Part 1 – Getting off the sofa on a Monday night
A miserable January evening in 2013 – watching TV in my pyjamas – I caught sight of my violin case sitting sullenly in the corner of the room unopened since Christmas when my niece, newly enthused with joining her University Morris side got me to play some tunes for her to dance to. I knew a few Morris tunes from listening to folk bands, but playing for a niece with bells on was a novelty. Since Christmas the violin had sat in the corner for a month, unloved and unplayed. Something had to be done. I needed an incentive to practise or it would still be sitting there next Christmas.
Were there any local Morris sides around Liverpool? A quick google of ‘Liverpool Morris dancing’ and up popped the ‘Liverpool Morris Dancing Association’ – sounded promising. Another few clicks and. . . . . . . . . . Little girls dancing with pom poms looking like drum majorettes?? Not quite the image I was expecting of white shirts, flowery hats and bells. Turns out ‘Fluffy Morris’ is big with teenage girls in the Northwest but they certainly weren’t looking for a fiddler. So back to Google and further down the list was ‘Mersey Morris Men’, who danced in the Cotswold tradition. The website had an encouraging invitation for new musicians so I emailed somebody calling himself the bagman and sat back and waited.
A bit like buses, nothing arrived for about a week and then suddenly 2 emails at once, one from ‘The Foreman’ and one from the mysterious Bagman, inviting me to a rehearsal night. And so it was I found myself sitting outside Thornton Hough Village Hall on a dark, wet and windy February evening, wondering what on earth I was doing. Luckily before I had the chance to change my mind, a miniature Father Christmas look-alike arrived bearing long sticks, wished me a cheery ‘hello’ and let myself and other assembled chaps plus another lady fiddler into the hall.
A few introductions – turns out Father Christmas was the mysterious ‘Bagman’ – and it was straight into the dancing. I’d brought the Morris ‘little black book’ – handbook of tunes & dances with me, and luckily the first tune was in there, but it was a complete mystery as to which bits of the tune went with which bit of the dance and even which bit of the dance was which! The terms being shouted out weren’t much help either – whatever were ‘figures’ or ‘heys’ and how do I know which part of the tune accompanies them?
Just as I was getting the hang of it they suddenly started playing at half speed and the dancers were doing all sorts of elaborate jumps. Help! Then a new tune and a dance with sticks where at least they could tell me which bit of the tune went with the hitting of the sticks, but this one had a different sequence and I kept playing the wrong bit. Still, they were very encouraging and after some restorative tea and biscuits and a warm welcome from Squire Tony and the Foreman Richard the next new tune didn’t seem as bad. So that was 3 tunes I’d learnt in one evening, but… oh no! How did the first one go again? Argh! I’d always had the music in front of me when playing or singing and learning it all by heart was going to be a challenge.
And how to remember all their names – easy with the lovely Eve on violin but there seemed to be endless chaps who dipped in and out of the dancing and came and played squeezy boxes (melodeons) but who were they all again?
A few days later a PDF file arrived in my inbox with the music for all their commonly-played dances. Phew! At least I’d now be able to practise them at home. But hang on ……..EIGHTY-TWO TUNES? How was I ever going to learn that lot?
I couldn’t make the next two rehearsals. They probably thought I’d give up, but like the proverbial penny I was back again three weeks later and despite the restraining order I’ve been going back ever since. Find out in the next thrilling episode if I learned to solve the riddles of Morris tune algebra and summon up Constant Billy or Webley Twizzle!