This article first appeared in "Mardles", magazine of Folk Dance, Music and Song in Suffolk and Surrounding Counties, February 2001

Old Morris Men Never Die, They Just Learn To Play The Drum

But then again, they don't, and how we wish they would (learn, that is).

Little Egypt has never claimed to be a young side; there are all sorts of Consumer Protection laws against such a statement. Part of the immense spirit of camaraderie in the side has always been based on the fact that we have always been a group of a fairly certain age. As time goes by, however, little niggles begin to develop. Anno domini has an unnerving habit of tapping people on the shoulder - or, more often, kicking people in the knees - to remind us of its constant presence.

The developing awareness that "wear and tear" is far from fair has, over the last few years, created unexpected questions for the side. Such is the attraction of the Morris that, for those of us for whom the capers have become so much lower as to be subterranean, and for whom the successful completion of "Whiteladies Aston" is the dancing equivalent of completing the London Marathon, the thought of abandoning the side to take up more leisurely pursuits such as gardening or cribbage is unbearable.

But what to do instead? Should we hide our growing incompetence behind a gentle, knowing smile that says "Ah, but look at the technical quality"? Or should we divert criticism with critical observations about the straightness of the Squire's line? Or should we adopt the professional view that "I'm not dancing any more handkerchief dances"? Or should the line be "That's not really Cotswold, you know"? These have been tried so often as to be almost tired old clichés themselves ("along with the dancers," do I hear you say?).

No. The approved line these days seems to be "I'd rather like to be a musician". Now, that's all well and good, if all the aching dancers were to take up the trusty melodeon. Of those there are far too few, unless you happen to be Westrefelda, who seem to have found a bellows mine somewhere near Sutton Hoo. But in Little Egypt, we have good old Martin on the squeeze, with occasional guest spots from Mark when he decides to brave the A303 and George, of course. Julie strums us merrily along on her trusty bazouki. Maggie has a pipe and autoharp. Just occasionally, Alex fiddles. Pip has been known to bring the trombone. All well and good: there is the makings of a decent Morris accompaniment - decent, that is, until the cry goes up: "I think I'll stand out on this dance, lads."

When that happens, you'd better stand aside and reach for the earplugs, because if one calls, others will surely follow, and you'll be in great danger of being trampled underfoot in the rush for the side-drum. This is, in appearance, a magnificent beast of charm and delicate decoration. If only it would stay that way. Let loose a tired Morris Man and it becomes a creature from Hades, loud enough to attract every shade and spirit this side of the Styx (or at least the Stour). Ask anyone. They'll tell you. A drum is there to be hit. And, man, are they going to thrash it to within a centimetre of its life! Those who are too slow to grab the side-drum will make a dash instead for one of the set of breeding bodhrans with which the side has been plagued of late. Is there a job for Rentokil here?

Again, some of us have been quite subtle about this. "Do you mind if I just tap along?" How could they refuse? Before they knew it, the sound of untutored wood on untuned goatskin became part of the Suffolk Scene. Now: if you read all the books on Irish music, and all the criticism on the Internet, they'll tell you that the bodhran is a subtle instrument of texture, of light and shade, better heard in its pause than in its play. Not in Glemsford, it isn't. Oh no. Let's see how hard we can hit the thing, shall we? It adds to the sound. Hmmm.

And so the band grows. Recorders are occasionally heard. Someone (Bob?) has acquired a good set of penny whistles and, to be fair, can put out quite a nice noise, when he doesn't overblow to the audible limits and beyond, and bring out every dog from five miles around to join the dance.

Should I be complaining? Probably not, participation is, of course, everything, but there is one problem. There is a growing number of occasions when the musicians take on the appearance of an orchestra (admittedly heavy on the percussion), and they have been known to outnumber the dancers.

Doubtless, as the years go by, we will attract some young whippersnappers to learn the dance, and the ratio of musicians to dancers will alter again in favour of the latter. Meanwhile, does anyone know of the whereabouts of a portable kettle drum?

Page maintained by Steve Clarke, Feel free to contact me Copyright(c) Steve Clarke.Created: 19/02/2001 Updated: 21/02/2003