Transcript of video presentation by Jennifer
Hello, I'm Jennifer Cutting. I'm a musician and an ethnomusicologist
in the American Folklife Center. For many, many, years, I've been
celebrating May 1st, or "May Day," by getting up before
sunrise to do Morris dancing, an English custom brought to America
by folk dance teachers in the years before World War I.
Like the Maypole, Morris dancing was a May Day custom celebrated
in England in the late 1700s, but it's mentioned in Europe as far
back as the 12th century. So, when I came to work one May Day in
my Morris dancing attire and found a photograph in our collections
of another musician celebrating May Day in England some seventy
years ago, and he was dressed very much as I was dressed in that
moment, it was a very strange, but a very good feeling. It made
me see myself as a link in a chain that stretches a long way back
into the past, and that will continue a long way into the future.
In Britain, the celebration of spring has a very long history.
The old Celtic festival of Beltane signaled the end of winter and
the coming of summer. It was the time when the cattle were turned
out to their summer grazing pastures. Later, when the Romans occupied
Britain, they introduced their own May feast for the worship of
Flora, the goddess of flowers, and Maia, the goddess of spring
for whom the month of May is named. So gradually, the rituals of
the Roman floralia were blended into Celtic Beltane rituals as
a May festival. The result was the celebration of May Day and the
traditions that developed around it.
For instance, "Bringing in the May" meant going out into
the woods and fields on May Eve, the night before May Day, to gather
flowers and greenery for decorations, and also to enjoy the many
amorous possibilities of an unchaperoned night in the woods.
By the Middle Ages, every English village had its Maypole. The
earliest Maypoles were tall trees stripped of their branches, and
one village would vie with the next to show who could produce the
tallest one. On May Day itself, the Maypole served as the centerpiece
for sports, dancing and games that took place around it.
Both May Eve and May Day were traditionally a time of letting your
hair down and getting a little crazy, of acting out your spring
fever. But as early as 1240, the Bishop of Lincoln complained in
writing that too many priests were also joining in the fun! Later,
the Puritans in both Britain and America disapproved of Maypoles
as quote, "a heathenish vanity of superstition and wickedness." In
fact, when Thomas Morton raised a Maypole on Boston's south shore
in 1627, he was promptly arrested by Myles Standish and eight men
from the Plymouth Colony.
Maypoles were finally banned in 1644 by the Puritans, who gleefully
went out and chopped them all down. But, maypoles came right back
in with the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, when Maying
as a custom re-emerged. In the 1700s, Maying waned again, and then
took a different turn in the hands of middle-class Victorians who,
by the mid-1800s, were waxing nostalgic about the simpler joys
of their rural ancestors.
But Victorians being Victorians, they purged Maying of certain
of those simpler joys, and turned the celebration into a kind of
polite, pretty children's pageant. By then, the Maypole had acquired
its ribbons, and school children on both sides of the Atlantic
would dance around it every May Day and plait, or braid, the ribbons.
At about the same time, there was a very visible tradition of village
Morris dancers in the English Cotswold region. Nowadays, Morris
and Maypole dancing are still popular ways to celebrate the coming
of spring, both in England and, more and more, as transplanted
traditions right here in America.
Two collections in the Folklife Center document the beauty and
the spirit of these British and American May celebrations: the
James Madison Carpenter Collection and the Anthony Grant Barrand
Collection of Morris, Sword, and Clog Dancing.
The Carpenter Collection is historical. James Carpenter did his
collecting in Britain from 1928 to 1935. The Barrand Collection
is contemporary. Anthony, better known as Tony, Barrand started
documenting Morris dance traditions here in the U.S. in 1975, and
is still collecting now in 2003.
The two collectors are an interesting study in contrasts. Carpenter
was an American who went to the British Isles intending to stay
for one year, but stayed for six. Barrand is an Englishman who
came to study in America, discovered the seasonal dance customs
of his home country alive and well here, and stayed for life. Carpenter
motored across England and Scotland in his Austin Seven Roadster
dressed in a jacket and tie, and introducing himself as "Dr.
Carpenter from the Harvard College in America." Barrand, however,
drove a Dodge Dart and was usually in the "participant observer" role,
often having an assistant run the camera, while he played the "Fool" dressed
in women's clothing, and was referred to by his fellow dancers
Both collectors worked with the state-of-the-art technology of
their time. Carpenter captured music and spoken word recordings
on wax cylinders with a battery-powered Dictaphone recording machine,
black & white images with a camera, and text on a small portable
typewriter. Almost 70 years later, Barrand captures color moving
images and sound simultaneously with the latest digital video formats.
Carpenter and Barrand also have a lot in common. Both had Ph.Ds,
taught at universities, and were interesting mavericks with a creative
bent. But the main thing they have in common is that both collectors
did a great job of capturing the amazing energy, exuberance, and
persistence of these springtime dance and music traditions.
Let's look more closely at the most identifiable symbol of May
Day: the Maypole. Here's a wax cylinder recording from the Carpenter
Collection of a children's ring game song called "Round the
The Carpenter Collection is particularly rich in images of Maypoles
with ribbons. We have beautiful images of Maypoles from half a
dozen English Cotswold-area villages from the 1920s and early '30s
that show the continuity of Maypole traditions. Here is a May Queen
and her court under an elaborate Union Jack canopy in the village
of Shipston-on-Stour in 1924. And here's a broader view of the
same town square on May Day four years later, with the May Queen
and her court in the background, looking on at the Maypole dancers.
Now here we are in the same village again in 1930, mid-dance when
the dancers have wound the Maypole ribbons halfway down the pole.
In Maypole dancing, the dancers doing different combinations of
dance steps called figures, gradually weave in and around each
other so that the ribbons that are attached to the top of the Maypole
interlace to form different patterns. And certain patterns became
kind of institutionalized, especially with the advent of instruction
books, and those patterns have names such as Barber's Pole, Single
Plait, Spider's Web, Three in Hand.
Originally, though, Maypole dancing was a plain circle dance without
ribbons. These clips filmed at Barrand's own wedding in Vermont
in 1975 show a Maypole being raised, and as in older times, it
served as a centerpiece for the dancing that took place around
it. A Maypole has continued to serve as the centerpiece for the
American Morris Ales in Marlboro since 1976. Documentation of such
gatherings, or "ales," forms a big part of Barrand's
I often get asked, "OK, why's it called 'Morris'?" There's
really no simple answer to that one, though Morris probably comes
from the word "Moorish." And from the time of the Crusades,
all over Europe, "Morris," "morisco," & "moresca" were
all words that described festive activities that were not typically
part of Christian worship.
Morris dancing had its heyday in the mid-19th century in the Cotswold
region of England, where the style that most Americans are likely
to see originates. It was then that the costume or "kit" of
white shirt, white pants, bells, and hats with ribbons and flowers
took on its current form. The dancers wear brass bells on their
legs, and dance with either knotted hankies or sticks.
In Carpenter's day, the dancers wore flowers around their hats,
and rosettes and ribbons on their kits. And modern Morris dancers
like to do this as well, but also like to decorate their kits with
shiny pins & slogan buttons, some custom-made, such as these
given out as souvenirs to those who attend Morris dancing "Ales." Anything
goes really, as long as it appeals and says something about one's
Taken together, the Carpenter and Barrand collections allow a unique
look at the sights and sounds of May Day traditions that have been
actively maintained on both sides of the Atlantic for nearly 80
years. Carpenter's images and recordings capture the young English
men and women who continued to keep the singing and dancing in
healthy shape from its medieval origins into the twentieth century.
In person and on recordings, some of those dancers and musicians
shaped the traditions carried on by the Americans in Barrand's
films several generations later.
You'll notice that when Carpenter was in England it was primarily
young girls who did the Maypole dancing and men who did the Morris
dancing. Barrand's collection reflects the change that happened
on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in North America,
that the Morris is now just as likely to be performed by women
as by men, and by people of varying backgrounds and ethnicities.
Otherwise, the Morris remains much the same. Many of the same dances
are being done to the same words and music, dancers still dress
as they did in Carpenter's day, and fiddle and accordion are still
used to play the instrumental accompaniment. Let's look at this
continuity in May traditions using Carpenter's photographs and
recordings, and Barrand's moving images.
Here's a 1928/1982 time warp: "Constant Billy" was a
favorite dance & song of the Morris men in Bampton, Oxfordshire,
where Carpenter recorded this version from one of his main informants,
Ilmington singer and fiddler Sam Bennett who was famous for being
able to play the fiddle and dance a jig at the same time!
Constant Billy was still a favorite in 1982 in Putney, Vermont,
where Barrand filmed Arnold Woodley's Bampton team on a visit to
Carpenter made the earliest recordings of William "Jinky" Wells,
of Bampton, who was probably the best known of the old Morris fiddlers
to survive into the twentieth century. He first played for Bampton
in 1899 and was their senior musician and trainer until 1953. Here's
his rendition of a tune called Bonny Green Garters.
This tune has the same spirit in Barrand's film of American Morris
and garland dancers at the 1980 Marlboro Morris "Ale," an
annual gathering of North American and English teams.
Carpenter saw these girls in the Cotswolds doing Morris. They were
probably trained by Sam Bennett. This photo that Carpenter took
shows a figure in the Ilmington ribbon dance, "Maid of the
Here's the same dance being done by American women in 1984. You
can hear Barrand as the Fool jokingly introduce it as "the
laundry dance" because the knotted handkerchiefs look like
laundry hanging on a line.
Both these collections offer much more than the spring traditions
you've seen here. The Carpenter Collection, for example, is hands
down one of the most important collections of British folk song
and folk drama made in the 20th century, and also one of the
largest. It also contains some Anglo-American and African-American
songs and tales as well.
The Barrand Collection not only documents Morris traditions,
it's also very rich in materials on sword dancing, mummers
old-style wooden-shoe or clog dancing. But the most important
aspect of the Barrand Collection may be the way it captures
many of the
same Morris and sword teams dancing every year over more than
a quarter century, letting us study a living tradition as it
The traditions documented in these collections are still part
of many people's lives, including mine. Learning and doing
the best way to keep a tradition alive. But the American
Folklife Center's preservation efforts make it possible for
over the world to study the history of these traditions and
this wonderful material from our archives... right here in
our own feet and fingers!