Cecil J. Sharp.

The Morris Book, Part 1 A History of Morris Dancing, With a Description of Eleven Dances as Performed by the Morris-Men of England online

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Online LibraryCecil J. SharpThe Morris Book, Part 1 A History of Morris Dancing, With a Description of Eleven Dances as Performed by the Morris-Men of England → online text (page 1 of 6)
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E-text prepared by Michael Ciesielski and Online Distributed Proofreading Team.









_This Book is issued in connection with
"Morris Dance Tunes," by the same Authors_

(Sets I. and II., price 2/- each.)



The Members of the Espérance Girls' Club,



Besides other friends, too numerous for individual mention, who have
given us able and willing help in the writing of this book, we desire to
tender especial thanks to the following: To the Lady Isabel Margesson, by
means of whose kind assistance we were enabled to note certain of the
dances herein described; to Miss Florence Warren, whose help was simply
invaluable; and to the Rev. S. Baring Gould, for permission to reproduce
in our text the old woodcut of the historic Kemp, who danced the Morris
steps all the way from London to Norwich.


Notes on Morris Tunes
The Morris Step
Diagrams of Morris Steps (explaining Notation-marks)
Positions, and Change of Position (Diagrams)
Down-and-Back; and Up-and-Back
The Chain (Diagrams)
Cross-over (Diagrams)
Back-to-Back (Diagrams)
The Ring
Steps in Foregoing Evolutions
The Jump (explaining Notation-marks, &c.)
The Hands (movements described)
The Call
Length of Dances (how to shorten or extend)
To Form Ring (Diagrams)
Notation of Hand-striking
Diagram of Stick-tapping
Diagrams of Stick-tapping
Description of step, and manner of dancing
Description, and note on singing
Instructions for Stick-tapping and Diagram of Hand-clapping
On holding sticks
NOTATION (Detailed instructions for all the Dances described): -
BEAN-SETTING (Stick Dance)
COUNTRY GARDENS (Handkerchief Dance)
TRUNKLES (Corner Dance)
RIGS O'MARLOW (Stick Dance)
BLUFF KING HAL (Handkerchief Dance)
HOW D'YE DO? (Corner Dance)
SHEPHERD'S HEY (Stick or Handkerchief Dance)
BLUE-EYED STRANGER (Handkerchief Dance)


We have been drawn to the publication of tunes and description of the old
English Morris, not primarily for the information of the archæologist and
scholar, but to help those who may be disposed to restore a vigorous and
native custom to its lapsed pre-eminence.

Whether we have erred in believing that there exists to-day a wide and
keen desire for that restoration will be plainly shown in the reception
and the result of our endeavour. How we ourselves came by the belief in
that desire is easily told.

The idea that the Morris dance might once again be known amongst us, in
town and countryside, as the ordered expression of a national spirit, was
given to us in this wise. One of us - it is not by now too much to
claim - had acquired an enthusiasm for Folk-music, and a certain knack of
finding it where it still survived in the agèd memories of the peasantry,
and of transcribing and preserving it when found. The other had also his
knack of passing on the music that pleased him to susceptible and willing
juniors, and of making them to perform the same. In a happy hour the
collector with his treasury and the teacher, pining for some fresher and
sincerer melodies, met together. The "Folk Songs from Somerset" were
given to those working girls of London town to whom this book is
dedicated. From the very start we were aware that the old songs, merry or
mournful, that until then had been looked upon by this newer generation
for the greater part with something of an antiquarian and merely curious
eye, had been given wings and a new vitality. The songs of peasant-folk
long dead, songs of love and war, parting and death, prospered and spread
in the London streets and workrooms like the news of victory. We were
very well used to find in these singers apt and willing learners; we were
also used to note that whatsoever we had found to teach them hitherto,
passed, when the performance was done, into forgetfulness: we were
totally unused to find this fertility and resonance follow, as it
followed upon the teaching of the Folk-songs. It was like a sowing and a
full harvest in a place where, until now, we had tilled all but

Forbye Folk-songs, the collector had noted, some seven years before, a
set of Morris tunes from Kimber, leader of the Headington (Oxon) men;
these had lain until now unused. Seeing the Folk-music fall upon such
good ground and flourish so amazingly, even amongst these quick-witted
Londoners, strangers to the countryside, it naturally suggested itself to
him that here was the opportunity, so long desired, to wake the Morris
from its long sleep. Anybody not deaf and blind, or unobservant as a
stone, knows that the genius of dancing is born in the London girl of the
people, as surely as in children of the sun.

We had Kimber and his cousin up to town; and the result of their coming
far outran our fondest anticipations. The Morris, like that magic
beanstalk, seemed to outwit the laws of nature: we saw it in the heart of
London rise up from its long sleep before our very eyes. In connection
with this affair, the mention of that well-beloved fable is appropriate
and irresistible. The first dance that was set before these
Londoners - upon this occasion which we enthusiasts make bold to call
historic - was Bean-setting. It represents the setting of the seed in
springtime. Of course the music, its lilt and the steps that their
forefathers had footed to it in the olden time, were as little known to
these, the London born, as the tongue and ceremonial of old Peru. As
little known, yet not strange at all; it was a summons never heard until
now, yet instantly obeyed; because, though unfamiliar and unforeseen, it
was of England and came, even though it was centuries upon the way, to
kinsfolk. Let the precisian explain it as he may, that is our way of
accounting for an experience both fruitful and astounding. Within half an
hour of the coming of these Morris-men we saw the Bean-setting - its
thumping and clashing of staves, its intricate figures and steps hitherto
unknown - full swing upon a London floor. And upon the delighted but
somewhat dazed confession of the instructor, we saw it perfect in
execution to the least particular. Perfect, yet in a different order of
perfection from that attainable by men. It may be noted here and now by
all who have to do with the instruction of girls in the Morris, that the
feminine temperament inevitably robs the dance of something of its
sturdiness. It is nothing to lament; for what is lost in vigour is
assuredly more than made good in gracefulness. At any rate, there was
Bean-setting, perfect in its kind. No wonder Jack-and-the-Beanstalk came
to mind and stayed there with the memory of this evening.

It was even so with all the other dances: to see them shown was to see
them learned. And the Folk-songs had prepared us for what followed: here
was no mere fugitive delight and curiosity, as of a child with a new toy.
We had given back to these children of the city no less than a birthright
long mislaid.

The Morris-men came in October. In the following February, 1906, the
songs and dances were performed before a company of friends. The
audience, if very friendly, was also very critical; and there was
represented in it, literally, every element in contemporary society. And
every element, or representatives of each, exhorted us to give our
performance in public, since it was so good that the world in general
must know of it.

In April, 1906, we did so. The performance was given very nearly in the
height of the concert season; in no announcement of it was any mention
made of charity, or any lack or need of funds: the entertainment was run
as a public affair. And the public responded so that we filled the hall
to the doors and were reluctantly constrained to refuse admittance to a
host beside. The entertainment has since then been repeated several
times; and every repetition brought substantial evidence of continually
increasing public interest.

It should be mentioned here that Miss Mary Neal, of the Espérance Working
Girls' Club, not only made the venture possible in the beginning, but,
with her powers of help and organization, gave it a reach and strength
that neither of us could have given.

But outside appreciation did not end here - one might really say that it
only began. Inquiries poured in from every quarter of the Kingdom, from
every class and kind of person. They all wanted to know how they also
might be shown the way to do as we had done - revive these traditional
English songs and dances in their neighbourhood, amongst the rising
generation of English men and women. One of the inquiries, as to how the
Morris dances might be imported there, came from Japan, where all things
typically English are in so great request.


In the case of the Folk-songs, it was easy enough to instruct the anxious
inquirer. But as to the Morris dances it was otherwise. Here there were
no handbooks to recommend, for the sufficient reason that not one
existed. With ourselves, and with the few - Alas! very few - traditional
Morris-men left in England, there reposed the only practical knowledge of
the dances in existence. With all the goodwill in the world we could only
give them to others as the Morris-men gave them to us - by example, since
in the shape of printed precept there was nothing. So far as possible
this demand for tuition of the dances has been, and is being, met. Some
of the girls already mentioned are teaching or have taught the dances in
many London centres and here and there in eight counties at least,
including Monmouth and Derby, Devon and Norfolk, and the Home
Counties. But the demand is great and growing, the supply is obviously
limited. In London alone it might be met, or nearly so; but in the
provinces, with existing or possible resources, it cannot be, even if we
could command the services of the spirited, historic Kemp, who danced the
Morris all the way from London to Norwich - _see_ plate opposite. This
indefatigable traveller, incidentally, is somewhat curiously figurative
of this latter-day revival of the Morris - of its restoration by townsfolk
to dwellers in the country.

Thus we were faced with a sudden demand and very limited means wherewith
to meet it. In these circumstances we naturally bethought ourselves of
possible expedients. To us it seemed practicable to meet it only in one
way - through the writing of a book on Morris dancing, by the help of
which even those who had never seen the dances performed might be enabled
to learn them, and so pass them on. The result of our endeavours must
declare itself in the efforts of others to make use of this little
handbook. That there is a demand for it is very sure: whether we have
succeeded in putting together an intelligible and a workable manual of
dances - notoriously a very hard thing to do - will be told presently in
the tally of practising Morris-dancers in England - and Japan. We have
aimed at simplicity, brevity and clearness in the description.

As to the extent of the demand and its constant tendency to increase, so
far, there can be no doubt. As to the permanence of the demand, as to
whether the Morris dance is likely to become again, as once it was, a
feature of our national life, one can only surmise. For ourselves, we
believe absolutely in the permanence of this revival, and that these
astounding results of our efforts hitherto are evidence, not of a
fleeting phase or vogue but of no less than that we have restored to our
own people a rightful inheritance, a means and method of self-expression
in movement, native and sincere, such as is offered by no other form of
dancing known to us.

The outstanding feature of all our English institutions is their
continuity: to have continuity you must have age and a hallowed
tradition: these we have in everything national, save only in our songs
and dances. These, although we are anything but an imitative race, we
have imported from un-English lands, with the inevitable result that in
dance and music we express everybody but ourselves. We shall go on doing
so until the treasure-house of our Folk-music and dances - now for several
generations mysteriously closed to us - shall be re-opened. In this
handbook we have tried to do something towards restoring that forsaken
repository to its rightful pre-eminence.


We claim for this sketch no completeness: we are chiefly concerned with
the Morris as a lapsed yet living art, calling, as we hold, for revival;
we look to the Morris-men, not primarily as subject-matter for the
industrious archæologist, but as heralds to the sweetening of the town
life of England and the re-peopling of her forsaken countryside. We have
nevertheless taken some trouble in our search for all that is interesting
and genuine as concerns the Morris, in the literature of our own country,
and others. For the benefit of those inclined to follow the subject
farther in its historical aspect than it is herein treated, we have
appended a list of books in which we have found items of interest.

So far as we can discover, there is no single work devoted to the topic:
all that is to be gleaned of it from books consists only in scraps of
information, most of them very brief, some contradictory; as a rule
almost casually introduced in works upon dancing, ancient games and
customs, and such like.

Even the origin of the name Morris and the true source of the dance are
not to be traced with absolute certainty. Most authorities accept, or
assert, that the dance is Moorish in origin: some again bring evidence to
show that the English Morris (or Morrice) owed nothing whatever to the
Moors. Still, the weight of testimony must be held to show Morocco as the
fount and origin, no matter if the genius of our own folk - so very far
removed from anything native to Africa - has, in the process of the
centuries, altered it until it bears, in spirit, little resemblance to
the parent stock.

If the spirit has been Anglicised, the steps remain. Tabourot, for
instance, a very quaint and interesting writer on dancing, tells us that
when he was a youth - that would be early in the 16th century - it was the
custom in good society for a boy to come into the hall after supper with
his face blackened, his forehead bound with white or yellow taffeta, and
bells tied to his legs. He then proceeded to dance the Morisco the length
of the hall, forth and back, to the great amusement of the company. So
says Tabourot, long dead; and to-day we learn that, in most winters, a
side of Morris-men dances at White Ladies Aston, one-and-a-half mile from
Spetchley, Worcester. They blacken their faces and have for music
accordion, triangle, and tambourine: their flute-player died recently.
Tabourot suggests that the bells might have been borrowed from the
_crotali_ of the ancients in the Pyrrhic dance. He then describes the
more modern Morris dance, which was performed by striking the ground with
the fore part of the feet; but as this proved fatiguing the work was
given to the heels, the toes being kept firm, whereby the bells jingled
more effectively. He adds that this method in turn was modified, as it
tended to bring on gouty complaints.

We are given by the same writer a notation of the Morisco, or Morisque,
music, steps, and description: this shows as nearly as possible the steps
of the Morris as we have seen it danced in England to-day.

Again, Engel, in a passage to us of extraordinary interest, gives in
modern notation "... one of the tunes headed La Morisque, probably the
oldest tune of the famous Morris dance still extant. As it is interesting
from having been printed in the year 1550, when most likely it was
already an old tune, it shall be inserted here ...." And there we found
the same tune which Tabourot gives for the dance that he described, as we
have already told. It is the tune of "Morris Off," which we reproduce in
our books of tunes. Just a few weeks earlier we had taken down, at
Redditch, from the fiddler of the Bidford Morris-men, the same tune,
note for note, as Tabourot gives it. Here in truth is a signal instance
of that persistence and continuity which is always cropping up, to the
lasting amazement and delight of the student of Folk-music - to the
delight more especially of the student who, like ourselves, holds that in
our Folk-music is a treasury not to be hoarded for the delectation of the
scholar, but to be expended with both hands for the revivifying of a
national spirit.

The Morris, then - once also the Moresc - of England; La Morisque and
Morisco of France; the Moresca of Corsica, danced by armed men to
represent a conflict between Moors and Christians - is in all reasonable
probability Moorish in origin: never mind if in our own country it is
become as English as fisticuffs, as the dance called "How d'ye do" will
show - wherein our own folk, after their own manner, have suggested
strife, as in the Corsican variety. Holland, as is told by Engel, was
infected too; industrious research, in fact, will probably show that the
Morris in some shape or other was known throughout Europe, and beyond. As
for the date of its introduction into England that is impossible to state
with certainty; but most authorities point to the time of Edward III.,
maybe when John of Gaunt returned from Spain, as probably the earliest
when Morris-men were seen in England. It is said also that we had it from
the French; another lays its introduction to the credit of the Flemings.
The window with its Morris-men shown in our frontispiece is probably of
the time of Edward IV.

Schemes of wider research, however, we are content to leave in the hands
of the intrepid Folk-lorist. We are concerned here to extract from a mass
of notes and references some outstanding few, to remind practising and
potential Morris-dancers of to-day that this new-old art, if not
indigenous, has been, like many another foreign importation, assimilated
much to our advantage.

The Morisco, from which our own Morris has obviously descended, seems to
have been originally both a solo and square dance, the latter being
performed by sides (that is, sets) of six. The solo Morris existed all
along, and still exists. When we saw our friend Kimber (mentioned
elsewhere) dance his Morris jig to the tune of "Rodney," had our other
old friend Tabourot been present in the spirit - maybe he was - he need
have altered nothing in the description we have quoted but to substitute
for the boy with his face blackened a sturdy English yeoman, and to note
some differences in the get-up of the dancer. The solo dance has been
performed also at Bampton, between tobacco-pipes laid crosswise on the
ground - to the tune of the "Bacca Pipes" jig, or "Green
Sleeves" - suggesting the Scottish sword-dance, and in many other

Another feature in the history of the English Morris, which by this time
may be called impossible to account for with any exactitude, is that in
the elder days the Mummers and their plays, the Robin Hood games and
other ancient diversions with their characters and customs, became
allied - or rather mixed up - with the Morris-men, upon May-day and
occasions of festivity such as the Leet-ales, Lamb-ales, Bride-ales, &c.
To what extent they were allied, or mixed, will probably baffle even the
combined powers of all our archæologists to discover. In an old woodcut,
for instance, preserved on the title of a penny history (Adam Bell, &c.)
printed at Newcastle in 1772, is apparently the representation of a
Morris dance, consisting of - A Bishop (or friar), Robin Hood, the Potter
or Beggar, Little John, Friar Tuck, Maid Marian. Robin Hood and Little
John carry bows of length befitting the size of each. The window, too,
shown in the frontispiece is proof that the Morris-dancers were attended
by other characters. The following, from Ben Jonson's "The Metamorphosed
Gipsies," supplies further evidence to the same effect: -

They should be a Morris dancers by their jingle, but they have no

No, nor a hobby horse.

Oh, he's often forgotten, that's no rule; but there is no Maid
Marian nor friar amongst them, which is the surer mark.

Nor a fool that I see.

But other characters, introduced for whatsoever reason, gradually
disappeared, until the Morris company, as a general thing, consisted only
of the dancers, the piper - that is, the musician - and the fool.

The hobby-horse, described later, was habitually associated with the
Morris, until the Puritans, by their preachings and invective, succeeded
in banishing it as an impious and pagan superstition. This accounts for
the expression, "The hobby-horse quite forgotten"; and gives a touch of
prophecy to Shakespeare's lament: "For, O, for, O, the hobby-horse is
forgot." As is well known, however, the hobby-horse still prances in
England to-day; at Minehead and Padstow, for instance, as an ancient and
hallowed institution on its own account, and performing with the
Morris-men at Bidford.

Other implements and characters may be found, used by and performing with
the Morris-men, that originally had no connection with the Morris, but
were borrowed from other pastimes. As we have said, however, this sets
out to be no exhaustive study, whether of the Morris when it was a
national dance, or of all its survivals at the present time. Such a study
would in scope and purpose far outrun the limits of our intention.

Broadly speaking, the peculiar characteristics of the Morris, as it was
in its heyday and as it has survived amongst us, are these: Leaving aside
the solo dances, upon which we shall not touch further, the Morris is
performed by six men; the records show that women have occasionally, but
rarely, figured as performers. A musician is of course indispensable;
also, as it seems, a fool, to supply comic relief and give the dancers
breathing-time. The fool often goes by the name of "Squire," sometimes of
"Rodney." These are practically invariable; but beyond and beside these,
other characters have accompanied the dancers. The hobby-horse we have
already mentioned as a popular addition. Some took with them an
assistant, called the ragman, to carry the dancers' extra clothing. Then,
a person in various disguises and habiliments went - and still goes - with
the dancers to collect money, if it might be, from admiring lookers-on:
sometimes the fool himself served both as the type of unwisdom and its
opposite, who bears the money-box.

In some parts of the country a swordbearer accompanied the Morris-men.
This officer carried a rich pound-cake impaled upon his sword-point - cake
and sword were be-ribboned, the former being supplied by some local lady;
and during the dances slices of it were given amongst the audience who
were expected to respond with coin for the treasury. A slice of cake was
by way of bringing luck to the receiver; the credulous even treasured a
piece of it the year round as a minister of good fortune.

Generally speaking, these must be regarded as the fixed and regular
performers and accompaniments of the Morris. But, according to time and
place, the additions to and varieties of these were innumerable. When the
dance was popular, it may almost be said that every village sporting a
troupe had its own peculiar variation in dress or character or other
particular of its programme and _personnel_, by which it was known; and
by these singularities each set of Morris-men and their backers held
resolutely. There was competition, once, amongst the Morris-folk as there
is to-day amongst football teams and their adherents. Many a bout, begun
in friendly rivalry, ended in a scrimmage, in which the staves brought

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Online LibraryCecil J. SharpThe Morris Book, Part 1 A History of Morris Dancing, With a Description of Eleven Dances as Performed by the Morris-Men of England → online text (page 1 of 6)