Part 2: Morris tunes, algebra & melodeons at dawn

The thing I love about Morris tunes – as well as their wonderful names like ‘Trunkles’ and ‘Webley Twizzle’ – is their great ‘earthiness’;  stomping downbeats and tunes punctuated by the ‘lift’ which often corresponds to the dancers as they hop and jump. Much of this seems to come from the natural style of the melodeons and concertinas which are the mainstay of the Morris band and it was the sheer joy of these tunes – in my case of hearing them played by the amazing duo Spiers & Boden – which excited me so much and made me want to play for dancing.

On the musical page the tunes appear deceptively simple, but it’s the trick of getting the style right and of knowing how the tune fits to the dance which is the challenge, as well as learning them all off by heart and being able to summon them at a moment’s notice! One of the first problems of playing for actual dancing was to decipher the strange algebra written at the top of each tune:

Not, in fact, something from Maths GCSE but a musical geography of the dance, where the parts of the tune – A, B and sometimes C are played in the order shown, with numbers to show where you play them twice or more. So fairly simple then, just have to remember which bit you’re playing and how many times you’ve played it!

But in rehearsals, obviously individual bits of dances were practised separately, which proved a bit more tricky. Being a bit slow on the uptake, it took me a while to realise that the ABC’s corresponded to what appeared to be ‘verses’ and ‘choruses’ of each dance, with the C parts later in the dances for the slower bits, so for quite a number of weeks (and sometimes still) I’d be heard asking my fellow musicians “Erm… which bit’s this?” as they went over a specific part of the dance. Added to which there’s that peculiarity of brain function which wipes it completely clean of any tune I ever knew when Richard the Foreman turns around and asks for a “run in to the sticking” …… leaving you standing like an idiot as you ‘tum-tee-tum’ in your head  desperately trying to find the bit of the tune you need!

Luckily my fellow musicians – Eve on fiddle, Richard, Nev, Andy, Peter, Ron & Spike on melodeons and Phil on guitar were there to help me out and practice sessions in the ‘Seven Stars’ pub afterwards helped  too.

Dark practice nights gradually got lighter and after only 9 rehearsals suddenly the summer ‘Dance-out’ season started and Monday nights  became ‘doing it for real outside a pub’ in front of the public and with no safety net. Plus official appearances at shows, fetes and other events throughout the summer. Scary stuff, especially, as I discovered on the first night out, as there were many dances they hadn’t done in rehearsals but which I needed to learn PDQ. Argh! Practice needed!

I didn’t realise it beforehand but only my second outing with Mersey Morris Men would turn out to be one of the most memorable of the whole year – the centuries-old tradition of welcoming the spring by dancing at dawn on 1st May.  It sounded exciting, but at 4am on a chilly spring morning I did wonder.

Parking the car at the bottom of Bidston hill, along with members of Mockbeggar Morris, we began to make our way up past the old windmill just as the sun started to tinge the horizon with pink and well, it could just have been the cold of course as it was a bit nippy, but I felt a definite tingle down the spine moment at the thought of how many others had done this before over hundreds of years. And probably with a long trek in the dark to get to their particular high spot without the luxury of cars!

Once at the top, and just as the sun emerged, Mersey’s traditional first dance for May 1st ‘Signposts’ was performed, with 6 men and a single musician.  For many years the musician who played for the dance was John Stapledon, a founder member and Life President of Mersey Morris Men who was also a very talented composer and English Concertina player.  Very sadly he had recently died, so it was especially moving to see his son Richard play for the dance, which has some lovely moments of stillness seeming so suited to the occasion.

As the sun began to rise the dancing continued until the famous Liverpool skyline emerged and after posing for a team photo we made our way back down the hill for a well-deserved bacon sandwich. It was my first proper step in performing with the Morris Men and I had loved every minute!

In the next instalment – Wild Boar, Duck’s Delight and some excellent beer!