American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 4
December, 2005

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 AMN Article  

 The Tale of Deer Creek Morris Men
San Francisco Bay

Alan Winston and Dick Bagwell


DARK. MURKY. Somewhere a raven croaks, and a coyote chortles. We struggle along the broken trail through the mists of murky memory in our quest: The Tale of the Deer Creek Morris Men. The origin. The adventure. The Legend 

There, up ahead! A SHROUDED FIGURE. He holds up a finger. He will speak. A beam falls on his visage. Why, it's ALAN WINSTON, founding member and erstwhile Squire of The Deer Creek Men. He says the sooth:

Deer Creek was founded in August of 1986 by Bruce Hamilton. If not specifically to perform in the Christmas Revels, the first of a continuing tradition here, that immediate invitation gave energy, focus and urgency to those first months of practice. The name Deer Creek was both an observance of the tradition of naming a team for the village of residence, and a bit of an "in joke." Bruce and many of the initial members were technical types at Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto, and Deer Creek runs through that campus.

Bruce had founded the team to do Sherborne, specifically his interpretation of the Bouwerie Boys version, as taught by John Dexter. Instead we immediately found ourselves learning the Upton-on-Severn Stick Dance , the Sleights Longsword Dance, and the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, with only about three months to do it, and some of us (like me) with no Morris background at all. That couldn't be described as boring. 

Starting the following January, we commenced Sherborne, and stayed with it more-or-less exclusively, except for the Revels, for several years. Revels called variously for the Kirkby Malzeard and Papa Stour longsword traditions, about twelve bars of Longborough, and the Lord of the Dance Jig, which is a medley of Cotswold styles. We worked hard on Sherborne basics; Bruce's sense of style called for vigorous bashing of sticks, and we evolved the goal --still our goal-- of Precision and Power.

We initially practiced in Bruce's backyard, much to the amusement of his Menlo Park neighbors, but eventually moved indoors, through several local school buildings, the Victorian coachhouse in an Atherton park, and in 2003 to Goat Hall, yet another Victorian structure, on Potrero Hill in San Francisco. Our first musician was Ruth Anne Fraley, wife of founding member Bob Fraley, part of the H-P herd; and both with extensive background in other traditional dance forms.

Once we had ready access to a set of horns, about 1988, we started doing Abbots Bromley in the pre-dawn gloom of the May Day observance organized by our "sister team," Mayfield Morris and Sword, a women's side that arose at about the same time as DCM. This was at Baylands Park on the shore of Palo Alto, looking East across the bay at the distant hills. It's a wetland area, and a sanctuary for many birds. And ritual dancers. The tradition continues, with other teams dancing too. Attendance often trends towards 200 hardy souls. It's a magical location when the weather's good.

One year we were kitted up, carrying our horns, ready to start. Our recorder player (Stan Kramer by this time, also with extensive traditional background) lifted his instrument to his lips, drew breath to play, and the air was suddenly rent by the sound of a bagpipe. Yes, a random bagpiper had thought this would be a good spot to welcome in the Spring, with no knowledge of our having been there for years, having a park use permit, etc. He didn't make any trouble once we explained the situation to him, but the air of mystery normally evoked by the "woo-woo" Abbots Bromley was not achieved that morning. 

In 1989 Deer Creek and Mayfield Morris joined to host the third California Ale, the PterodactAle. Two years later, the two teams plus Fool's Choice ran the PterodactAle Ptoo! I was co-Alemaster both years, and found it a rewarding and interesting experience. That first year, I personally achieved some level of adequacy in Sherborne, which was a great relief. The team almost immediately decided that we should no longer focus exclusively on Sherborne. 

Why broaden focus from Sherborne? We'd plateaued. We were plagued by issues of quality of movement and similarity of movement, with some dancers who were individually excellent but we never really coalesced into a single team movement style. I suspect this problem may be known to other teams. The corner-crossing dances in Sherborne cover this up somewhat, since often only two people are moving, and audiences tend to look for the height of the jump rather than the uniformity of motion. 

If memory serves, we adopted Bampton in the style of the Binghamton Morris Men, as taught by alumnus Dan Pellegrini. This was put forth as a "resting tradition," and I certainly found it less exhausting than Sherborne. Practices were split between Sherborne and Bampton. A relaxed single-step tradition complemented the sky-high Sherborne very well. In theory, we'd also be able to spare more attention to make the lines straight and to synch up with other team members. 

We paid considerable attention to Bampton, and probably the high point of our Bampton experience was dancing the Binghamton Stick Dance on the steps of the Parliament Building in Victoria, BC, as our show dance for H'Ale Victoria. That was a high point of any kind of Morris performance, since the landing made a perfect stage, the steps made excellent seating, and thousands of spectators actually stayed and watched a lot of dancing. The weather was perfect - clear but cool, even crisp - the setting was wonderful and the energy superb. The dancing was good too.

After this high point in, I think, 1991 we put Bampton somewhat on the back burner and started dancing Ducklington. Finding the supply of Ducklington dances inadequate to fill our sets, we invented at least one: Idbury Hill, which I once saw Bridgetown Morris Men dance in Portland. 

This was the point at which it became hard for several people to keep track of what we were doing. It wasn't uncommon to see three different traditions during the first half of foot-up, although we were usually together by the second half. 

In 1990 Bruce retired as foreman. Subsequent fores and practice leaders included Dan Pellegrini and Bob Fraley. We focused largely on Ducklington through the mid-90s, continuing to dance Sherborne and Bampton out, but not really working them hard in practice. 

Dave Macemon became Deer Creek's fore for Sherborne in 1996 for the 96/97 season. He was faced with a melange of styles, and a wide assortment of small details about which different people had authoritative - in the senses both of being strongly-voiced and of having at some time been "correct" - but contradictory answers. He set about molding a new Deer Creek Sherborne style, a process which included breaking various things we thought we knew. We'd seen and been really impressed by Hammersmith at a Los Angeles ale, and Dave added their Lass of Richmond Hill to our Sherborne repertoire. Opportunity then called Dave to a new life way from the Bay Area (A chronology of foremen and squires below.)

At the same time we'd started to work up some border dances. We started with a commissioned workshop from Jim Morrison, and our dancer/accordion player, Dave Fouquet, was inspired to pursue other border material, starting with printed sources. We'd spent the summer of '96 learning Four Lane End, and in the 96/97 season picked up Seven Hand Reel, which made a big impression at May Day that year. It then went into some disuse, since it called for seven dancers and we could rarely find that many at once. 

Our border kit at this point was assorted Hawaiian shirts worn unbuttoned over the same white trousers we used in our regular kit. The trousers were themselves a change from the baggy white knickers we'd used for nearly ten years; they had replaced the tight slate-blue knickers used in our first season. 

A significant part of the motivation for adopting border was the idea that we could loosen up our team persona, which has tended to be quite introverted. Individually, we can be wild and crazy guys, but the gestalt has been intellectual and inward-pointing. This has changed somewhat with the addition in later years of several guys who'd been involved with Renaissance Faire performance groups, who have more experience and willingness to engage the crowd. 
For the 1997-1998 season we decided to keep up and expand our border. Dave had some ideas for original dances, and wanted to see us maintain a winter season for border. He was elected Border Gizmo. In the absence of Dave Macemon, we didn't feel we could continue Sherborne as a primary tradition - our fore candidates weren't familiar enough with what Dave had been doing that we could build on it. We discussed dropping Cotswold altogether, but nobody felt entirely comfortable with that. 

Bruce Balan, who'd danced with Sunset Morris in Los Angeles until moving to the Bay Area, proposed that we take up Brackley. His argument, which the team found convincing, was that the relatively unspectacular Brackley would compel us to focus on the issues of moving together, as a team, that we had been battling with for so long. If we once had a handle on that, the skills would be portable to other traditions. 

We then had a border repertoire of six dances. We split our season so that the fall practices focued on border, with brush-ups on Brackley, and the spring focused on Brackley. We did some exclusively border stands, and Four Lane End (with Ric Goldman's choreographic tweak to allow the dance to kill the Green Man) was featured in the 1997 Christmas Revels. We liked the rag vests they dressed us in so well that we changed our border kit from Hawaiian shirts to rag vests. 

This retrospective exercise resembles, in some ways, watching a slow-motion videotape of a pinball game. The ball hits a bumper and changes direction completely; hits a gate once and bounces off but finds it open the next time it hits. Several people have had visions for the team, which have met with various degrees of success. It's something like strategy in pinball. There may be some target you'd like to hit, but what actually happens depends on timing, gravity, luck, and just how much and how effectively you can jiggle the table without tilting and losing the ball altogether. More than one squire and more than one fore has used the metaphor of herding cats to talk about trying to manage this team. 

This isn't altogether a bad thing, I think. That we develop policy in meetings means that members feel some ownership of the direction in which we go, which is good. Our not-too-rigid structure has enabled some members to grow artistically: expand from dancing to playing music as well; become fores and put forth their own visions. We've traveled to distant ales and had marvelous experiences there-most notably the Marlboro Ale in 1993. (Our only Marlboro Ale to date) We've had the experience of totally nailing some dances, and we participate in a May morning festival that's a community tradition with between one and two hundred people in the audience. 

The above was adapted from Alan's piece in the AMN, Volume 22, number 1 (May-June 1999), which may still be viewed at http://www.thedonkey.org/Recycling/mixing_it_up.html.


I relieved Alan of the Squireship in 2001. As of the present-2005-the most salient fact of the team is that we still firmly exist and often dance pretty well as a unified team. There are fewer mens sides on the West Coast than in previous years. And while our numbers sagged fairly alarmingly a few years ago, we took in two new men last year, and two the year before, all of whom are already viable dancers, and will apparently pick up two more likely candidates as we go into the new season.

When numbers were low-members left the area in search of career, or love, or adventure or left the team in search of an alternate Morris experience--our recruiting was lagging. We came through two seasons by cutting back practice to at first one month, and the second two months practice leading into May Day. This brought back a few old hands whose circumstances didn't allow them to practice most of the year, as in the past. Some of us would like to practice more than others-an on-going negotiation.

A recap of the 19 years Deer Creek has been capering around the Bay Area:

We're currently wearing Bear Whiz Beer t-shirts as practice kit. (Pants optional-the bear's not wearing any.) We may approach them for corporate sponsorship. Some years ago we commissioned a set of tankards, engraved with each member's name and the team name. (Many alumni, too.) Further back, Dave Fouquet designed and had produced team t-shirts. There's plenty of men on the current team who don't have these accoutrements. It's time for getting some more. A good thing!

-- Dick Bagwell
Squire & Fool
Deer Creek Morris Men

Foremen: Bruce Hamilton, Bob Fraley, Dave Macemon, Bruce Balan, Dan Pelligrini, John Thoburn
Squires: Eric Goodill, Fred Perner, Alan Winston, Dick Bagwell
Border Gizmo: Dave Fouquet
 AMN, Vol. 25, No. 4, December 2005  ISSN: 1074-2689