From William Morris to Morris Dancing

y title is inspired by a cartoon from punch of some years ago, lampooning a Socialist May Day event held at the Alexandra palace by one of the "peoples republics of Inner London". Amongst the proletarian pleasures promised was "William Morris Dancing".

So you can see I am not the first to make the connection, between Socialism, Arts and Crafts, Beards and Morris Dancing.

Looking at myself for instance I can see someone, who has a liking for folk music, old fashioned socialism and William Morris. I have also been a member of a group of Morris Men and I sometimes sport a beard. So there must be something in it.

o begin with I will have to deal with the myth that Morris was not musical in any way, and I am as aware as anyone that there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that Morris was not at all keen on the music of the nineteenth century and Wagner in Particular. However there have been a number of articles in the Journal which show that Morris did have some interest in music. and as we would expect it was the music of an earlier age which largely excited him.

So far as any reference at all can be found it is to the "music of the people" such as the Battle of Agincourt, and the Old Scotch Ballads. (Lesley A Baker, Morris and Music vol 10 No 3) Another article on Morris and Early Music can be found in Vol 10 No 4. by Andrew Heywood

Arnold DolmetschThe association between Early Music and Morris can be plainly demonstrated through the work of Arnold Dolmetsch (pictured right) who pioneered the rediscovery of what we nowadays call Early music. Bringing to it a fresh approach away from the conventions of concert hall performance, by reviving the original instruments on which it was played and thus reviving the crafts of instrument making, very much in the mainstream arts and crafts tradition.

Dolmetsch was French born, of Swiss origin in 1858 and had undergone formal musical training at the Brussells Conservatoire. he had also received a thorough training In his parents piano making firm. It is likely that Morris met Dolmetsch through the Art Workers Guild and Dolmetsch clearly acknowledged his debt to Morris. Dolmetsch founded a dynasty of musicians and it is son Carl who is to blame for the hosts of schoolchildren learning the recorder which are foisted upon us. Dolmetsch was also a leading light of the Hazelmere Festival of Early music of which more later.

However this is not folk music and I still have got a case to make. So I will start with a couple of quotes from News from Nowhere and a Dream of John Ball, to show something of Morris' notions of folk music and its place in Society

"Ellen kissed her new friend, and we all sat silent for a little, till she broke out into a sweet shrill song, and held us all entranced with the wonder of her clear voice; and the old grumbler sat looking at her lovingly. The other young people sang also in due time;"

" 'Yea,' said a third, "hearken a stave of Robin Hood; maybe that shall hasten the coming of one I wot of." And he fell to singing in a clear voice, for he was a young man, and to a sweet wild melody, one of those ballads which in an incomplete and degraded form you have read perhaps. My heart rose high as I heard him, for it was concerning the struggle against tyranny for the freedom of life,"

hat is all very well but is there any proof that Morris knew anything about Morris Dancing ? I would like to think that while he was in Oxford, and while he dwelt at Kelmscott he could not have avoid coming across this phenomena at some time or another. Well I don't know, but at least if he did not, some of his later contemporaries certainly did.

So how do I propose to make my connection. - Bring on Gustav Holst.

Morris's connections with Holst are well covered by another article in the journal ( vol 11 no. 4) by Andrew Heywood so I will not elaborate for fear of plagiarism. Suffice it to say there was a Socialist Choir at Hammersmith for whom Morris wrote a number of chants for workers. and among those young musicians attracted to the choir was Gustav von Holst who was its conductor from 1896 until 1898. Even though Holst's commitment to Socialism may not have endured, he certainly acknowledged his debt to Morris by setting some of Morris' songs and also dedicating part of his Cotswold Symphony to the Memory of Morris after his death.

Imogen Holst, in her Biography goes into detail about Holst and Morris and states that Morris gave Holst a proof copy of a page from the Kelmscott Chaucer which Holst treasured throughout his life.

Imogen Holst's own credentials as a Morrisian are well established as anyone who has heard her setting of Morris's lectures on art will testify.

Holst is a useful link as he was one of that generation of musicians who came to appreciate the English vernacular tradition and pioneered what they considered to be the rescue of native English song and dance from oblivion.

Cecil Sharp was another such, and I have not been able to find a decent biography. I think that he too was interested in socialism, and was perhaps the most influential figure in reviving the tradition of Morris dancing and country dancing in general. He was of course one of the founders of the English Folk Song and Dance Society.

nother very influential musician and collector was Ralph Vaughan Williams., who like Morris was also of distant Welsh ancestry, and much associated with the Cotswolds, having been born at Down Ampney, in 1872 not all that far from Kelsmscott. Vaughan Williams was of course a great friend and associate of Holst's from 1895 until the Holst's death in 1934. He began to collect folk songs in 1903 about the same time as Sharp.

In an article from an English music magazine in May 1902 he is quoted as saying

"What we want in England is real music, even if it be only a music-hal1 song. Provided it possesses teal feeling and real life, it will be worth all the off-scourings of the classics in the world."

His biographer goes on to say:

"the influence perhaps of William Morris's ideal of the artist basing his art on that of the cottage craftsman may have influenced him" "Ralph had already studied English folk-song in order to give a series of university extension lectures at Polesdown in the winter of 1902 and had found a new and exciting aspect of English music. Urging greater support from public sources for music, he assented that only when it was forthcoming would a truly English school of composers develop. What could be more natural than that musicians should follow in Morris's footsteps, if they wished to free themselves from concocting 'off-scourings of the classics' and academicism alike?"

The first of these he had taken down at Ingrave, near Brentwood, in Essex, on 4th December 1903. It was called Bushes and Briars.

Another Biographer says:

This attitude, which we find in other English contemporary musicians, too, notably Britten, derives in Vaughan Williams's case from his ideas on the place of music in society. Without attempting to interpret nationalism in Marxist terms, we can at any rate say that, as Constant Lambert points out in Music Hall nineteenth-century artistic nationalism was a reflection of political liberalism and nationalism. Vaughan Williams's 'nationalism' was rooted, on the other hand, in a love of the underdog 'whose day was to come'. But his radicalism was of the William Morris kind (as was that of Dearmer, Sharp and HoIst), which rebelled against contemporary conditions in the interests of a fuller, deeper and more beautiful life for the individual; it was not professed in the name of any particular political party or class

In fact the major impetus behind the collection and revival of folk song during the late 19th century was more a kind of musical nationalism than anything else, an attempt to found a genuinely English style in contrast to the well known balladry of the Welsh and Scotch, as well as a reaction to the efforts of musicians abroad such as Bartok and Kodaly whose motives in collecting folk song of the Balkans were much in tune with the growing nationalism in Europe prior to the First World War.

Vaughan Williams' first encounter with the real thing was at Brentwood in Essex where, at a tea party given for the old people of the village, he was introduced to an elderly labourer, Mr. Pottipher, who said of course that he could not sing at this sort of party, but if Ralph would visit him next day he would be delighted to sing to him then.

On the following day, true to his word, Mr. Pottipher sang Bushes and Briars. When Vaughan Williams heard it he felt it was something he had known all his life

Cecil Sharp, staying at Hambridge in Somerset during the summer of 1903 had a similar experience when he heard his host's gardener sing The Seeds of love, a tune which started him on his life's work of collecting the songs of England.

Sharp and Vaughan Williams had known each other for several years but it was some time before they spoke about this music that had become so vital to each of them. Ralph declared that his new enthusiasm bored most of his friends to death, and it was ironic that Cecil Sharp was among those who, he thought, would be most likely to find it dull.

t could be said that the musical settings of Holst, Sharp, Vaughan Williams and the like were rather genteel, and that Sharp was a great bowdleriser of traditional English lyrics, done it is said in his desire to render them suitable for use in the English educational system as well as not to offend the ladies.

This is very different from the much parodied finger in the ear style of singing said to be prevalent in early folk clubs. Not to mention the long haired and dirty jeans image of folk music popularised during the sixties. The popularisation of Folk Music is due to a number of things, and here again Socialism rears it head. >

One of Vaughan Williams last projects was the publication of the popular penguin book of folk songs in 1959. His collaborator in this was A E "Bert" Lloyd a died in the wool member of the communist party of Great Britain, who had himself published a somewhat proletarian history of folk song in England.

Here Lloyd's theory is that contrary to earlier theories that the working classes could not have derived the music on their own, folk music being the gleanings of the music of the court and the gentry, that folk music was built from the roots up. It is very internationalist in outlook, attempting to show the ancient lineage of folk tunes by showing them to be similar to tunes across the world. Lloyds style of history is very much in the William Morris vain and I cannot help but think that Morris would have approved of the sentiments even if the scholarship is a little bit biased.

At the same time, folk music had received a boost from across the Atlantic with the work of Alan Lomax, for the library of Congress, and through singers such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

It is at this stage in the story I have to confess my relationship to the whole process as it was about this time in the early sixties that my Father came on the scene, as a bearded guitar strumming musician who ran a folk club in Coventry. The newspapers of the time characterized him as a communist because he sang protest songs and always wore a red pullover. In fact he wore a red jumper because my mother was not very adept at knitting and that was what he had to put up with.

Parallel to the revival in folk music came the revival in folk dance, and Morris dance. In the late sixties and seventies, folk music became part of the pop culture through bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, who appealed to a wider culture. The Albion band at the same time popularised the music of Morris Dancing through making it more accessible to a wider audience.

Parallel with the music was a revival in instrument making. People like Rob Armstrong in Coventry were making guitars. and Bernard Overton, aluminium penny whistles which are exported all over the world. Not to be outdone, I made my own walking stick flute using aluminium from the same manufacturer as Bernard who could not make a side blown flute.

ith the craft manufacture of instruments we come full circle back to William Morris and Arnold Dolmetsch. I would like to think that had he lived a little longer, Morris would have inevitably been drawn into the folk song and dance revival, just as he was drawn into the revival of every other kind of traditional craft, from weaving and dying, to furniture making and vernacular architecture. Folk music was the logical extension of this, and the early pioneers of the movement, if not linked to Morris personally were certainly working under his shadow, and carrying his spirit into another uncharted area of the arts.

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Copyright July 1997
When this page was created at about the time my mother died, she had lived a span of the 20th century equivalent to Morris' in the 19th century