Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The electric heart of England

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.

1 comment:

  1. Back in the eighties, I went out with a (female) morris dancer - that's my embarrassing confession. Her group were a very unlikely bunch - a couple of them were City yuppies,another was a Kirby cleaner salesman (you guess how much fun he was to be with); also a couple of people from the professions you'd expect to be interested in this: teachers, etc. I always found it hideously embarrassing to watch and had no desire to join in. A couple of (Spanish) foreign students got involved, too - I suppose they thought it would help connect them with the English psyche in some way...

    So, it should come as no surprise that Morris On is the one Fairport-associated album from this period that I've never entirely got on with.....I tried with it, but the penny never really dropped. I was probably disappointed by the lack of RT guitar solos (think he plays strictly rhythm on this one), though it's some years since I listened, so maybe I should give it another try. The vocal on Cuckoo's Nest is great, though (who sings lead?) and, yes, the words are filthy, but in an archaic way that somehow makes them acceptable.

    I suppose you've heard the contemporaneous album by the Albion Country Band, No Roses? If so, what do you think of it?