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Pre-1980s morris in North America

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The following is derived from a text compiled by Rich Holmes and published on his web site. That text was primarily based on a number of messages posted by various individuals to the Morris Dancing Discussion List or to the author directly beginning in the 1990s, supplemented by material from early issues of the American Morris Newsletter. One incarnation of the article was published in Morris Matters, Vol. 9.
This article was the result of neither careful scholarship nor direct personal knowledge. Little attempt was made to confirm or correct the information given. The author's only excuse for writing it was his hope that its inadequacy will prompt someone to write a real history. So far no one has. With its placement on the Morris Dancing Wiki, it is hoped that others with knowledge of the subject will contribute to and correct this text.
Read the title carefully, though! To keep the length and scope under control, there's a somewhat arbitrary cutoff: Pre-1980s. Feel free to write about later developments in a separate article, but please keep it to pre-1980 here.

Early American MorrisEdit

It's a well known bit of folklore that the earliest recorded attempt to bring morris dancing to America occurred in 1583 (ironically the same year that gave us Stubbes's well-known anti-morris rant) with Sir Humphrey Gilbert's attempt to establish the first permanent English colony in the New World in Newfoundland (Krause, 1991). The captain of one of Gilbert's five ships wrote, "Besides for solace of our people, and allurement of the Savages, we were provided of musike in good variety not omitting the least toyes, as Morris dancers, hobby horses, and Maylike conceits to delight the Savage people, whom we intended to winne by all fair means possible." The historian Samuel Eliot Morison notwithstanding, there is no record that any morris dancing actually took place. In fact, it is possible the morris bells were aboard one of the ships that had to turn back and never got to America.

Rhett Krause has documented some stage performances of something advertised as "morris dancing" in 19th century America, and Mary Neal's efforts to bring morris to America in the early 20th century. In the 1920s and 1930s it seems morris dancing was in widespread use in American elementary school physical education classes. In fact it seems some such use occurred soon after publication of Sharp's Morris Book and Neal's Esperance Morris Book. Peter Hoover and Judy Molnar both report owning copies of a book (probably the same book) of folk dances, intended for use by physical education teachers in the New York City school system, that includes a version of Headington Laudnum Bunches, and Judy's carries a copyright date of 1909 (Crampton, 1909). And Rich Holmes has spoken with a woman who took part in some morris dancing as a part of an annual May Day event at a school in Syracuse sometime in or about the 1940s.

An American branch of the English Folk Dance Society (later the English Folk Dance and Song Society) was founded in 1915; it later became the Country Dance Society (and later yet, the Country Dance and Song Society). At dance camps sessions in Amherst, Massachusetts and, subsequently, at Pinewoods Camp in Plymouth, Massachusetts (more irony: Plymouth was where the Pilgrims settled), CDSS has been teaching morris dancing for many years: at least since the mid-1950s at Pinewoods, and perhaps as early as the 1930s or earlier in Amherst.

The Country Dance * New York web site's chronology mentions CBS television broadcasts (!) of morris dancing, and morris classes run by May Gadd and Phil Merrill, in New York in the 1940s.

The Pinewoods Morris MenEdit

One 1950s American morris dancer was Israel "Izzy" Young, a friend of Bob Dylan's, who as of 2001 was living in Stockholm. He recalls American morris as being "under the total control of May Gadd". "There was the best side and the second best side and I got into the best side..."

That apparently refers to the "A" side and "B" side at Pinewoods. John Dexter writes:

The Pinewoods demonstrations teams you mentioned were active at camp in summer and were always eagerly anticipated by those of us learning the Morris. The Morris tour of Pinewoods by the two sides ("A" side and "B" side) eventually was taken over by the First rendition of the Pinewoods Morris Men, a club on paper only, put together organizationally by Nibs Mathews on one of his teaching visits to camp in 1964.

Another early Pinewoods Man was Shag Graetz. For a good history of the first 25 years of the Pinewoods Morris Men, see <http://pinewoodsmorris.org/history.html>.

Dexter's introduction to morris came at Pinewoods in 1965, where he learned a few dances from Peter Leibert. He recalls Gadd:

a wonderfully buoyant and crusty old Englishwoman who had learnt her Morris in London (I think), which means that she most certainly had contact with Sharp and/or his disciples. A product of EFDSS, she was very insistent that the style of dancing, both Morris and English country, be as she knew it to be correct. Some folks thought of her as intimidating, others were impatient with her insistence upon her ways. I always found her to be charming and beautifully peculiar in the English manner!

The Pinewoods Men's first tour outside of CDSS sponsorship came in 1968 in Boston; this tour was repeated in subsequent years. Apparently they did two tours a year for some time. But they still were a CDSS-related "team" consisting of dancers from all over, not meeting and practicing regularly.

The Village Morris Men and the Pinewoods New EnglandersEdit

There was also morris being taught at schools such as Berea College in Kentucky. But these were not true morris teams either, in the sense of a more-or-less fixed group of dancers meeting weekly (or at least regularly) for practice, touring in the streets, and socializing as a group. In that sense, probably the first independent American morris team was the Village Morris Men in New York City, founded in 1967 or 1968 by Eric Leber, a musician and morris dancer who ran the dance weeks at Pinewoods for some time in the 1960s. The idea of a CDS-independent morris side was not universally applauded; according to Dexter, "May Gadd and most everyone else (silly 'tho this seems now) was completely outraged that Eric would do this." Other dancers of the side were Roger Cartwright, Dexter, David Lindsay, Karl Rodgers, Howard Seidel, and Paul Skrobela; musician was Elizabeth Rodgers playing what appears to have been a Melodica. "The level of dancing," says Dexter, "a product of weekly practice and teaching by an expert dancer, was very different from that at CDS as you might imagine." They danced Bledington (with splitters), Fieldtown, possibly a few dances from other traditions, and "the High Spen rapper dance without flips but with all the figures." The team lasted two or three years until Leber and Cartwright both moved away.

In 1973 Cartwright put together the Pinewoods New Englanders to travel to England. The members were Cartwright, Dexter, Rodgers, Seidel, Fred Breunig, Ed Mason, Dick Van Kleek, Sam Rubin, and Andy Woolf, who played fiddle but did not dance. They attended Whit Monday at Bampton, the Thaxted Ring Meeting, and practices of Chipping Campden, Headington, and the Oxford teams. They met Morris Sunderland, Ewart Russell, Walter Abson, Don Ellis, Michael Blanford, Roy Judge, Roy Dommett, Rev. Kenneth Loveless and many others. This was the first American team to dance in England -- though not the first Americans. Leber had gone to England in the 1950s to travel and dance with English morris teams, as did Graetz in 1972 and perhaps earlier.

Dexter was on the Pinewoods New Englanders, and says

My hair stood up in excitement while dancing in the processional at Thaxted. We witnessed the Thaxted debut of the amazing Garstang Morris Men in their Northwest clogs and purple breeches and hats totally covered in flowers; I heard Loveless give a fine and often humorous sermon in the church, etc., etc. In short, that experience shaped my attitude towards Morris, for better or worse, and gave me the necessary stuff to actually trick enough men in Binghamton to try this folly.

Early East Coast TeamsEdit

Sometime around here Cartwright sent a letter to a number of his morris friends, envisioning the possibility of having four or five distinct morris teams in North America!

Two teams, among the first independent American morris sides, were founded in the northeastern US in late 1973. Dexter, in the winter of that year, started the Binghamton Morris Men. Binghamton, New York is a small city (metropolitan population about 267,500 in 1973) near the center of the border between Pennsylvania and upstate New York. Dexter writes:

The truth is that Binghamton was and continues to be a perfect location for a Morris team to develop its own way and its own style and personality being a long ways away from any other major urban center and, therefore, from outside influences like other Morris teams and even other Morris Men. We must remember that, in those days, there were no Ales or other gatherings of teams in our country, something for which I am now thankful. But I considered this to be an hinderance at the time, feeling "young and stupid and having much to learn"... What did I know? I invited Howie Seidel, my Village Morris Men teammate, to come up and dance with us and to eventually become the first "away" side member of the Binghamton team. Roger C. was frequently a guest dancer with us as well. These men, both of the previous generation, provided a certain valuable perspective to the fledging, inexperienced guys dancing with me. You gotta use your resources, after all, and these two men provided positive evidence of the attitude I was trying to inflict on my side at the time. Turns out it worked fine as that side continues to this day to be unique in all the right and important ways.

Just about the same time in 1973, Roger Cartwright started New Cambridge Morris Men in the Boston area. According to notes taken by Mark Wilke of the New Cambridge Morris Men, the group of people who later named themselves "NewTowne" had their first practice in the fall of 1973. The first dance out was early spring of 1974.

Other teams followed soon after. Ring o' Bells was the first American women's team, founded in 1974 in New York City by Jody Evans who had accompanied the Pinewoods New Englanders on their trip in 1973. Also in 1974 in New York, Jim Morrison founded the Greenwich Morris Men which included Karl Rodgers in the early years. That same year also saw the startup Black Jokers (by Howie Lasnik) in the Boston area. Part of the impetus for the founding of the New York teams may have been a visit by the Binghamton Men in the spring of that year. Also present for that tour was Fred Breunig who, with his wife Dinah, soon after bolstered the newly formed Marlboro Morris and Sword in Vermont. Likewise, the 1974 Pinewoods camp tour which included the Binghamton Men as well as the Pinewoods Men provided motivation for the formation of other teams.

At around that time there was talk of turning the Pinewoods team into an umbrella organization, an idea that foundered on the issue of women's membership. A few years later Pinewoods became a Boston-area team fully functioning as a regularly practicing and touring Morris team.

Pokingbrook Morris and Sword started up in Poughkeepsie, New York in Fall 1974, with Christopher Hodgkin its first squire and fore. They practiced in a meeting room in the main building of the Oakwood Friends School. Pokingbrook's base moved north in later years to Albany, New York. Sean Smith was a founding member of Pokingbrook, and he recalls

the short-lived Renaissance Fair held on the grounds of the Fox Hollow Festival in Petersburg, NY (east of Albany, Troy and Schenectady) during the mid-70s. I don't know if it featured morris dancing each year, but I certainly recall performing there with Pokingbrook in '76 or '77. I'm almost positive Binghamton was on hand, as well as Dudley Laufman's team (both the adult and kid sides).

Peter Klosky first saw morris performed at the Fox Hollow Festival in 1975. Two teams were represented, New Phoenix ("a Dudley side? ... [with box player Taylor Whiteside]") and New Cambridge. Klosky "was gobsmacked. They were incredible performers, hot as hell, just returned from their very heady & emotional tour of England. This was amazing stuff." The following year Klosky joined the Binghamton Men and returned to Fox Hollow:

In 1976, I recall New Cambridge MM dancing, including (though he has since strangely denied it) one Howard Siedel replete in red seat-belt baldric. I had been dancing with Binghamton for about two months & did some drunken pick-up Bampton with various NCMM and Bob Childs, [Jeff "Smokey" McKeen] (and probably [John Gawler]) of Eric Leber's Strong Morris (those gents later destined to evolve into the Lord Hill MM). Also present present from Binghamton were musicians Selma Kaplan and Maggie Ericson, and likely Ruth Mitchell, though she wasn't playing for BMM yet at that time. Mostly I recall it rained like blazes all the damned weekend, which seemed to be traditional at Fox Hollow. From Dexter: Peter Klosky must certainly have seen the Binghamton Men before Fox Hollow as his girlfriend, Selma Kaplan, was our musician. Peter felt he couldn't abandon his other regular Tuesday night bowling activity to join the Binghamton Men until the winter of 1976.

In 1976 the Hearts of Oak Morris (women's side) was founded in Binghamton, NY, by Ruth (Slovik) Mitchell, Maggie (Donelian) Ericson and Selma Kaplan with moral support provided by Peter Klosky, Howard Seidel, Roger Cartwright and Anne Held. Jill Gibian and Ruth were early squire, fore and bag. Maggie and Selma were team musicians, followed by Dinah ?? and Bob Weinberger. The team danced Headington, Bampton, Badby and some Sherborne. The fine instructors were Jody Evans (Headington), Sue Salmons (Sherborne), and BMM/John Dexter (Bampton). Many of the original members scattered to join teams including Ha'penny, Muddy River and Spruce Hill when, by late 1978, this incarnation of the Hearts gave way to a predominantly new mixed team membership using the same name. The mixed Hearts of Oak danced primarily Bampton, Headington, Bledington, and Fieldtown, fored and taught by Sue DeFabbia, Jim Blake, Roberta Wackett, and others.

In July 1977, the Dartington Morris Men from Devonshire toured in America, appearing on two weekends at Fox Hollow. (One correspondent thought it was earlier, but in a private communication Terry Underhill, who was Squire and Bagman of the Dartington side at the time, confirms the above date.) Smith remembers Nigel Chippendale as one of the side. As John Shewmaker tells it,

Susan Boyer (now Susan Boyer Haley), niece of the late Bob Beers [who with his wife Evelyn had created the Fox Hollow Festival on land they purchased in Petersberg, NY], [had] attended the Dartington College of the Arts, in Devonshire, for a year...
Near the College they liked to visit and perform at a certain local pub.
One of the pub's regulars... a retired workingman, took a liking to these American girls (as they then were), and their music. This chap had a practice of saving as much of his retirement checks as he could, and using his savings to visit the U.S. in the summer... Hearing of Fox Hollow from Susan and Melissa, he visited Fox Hollow as well, volunteering as part of the festival crew. When he returned home, he told the local morris team, the Dartington Morris Men, of this wonderful Fox Hollow Festival. These men danced Morris, and with their wives also performed English Country Dance, in full period costume - well, of some period or other.
The result of this connection was an invitation to perform at Fox Hollow, an invitation which was accepted. Some of the dancers were employed in distant places, like the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, and had to travel to Fox Hollow from quite a distance. Interestingly, we were told that later the Queen (or those acting in her interest), tried to engage the Dartington Morris and their ladies for a performance for the Queen, but the trans-Atlantic arrangements were already set, and so the performances at Fox Hollow (and in Canada, too, I believe), went as planned.
These dancers also conducted brief workshops in Morris, and it was the first time that I, for one, ever got to dance morris.... The only other morris dancers at Fox Hollow that I remember from that year were Dudley Laufman's "Morris Minors," a team of short people from Canterbury, New Hampshire.

Underhill recalls they spent three weeks in North America, including a week in Toronto visiting Green Fiddle Morris, and touring in the area near Fox Hollow during the other two weeks.

Headington Quarry visited in 1976, performing on the Washington Mall at an annual folk festival held by the Smithsonian Institution. This may have been the first independent English team tour in America (as contrasted with the demonstration tours organized by Neal and Sharp six decades earlier).

Further south, near Washington, DC, Bluemont (Virginia) Morris was established in 1976 by Pinewoods veterans who brought in Tubby Reynolds for a Sherborne tutorial and Jim Morrison for additional teaching. In DC itself, the arrival of Roger Avery of the St. Albans Morris Men in March 1977 signaled the beginning of Foggy Bottom Morris (see [1] for details). Two years later, in 1979, the women in Foggy Bottom split off to form the Rock Creek Morris Women.

Sonia Efron remembers being in Foggy Bottom Morris before the women had their own team. "Some dances were women only, and the women had to wear dresses. Some dances were mixed, and more the traditional costumes were worn. The women were not allowed to do Rapper dances. I did a small research project for a George Washington University class, on the history of women in Morris Dancing. When I left Washington DC, I briefly joined a small mixed group in Buffalo, led by David Conant. David had a connection to Pinewoods Dance Camp, through his grandmother. [David left Buffalo shortly after, and the group apparently disolved.]"

In the mid-70s there was a team based in Hartford, CT, which toured in Hadley, MA at least once.

As late as 1977, there were both a men's team and a women's team in Northampton, MA, practicing at the same time but apart; both teams had disbanded no later than 1979. Cartwright gathered some of the men and started the first Berkshire Morris Men just north in Greenfield, which danced for at least two seasons (1978 and 79). That team included Rob Bialis, Keith Burrell, Don Campbell, Roger Cartwright, Bob Doucet, Bill Frye, John Haigis, Darrell Hanna, Michael Havey, Tom Hutcheson, Allen Marshall, Steven Schlerf, Peter Temple, Roger Trembley, and Dave Warner. After it broke up, some went north to Peterborough, NH, and some south to the Amherst, MA area to join with Cammy Kaynor to form Juggler Meadow Morris Men in the winter of 1979-80.

The MidwestEdit

Available information on morris in the midwest for this period is scanty. In Chicago, there was a university-based morris team in 1969-71, a group called the Chicago Masquers did some morris in 1971, and an unknown side was performing in 1976; see articles by Ed Stern and Andrew Bullen in the December 2005 issue of the American Morris Newsletter. Ed Stern moved from Chicago to Minneapolis in 1974, and formed Minnesota Traditional Morris; see Arthur Knowles's History of MTM. Folks from Bloomington, Indiana formed Bloomington Quarry in the spring of 1977 after attending workshops the previous year at Pinewoods and Berea, and bringing in Fred Breunig for a workshop in April 1977.

The West CoastEdit

Morris came more slowly to the west coast. A group called "The Anglo Folk Ballet" was founded by Richard Chase, meeting at the Unitarian Church in Claremont, California in the early 1970s; the dances were mainly Playford but with some morris and sword. The group also performed at a renaissance fair in Agoura. In 1973, after Richard had left, the group changed its name to Newcastle Country Dancers, and Doug Burger led some of the men to form Pipe and Bowl Morris. Holly Tree Morris in Victoria, British Columbia, began in 1974, initially as Victoria Morris Men. Berkeley Morris was founded in 1977 by Brad Foster, and until 1979, was the only non-Renaissance fair side between Portland, Oregon and Los Angeles, California. Bob Orser was involved in folk dancing as early as 1950 at the University of California at Berkeley, but didn't start morris dancing until 1981 when he joined the Merrie Pryanksters, a group that included "a bit of morris and longsword" with their performances of Playford dances at renaissance fairs. He had seen performances of morris and longsword for a few years at that time, however. Orser says a now-defunct men's side in San Diego may have begun earlier, and the Sunset Morris Men in Los Angeles started a bit after Berkeley. The Sunset Morris Men started around early 1979 with a few interested dancers in search of a squire. They found that person in Gene Murrow. Elaine Regelson started a mixed rapper sword team in San Diego about 1977, which eventually turned into the San Diego Morris & Sword team a few years later.

CanadaEdit

In Canada, teams besides the aforementioned Holly Tree were formed. Green Fiddle Morris (Toronto) was in existence by 1977. The Village Green Morris Men (Winnipeg) was established in 1974 for a special event, met occasionally for two years, and became permanent in 1976. Its founders, the late John Trevenen and David Williams,learned Morris at Pinewoods, which they had gone to for Scottish Country Dancing.

Mixed vs. Single SexEdit

Women's morris was not the divisive issue in America that it was in England; although certainly some of the dancers of the early era opposed women dancing out, that sentiment largely died out early on. The issue of mixed morris provoked greater disharmony.

The Marlboro Ale, held on Memorial Day weekend, began in 1976, sponsored by Marlboro Morris and Sword. In the early years all American teams were invited to the Ale, but before long that became infeasible and the invitation process of necessity became selective. Peter Masters writes:

Tony [Barrand] has told me it was his intent to use the power inherent in this selectivity to encourage the kinds of teams and kinds of dancing he wanted to see more of. This meant an emphasis on technically proficient teams, and, independently and quite dogmatically, the exclusion of mixed-sex teams.

As a reaction to Marlboro, the mixed sides established the Mixed Morris Ale, also held on Memorial Day weekend in New England until its cessation around 1995. (A third major American ale, the Midwest Ale, continues to take place the same weekend.) Masters observes that, although attitudes regarding team gender makeup have generally moderated since the 1980s, the mixed and single sex teams still tend to form separate communities:

Teams that met at the Ales tended to invite each other for days of dance, or, considering the distances involved, weekends of dance. When dancers relocated from city to city, they tended to hook up with teams they knew. At this point, the two communities are remarkably isolated from each other, considering that we share so many common interests and live in close proximity.


Appendix 1: 1979 American Morris Newsletter DirectoryEdit

No American morris umbrella organization was ever formed. However, a publication, the American Morris Newsletter, began in April, 1977 under the editorship of Breunig. The first issue (PDF) included an "undoubtedly incomplete" list of 23 North American teams. By the April 1979 issue (PDF) the list included

British Columbia
Victoria Morris Men
California
Berkeley Morris
Connecticut
Mianus River Morris
New Haven Morris and Sword
District of Columbia
Foggy Bottom Morris
Indiana
Bloomington Morris
Kentucky
Berea Morris Men
Woodford Morris Men
Maine
Fiddler's Reach Morris
Strong Morris
Troy Morris
Manitoba
Village Green Morris Men
Massachusetts
Berkshire Morris Men
Black Jokers
Muddy River Morris
NewTowne Morris Men
Northampton Morris
Woods Hole Morris Men
Michigan
Ann Arbor Morris
Minnesota
Minnesota Traditional Morris
New Hampshire
Moose Mountain Morris
New York
Binghamton Morris Men
Buffalo Morris
Greenwich Morris Men
Hearts of Oak
Pokingbrook Morris
Ring o' Bells
Ontario
Forest City Morris Men
Green Fiddle Morris
Pennsylvania
St. Peter's School
Three Rivers Morris Men
Rhode Island
Westerly Morris Men
Tennessee
Sourwood Morris
Texas
Men of Houston
Vermont
Marlboro Morris and Sword
Washington
Pike Place Morris
Wisconsin
Dodgeville Morris Men
Regional
Mountain Morris Men
Pinewoods Morris Men

Appendix 2: Some pre-1980 Founding DatesEdit

Note: Some of the following dates came from Jeff Bigler's Geographic List of Morris and Sword Sides (no longer being maintained). Note that some of the dates differ from dates mentioned elsewhere in this article. Dates were supplied by team members and have not been verified. Nearly all then-extant North American teams were listed on Bigler's site, but he did not have founding date information for most of them.

1964 -- Pinewoods Morris Men, Plymouth, Massachusetts (USA)
1970 -- Canterbury Morris, Canterbury, New Hampshire (USA)
1973 -- Binghamton Morris Men, NewCambridgeMM
1973 -- Pipe & Bowl Morris, Northern and Southern California
1974 -- Greenwich Morris Men, New York, New York (USA)
1974 -- Ring O' Bells, New York, New York (USA)
1974 -- Marlboro Morris and Sword, Vermont (USA)
1974 -- Muddy River Morris, Boston, Massachusetts (USA)
1974 -- Minnesota Traditional Morris, Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA)
1976 -- American Travelling Morrice, Many different locations, New York/New England (USA)
1976 -- Hearts of Oak Morris, Binghamton, NY (USA)
1977 -- Berkeley Morris, Berkeley, California (USA)
1977 -- Bloomington Quarry, Bloomington, Indiana (USA)
1977 -- Bluemont Morris, Bluemont, Virginia (USA)
1977 -- Foggy Bottom Morris Men, Washington, DC (USA)
1977 -- Kingsessing Morris Men, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA)
1977 -- Newtowne Morris Men, Boston, Massachusetts (USA)
1978 -- Albemarle Morris Men, Charlottesville, Virginia (USA)
1978 -- Ha'penny Morris, Belmont, Massachusetts (USA)
1979 -- Bouwerie Boys Morris Dancers, New York, New York (USA)
1979 -- Mianus River Morris, Greenwich, Connecticut (USA)
1979 -- Rock Creek Morris Women, Washington, District of Columbia (USA)
1979 -- Bells of the North -- Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA)
1970s -- Village Green Morris Men, Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada)

ReferencesEdit

  • Crampton, C. Ward. The Folk Dance Book: for elementary schools, class room, playground, and gymnasium, A. S. Barnes, 1915.
  • Krause, Rhett (1991). "Morris Dance and America Prior to 1913". American Morris Newsletter 15, 2: 17-35. (Reprinted 2005).

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