Ideas and Arguments


Morris dancers, black face paint, and why traditions evolve

This week David Cameron has found controversy and also divided opinion by appearing in a photograph posing with a Border Morris side (wearing traditional black face paint) in Banbury near his Oxfordshire constituency. Many in the folk world will have greeted this latest gaffe with a frustrated sigh as once again commentators are polarised to the left and right. On the one hand we have left wing writers pointing out the obvious racial connotations of blacking the face, and, on the other, the right declaring that this is an example of political correctness gone mad and an assault on English tradition. For members of the folk community what seems to be consistently absent is a more balanced argument that neither consigns all English folk dance to the dustbin, nor provides convenient cover for nationalists and racists.

Most Morris dancers will be able to tell you that the origin of blacking the face goes back to farm labourers who wanted a disguise from their bosses while begging and busking during the winter. However, it is also very possible that it was an attempt to mimic the North African dances that were probably Morris’s inspiration. Either way the vast majority of present-day Morris performers who do black their face do not do so as a racial comment, but because it is seen as part of the tradition. On the whole the Morris community is not welcoming to extreme displays of nationalism. On the contrary, a facial disguise is more often linked to acts of rebellion against the rural rich and is mostly heralded as part of the appeal and menace of performing these dances.

My own family have been heavily involved in Morris and English folk music for the last three generations. I grew up in a Morris village in Cameron’s Witney constituency and went to school with children who Morris danced. Contrary to popular perception, however, Cameron has not always been supportive of Morris. While it would be an exaggeration to say all Morris is working class, it certainly is not a pastime patronised by the rich such as the case of fox hunting or field sports.

While local youth clubs were closed down, Morris has also suffered. The gentrification of traditional pub venues into wine bars and restaurants has made them often actively aggressive towards Morris, while at at the same time some Tories have actively sought to exclude Morris performers from council events, a position well illustrated by Lord Coe’s declaration that he wanted no Morris dancers at the 2012 Olympics. It’s not hard to see why when Morris dancers feature heavily in local left wing events such as the annual Levellers Day.

The origins of Morris dancing

The earliest evidence of Morris dancing in England dates to somewhere around the 1500s. It was certainly known of during Shakespeare’s time, as is documented by the exploits of Globe Theatre actor Will Kemp who Morris danced from London to Norwich. Most modern speculations on the origins of Morris suggest that it may have come from a form of Moorish dancing, and this certainly seems to fit with similar forms of dance from around Europe that date back to the heght of the Muslim presence in Spain. One thing that is fairly certain, however, is that Morris is not pagan nor anything like that old.

Modern Morris dancing, while retaining some of the early trademarks such as bells, hankies and sticks, has changed hugely in the few hundred years it has existed. By the late 19th century most Morris in the South of England had died out completely with only a handful of dancers continuing it. Since the 20th century Morris has undergone several revivals and now represents a broad church of both style and opinion. Amongst this are Cotswold (perhaps the most famous who wear white and often coloured sashes), Lancashire Clog, Long Sword, Rapper (from the mining communities of the North East), East Anglian Molly and Border, from the Welsh border region. Of these only Molly and Border have groups that regularly blacken their faces.

How Morris can continue to be a welcoming community

From my experience Morris is not a re-enactment of an ancient ritual but both looks to the past, and embraces new ideas and provides an outlet for artistic expression. The divide is often between generations, something that is demonstrated by the stark contrast between the more formal men only ‘ring sides’ and younger mixed groups often based around universities.

Given the innocent intentions of many of those who do black their face, it would be easy to perceive any attack on the practice as political correctness and an attack on tradition. But I think it is important that we stop and think about the repercussions of wearing black face paint. We do not at present live within a world that is free from racist oppression. Be it racially motivated violence or the institutionalised discrimination that still exists against black people in virtually all aspects of British society, race is like it or not still on the agenda.

When looking at a picture such as this the first connection most people outside the folk community will make is that of race. Only a few years ago Nick Griffin and the BNP tried to hijack folk music and use it as means of pushing their racist agenda, and it is to the credit of the folk community that his ambitions were thwarted. This was thanks to the creation and widespread support for the group ‘Folk Against Fascism’ which in only a few months had inspired the support of overwhelming majority of the folk scene. So the question really is whether it is more important to continue a tradition unchanged or avoid continuing a practice that could be mistakenly perceived as racial statement? For me it’s certainly the latter.

Morris dancing is a living tradition, and like any tradition it survives by adapting and making itself relevant. Dancers are no longer begging farm labourers or miners, so they now perform for fun instead of money. The music has changed as well with lots of influence from other genres. Even the accordion that can often seem like one of the most characteristic instruments associated with Morris has only been part of the tradition since its invention roughly 100 years ago. So given that Morris changes all the time, what is stopping us from making this particular modification?

Many Border and Molly sides either do not paint their face or opt for alternative colours to black. For example, the border Morris side Boggarts Breakfast paint their faces blue, and the Molly group Gog Magog all use different bright colours, which in my opinion contributes their wacky style. Others opt for patterns, such as Pig Dyke Morris, though their take could be seen as a comment on the band KISS.

There are wide variety of different options for Morris sides who don’t want to be subject of this debate, or wish to make a gesture towards the sensitivities of racism. Our tradition is only in danger of dying out if we treat it like a fossil that is too brittle to evolve. It’s a strong, vibrant form of dance, and it will not be hurt or destroyed by wearing blue, green or purple on the face in place of black. However, that small change may be part of ensuring that Morris continues to be a welcoming place to people of all ethnicities, and goes on growing for generations to come. In illustration of this one of the dancers pictured has since commented on her use of a black stripe instead of full black face paint. She says of her daughter-in-law, ‘She’s very sensitive because she’s a black American and is a bit confused by it because it’s not an American tradition.’

Further Reading

Some of the Morris dancers pictured responding in the Independent >>

Folk Against Fascism >>

Add a comment

Answering Ukip

How can you solve a problem like Heywood and Middleton? The fear in Labour circles is not caused by the Clacton result, which both main parties had long given up as a lost cause but by Heywood where Ukip had been a 20-1 longshot with the bookies until just a week ago. An immediate response has been to criticise Labour for failing to “campaign” around immigration, i.e. for failing to argue, like Ukip, that its candidate’s principal task in Westminster would be to demand policies to reduce the number of migrants to the UK.

The way migration functions, in the mind of a Ukip voter or those who are now calling for a Ukip of the Labour right, is like a distorting mirror in which you can see a person’s knees and neck but hardly anything of the rest of their body. If in 2015 not a single migrant entered Britain, wages and benefits would not rise, nor would the coalition cease to cut pension and services. The policy of the state would still be to warren the public services with a thousand privatisations. There is not some magic year (1960 perhaps? combining the the security of the postwar boom with an equilibrium between those nostalgic for the nuclear family and the rest of us who have run from it) to which Britain could be returned if only there were no ads for Polish builders in the newsagents.
At least when Ukip promises an exit from the EU there is a logical end-point. It would theoretically be possible for the UK to do just that and then you could pause and evaluate sensibly: we have done it. Were we right? But there is no end point in anti-immigrant politics, no moment of “accomplishment”.

It is the nature of anti-immigration politics that even to call only for a pause is to demand that some people are sent “back”. End, as Labour once did, the rights of foreign born but British educated doctors to work after finishing their studies in the UK, and inevitably people who were in the country then (as students) would have to leave (when they finished). But people who come to study also live, work, settle and have children.

When we talk about people coming to Britain we think of them (us!) arriving in waves: Saxons, Danes, Normans, the Empire Windrush generation. If you dig beneath a city you will see the remains of hundreds of years of human habitation squashed down upon each other in narrow wooden and brick layers. But migration happens neither in waves nor layers: a typical London child might have a father whose parents first crossed the borders as long as 50 or 500 years ago and a mother who was not born here and whose immigration status was uncertain until recently. Take the one migrant away and three lives are diminished. Take the migrant away and even an “indigenous” citizen must leave with her.

Mere observation teaches that the parties which promise ethnic welfarism as a strategy supposedly to delay cuts and privatisation are also the parties least enthusiastic about welfare or workplace rights and keenest about school and hospital privatisation.

So if Labour wants to stop UKIP, its present debate has to shift from one in which the two loudest groups are those saying “steal Ukip’s clothes” and “don’t panic”. The former mis-identify Ukip’s present ascendancy. It is not a party of the dispossessed; it is not an SNP south of the border. Rather it faces Labour as a real and urgent threat of a different origin – a return of Tory working class voting, liberated from the terrible stigma of the Tories’ association with the employment-cleansing that befell industrial Britain under Thatcher. The latter meanwhile are only half-right: Labour will be weakened if immigration dominates the political conversation and the Labour Party is mute or acquiescent. The Left does indeed have something which it must say, and that is to defend the right to cross borders.

To Labour’s left, there are tasks to escape from habits which are as stale as a milk which has turned brown.
One is the idea that Ukip is a party pregnant with the threat of fascism. No: it is a party of economic neoliberals with a different (eulogistic rather than hostile) relationship to the centres of ruling class power. Even the way it does anti-immigration is different from the ways in which the fascist right does elsewhere in Europe. Ukip does not call for repatriation; in Clacton, Carswell (an ideological libertarian of the right) was rhetorically pro-immigration in repeated contrast to the people voting for him. The problem with Ukip’s anti-immigrant politics lies not in the coherence with which it demands an all-white Britain but the determination and militancy with which it says “something must be done”, when that “something” cannot be achieved without making many thousands suffer.

Ukip MP Roger Carswell, Tory defector

The key task of the moment is not to isolate Ukip from the other parties (painting its politics worse and theirs better); nor is it to reposition the left as yet another adversary of the enormous, general sentiment that the old ways of doing politics have passed their time and something new must be found.

The benign point of political organisation will be reached when activists can show that the working class is reconstituting itself and that people who are presently on the periphery (because they are migrant workers, because they are on precarious contracts) are remaking forms of organisation in the way that the New Unionism of the 1880s pointed the way to the pensions and proto-welfare state that were introduced in the early 1900s. If we can achieve that then we will have a message of hope to argue back against Ukip’s vision in which the deckchairs in first class must be swapped around but the workers and the poor are still sailing the Titanic.

This article originally appeared on David’s blog Lives Running

Add a comment

Marxism, Feminism and Privilege

The latest wave of feminism has set about generating new ideas and reinterpreting old ones. The response of much of the Marxist left to these developments has been ambivalent if not outright hostile, that is if feminism’s innovative capacities are registered at all. The concept of ‘Privilege’, increasingly common currency within activist circles, has suffered this same fate. This article will attempt to rescue it as a necessary supplement to Marxist understandings of oppression and answer some of the main lines of criticism directed against it.

Contemporary usage of the terms ‘Privilege’ and ‘Privilege Theory’ often leaves them undefined and vague. In the absence of any real fixity critics have been able to claim that weaker manifestations of the concept are representative of its essential and definitive components. Consequently, I believe that it is necessary to jettison the term ‘Privilege Theory’ at the outset. Elevating the idea of Privilege to a fully-fledged theoretical approach to understanding oppression has tended to lead to some rather grandiose assumptions about what is being undertaken. For the most part there is no pretension to providing a general explanation of the origins, operations and solutions to oppression in the same breath. Criticisms of Privilege as failing to explain this or that aspect of oppression, or not providing a solution to oppression, are beside the point. The tasks required of a general theory of oppression are just not within its scope.

Instead, Privilege is better made use of as an addition to a pre-existing conceptual toolbox. That adherents of liberal and poststructuralist approaches to oppression are doing as much should come as no surprise. There is no reason to believe that Marxists cannot do the same without slipping in to the failures attributed to these rival theories. Of course, if Marxists choose to cede the ground then it will be a given that Privilege is only deployed in such contexts. My contention is that it is mistaken to reject the entire idea based solely on some of its more problematic iterations. Marxism is not left unaffected by the idea of Privilege, but it is not true that it poses a fundamental problem for Marxists. The question has been falsely posed as Marxism or Privilege.