Last weekend's castaway on Desert Island Discs was Martin Carthy. Although he's rightly a folk legend, one of his throwaway lines in particular resonated with me - that the average man in the street would be "blown away" if a decent morris dancer danced in front of them.
I have to admit to being ambivalent about the morris - there is a certain element of leather elbow patched, Cortina driving geography teacher about its image, but it really doesn't do to be snobby about these things. Having said that, I still think anyone using the words "methinks," "mine host," or "quaffed" probably needs to be rapidly censured. I've come to be more appreciative of the genre and its place in our folklore since being in Oxfordshire (it's difficult to ignore on the streets of Oxford around May day), and done well it can be very good indeed.
But at the tail end of the 60s morris was moribund. After having been revived much earlier in the 20th century in Thaxted it had once again fallen by the wayside, with the early 1960s folk resurgence focusing much more tightly on Britain's musical heritage. So it must have seemed to many that the form was about to be lost.
If, then, you're Ashley Hutchings, riding high on the success of the early Fairport albums, you decide to do something about it. But what a something. It's genuinely difficult to pitch this to an impartial audience so if you've wandered here by accident you'll have to take my word for it; he made a folk-rock electric morris album.
Uniting morris' John Kirkpatrick with fiddler Barry Dransfield and Fairport's Dave Mattacks and Richard Thompson, they set about a deliberately uncurated album of morris tunes, with the idea not so much being to preserve the genre in aspic, as take it on through both traditional and modern instruments - morris as a living form even as it must have appeared in its death throes. Add in contributions from the ethereal Shirley Collins, and the Chingford Morris Men (God knows how they got them all in the studio), and they created something very special - vibrant, alive, shorn of cliche, and giving dignity to a very English folk form.
Particular highlights on the album range from the moment in Morris Call where a very tentative fiddle is utterly swamped by the joyous arrival of accordion, bass guitar and drums, right through to a barely controlled version of the Cuckoo's Nest (possibly the filthiest song in a genre not exactly known for holding back - it's right up there with say The Bonny Black Hare). Everything about Morris On screams England and Englishness - you've got ploughboys, drinking, sailors, tailors, and a bunch of raucous tunes any one of which, as Ashley Hutchings once remarked, would do as our national anthem (although, as suggested, some of the lyrics might be slightly problematic....).
The album is a folk rock essential, even for those who think they hate the morris - it brought morris to a new generation and was instrumental in kickstarting the resurgance of the art in the early 1970s. I've still got no wish to get involved in the dancing side of things, but it's great that other people want to do it, and Morris On holds a worthy, if ever so slightly bizarre, place in my affections.