The first thing that tells me I’m not in Kansas anymore is the people with their faces painted black, bells around their knees and ribbons trailing from their hats.
I’m at Bromyard Folk Festival in Herefordshire. Roseanne and Shaun invited me along for a weekend of camping and music, since Shaun’s band is playing here this weekend. I love a good festival so of course I said yes. We packed our wellies and a camp stove and left at 6:30 am, the three of us perched in the front of the van with the drum kit in the back.
Roseanne manages my expectations: “Folk festivals aren’t like some of the general music festivals,” she says. “It might be a bit quieter than what you’re used to. But we like the folk scene because it’s just really pleasant.”
I momentarily doubt this when I come across a man in head to toe black, the whites of his eyes stark in a face the colour of pitch. But I quickly realise this is just one variation on a theme – and the theme is Morris dancers.
Morris dancing is a centuries-old English tradition that didn’t cross the oceans to Australia with some of the other Scottish, English and Irish customs like bagpipe playing, lyrical singing and binge drinking. And I’m kind of glad it didn’t because let’s be honest, it’s pretty weird. But here, in the English countryside, at a folk festival where clothes are bright and fiddles ubiquitous, it’s a quirky attraction.
Morris ‘sides’, as the individual dance groups are called, each have their own costumes and choreography. A small wooden stage has been set up near the beer tent (or should I say, ale tent) and across the course of each afternoon they take turns to perform. Some wear all white and dance with handkerchiefs. Others strike poles together as part of their routine. Most wear flowers on their hats and badges or ribbons across their chests. All of them have tinkly little bells tied to their legs that jingle as they step.
But back to the blackface, because we’re all wondering about that, aren’t we. A common hypothesis is that Morris dancing came from ‘Moorish’ dancing and this is why some strands adopted the black face paint – but on further reading this seems like a convenient theory based on the fact that “Morris” and “Moorish” sound a bit the same. In fact, the origins are lost in the mists of time, as this website here thoroughly explains (if like me you’re a bit of a nerd and want to know whether or not it’s linked to pagan festivals or why sometimes there’s a man dressed as an old woman in colourful rags).
Meanwhile, I am at a folk music festival, so it’s time to have a listen. There’s a range of musicians within the folk genre, from solo acts like Niamh Boadle and Flossie Malavialle, who get on stage with nothing but a guitar and a voice like a lark, through to Shaun’s band The Bounty Hounds, who sit at the other end of the spectrum with their folk-rock (or ‘frock’) sound. The headliners on Saturday night, The New Rope String Band, mix music with comedy, but shortly before them is a six-piece that plays beautiful Welsh songs. There are bands that have been playing at festivals like this for twenty years, and new young things like Granny’s Attic, who won the BBC’s Young Folk Award last year. There are guitars and fiddles, melodeons and accordians, bodhrans and double basses.
There’s also a big ceilidh tent, and I’m intrigued because I’ve read about these traditional Gaelic dances in novels. It’s an informal affair, with a caller in front of a band and people of all ages joining in, stamping and spinning. We shelter here in between shows because on Saturday night it is stupidly cold and this is one of the few warm places. It’d be even warmer if we danced but the temperature has done a rather dramatic skydive since the sun went down and it’s all I can do to hold a cup of tea without spilling it all over my pants. I’m not even exaggerating. That night I sleep in a little tent in flannel pyjamas, inside a sleeping bag, rolled in a feather-down doona and covered with a blanket, and only then do I sleep. The English are acting all surprised that it’s cold but I think they’re just saying that to make me feel better.
The next morning the place is quiet. That’s one thing this festival has in common with it’s bigger, poppier cousins – loud music until late at night and sleepy mornings at the toilet block. By midday things are picking up again. The food tents are cooking, the craft tent is open (of course there’s a craft tent) and the bar is open, where I see a custom unique to this scene: men with tin ale tankards clipped to their belts, ready to spring into action at the first sign of a brew.
And Roseanne was right – it is a pleasant scene. There’s no rubbish strewn over the ground, No drunken yobbos. Friendly strangers who’ll strike up a conversation with anyone, like a country farmer at a clearing sale. It’s not that my moshpit days are totally over, but Bromyard has shown me a lovely alternative.
I won’t be taking up Morris dancing any time soon though.