A school in Kent, which had booked Motley Border Morris Men to appear at a day celebrating diversity, cancelled the booking because the dancers black their faces. The school was anxious not to cause offence to anyone. The irony, particularly for a diversity day, is that this blacking up is not an imitation of black people (as in the case of the Black & White Minstrels), but was originally a disguise. It's an English tradition from the borders with Wales and is hundreds of years old.
Often Morris sides (or 'troupes' as the school called them) went dancing to raise a bit of cash to supplement meagre farm wages, or during the winter when there was no work. As it could be interpreted as a form of begging, they concealed their identity. In 1723, because poachers sometimes blacked their faces as a disguise, it was even made a hanging offence to be found with weapons and a blacked face. Blacking up by Morris sides today is a relic of part of our social history, and has absolutely nothing to do with race. As a committed anti-racist, I wouldn't defend it otherwise.
It's a pity that the school didn't bother to find out why the dancers black up, and explain the reasons in terms of social history and rural poverty. Another reason why it's a pity is that whenever I have watched Border Morris, I've noticed that kids usually love it as it's energetic, noisy, involves clashing sticks, and has a large band of varied musicians creating a great wall of sound. It's difficult to ignore Border Morris.
What's it got to do with this blog? How about the fact that Morris sides dance to live traditional music and tend to drink real ale? The picture shows the Men O' Th' Mere Morris outside the Zetland pub in 1981; they were active in Southport throughout the 1980s. I am at the back wearing a cap and clutching a guitar ~ and a pint, of course. As a musician I didn't black up. (click on picture to enlarge it)
Way out west
2 hours ago