Morris For Me … The Novice’s Tale

On my frequent trips to Cornwall, I always remember to take my bodyboard with me. I’m not particularly good at it – not like some of the locals, who seem to cut through the water with all the ease and grace of dolphins – but I do manage to catch my fair share of waves. In truth, it’s not that difficult. You wait until there’s a decent size wave coming at you, you turn to face the shore, and then, at the optimum moment, you jump onto your board and kick for all you’re worth. More often than not, the sheer momentum of the water will propel you along. And in that moment you will have found bliss.

            I had an idea that morris dancing would be… kind of the same?! – Spoiler: It isn’t. But more on that in a moment.

            It was never my intention to become a morris dancer. I have morris-dancers-in-law. But me? God no! Shudder at the thought! I grew up in inner-city Liverpool. Dancing was what you did in The Krazy House or Cream on a Saturday night. And if you saw a gang of men armed with sticks you ran the other way. Morris dancing? That’s a country thing, surely!

            So time passed.

            And yes, I’ve always liked folk music; listening to my Dad’s old Spinners records as a kid. Then, as a teenager and into my twenties, I got into the ever so slightly heavier sound of The Levellers via my soon-to-be wife. The likes of Spiers and Boden (Bellowhead) followed. Later my father-in-law introduced me to Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and The Albion Band. But no, morris dancing was not for me.

            And yes, I’ve always liked dancing, be it in the aforementioned clubs, at Ceilidh dances, at wedding discos, birthday parties, or simply in my own kitchen listening to the radio. But no, morris dancing was not for me.

            As I got older, and with my 40’s looming on the sadly no-longer-distant horizon, it occurred to me that I wasn’t as fit as I used to be and I should probably take up a sport of some description; or at least go jogging. At any rate, something regular and vigorous to keep me moving. But no, not morris dancing.

            Did I mention that I’m a real ale drinker? I’ve been known to travel miles for a decent IPA in a good pub, or an interesting stout at a busy beer festival. But morris dancing…?

            Last summer a chap I know through work, who happens to be a morris dancer with Mersey Morris Men, mentioned in passing that they would be dancing at my local pub in a few weeks’ time, if I happened to be around. By chance, I was free and – never one to miss a good excuse to go the pub – I went along to see the MMM.

            I’ve seen morris dancers on a number of occasions and, though I’ve always been impressed with their skills and enjoyed a good show, it never crossed my mind to get involved myself. That fateful evening, however, I was talked into taking part in their audience participation dance. I won’t kid myself that I was anything other than terrible, but I DID enjoy it.

            A lightbulb flickered dimly in my brain. Good music? Yes. The dancing, the exercise, the beer, the women (OK maybe not the women. To misquote Douglas Adams: It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression “As pretty as a morris dancer”.). Didn’t I want all this?

            I had been handed a leaflet from one of the dancers that night, so I knew there was an open evening planned for the start of September. I’m not exactly a social person and I don’t mind admitting that I find meeting new people a bit scary, but I made the effort – if it turned out it wasn’t for me after all, I could always just not go back again.

            When it came to the dancing I had the vague impression that, like the Atlantic breakers I mentioned earlier, I could simply go with the flow. Point me in the right general direction and let the momentum of the other dancers carry me along.

            Morris does not work like this.

            Every dance seemed different and overwhelming. I had information overload. What should my hands be doing? Where are my feet going? Half gips, cross-overs, double stepping, heys, twisty-backs! Ilmington, Adderbury, Bledington. Maybe this wasn’t for me after all…

            But no…

Morris dancing WAS for me.

            In the pub, at the end of the night, tired and a bit confused, I also realised something else; I’d not had this much fun in ages! I suppose that like a lot of things that are tricky to master, it feels good when you do get it right. I doubt I’ll ever be a great dancer like those dolphins of the morris dancing world (to crowbar in an analogy), but maybe one day I’ll be competent. That evening, I was a way off even that. But through some excellent tuition from all concerned, I learned enough little things in that first evening’s practice to muddle through a few dances and spark in me a desire to be a morris dancer proper. Caught up in the dance I had found a moment of bliss

            My only regret so far is that it took me so long to realise that I needed The Morris in my life. If only I’d done it sooner!

Mersey Morris Men’s 2nd Cotswold Morris Music Workshop Day

For the 2nd time in 2 years, the residents of a quiet Wirral village may have caught a waft of mysterious music on the breeze as their Church hall echoed to the sound of melodeons, violins and a recorder playing odd but wonderful lumpy tunes with quite a lot of Oomph. Yes, it was Mersey Morris Men’s Musicians’ 2nd Music Workshop Day, a challenge in apostrophe-placing and chance for our large group of Musicians to get together and focus on how we play.

Jon, Emma & Toby Melville – skilled Morris musicians & dancers with a wealth of experience between them – put Mersey musicians through their paces with a variety of discussions, group and solo playing.

Mersey Morris Music Day 2019

Group playing is a challenge for Morris, as the more usual situation of only one or two Musicians allows great flexibility and manoeuverability between musicians and dancers. Without a lot of thought and practice, a group of Morris musicians can be stodgy, muddy and not together.

 Working with the tutors, the musicians practised playing staccato, getting melodeon bass patterns to match the feet of the dancers, plus using ‘oomph’ to encourage the dancers to get airborne. Then there was a chance to practice leading the dance, with the leader setting the pace and following the dancers while everyone else follows the leader closely. Sounds simple, but in practice, leading a large group of musicians which may contain those who’ve done it a million times before and think they know exactly what speed old Joe will do his slows at and therefore think they don’t need to watch the leader, can be a tad tricky!

Group playing can, however, also provide an opportunity for adding spice to a performance by improvising counter melodies around a tune. With the proviso of not interfering with the underlying tune and disconcerting the dancers, this can add great interest and enjoyment to both musicians and audience. The dancers may even notice sometimes too! With Emma leading on piano accordion, the musicians were encouraged to improvise around ‘Speed the Plough’ – being allowed to play anything except the tune – with pretty pleasing results.

The tutors also challenged all the musicians to play solo or duo for a jig – a nerve-wracking experience, especially being critically assessed by other musicians. Impressively, everyone stepped up to the mark and played for either Jon or Toby to dance ‘Nutting Girl’. Considering this father/son combination of Musician/Dancer won the solo jig competition at Sidmouth a few weeks ago, this stirred up some considerable nervous excitement within the ranks. There was a 2nd chance later in the day to play the same jig for a Mersey dancer, and a plan to include some solo/duo jig practice in the winter practice sessions.

After a tasty and all home-made lunch of soup, bread, cakes and some fruit to balance it all out, afternoon sessions concentrated on ways of varying the large group performance to provide light, shade and interest, whilst mirroring the shape of the dance. Using the ‘break it down then build it up again’ technique, figures were accompanied by strings & recorder, then adding box right hands and then the chords again in the choruses. Silent choruses were also used. When a bevy of hungry Mersey dancers arrived for the final hour, and once extricated from the cake table, the musicians then got to try this out to a set of dancers, whilst also rotating the leadership.

After a triumphant final dance, musicians and tutors retired to The Harp – a rather lovely old-fashioned pub on the edge of The Dee estuary, for a well-earned pint! All in all, an excellent and enjoyable day, with much to take back to Music rehearsals over the winter.

And a final take-home message from the tutors:

The leader plays to the dancers, others accompany – if you don’t know who’s leading, don’t play – if you can’t hear the leader, you’re too loud – and remember – not everyone needs to play all the time!

Bordering on Poetry

No-one really knows what inspiration drives people to write poetry……A time? A place? An event? An idea or notion?

This was well-illustrated when MMM visited Chester for their annual Border/Molly Tour. Who knows what happened that day to drive two dancers to pick up their keyboards……………

Chester, Chester, oh city fair; we’re on our way to give you a scare.
With instruments blaring, and men in smocks, we’ll march around and wave our sticks in your general direction.


Of all the fair maids across this land, the Morris Molly is fairest to be found.
Demur of manner and kind of heart, in a bare knuckle fight she’ll stand her ground.
Of great reserve, impulses she’ll not divulge, and beneath her skirts an unusual arrangement of hosiery.

DC (again!)

There was a young maid called Molly.
Her dancing and skirts were jolly,
Till she lost her heart
to a despicable tart
who lifted her skirts with a brolly


Border and Molly in Chester

Although primarily a Cotswold side, every now and then Mersey Morris Men like to don our rag coats and do a bit of Border and Molly dancing.  In fact, if doing something more than once makes it a tradition, then we have just had our third traditional annual February day of dance in the ancient city of Chester. 

Chester is well known for a number of things, one is that it has a complete City wall running round the centre, and another are the world-famous Rows. For those who have never been to Chester (you should, it’s a beautiful old city), these are four streets that have two-storey shops, dating back to medieval times, with a covered gallery that runs in front of the top row.  Because the city centre is pedestrianised these make perfect audience viewing positions for watching the dancing in the street below.

It was an unseasonably warm, sunny early spring Saturday and the city was full of shoppers and day trippers. We danced a total of 30 dances during the day in six different spots, by the walls, by the river (another thing Chester is known for) and between the Rows.  We have a small repertoire of Border and Molly dances, our two Border dances were both written by one of our members and one of our four Mollies was written by another member.  We supplemented these six with the traditional Upton Stick Dance.

So next year on the 3rd Saturday in February come and see us as we continue our new-found tradition.

From our on-the-spot reporter Matt King.

Farewell Nev

nev-in-kitMersey Morris Men’s Liver Bird of long standing Nev Moulden died on Tuesday 18th October. He was also a musician with Mockbeggar Morris (Ladies North West).

He was 83 and his health had been in decline for some years. However he did make it to the Forest of Dean MM Family Weekend in June.

At the funeral,  Richard Stapledon, Foreman of Mersey Morris and a close friend of Nev’s, painted the perfect picture of someone who had definitely lived life to the full…….

“Nev & Pat first took up country dancing about 30 years ago because according to Pat, they were watching too much TV. It was there that a couple of existing Mersey Morris Men tried to persuade Nev to join, because they were desperate for new men. He rose to the challenge!

Nev stuck with it in the early days, despite Jim Jones asking why he bothered because, in Jim’s view, he was a rubbish dancer! We all realised we may not have gained the most nimble footed member of the team, but it soon became clear that the qualities we had gained were far more valuable to us. WE GAINED A FIRST CLASS CHARACTER.

Not satisfied with just learning how to get by on the dance floor, Nev became fascinated with 2 other aspects of the morris – the music and dressing-up-in-a- liver bird-costume! The latter was easily arranged because nobody else really wanted to do it, so from then on Nev WAS the Liver bird, adding props in the form of liver bird eggs, liver bird noises, liver bird webbed feet and stripy legs, liver bird motorised baby chicks! His one-man act could hold a large audience spellbound as he laid eggs, made labour pain noises, gave birth and finally taught his offspring how to dance the morris!

Nev’s determination to learn a folk instrument was partly borne out of his realisation that this would keep him in the hobby for the long term. He always said that he wished he had come into folk as a young man rather than as a 50 something year old, but if he could play an instrument, he could still be involved after his dancing days were over. I remember him quizzing me about whether the melodeon would be a wise choice and when I explained that it was just like playing a mouth organ, his mind was made up and that’s what he went for. In a very short time, he became extremely proficient on the instrument, becoming one of MMM’s mainstays for many years.

A few years after Nev joined MMM, in 1991 a new ladies’ morris team was formed through the instigation of some Mersey wives including Pat and my wife Jean. For these past 25 years, Nev has been a leading musician for Mockbeggar Morris as well as MMM. With his Mockbeggar contributions being restricted to the music, he still managed to find other ways to make his mark, for example by donning a heated jacket at their winter practice sessions which encouraged all the ladies to snuggle up to him to keep warm! Now that’s better than any chat-up line!

Nev was determined to keep involved with the ladies’ team as long as possible, even in later years when his ability to walk any distance had become an issue. Not that long ago, he apparently dabbled with an alternative system to walking when he turned up with a motorised scooter – not a mobility scooter but an ordinary scooter! He was proudly showing it to a few of the girls outside on the pavement when, to their amazement, Nev’s traditional foot pumping action set the motor in action and whisked him away into the distance like a whirlwind. Totally exhausted, he reappeared some time later and made the decision that this perhaps wasn’t the answer to his problems!

We nearly lost Nev a few years ago – – –  and I mean this in more ways than one.

Now Nev was never a heavy drinker in his time with MMM but he decided to make an exception to that rule during a morris trip to Holland. In the early hours of the morning after a heavy day of morrising and drinking, just before dawn, he decided to get up from his bed, presumably to visit the loo. The trouble was that he was in a top bunk; clad in just his underpants, he left the upstairs room via an exterior-wobbly-spiral-staircase, walked about 50 yards barefoot along a gravel path onto the small country road that had 3 foot deep dykes on either side. The three of us who were awoken and realised he hadn’t returned, went to search, clad in our pyjamas, going in each direction along the road until one of us received a pointing finger and bewildered facial expression from the milkman doing his early rounds! Just about in one piece, Nev was led safely back and the rest of the men were totally oblivious to the adventure until they later awoke!

I have tried to give you a flavour of this FIRST CLASS CHARACTER that both morris sides were privileged to welcome into their folds. This was a man who was loved, admired and respected by all age groups in the folk and morris world. It was he and Pat that took my 15 year old son and his friend to Glastonbury Festival. The 15 year olds would come back to their tents exhausted each night, only to find that Nev and Pat would still be out living it up.

At many a folk or morris weekend, Nev would be found outdoors surrounded by youngsters, all happily playing with his large collection of juggling equipment or watching in awe as he launched his water propelled plastic bottle rocket toward the clouds, then holding their breath as they watched to see which car or tent it would hit as it returned to earth!

Those of you who knew Nev through other connections will all recognise the qualities that everyone loved about him. All of us in his morris sides have been privileged and had our lives enriched by knowing Nev. He will be sorely missed by us all.”