a key organiser for The Original Sailor's Hobby Horse, Minehead, Somerset. They only dance in the evening of the 2nd so we made use of the day by driving over to Combe Martin, Devon. This is where The Hunting of The Earl of Rone takes place every year on Spring bank holiday weekend at the end of May. Though we wouldn’t be able to see the custom, I wanted to see if I could find anything out about it and see its location. I visited the Combe Martin museum and incredibly they had one of the original hobby horses plus costumes for the Earl of Rone and The Fool. The staff told me loads about the custom and one even did a demonstration of the dance they do in the procession. I bought a pamphlet about it and was given contact details for an organiser. As with the other West Country customs, the faces of the horse and the Earl himself is painted in a very stylised form, with bold shapes and colours defining the features similar to Japanese Kabuki masks.



We then set of to meet Paul and the Sailor Horse. We’d missed the start of their procession so were driving around looking for somewhere to park when we heard the drums and the Oss coming down the street. We quickly parked up and then followed the supporters as they danced through the town and out into the suburbs. This horse is more colourful than those at Padstow; it is in a boat-like shape and its top is covered in shaggy ribbons. They stopped on a green where lots of children joined the group and a little girl demonstrated her skill on the accordion.

Here, I got chance to speak with Paul about the custom. He is not originally from Minehead but got involved through his interest in folk music and custom. We remarked how embedded folkies can become in the traditions they take an interest in. I noticed that the horse had someone’s name and dates painted on its side and Paul told me this was to commemorate a young lad who was part of their group and had died tragically young. The horse attended his funeral.

After being on the green for a while, we heard more drumming and the Town Horse came around the corner with its supporters. We were lucky to have bumped into the right horse as we did! Our group decided to go on their way rather than collide with the oncoming troop. There is rivalry between the groups, and a child noted that in the previous year the Town Horse had pushed The Sailor Horse. It was exciting to learn that they were going to dance together later with another horse, the Black Devil, who had not been out for many years. After more processing and chatting, watching the children being chased by the horse, we had to leave for Wigan.

This trip solidified what I want to create for this project. I’ve returned to texts by Jeanette A Bastian, and her thoughts on tradition and carnival itself being the living archive. Seeing how significant events have been captured and marked by tradition, how Doc himself is so entwined with the customs he records and how him and his archive have been the source of newer folk events, I have decided to create a new ‘custom’ and ‘character’ inspired by everything Doc.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

A visit to Touchstones, by Bryony Bainbridge

We were invited to Touchstones in Rochdale where we are first showing the Doc Rowe archive project. What an amazing vibrant space! Downstairs is an incredible interactive museum full to the brim of local history which you are invited to touch and smell and experience on every sensory level possible.


I could have spent hours just in that first space exploring all the stories and weird facts from in and around Rochdale. One particular weird medical tradition we were presented with was a bright red candle in the exact shape and size of a baby. This fascinated Anna in particular! This Baby candle was used to ward off illness in newborn babies. It was very creepy looking!


Anna taking a look at some of the artefacts on show

We headed onwards and upwards to the Contemporary Art gallery, a beautiful bright open collection of rooms perfectly presented for the display of contemporary artwork. The space allocated for us is Gallery 3, a brilliant room right in the centre of the gallery which filled all three of us with so much excitement and really helped develop our ideas.


We were then taken up to the archive, which should be renamed Aladdin's Cave! Woah nelly, what an incredible place. So many precious, beautifully stored items. Every single item could have its very own project. To see so many pieces ranging from Egyptian beads to Grandfather clocks, it was like being a child presented with a room full to the ceiling with sweeties! Everything laid out before uw, centuries old and enticing uw to form stories and tall tales. Both Nat and I were fully immersed our eyes drinking in what our hands could not touch. Such a tangible environment for artists to be in. We were very well behaved though and it just made us even more excited to get back to Doc Rowe's archive and talk and explore with him.


All images courtesy of Bryony Bainbridge

Sunday, 5 February 2017

'The records of memory': the first research trip to Whitby, by Anna FC Smith

On Thursday 12 January, we travelled through the snow to begin the initial research trip to Whitby. I was nervous but also excited: as with all my research interests, this is my ideal project, and I was heading to meet the ultimate man of living folk custom, Doc Rowe, or 'the myth and legend' (an impromptu epithet given to him by a member of the Goathland Plough Stots).



We arrived late to a wind whipped Whitby and met the project team, most for the first time. Stephanie, the project curator; Natalie Reid and Bryony Bainbridge, my fellow artists; and Sophie, marketing. Stephanie has brought together a wonderful team, who through their work, pastimes and backgrounds, are all engaged with folk dance, ritual and custom. We discussed ideas for the project, rapper dancing and much more – I was in my element and it was a real privilege to meet them all.

On Friday morning, we went to a local pub on the harbour for breakfast and to meet with Doc for the first time, before visiting the Pannett Art Gallery and then the archive. Doc is brimming with fascinating stories and tales of customs, which flow out of him continually. Though I had brought my recorder with me, I didn’t use it in our initial chats at the pub – a mistake I hopefully won’t make again. I realised that Doc's interaction with and experience of the customs is very much a part of the archive and that every conversation reveals aspects of what he has seen. It also became clear that Doc himself and his knowledge has become a part of the many events that he attends; he is documenter, repository and spring from which new traditions have come.  



Held in a business centre unit, the archive is an unassuming treasure trove. The life and movement is trapped: hidden inside tapes and behind labels, inside the books and boxes under boxes under boxes. Doc took us through parts of his collection, each piece triggering further tales. It was incredible but also overwhelming for me. Having worked on custom for a long time, I felt like I was suddenly in the epicentre of all of my interests and at a loss with where to start or what part of the archive to focus upon. We spent hours happily rooting and listening to Doc, longer than we all realised. When we left, it was dark and the sea had flooded into the harbour, meaning we had to find an alternative route back to where we were staying.



On Saturday, we had the honour of accompanying Doc on one of his documenting trips at the annual Goathland Plough Stots' day of dance. The day was sunny and crisp and we followed the teams around the village as they danced for inhabitants and were ‘paid’ in donations of money and drink. We were treated to hot cider, many varieties of whisky and a Polish plum wine that transformed my breath, a powerful defroster. I even knocked on a lady’s door and took a donation – a small action but it was exciting for me to be a minute part of the custom. The day ended at Beck Hole in a homely and warm traditional pub, where the younger Plough Stots danced a lethal rapper dance in the cramped room and I was thrilled to have a chance to talk with their chairman and official Fool.



On Sunday, we all met together again at a lovely café and spent the day discussing the project and our interests with Doc. Each of the artists is taking a different approach in working with the archives, but each of us has recognised the significance of Doc and the archive as a phenomenon in itself and are using this as our starting point.

I keep coming back to the ideas around these being living and changing customs and the question asked by Jeanette A Bastian in her article ‘The records of memory, the archives of identity: celebrations, texts and archival sensibilities’: “How can the traces and signifiers of culture and tradition fit within the archival structure?"



Full of the buzz from this illuminating and enjoyable weekend, I am mulling over my thoughts and looking forward to meeting with Doc and the rest of the group again.

All photos courtesy of Michael Orrell.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Supporting the archive in 2017 – and beyond

One of the key aims of this project is to raise the profile of the archive and demonstrate how vital a resource it is for our understanding of our cultural heritage and identity.


But this project will not bring in the significant financial support that Doc needs to continue to house the archive.

In previous years, Doc has stored his archive in his home, but when his collection became too large, it moved to a space at the Burton Street Project in Sheffield. When planned building work meant that the space was no longer suitable, Doc relocated the archive to Whitby where it has been ever since.

Although the facility in Whitby is ideal, with electronic shutters plus perfect temperature and humidity for storage, because of the vast amount of material there is not much room for manoeuvre – and it comes with a high rent. Members of The Doc Rowe Collection Support Group have contributed towards the cost of housing the archive for a number of years, but this does not cover the full annual amount and Doc finds the remainder from his state pension.

You may have seen a recent JustGiving campaign to support the Doc Rowe Archive and Collection: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/docrowearchive If you’re interested in this project, and the archive itself, then we would be grateful if you would consider supporting this campaign by contributing whatever you can afford.

If you’re one of the many donors, then thank you – your support is greatly received.

We hope that this exhibition will generate further interest in Doc Rowe’s life and work, securing the archive’s future.



Monday, 23 January 2017

The push and pull of changing times: a weekend in Whitby, by Natalie Reid

On Friday 13, January 2017, the first of our research journeys had us delving into the treasures of Doc Rowe’s archive, housed in the mythopoeic coastal town of Whitby.


Like children in a sweet shop, we gazed into the room with marvel and delight as Doc began to tell us stories behind his remarkable collection. The snug storeroom is a place of intrigue, full to the brim with footage, documentation and folkloric ephemera: towering film reels in their metal containers, bulging shelves of open reel tape, vintage cameras, long rows of video cassettes, books and boxes, carefully labelled with curious words such as Padstow Obby Oss and Haxey Hood, not to mention a doll-sized replica of the formidable Burryman of South Queensferry, decorated from head to toe in sticky burdock burrs and topped with a crown of flowers.


Encased within each box are photographs, old and new, of strange creatures dancing, people singing and musicians playing; captured moments of folk art performance, seasonal rituals and stories of celebration. Doc’s collection is diverse, exciting and I consider his work to be valuable in documenting the breadth of our cultural heritage in the British Isles. He shows passion and dedication towards the customs he records, not purely as a photographer, film maker and archivist, but Doc himself, has become an important part of the events he records. He is a storyteller, a trusted friend to those communities and in some cases, an integral character!


The Plough Stots' Day of Dance brought a crisp winter morning and a beautiful blue sky over the North York Moors. We joined Doc on his annual documentation of the festivities. From morning 'til evening, the long sword dancers of Goathland meander their way through the village, dancing for each and every household. In return, there are hot mugs of spiced cider, malt whisky and warmed mince pies, as well as a good few coins in the collection tin towards the building of a new community centre. Their custom not only has a deep-rooted connection to the people that belong to Goathland, but also to the land on which they live, for historically, the dance is believed to bring fertility to the land and plentiful crops come harvest time. The community may not depend quite so heavily on the yields of their land nowadays, but it is clear to see that today, there is much more to it than that. For me, the most memorable moments of the day were experiencing the warm generosity of people in the village, observing gratification in the dancers and musicians, the gesture of social outreach and celebration of life itself. In contemporary society, perhaps seasonal customs have developed new significances for people and their communities.

However, some customs still seem to be motivated by the influence of superstition. The planting of the Penny Hedge, for example, takes place in Whitby Harbour every Ascension Eve. According to 12th Century legend, by request of a fatally wounded hermit, a penance hedge, woven from hazel wood, should be planted into the low tide silt and it must withstand three tides, or the builders will forfeit their lands. We drifted past the seemingly delicate Penny Hedge on Sunday morning, eight months after its construction. It still stands, resisting the push and pull of the tides, as the tradition itself resists the push and pull of changing times.


The weekend left my thoughts in murmeration, captivated by curious characters conjured up by tradition bearers, the power of superstition and the commitment that helps to preserve our countries’ traditional heritage. From the flamboyant processions, to the discreet, almost secretive, ceremonies that Doc observes today, it is clear to see that his collection is not an archive of bygone customs, but a unique glimpse into our thriving present day culture.