“As long as anyone here can remember...” - May 2008
In the world of academia, where I spend much of my non-Revels time, there are numerous standards for establishing the reliability of facts. The phrase quoted above is not usually one of them. Academic rigor requires verification from a variety of sources, such as publications, found artifacts and scientific analysis. Most of the traditions we celebrate in Revels suffer from a notable lack of this kind of documentation and instead are defined by traditional recollection.
Yes, its true that someone carbon-dated the Reindeer antlers used in the Horn Dance in Abbots Bromley and found them to come from the ninth century, but that kind of scientific confirmation is rare, and it still didn’t help explain what the dance is supposed to mean. Our folk traditions and songs and dances exist in a maddeningly diverse scatter of versions and regional variants, and the few notable attempts to pin them down in published form succeed in being little more than snapshots of celebration in transition.
A lot of the problem is that people having fun don’t generally think to write down what they’re doing. Songs and dances get passed along from hand to hand, and “As long as anyone here can remember” becomes the litmus of authenticity. For example, the fairly well-researched topic of Morris dancing, has given rise to a number of scholarly books and papers over the years. We might know where a tune of a particular title was played, who spent how much on ribbons, and often who was incarcerated for their excessive revelry. But at a certain point down the road to the past (usually around the invention of the printing press), facts thin out quickly and we are left with shaky speculation. No one can even say for certain where the name ”Morris” really comes from – although there is certainly no shortage of speculative opinion on the matter.
And so I thought I’d talk about Mayday. Each year, here in the Bay Area, Revels celebrates with traditional songs and rituals in a couple of different places. Most of our shenanigans are drawn from English traditions that assuredly go back many centuries, but the actual forms in which we perform them go back – you guessed it - “As long as anyone here can remember”. The Maypole Dance is really an early twentieth century practice, although forms of it trail back much earlier, and of course it is tempting to project all sorts of primordial imagery on the pole itself. The Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss is an odd one, with a bizarre dancing puppet and a celebratory song making mention of the Spanish armada, St. George, and Ursula Birdwood (?). But this version, or something very much like it is the way people in Padstow see fit to perform it today.
Likewise the Helston traditions of the Hal An Tow song and the celebrated Flora Dance hint at very old mysteries with the display of greenery in the former and the sinuous twisting line of the latter. Yet both of these are infused with rather contemporary elements. We were surprised to learn, for example, that a mysterious exhortatory chant we discovered as part of the Helston street ritual is actually a very common English Rugby cheer. I guess its disappointing that it can’t be traced to the Druids, but we wove it into our version of the celebration anyway – because its fun. I suppose that some day, the inclusion of the Cornish Oogie chant will be justified on the basis that it has been part of that particular celebration -“As long as anyone here can remember”.
If you’d like to see video of the Padstow “Blue Ribbon ‘Oss”, the one we’ve replicated in California, see him here.(note this is shot late in a very long day)
And here is Helston’s Hal An Tow celebration.
- David Parr, Artistic Director