Folk traditions are back, with bells on

There is a lot of cheating going on. That ancient English ritual involved drinking mulled cider or ale, and songs that invoked pagan gods for bountiful harvests. The riots are the “Jack in the Green” spring parade. One in Hastings in south-east England last year attracted its biggest audience in nearly half a century. Mummers plays, traditional Christmas-time plays themed around death and resurrection, tour villages in Oxfordshire and further afield. Even the National Trust heritage conservation body is planting them.

The Sainsbury’s website includes a heavy pudding with suet and sausage meat from Norfolk recipes dating back hundreds of years. English Heritage, the charity that manages more than 400 historic sites to “bring the story of England to life”, has more paid members today than at any other time in its history.

A weighty article of 530 pages on Morris Dance has been published on 30 March.

And the UK recently got its first exhibition of local folk costume, which will move from Compton Verne, a Georgian mansion in rural Warwickshire, to London next year.

“Diverse groups of people are taking part in English folk traditions and we are very excited about it,” says Eliza Carthy, head of the non-profit English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), which champions traditional arts. Cathy, often described as the uncrowned queen of English folk, is the daughter of iconic folk musicians Norma Waterson and Martin Cathy. His father influenced Bob Dylan and taught Paul Simon to play Scarborough Fair, Having joined the Gothland Plough Stots, a century-old North Yorkshire side (the correct term for a Morris troupe) at the age of 13, Carey says she is enthralled by the current “amazing boom” in the popularity of the dance. In the late 1980s, Stotts had eight dancers and two musicians, one of whom was Carthy; It now has at least 30 dancers and 12 musicians. Now the president of EFDSS and a professional touring musician, Carey says she “witnesses a nationwide upsurge in all forms of Morris dancing, with a lot of young people getting involved. It’s just a post-Covid thing.” No, let’s be clear about it.

Ronald Hutton, one of Britain’s foremost historians, agrees that some English folk customs have boomed in the past five to 10 years. “When I wrote a book in the 1990s, there were only three places left in Britain that were submerged,” he remembers. “Now scores are advertised on the Internet alone.”

This chimes with what cultural geographer Edward Wigley found in his 2019 research. Wassail is becoming increasingly popular “in built-up areas, often with little or no history of fruit cultivation,” he pointed out. One such is a historic park in a gritty part of Greenwich in London where historian and storyteller Rich Sylvester has held a weasel for a decade. Every year, he says, he dons his “Holly top-hat” and snatches up an environmentally conscious simulation of a microphone—a hazel stick with an apple on the end—to compare the event. Featuring a Brazilian drummer and a Morris side that includes an Indonesian dancer, Wasel attracts a cosmopolitan local crowd.

Hutton states that the folk boom extended to Māri Lwydd, a practice in which a figure of a horse was carried from house to house by wassail-singing groups. Padstow also has the ‘Obie’ Dew Festival, a Cornish event believed to have pre-Christian roots and which now attracts thousands of tourists. Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, a Staffordshire village dating back to the Middle Ages, is newly popular. As is the revival of the medieval Winter Watch and Saturnalia parade by Chester, which goes back even further. “Revisiting past traditions is one way to bring a simple life back to life,” says Dee Dee Chaney, co-founder of the online magazine #FolkloreThursday.

Chaney, whose 2018 book A Treasure of British Folklore: Maypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe Having prompted the National Trust to start a folklore trail on one of its 900-year-old properties, today folklore is being “reinvented as a tool”.

But a tool for what purpose? As Simon Costin, who organized the Compton Varney Costume Exhibition, asked, “Why are British folklore and local culture having a moment right now”?

Costin, a former Alexander McQueen collaborator, founded the British Folklore Museum in 2009. Today, he sees the folk revival as an expression of youthful yearning in a churning, confused world. “Young people are not religious, but they are looking for meaning in something that has some element of spirituality. That’s what folklore is about,” he says.

James Mericlow, an older millennial who dances with two Morris sides in Sheffield, says young people view folk customs “as a counterculture”. As the “unofficial spokesperson” for the Morris Federation, one of three umbrella organizations encompassing the UK’s estimated 800 Morris sides, Mariclo reflects the growing popularity of the dance itself. Morris, having no background, took it up after moving to Sheffield 10 years ago and breaking up with a girlfriend. “Now, my two-year-old son does Morris around the living room,” he says, “and all the folk festivals now have Morris workshops for kids. The next generation will probably know more about Morris than I do.”

Many of the nearly 30 Morris dancers, vases, art curators, folk musicians, folklorists, historians, traditional horticulturists and heritage officials interviewed. new european Offered overarching views of the ongoing revival. It’s about finding a sense of community in multicultural Britain, he said, claiming your sense of place, connecting with the land where you live, reconnecting with seasonal rhythms, and importantly, conservation.

Morris-dancing has gone from passive consumption to “something you make yourself”, says BBC Radio 2 producer Julian May, similar to the current revival of knitting and the rise of community choirs.

Hutton says, “The celebration and communal activity of the seasons is a great way [to feel] affiliation”.

Sam Lee, who uses folk music to promote a love of the natural world through his sellout springtime immersive experiences “Singing with Nightingales,” says old customs are “a reawakening, allowing , a feeling we have a right to know and love this land.” , It is not about “Merry England”, he warns, in reference to the utopian idea that English life was a pastoral ideal between the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution. “It is a sad, mournful, broken England that we are working to fix.”

Matt Thompson, Head Collections Curator at English Heritage, with whom Lee did a YouTube folk series songs of englandSays that their organization has a “clear recognition that folk has value as part of the wider story of England.”

But why now? Why is Britain today so keen to tell the wider story that goes back much further than the British Empire?

Hutton says, “the empire was a very short-lived phenomenon, lasting only about 100 years,” whereas Britain as a joint venture lasted for about 300 and England for about 1100. He describes the unique problem of Britain today with great power status attached to its name, with the knowledge that there is no “easy, clear and direct way out of a situation in which we have to assume a new role in the world”. while at the same time having one of the largest armies and navies, one of the largest economies and a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations.

in his 2003 book british folk revival, which covered the period following World War II, saw something similar from Liverpool-born and bred Michael Brocken, who holds a doctorate in popular music. He wrote, “There were uncertainties regarding Britain’s international profile and imperial growth.” Over the past 20 years, this concern has gotten worse.

Julian May says: “What it wasn’t was with our place in the world, I think we’re starting to see who we are and what we want to be.”

Michael Heaney, a dedicated Morris dancer, melodeon-player and author of the newly published Old English Morris Dance Agree with this. “Britain’s much smaller role in the world is forcing us to look more closely at what it means to be British or English,” he says. Heaney, who retired to Oxford’s Bodleian Library some years ago, says: “When the English saw themselves as the dominant power in the world, everyone else was considered of ethnic merit, but not the English “

This royal mode is described in historian Laura Carter’s 2017 paper of the same name on rethinking folk culture in 20th-century Britain: “English folk goods and customs are seen as ‘survivals’ of earlier, less civilized cultures”. I was explained.”

Carthy lamented the long period in which “people’s minds were blown with the idea that the English could have an ancient culture of song and dance and ritual”. Fortunately, this is changing, and “it’s important to be able to talk about your history and your culture and your heritage without shame”.

The folk tribe as a whole agrees with this embarrassment about an English ethnic culture, resulting in the “despotism” and great “mockery” of traditional customs and those who practice them. This is why the president of the 2012 London Olympics organizing committee, Sebastian, was able to joke about having 5,000 Morris dancers at the opening ceremony of the Games. May was furious. “It was typical of the attitude of those in power that the traditional culture of England was always treated as something of a joke. Well, it isn’t.

May was so offended that he collaborated with well-known comedian Stewart Lee on a Radio 2 show about English traditional dances. It was very successful, he says with some satisfaction. “Everyone thought it would be a piss-taking. But I knew Stewart was interested in this stuff and had morris dancers at his wedding. Look, we’re not very fat, bald old men drinking beer.

Other morris dancers also challenge the stereotype that they are the “smaller England and brexitier types”. But the fear of being claimed by any narrow “ism” continues to percolate through the folk fraternity. English Heritage’s Thompson warns against the assumption that “the old is authentic because you can set up in-groups and out-groups”. Chaney notes that folk and mythology have always been deployed for “the ‘other’ that is seen as coming from outside these traditions.”

A few years ago, the Morris parties were forced to push back against the British National Party (BNP). More recently, there was a controversy over Patriotic Alternative, which emerged from the BNP split and which seeks to present itself as an organization concerned with the environment and heritage.

Carey, at a Notties gig organized by the Folk Against Fascism campaign, says the London headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society provides its venue for diverse cultural traditions practiced in the UK, such as the Indian bhangra. The University of Sheffield recently hosted Access Folk, a symposium on ways to make English public more inclusive. Mariclo, whose Morris side has included a young Croatian woman and has seen flickers of interest from an Iranian and a Peruvian, says more must be done. “After all, we are not a historical re-enactment. We are not trying to uphold some idealistic vision of Englishness, and certainly not nationalism either.”

But Sam Lee insists that almost everyone, “a recent migrant or one from long ago”, knows they can lay claim to Britain’s story. He recalls a recent night spent at a youth hostel in the Peak District, on his way to a gig in Buxton. Chatting with the man in the next bed, Lee learns that he was Bangladeshi, having come to Britain 10 years earlier and that the two men had, separately, visited the 25,000-year-old Thor’s Cave. “You know what he told me,” Lee continued, “he said, ‘Isn’t it amazing to think that our ancestors were once there?’ That’s great to hear.”