creating community through celebration

"I Bring You A Bunch of May" - April 2009

Far removed as it is from the jollity and warmth of the Christmas reveling season, April has nonetheless become a very active time in Revels circles. From this vantage point we can look ahead to see both May Day and the Summer Solstice on the horizon, as well as auditions for the coming winter show. Already, we’re dusting off props and instruments, the Morris Dancers are polishing their bells, and the Solstice Ensemble is working up new repertory.

This year we will be continuing what has become an annual tradition of celebrating May Day on the first weekend of May with appearances at the Oakland Zoo and the Pelican Inn at Muir beach in Marin. While each celebration is slightly different, they share many common features.

One song that is de rigueur for a Revels May Day is the eponymous “May Day Carol”. It is a courting song, where the suitor presents a bouquet of spring blossoms, acknowledging the work of a higher hand in the creation of the green bounty amidst which one spends the time ‘twixt cradle and grave. Like most things in the folk realm, this song exists in a number of variants. I am aware of at least three settings myself. The version that we perform uses the tune that became something of a signature piece for Revels founder Jack Langstaff.

Cornwall, in the South of England provides several more tunes and customs that are part of our May Day Celebration. The Hal An Tow song and the Furry Dance both hail from the town of Helston where the daylong ceremonies evoke the ancient sylvan rites mentioned by Shakespeare in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”:

“,,,If thou love’st me then, Steal forth thy father’s house tomorrow night, And in the wood, a league without the town, Where I did meet thee once with Helena, To do observance to a morn of May, There I will stay for thee.”

In Helston the young men of the town are supposed to go to the woods and return to greet the young ladies with branches of greenery with which they dance the first of the day’s dances. Later, about noon, the grand Flora dance wends through the village, to the strains of the “Furry” tune played by the Helston Town Band. There is much speculation about the ancient, perhaps Roman, origins of this ritual. The name itself may well have come from the Celtic feur, a word meaning “a fair holiday”.

There is less uncertainty about the origin of the chant that has come to accompany the street festivities. The call of “Oogie, Oogie,Oogie” and the response of “Oy,Oy,Oy” , is a regular feature of rugby games - although as these things tend to go, there’s a story behind that as well. It seems there is a Welsh pasty called a “Hogan”, which in the local dialect is rendered as “Oogie”. As the story goes, when the wives of Welsh miners wished to deliver lunch, they would stand at the minehead and call “Oogie”. If their spouse desired a pasty, he would respond to the affirmative, “Oy”, whereupon a bucket containing the delicacy was tossed down to the forewarned diner. I will leave you to figure out how this exchange found its way into the rugby crowd and thence to the streets of Helston and the Zoo of Oakland.

Some of the May Day rituals that we celebrate are of a more generic variety. The crowning of a May Queen is common to many societies, although in our Zoo observance we enact the more specific custom of a good luck kiss through a wreath of lilac boughs. The May Pole also appears on greens and commons throughout the world. Children are invited to dance and entwine the ribbons about ours in both Oakland and Marin.

In addition to dancing by the Deer Creek Morris Men, we are planning a traditional garland dance featuring members of the Solstice Ensemble, audience participation songs and dances, and of course the annual appearance of the rare and fearsome Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss.

So tie on some ribbons, pack a picnic, and join in the celebration of “the very merry month of May”.

Two interesting footnotes to the this topic: 1. In many Christmas Revels, the song “I Saw Three Ships” is sung to the tune of the Helston Furry. This marriage seems to have been enacted by Jack Langstaff or another Revels musician. I cannot find this tune upholstered with those lyrics in any other context. All searches seem to lead back to the Revels. 2. There is a Morris processional tune, "Winster" which sounds very much like the Helston Furry tune and could, I suspect, even be used as a counter melody. Is there a connection….?

One more thing: here's a link to a very nice website that delves into the pagan roots of Beltane and May Day.

- David Parr, Artistic Director