American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 1
April, 2005

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The Marlboro Morris Ale at 30

Part I. Why an "Ale"?

Anthony G. Barrand, Ph.D.
Boston University

Memorial Day weekend, 2005, will mark the 30th Marlboro Morris Ale held in Windham County, Vermont, the oldest American gathering of teams dancing some form of the Morris. For those who haven't been to one, it is based at Marlboro College in southern Vermont, a little institution (250 students) with a delightful view of the exquisite local mountains. On Saturday morning the teams dance for each other before heading down to a walking tour of Brattleboro and a massed display on a closed-off street followed by food and drink in the local bars and restaurants. Sunday sees a driving tour (in buses) of the villages of Windham County, Vermont, and a massed display by the County Courthouse in Newfane, one of Vermont's most picturesque towns with its classic white, wooden houses and churches. The views of the locales and much of the dancing from all thirty Ales can be seen at my archive collection at: (Editor's note: for more information on the DVRA, please see his article in this issue.) 

This structure has not changed much since the first "Ale" which was on May 29th and 30th, 1976, but it depends when you start counting. As one older Ring o' Bell's dancer knowingly said to me at last year's gathering, "2005 is really the "31st Ale". To understand this remark and for me to explain where the Ale's name and format come from, I apologize for having to indulge in a little autobiography.

Morris and Ales Discovered

John Roberts and I began singing together in 1969 when in graduate school at Cornell University. In 1972 we had gone to teach at Marlboro College in southern Vermont. We had become aware that English folk song was intimately connected with seasonal visiting customs and the dance forms that accompanied them. We were teaching at Pinewoods Camp Folk Music Week in 1973 and I had one of those life changing moments I call a "St. Paul on the Road to Damascus " experience. A group of men from New York on the camp crew (who later became the Greenwich Morris Men) danced Cotswold Morris at an evening dance party. It was athletic and it was musical and this former rugby player was hooked. There it was: Life's Work. I later found out, looking at some old slides from 1967 (that no longer exist), that I had seen Morris dancing done by graduating seniors when I was an exchange at Swarthmore College; men in top hats did an Adderbury stick dance and women did the Fieldtown Nutting Girl jig. It had no impact on me. This time I was primed and ready.

We went to dance week at Pinewoods the next year (1974) specifically to learn Morris and there saw a group of women from New York (later Ring o' Bells) practicing. That fall, to keep improving my own skills and as John was learning the concertina, I started a team in Marlboro with some students, both men and women, and a couple of local men who danced with Roger Cartwright's nascent team, the New Cambridge Morris Men.

I had such a Morris bug that my wedding at the end of May in 1975 to Andy Herzbrun (now Horton) was a Morris tour and Maypole event. As Andy was also dancing, it seemed important to have both men's and women's teams so we invited Ring o' Bells and a Marlboro men's team I put together adding invited "ringers" from New York and Boston. The wedding was a prototype for the first Ale which happened on our anniversary the next year, 1976. Click here to see the DVRA record of the wedding

Why Memorial Day weekend?

There were three obvious reasons to pick the Memorial Day weekend: 1) American teams such as our own had not yet quit for the year because of the summer heat ( a problem English teams rarely face); 2) it was still May so teams had recently danced out even if only for May Day and were practiced; and 3) it was a three-day weekend to make travel from longer distances possible. But there was an additional important local historical connection with a festival in the last week of May. As part of my interest in linking the Morris with the Marlboro community, a search of the town charter revealed that the English King in 1751 had given permission for a fair to happen on the last weekend of May each year when the town had grown to as many as forty families. This was the same weekend (Whitsun) that was the occasion for start of summer celebrations and fairs in the Cotswolds of England known as a "Lamb Ales," festivals named for the special alcoholic brew created to be sold and consumed at the event as a fund raiser. Further, Sharp wrote that the Kirtlington Lamb Ale "...held in the week following Whitsun week was the rendezvous of the Morris teams of the neighborhood" (Sharp and MacIlwaine, 1912, p. 25). [American readers should note that Whitsun is the church holiday seven weeks after Easter, also known as "Pentecost".] An "Ale", therefore was a festival, especially at the end of May: so it had to be an "Ale." I didn't know, at the time, about Morris Ring "Meetings" but to call a gaggle of frolicking, drinking Morris dancers a "meeting" would have been un-American.

The clinching fact was that the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in 1976 was May 29th. Oak Apple Day, no less. This was a pleasant boyhood association of a holiday when, in memory of the time (1651) when the king hid in an oak tree hiding from Cromwell's soldiers, we wore "oak apples" (sprigs of oak with a wasp gall) pinned to our jackets to commemorate the restoration of King Charles II on 29th May, 1660. It was a Morris-like day with touches of mayhem: we would challenge others to show their sprig or have their bottoms pinched. As we performed the Headington Quarry repertoire with my team, which has a dance named after the 29th of May, I took it as an auspicious omen for a day to start a Morris festival.

Headington 29th of May as performed at the first Marlboro Ale, May 29th, 1976. This image is from a still frame of a video camera film. 
Click here to see this video in its entirety

Looking for a "rendezvous" to encourage my own and other American teams to improve by seeing each other dance. I exerted a little faculty privilege and got to use Marlboro College as a base. Thus arose the "Marlboro Morris Ale." Two things never did happen that I confess had been fantasies of mine to borrow and adopt from the historical literature. One was an intriguing anecdote in The Morris Book (ibid, p. 12) about the Kirtlington Lamb Ale at which young women had their thumbs tied behind their backs and competed with each other trying to capture a young lamb with their teeth. I thought that would show that young Morris women were not dainty. Couldn't get any volunteers, though! The other was that there were dance competitions to decide which team got to perform at Ales such as Captain Dover's Games in Chipping Campden. I grew up in northern England where people compete for everything from growing marrows (a sort of squash) to clog dancing to pigeon racing. But not in America. Two teams let me know that they would simply NOT come if there was a competition: I was assured that "It was not Morris."

Who came?

There was no competition, then, and all teams came. It was an open invitation at first and many more responded than I knew existed: twelve in all. This was a surprise even to Roger Cartwright, a visionary in the 1960s and 1970s about Morris in America. He had circulated a memo in 1974 about how, with careful nurturing, it might be possible in within ten years to have two or three sides.

At the 1976 Marlboro Ale were the first teams to have formed in the U.S.: the Pinewoods Morris Men stemming from dancing at Pinewoods Camp of the Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS) including Jack Shimer and the legendary teacher, Arthur Cornelius; also there were Roger Cartwright's New Cambridge Morris Men and John Dexter's Binghamton Morris Men, all teams started by former members of the defunct Village Morris Men, a group who had not responded well to May Gadd's strict control of dancing at CDSS classes in New York city. Only slightly more recently coming out of the Pinewoods influence were Ring o' Bells, the Greenwich Morris men, and my own separate men's and women's teams known as Marlboro Morris and Sword. These were known, but totally unexpected were other CDSS influenced teams: Muddy River Morris (a women's team from the Boston area) and Pokingbrook Morris and Sword from Poughkeepsie, NY. Contra dancer Dudley Laufman's mixed adult team, Phoenix Morris, and his Morris Minors kids' team also showed up at the last minute as did Strong Morris from Maine, taught by Eric Lieber, another former Village Morris man.

As I was still romantically attached at to the idea of dancing on the village green, the format was to have solo team displays and massed dancing (so everyone would get to do more than one dance) at a Maypole on the college soccer field on Saturday. I liked the maypole image: I grew up with Maypole dancing in school and it said "May". And I was struck by another story in Sharp's The Morris Book  stressing the need for the Morris men to begin their tour by dancing at the village Maypole.

As I said, I was new enough into Morris dancing in 1976 that I knew nothing about the meetings run by the Morris Ring but it was petty clear that a good format would be a procession of all the teams ( I chose the Winster Processional), massed and individual team dances, and a final recessional around the Maypole. Bonny Green Garters seemed like the obvious choice but, even with women's teams always being a part of the Morris in North America, it took several years before men's teams who had contact with English Ring teams stopped singing the "regular tarters" and "off with the their knickers" lines. To get enough dancing in, Sunday was touring in small groups of teams at sites in towns around Windham County finishing up with massed and solo team displays in spectacular Newfane, Vermont. Yes, on the Green again! It took several years of establishing good relations with local law enforcement and rainy afternoons before all of the grass final venues were replaced with roads closed for the time it took to get through the massed display. The introductory show at Marlboro College first went onto tarmac when a particularly ferocious rainstorm flooded the soccer field. The street alongside the County Courthouse in Newfane soon became the ideal spot for the final show of the weekend with a central area to hold the mass of 200-odd dancers and a grassy slope which is perfect for the 500-600 member audience, most of whom are devoted regulars who plan their memorial Day weekend around "Newfane."

After the quality and general knowledge of teams had increased, there as a real need of more dancing during the weekend. A major change, then, in 1981 was to eliminate the teaching sessions on the Saturday morning, bring the first show at the College into that slot, and send teams out on a walking tour of the town of Brattleboro. Eventually, after several teams began preferring the local bars in town to the massed display on the Brattleboro Common, and even the Saturday night feast, the show moved onto the closed-off street outside the favorite bars and the feast was switched to Sunday night after the Newfane show.

What to dance?

Massed Dances: At the first Ale, the was no guarantee of shared repertoire for massed dancing, so I ran teaching sessions for the chosen massed dances on Friday evening and Saturday morning: Headington Quarry, 29th of May, Ilmington Old Woman Tossed Up and Shepherd's Hey, Adderbury Lads a-Bunchum and Constant Billy, Fieldtown, Balance the Straw and Old Molly Oxford (Step Back), plus the Winster Processional and the Bampton Bonny Green Garters recessional.

This was useful in the early years before good information became available but, after a few years, a number of teams concentrated on a single style (or "tradition" as it was often called) and declined to learn and dance the massed repertoire. As Master of Ceremonies until I retired for health reasons in 1987, I tried different solutions to this problem, including inviting small groups of teams that I knew shared repertoire to choose a dance and perform it together.

Eventually, though, dancers began not to dance exclusively with their own team in these massed dances, which became a performance for "those who will". For my taste, the quality of the dancing dropped dramatically but audiences and dancers alike seemed to enjoy the mix-and-match, slightly -chaotic melange that contrasted well with the disciplined, practiced solo team displays.

Part of what drove the massed dancing in this direction was the gradual introduction of teams not performing Cotswold Morris after Roy Dommett had been in the U.S, in 1978 giving workshops and sharing his "Morris Notes" some of which are now available at:

My films from the 1979 field trip filming dancing in England became an additional source for garland, stave, and Northwest repertoire. The women of the Court Square Dancers first showed Garland dancing at the Ale in 1980 and in the 1980s, teams exclusively presenting Northwest or Clog Morris, rapper and longsword became more common, though a distinct minority. The Marlboro Ale, however, has remained essentially about Cotswold Morris with other forms being invited to help add variety to the display fare.

The massed dance repertoire has settled down to a few well-known handkerchief dances such as Bampton Highland Mary and Fieldtown Old Molly Oxford or "Step-back".

Invented or Traditional Dances

At the first Ale, I think the only team that showed up with a dance that had no "traditional" provenance was the ever-unconventional contra dance leader, Dudley Laufman's Phoenix team, who did a dance Dudley had made up to the English song, "The Keeper". Most dances, of course, were from Sharp's The Morris Book. Lionel Bacon's The Handbook of Morris Dances (The Morris Ring, 1974) was largely unavailable except to Ring teams at the time.

Most recently, the balance has been about 50-50 and some years the bulk of dances have been American inventions. This has also been true for other genres such as longsword and Clog Morris as well as for the Cotswold Morris. It has been especially true for several outstanding rapper sword teams: men's, women's, and children's. When teenagers taught by Tom Kruskal picked up on the excitement of rapper sword, groups such as Candy Rapper really turned the inventive spirit loose.

How many and what type of teams?

By the 1979 Ale, there were too many teams in the U.S, for the Marlboro Ale to remain open to all. This was a difficult moment; we had to exclude some teams. In order to keep the numbers of guests manageable, the public shows a reasonable length, and the amount of dancing substantial for the feasible tour routes in Windham County and Brattleboro, invitations were limited to twelve and then to eighteen teams. The pressure on Marlboro eased somewhat, too, as other Ales sprang up in other parts of the country.

This was partly a response to travel problems (this IS a big country) and numbers of teams wanting to be at Marlboro (by 1984 there were almost two-hundred Morris teams of one sort or another in North America) but there was another issue involved that led to other gatherings: gender. Marlboro was only open to teams dancing with all-men's or all-women's sets. This was very much an aesthetic preference that I encouraged until I retired primarily for health reasons in 1987. I argued in my Six Fools and a Dancer: The Timeless Way of the Morris (pp. 146-152) that the Morris would be at its best when performed in single-sex teams as that makes it more likely the whole SET is seen rather than INDIVIDUALS. Further, I argued that common style emerges more strongly when dancers identify with and move like the people they can see in what I called the "Dance Mirror". The more alike those people are physically, the easier it is to achieve coherent movement style.

This is not the place to argue this further but suffice it to say that since the first couple of years there has been only a small handful of "mixed" sides and those have primarily been Northwest or Clog Morris teams. A notable recent exception was Outside Capering Crew (2 men and 2 women) who do primarily jigs, a kind of Morris where we expect to see the individual. Besides, asking an extraordinary entertainer talent such as the Crew's Simon Pipe to blend in is like asking Pavarotti to sing with your church choir but to tone it down so he doesn't stand out.

The primary consideration at the Marlboro Ale, however, has been to try to maintain the highest standard of dancing possible so even though there was never a formal competition the dancing was always competitive, teams always wanted to impress other dancers. A total of almost 140 different teams (depending on how you count incarnations) have danced at least once at Marlboro and over 90% of those have danced primarily Cotswold Morris.

Organization: To Ring or not to Ring?

A major difference between the two countries "divided by one language" is that the English like to organize and make by-laws and Americans do not. There was enough of the Englishman left in me to ask for a meeting of "Squires" at the first Ale to see if we should initiate some sort of organization: a "Ring". The meeting lasted perhaps five minutes. No one was interested: "Why do we need one?" It was pointed out that the Ale had happened without one. End of conversation. The issue, to my knowledge, was never raised again. (Ed. note: the decision not to start an American Morris Ring was reported in Vol. 1, No. 2 of the AMN, along with a report on the second Marlboro Morris Ale.

How the Ale gets organized has changed, however. When I was still active in Marlboro Morris and Sword, the men's and women's teams did all the work. The women basically took over after 1987 when I retired and the men formed an independent team that soon re-formed a looser union, largely, I think, to be part of the Ale activity. Now there is an Ale Committee that does the work, formed of volunteers from the Marlboro and other local teams.

I confess that when I stepped down from leading the Marlboro team I was surprised at how central the Ale had become in people's conception of the Morris in their lives; for most, it was the main reason for the team's existence. Marlboro May Day, dancing all day locally at houses along South Road in town was what I thought the team was for and what motivated me. For most dancers, however, the excitement of dancing for the best teams in the Morris community easily outstripped that event. 

What's Next?

In subsequent articles I will use my Digital Video Research Archive (DVRA) collection of films from the Marlboro Morris Ale to examine two other aspects of the Marlboro Ale in more detail: first, "Skits, Spoofs, and Invention: the Ale as a Cradle of Creativity" and next "American Morris Thirty Years On: What is American about Morris at the Marlboro Ale?


Bacon, Lionel. The Handbook of Morris Dances. The Morris Ring, 1974.
Barrand, Anthony G. (ed). Roy Dommett's Morris Notes. (Five Volumes) Northampton, MA: CDSS, 1984.
Barrand, Anthony G. Six Fools and a Dancer: The Timeless Way of the Morris. Plainfield, VT: Northern Harmony Publishing Company, 1991.
Sharp, Cecil J. and Herbert C. MacIlwaine. The Morris Book with a Description of Dances as Performed by the Morris-Men of England (Parts I to V in Two Volumes), E. P. Publishing Limited, 1974.



 AMN, Vol. 25, No. 1, April 2005  ISSN: 1074-2689