Traditional folk music, dance and customs - Harrogate, North Yorkshire - Chas Marshall's Website
Tradition from the Bare Bones
An insight into the "Flag and Bone Gang"
This article is based on material used for the similarly named workshops run by Dave Williams, Jeff Garner, Chas Marshall and the Gang at Sidmouth 2000 and for an article written for the Winter 1997 edition of our local folk magazine "Tykes News".
Chas would like to thank both Dave and Jeff for their help in the preparation of this material.
There have been many exciting developments during the more recent years of the morris dance revival, no doubt driven by a number of differing desires, including:
· to retain the best of traditional
Many teams have succeeded in their desires and some names spring easily to mind in association with particular morris traditions - Gloucester Old Spot and Cotswold, the Shropshire Bedlams and Border, the Seven Champions and Molly, Garstang and North West. They have set their own standards and styles for others to follow.
In the early 1990's a group of experienced dancers, motivated by such factors as those described, met to discuss ideas for a new morris team and new style. The background of the participants included the Seven Champions, the Shropshire Bedlams, Wakefield Morris Dancers, Ripon City Morris Dancers and Betty Lupton's Ladle Laikers. A number of discussions and a couple of practical sessions took place and many interesting ideas were turned up on dance style, music and dress. However, nothing came of this initiative, no doubt for a number of reasons. One of the main reasons was the lack of roots or "traditional authority" for the ideas - there was no peg to hang them on. The enthusiasm waned and the ideas lay dormant for a few years.
The Forgotten Morris
A fresh impetus was given by the appearance of a booklet written and privately published by Paul Davenport in 1993 entitled the "Forgotten Morris - An investigation into Traditional Dance in Yorkshire". This booklet describes dancing mainly in the Holderness area which does not conform to the normal expectations of Yorkshire ritual dance, that is to say Longsword. The theme is that these dances belong essentially to Plough Monday and the various associated customs of Plough Stotting, Plough Dragging, Longsword dancing and mumming. There was "no regular dance", but the main essence involved a single straight line of dancers performing reels and either rattling bones (or "knick knacks" as they were called) or waving small flags. There was also a solo dance performed over the poker and tongs from the fireplace in the manner of the "Bacca Pipes" jig.
The Blue Stots and a missed opportunity?
Some details of Paul Davenport's researches were previously published in the Morris Dancer (Number 15 March 1983). A copy of this article was studied in connection with research into another Plough Monday custom - the Blue Stots plays from the Vale of York. (The Blue Stots plays, it has been suggested, are a sub-type of the Hero-Combat mummers play peculiar to the Vale of York.) The first details of these findings were already in print - see "The return of the Blue Stots" in Tykes News Autumn 1982. The opportunities this new material presented did not strike anyone at the time, even when coupled with an appearance in January 1984 of the East Yorkshire Vessel Cuppers at the Derby-based "Dancing England" traditional dance showcases. Minds were focused on different matters then.
A dance of some sort was performed at the end of the Marton-cum-Grafton Blue Stots Play and this feature was included in the revival of the Marton play by the Knaresborough Mummers. Subsequent revisiting of the Blue Stots play material reveals that, around Christmas and New Year, the "shepherds" of Roecliffe and Aldborough (near Boroughbridge) used to dance heys in a line. This type of performance seems to have the same roots, or at least spirit, as the dances described by Paul Davenport.
The beginnings of a team
However back to our main story. Jeff Garner obtained a copy of "The Forgotten Morris" at Whitby Folk Week in 1994 and was filled with enthusiasm again - at last there was some basis to work on. Dave Williams, Jeff Garner and Chas Marshall, who were members of the original "task force" based in the Harrogate and Knaresborough area, with the help of a couple of people not actively involved in dancing, began to study the material and put together two dances in the winter of 1995. We had one bone dance and one flag dance which were reasonably faithful to the notations provided in "The Forgotten Morris". The team first appeared in public in 1996 with just these two dances. It was considered important that we got a feel for these before we then went on to look at extending the repertoire.
Flags and Bones
The notion of dancing and playing the bones is the real winning idea as far as we are concerned. To begin with none of us had any bones playing skills and we started with the very simple idea of a single click on the off beat. As our skills developed we were able to introduce some more elaborate rhythms but we are still by no means experts. Indeed, we found some difficulties in playing the bones and dancing at the same time.
The flag dances provide a contrast to the bones but we feel the need to try and avoid the movements becoming too much like Cotswold handkerchief movements. The size of the flags has a significant impact on how the flag movements are performed. The original information suggested flags of the size waved by the crowds at jubilees and festivals in the late 19th century.
There were some problems with kit. Some of the old teams blackened their faces and had strips of cloth pinned to their clothes. We decided against black faces and tatter jackets because there was a desire to avoid any suggestion that we were yet another Border Morris side, though there are some parallels between the styles of dance. We have discovered evidence of masks being used in Plough Stot customs in the Vale of York and we opted for a hat with a black veil as a form of disguise for our faces. The idea of arm and leg tatters was picked up from Plate XI "The Fool Plough" in George Walker's "Costumes of Yorkshire", published in 1814. This arrangement seemed far more practical than the chicken feathers reported in Paul Davenport's booklet! Some "trial" tatters were made with "leftovers" of red satin and so successful have they been that we have stuck with these. The shirt, trousers and shoes were originally intended to be any dark colour with the red tatters providing a unifying theme, but later became fixed as black.
The black veils have a number of associated problems. The visibility is sufficient to allow the dances to be performed, but the performers are cocooned from each other and the audience. The lack of eye contact can be quite disturbing and certainly reduces the pleasure of dancing. And it's no good someone hissing "back to back with me" when you have no idea from where the advice came! The hot and humid micro-climate which develops under the veil has to be experienced to be believed.
We started using slowish hornpipes to fit in with the lolloping single step that we had chosen. At first any convenient tune was used but later we decided to try to use local tunes (or at least northern ones) which were not currently connected with any morris dance tradition. We have since focused on two music collections that are from villages which are happily only a matter of a few miles from Harrogate. The two music books we have used are:
· Tunes, Songs and Dances from the
1798 manuscript of Joshua Jackson - published by the Yorkshire Dales Workshop.
We still use a couple of tunes from outside this new remit, but we intend to substitute these over the coming months.
Other teams and other information
About the time of our first public performances the Morris Federation address list included a new team in the Selby area - the Infamous Audreys. Curiosity led to an enquiry as to what they performed and we found that they too were working on the same source of information. Some of our team members saw them during a joint performance with Ripon City Morris Dancers in July 1996. We have not had a great deal of contact and we believe the "Audreys" have since disbanded but reformed under the name of "Fourpenny Plough". They have discovered some details of a dance from Snaith and this was included in the second edition of Forgotten Morris which was published by the South Riding Folk Network.
It is interesting that the family responsible for the Snaith dance also appears to be the family that I found to be responsible for running the Plough Stots who did the mummers play. In fact there seems to be quite a quantity of material coming to light and Paul Davenport is now talking of a publishing a third edition.
Paul also believes that there may be another team from North Yorkshire, in the Richmond area, who are using his material.
The name of the team
Because we dance with flags and bones, one of our number suggested the name of "the Flag and Bone Men" - a play on the name "rag and bone men", those of the same calling as "Steptoe and Son" who used to collect from door to door with horse and cart in years gone by - the original recyclers! We liked it but this was slightly modified to the Flag and Bone Gang, since the original teams were generally referred to as gangs.
What's in a name?
If you were to ask a member of, say, Windsor Morris what style of dance they perform, you will (hopefully) get the answer "Cotswold Morris". Ask the same question of a member of the Flag and Bone Gang and you will likely be asked if you want the five minute or fifteen minute summary of this article! The lack of a defining collective term has been a bit of a problem. The style of dance may be related to other forms but we feel it is sufficiently distinct to merit a name of its own.
At Sidmouth 2000 we found ourselves labelled as "Northern Border" whilst Paul Davenport has suggested "Yorkshire Morris". Since these dances are associated with Plough Stotting and Plough Monday customs and have a rather loose form, we conclude they should be called Plough Stot Dances.
The gang seems to have caused quite a flurry of interest in the last year or two. Whilst we do not believe we are in the same league as the trend-setting teams mentioned at the beginning of this article, it will be interesting to see if anyone else picks up on and develops our ideas.
We have a number of fertile minds in the team and there as a consistent flow of ideas for new dances and the dance repertoire now comprises seven set dances plus a processional. However, we need to exercise some judgement to ensure the flow of ideas from different people doesn't produce a hotchpotch of unrelated steps, styles and figures. There is also some scope for the inclusion of other aspects of Plough Monday customs into the performance but this has yet to be thoroughly discussed within the team. Watch this space!
Jeff Garner 01423 865086