Friday, August 26, 2016

Shrewsbury Folk Festival bans black-face morris dancers

The Shrewsbury Folk Festival will no longer book morris dancers using full-face black make up, the Shropshire Star reported yesterday.

Political correctness gone mad?

The festival's explanation does reek of of modern bourgeois angst, right down to the meaningless "as such":
"The use of full face black make up is an age old tradition, particularly within Border Morris. 
"The Morris movement has always evolved over time and some sides have take their own decisions to move away from using full face black make up to other forms of colour and disguise. 
"We have been approached by one group that has requested we no longer book sides that use full face black make up and another that has asked us not to change our policy and to continue to book these sides. 
"The festival finds itself caught between two sides of this opposing argument. 
"The festival has never wished to cause offence to any person and as such, from 2017, we will no longer book sides that use full face black make up. 
"This will only impact on a small number of dance sides and festival visitors will still be able to enjoy a wide range of traditional dance from the UK and beyond."
Where does the black face come from?

When I mentioned the Border morris tradition on this blog I wrote:
The blackened faces here, suggests Wikipedia, are either a reminder that morris dancing was originally known as Moorish dancing, a form of disguise adopted by 17th- and 18th-century labourers supplementing their wages with a spot of dancing and begging, or a remnant of the 19th-century craze for Black minstrels. (That last explanation seems to be the one Roy Palmer favours in The Folklore of Shropshire.)
But then the idea that its history gives an expression or an activity its 'true' meaning is surely a philosophical error.

Words, certainly, mean what we ordinarily use them to mean. They do not have a secret, deeper meaning that is hidden to us. (The later Wittgenstein writes: I approve this statement.)

I cannot claim to know whether Black people find Border morris offensive. My suspicion is that the group who made the complaint does not know either.

It is usual for Liberals to argue that banning things only drives them underground. I find the idea of underground morris dancing attractive, but it might be more accurate to say that this ban will freight Border Morris with a racial significance that it does not currently carry.

They could paint their faces another colour. I have seen blue-faced morris dancers, but the twee echoes of Avatar and the Smurfs were unfortunate. Maybe a combination of black and red would look suitably fierce?

Anyway, you can enjoy some Border Morris in the video above. We English are a primitive people, but we are attached to our customs - or at the least the tiny herbivorous minority that practises morris dancing are.


Tristan said...

This comes up with some regularity in the Morris world, and is one of the few things to get people exercised (that and whether women should dance Morris - although that argument is fading aside from a few).
Personally I would not black up (when I danced Molly, and East Anglian tradition in which blacking up was used as a disguise - particularly after it was made illegal - we wore different coloured face paints), I think its too easy to be misconstrued. It doesn't really matter what the origin is (which is disputed), or the intentions, people see you blacked up and the reaction is negative.

We live in a racist society which has a history of blacking up in a racist manner, people will find it offensive, it will cause problems. I'd prefer to fight other battles, like getting more people involved in dancing.

The worst argument I see is that its traditional so must stay - traditions evolve and change. Much of the current border tradition was mostly invented by John Kirkpatrick in the 70s with the Shropshire Bedlams - he just did what seemed right to him with the given resources and knowledge, and as he says, it should continue to change and adapt.

Perhaps if they really want to produce a scary visage, perhaps they should try the corpse paint of black metal ;)

Tristan said...

Interestingly Border Morris appears to have been a recent degeneration of something closer to the Cotswold style - the early records talk of smart white clothing, only becoming tattered clothing later.
I lean towards the theory that the black face came into use due to popularity of Minstrel shows in an effort to entertain for more money.

I think the current style owes more to the 1970s and the needs of those resurrecting the tradition than it does of an ancient history (and that is fine - its the way of tradition).

Anonymous said...

And, of course, blacking up has an entirely different connotation at the Rochester Sweeps Festival, where it becomes a celebration of the Victorian chimney boys. Some also claim it to be recognition of Kent's long history of treacle mining. Would be mayhem if anyone ordered its ban there.

Many years of Rochester Sweeps photos at: