Morris dancing is a mostly English tradition of highly stylized folk dance. It is definitely old -- Shakespeare's Dauphin mockingly compares the English preparations for war to a Whitsun morris dance. But like most things in the English folk tradition, it is not as ancient as we like to pretend: it goes back centuries, not millennia. I think I am correct in saying that without exception, present-day Morris sides all go back only to the Victorian folk revival; there are no places where there is a continuous tradition going back to the fifteenth century. Almost certainly it wasn't an ancient pre-Christian fertility dance, but it's quite fun to pretend that it was. Everyone involved seems to agree that on one level its quite silly: beery men with bells on their fingers and toes and waving hankies in the air -- but its also colourful and fun and almost always involves good tunes. The idea of a lot of groups of people taking a lot of trouble to keep up a tradition which is on the surface a bit ridiculous seems a properly English thing to be doing.
Every few years someone in the unfolkie media spots that a few Morris sides perform with black make-up on their faces.
I am not sure whether anyone is really (as opposed to theoretically) offended by the sight of fat white people with boot polish on their faces waving handkerchiefs in the air. (I thought that all the most important philosophers of the age were agreed that there was no such thing as giving offence or if there was it didn't matter?) But I am completely certain that no serious harm is done to the Tradition if the flanneled fools leave the boot polish off. I didn't see a single black face side at Sidmouth; I think all the Border groups have taken to painting their faces red or blue or green. Which definitely offends no-one and is actually more fun.
The etymological fallacy is just as much a fallacy when applied to folk traditions as when applied to -- well -- etymology. A word means what you mean by the word, and what other people understand you to mean by the word -- not what Simon Heffer says the word "originally" meant. Grammar nerds may or may not be correct in saying that at one time decimate meant "to reduce by one tenth": but right now it means "to lay waste to" because that is how people use it. They are both wrong and offensive when they claim that wog is not "really" a racial slur because it "originally" meant Worshipful Oriental Gentleman.
Blackface Morris may not originally have had anything to do with making fun of black people. I am inclined to think it did not. The boot polish represents the fact that the people who invented the dances were coal miners, or chimney sweeps, or people who didn't want their wives to spot them Morris dancing after curfew. But it doesn't make a blind bit of difference what it originally meant. What matters is what "white men doing song and dance routines in black make up" means right now.
Yes, there is some evidence that prick and cunt were at one time perfectly neutral medical terms for those particular parts of the body. No, that doesn't mean it's fine to say them kids TV.
"Blacking up" means a great deal more than "I am playing the role of a person of a different race from the one I happen to be." It means something morel like "I am well aware of the whole patronizing black-minstrel tradition and the whole sorry history of white people appropriating black people's art and I don't give a damn. My right to wave hankies in the air with black boot polish on my cheeks is more important."
God knows, it's not a great idea for a European person to pretend to be an Asian person either. There was a Doctor Who story in which that happened: I forget the title, but I understand that it still polarizes opinion. But "yellowing up" does not carry the same cultural baggage as "blacking up". I think that's why Johnny Depp got away with playing a Comanche where he would never in ten million years have got away with playing a Negro.
I don't think that it follows that you can merely add the suffix -up to the name of a particular group and take that as incontrovertible proof that no-one outside that group can represent a member of that group on stage or screen. I don't know if Christians can ever properly understand what it is to be Jewish. Probably they can't. I don't know if Jews can convincingly play Christians. (I might be inclined, like Laurence Olivier, to ask "if they have ever considered acting, darling) But I am pretty certain that it is not helpful to accuse Kenneth Brannagh of "Danishing-up" or "wearing Dane-face" to play Hamlet.
There are exceptions and special cases and everything is a negotiation. Yes, I understand, you are constructing an authentic historical re-enactment of a festival in fifteenth century Shropshire and you want the Morris dancing to be exactly the way it was then, period instruments and period shoes and period face paint and all. No, that isn't at all the same thing as some big beery guys doing a country dance on a windswept Devon seafront. Yes, I get that your movie about the antebellum South included a loving recreation of a minstrel show; no that doesn't make the Black and White Minstrel show perfectly okay. If a lady can play King Lear, Prospero, or Hamlet, then a white man can probably have a go at Othello. But probably not with boot polish.
"But then won't all the racists just gravitate to the historical re-enactment events?" Aye, there's the rub. I came across a YouTube stream in which a fellow was working his way through the complete songs of Stephen Foster, Camptown Races and Hard Times Come Again No More and all. He explained that since this was partly an historical endeavor, he was singing the songs as Foster wrote them, while acknowledging that some of the language was offensive. Sure enough the comments section filled up with white people saying how wonderful it was to hear Oh Sussanah! with the n-word intact and how great it was to be standing up to the force of political correctness etc etc etc.
A man in the Guardian -- where else? -- went a bit further. He managed to go from "blacked-up Morris dancing has quite definitely had its day" to "the whole idea of folk music is inherently racist." This seems to be a caricature of a liberal position, the sort of thing that the sort of people who read the Daily Telegraph imagine that the sort of people who read the Guardian would think Yet here it is in, er, black and white:
But former Green councillor and parliamentary candidate Ian Driver has been campaigning for years against the way Broadstairs folk week supports blacked-up morris dancers. He calls the festival “institutionally racist” and says the organisers are all white and the acts are 90% white even though there is African-Caribbean, Hispanic and Eastern European folk music which would better represent the local area.
It is entirely true that from an ethnomusicological point of view, a traditional Afro-Carribean drum performance "is" folk music whereas Richard Thompson singing Meet on the Ledge is not. This is precisely as interesting a distinction as the pub bore who explains that there shouldn't be a Star Trek panel at the Science Fiction convention because there is no proper scientific rationale for warp drive. Yes: by one definition science fiction means "stories based on solid scientific conjecture". And those definitions might be quite helpful if you are writing your thesis. But what people at the science fiction convention are interested in is "stories about robots and space ships and aliens and shit, and, incidentally, dragons and swords and magic as well."
The line between folk music and not-folk music is very wobbly and entirely arbitrary. No-one raises their eye-brows if someone sings a Johnny Cash number or some blues tunes at Sidmouth; Jackie Oates includes a John Lennon cover in her set. But folk festivals play the kinds of music which the kinds of people who go to folk festivals want to hear; and there is a pretty broad consensus of what kind of music that is. There is a clear connecting line between English, Scottish and Irish folks songs; and between them and Canadian and Appalachian traditions; and between that and the singer-song-writers who were influenced by that tradition. The people who want to hear Nick Hart singing Child Ballad 10 demonstrably also want to hear Ralph McTell singing Streets of London. They mainly don't want to hear Dakhabraka's high octane purist baiting sound clash. And I suspect that man singing John Barleycorn with a violin in his ear would be laughed off the stage at WOMAD. A huge festival like Glastonbury represents a much wider range of taste.
Would it be a good idea if everyone had much broader tastes? Yes. Would it be a good idea for folkies to sometimes listen to something other than folk music? Maybe. Is it unhealthy to only read superhero comics? Probably. Would it be a good idea to insist on seminars on Racism in Mansfield Park at Comicon and panels about the Anti-life Equation at the Jane Austen Conference? Actually, that might be a really cool idea: get everyone to step outside their comfort zones. I'd like to imagine that that comic book nerds "get" Jane Austen better than the Eng. Lit. profs. "get" comic books, but I think it would probably be the other way round. Is it rather more important for white people to listen to non-white music and read non-white literature than the other way round? Yes, definitely: because everything you read or listen to or think about is part of "white culture" except when you make a conscious effort for it not to be. That's what "privilege" means. Is it institutionally racist for straight white middle class home makers to mainly read books about straight white middle class home makers or at any rate the kinds of books which straight white middle class home makers tend to like? That sounds an awful lot like
political correctness gone. an attempt at political hyper-correction.
Not too long ago I mentioned to a friend that I was bingeing on Karl Ove Knaugsgaad, who they happened not to have heard of. I described the books, and they respond "Ohhh...Fathers and sons... It's a bit straight white male, isn't it?"
To which my only available response was to point to myself and say "Er...Hello."
I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.
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