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The American Morris Newsletter

April, 2007 -- Volume 27, Number 1


Hoisting On the Lock in America... In 1935?

Steve Corrsin
Slightly revised from original publication in Rattle Up, My Boys.

The hoisting of someone, on a lock or platform of swords, as the climax of a sword dance, seems to be much in the air these days. Continental European teams have been doing it for some time, of course, often with reference to pictures or accounts which go back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus, there's nothing extraordinary in the idea of Belgian, German, Austrian, Spanish, or Italian sword dances ending this way.

It's much more remarkable to see a hoist done by British teams, since this is not at all reliably documented in the various English or Scottish sword dance traditions. The account of the Perth, Scotland, sword dance of 1633 describes some sort of elevation, stating that there were, "fyve [dancers] being under and fyve above uppone their shoulderis," which sounds impressive, but it is not a hoist on a lock or platform. There is also weak evidence suggesting that there was a Manx performance with both swords and a hoist - but the "evidence" seems more like English revivalist wishful thinking than anything to bet the historical farm on. The actual well-documented northern English styles of modern times chiefly display locked swords as a climax, rather than using them to lift anyone.

In any case, the spread of hoisting as a method among British teams is quite a recent development, becoming noteworthy in the last few years. The fashion is presumably linked to greatly increased contacts with continental teams who use a hoist, such as the great Lange Wapper of Antwerp, and the Italian, German, Austrian, and Spanish teams that have come to the Sword Dance Spectaculars in Scarborough and Whitby in 1996-2000. Anyone who doubts that hoisting has become an accepted English move should take a look at the cover of the summer 2003 issue of English Dance and Song, which shows a girls' team displaying both a lock and a hoist, simultaneously! Trevor Stone, in his lively description of "Dramatic Endings!" in a recent issue of Rattle Up, discusses hoists among other moves, and refers to the influence of continental teams on English dancing.

North American sword dance styles are unquestionably based closely on EFDSS' teachings, brought over and taught since the earliest days of the "English Folk Revival." (Other sword dance styles which have been performed in the U.S., from Czechoslovak or German sources, were based in their respective ethnic communities, which hardly ever mixed with the English dance "revivalists" - except when I tracked them down in a New York City beer garden, or the like.) I have therefore always assumed that hoists had never been done by North American revival dancers. Until that is, the group of which I was one of the original members, New World Sword of New York, in 1990 incorporated a hoist as the climax of a dance based on translations from German-language descriptions.

I therefore thought we had been the first on this side of the Atlantic, until recently, when I read a highly praised book by an American academic writer and scholar: David E. Whisnant, All that is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region (University of North Carolina Press, 1983). Whisnant discusses "the politics of culture" in the Southern Appalachians, particularly in the portions of that huge territory which cover parts of the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina. He focuses on the "settlement schools" in the first decades of the 20th century, on folk festivals and folk music collectors (including Cecil Sharp, who receives much kinder treatment in America than he has been receiving from many British writers lately), and in general describes and analyzes the interactions between local people and educated elites. Sharp, for example, saw the region as a repository of a pure English, even Elizabethan cultural heritage. This is nonsense, of course; the Southern Appalachians have been as culturally and ethnically mixed as most of the U.S., including the profound and powerful impact of African-American traditions, which Sharp found himself unable to confront in any useful way. The region moreover had experienced intensive, if selective industrialization and urbanization for 30 years before Sharp crossed the Atlantic.

It's no news that American revivalists, drawing from English dance materials which had been collected and disseminated by Sharp and his successors (and rivals), taught morris and sword dances at the southern settlement schools from the time of the First World War. As Whisnant shows, at least one major festival, the White Top (Virginia) festival, which ran through the 1930s, featured teams of boys who had learned the dances in their schools. Whisnant also shows that this teaching of English traditions was commonly linked to a kind of cultural ideology of Anglo-Saxonism - an ideology which, in the southern U.S. in the 1930s, readily featured appalling racism. (Which, incidentally, does not mean that Sharp or the EFDSS was racist; rather that his terms and teachings could be taken and distorted in a foreign environment in ways that Sharp, a Fabian socialist as well as an English cultural nationalist, could never have anticipated. Sharp seems never to have realized that the U.S. was quite a foreign setting - on the contrary, he seems to have thought that Americans were just a peculiar sort of English.)

Eleanor Roosevelt, with White Top Folk Festival contestants, 1933
(Photo courtesy of the Library of Virginia)

To return to the specific topic of sword dancing. I was reading Whisnant's excellent book this past summer when I found, on p.203, a photograph from the 1935 White Top festival. Here we see a boy lifted on a standard English six-pointed lock, in 1935... Not only 55 years before my team did something like this on the lower level of New York City's Pennsylvania Station, but also decades before English teams started borrowing the hoist from continental teams! This was completely unanticipated.

After I picked myself up off the floor, I started investigating. I found the archivists and librarians at Ferrum College, to which Whisnant's book (God bless the footnote!) had referred me, happy to help with the photograph. Whisnant's book identified Richard Chase as a man who taught morris and sword dances in southern settlement schools. Chase (1904-88) is well known as an American folklore collector and teacher, and the author of several books, such as Jack Tales, and Traditional Ballads, Songs and Singing Games. (I actually met him once, but it was years before I'd ever heard of morris or sword dances, and I failed to grill him on the topic.) Whisnant describes Chase as, "one of the most audacious of the folk-revival entrepreneurs of the 1930s" (p.202), and adds, "Chase was quite skillful at self-promotion" (p.313). Chase had first learned morris, sword, etc., some hundreds of miles distant from the Appalachians, in the more genteel setting of a private school in suburban Connecticut. His teacher was one Charles Rabold (d.1930), a student of Sharp's, who had taught at Yale University and then at the Johnson School of Organic Education in Fairhope, Alabama, another well known school where morris dancing and the like were taught.

This is fine. We have a possible teacher, Chase, with connections to the American activities and branches of the EFDSS. But this doesn't explain the 1935 hoist, which, again, would not have been in the repertoire of any Anglo-American-trained revivalist in the 1920s-30s. Did these boys come up with the move on their own? It's not inconceivable, but is very unlikely. The American "revivalists" of the time followed English teachers and descriptions slavishly, and continued to do so for another half-century.

I decided that the date of the photo provided the most likely clue: August, 1935. The White Top festival and conference was held that year on August 14-17. The report in the musicians' trade journal, Musical America ("White Top Folk Festival," v.55, no.14, Sept. 1935, p.12), states: "Among the high lights [sic] of the festival were the sword dancers of the Pine Mountain Settlement School, directed by Glynn Morris, with country dances also given by the Kentuckians." (Chase is mentioned to as attending, and appears in a photo of "notables." He's cited as "Associate Director of the Institute of Folk Music, University of North Carolina.") What about Glyn (as his name is correctly spelled) Morris? He was a Protestant minister and teacher, brought to the U.S. from Wales as a small child -- he was not an EFDSS "legacy" in America of any sort, though. He was Director of the Pine Mountain School, Harlan county, Kentucky, in the 1930s, and left an autobiography, Less Travelled Roads, which was published in 1977. In this book, he briefly talks about folk music, plays, and dances in the curriculum, but doesn't make a big deal of them, nor does he mention White Top. He actually has more to say about the endemic violence of "Bloody Harlan" in those years. (Just to add to the "morrises" which turn up in this case, the facing page in this same issue of Musical America has a half-page ad proclaiming, "[PERCY] GRAINGER returns to America," showing the composer and cribber of morris tunes in a very touseled and intense publicity photograph.)

Back to the clue of the date of the sword dance photo. The most significant sword dance event of the summer of 1935 was, of course, the London international folk dance festival, held on July 14-20, shortly before White Top. An Italian team, Fenestrelle, whose dance featured a hoist and drop, attended, and its performance briefly appears in the surviving film strip of the event. An Austrian team also attended, led by the famous sword dance scholar Richard Wolfram (and subsequently a notorious one, in his role as an outstanding Nazi folklorist, who also had a long and successful post-war career in Austria). The Austrians apparently "hanged" their fool rather than hoisting him on the lock, however. Could Chase, or even Glyn Morris or someone else connected to the schools or the White Top festival, have attended the London festival, and there seen the hoist and taught it to the boys back home?

Unfortunately, the EFDSS records of the event were, according to the librarians of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, lost or destroyed, presumably when Sharp House was bombed in World War II. The 1935 festival issue of the Journal of the EFDSS does no more than tantalize. It states that invitations had been sent to the U.S., but no dancers came from there; still, the Journal says, an "official" delegate was "appointed" by the U.S. government (pp.4, 6) - though this latter statement is incomprehensible in American terms, where folk dancing has never been "officially" organized. It makes me wonder whether, in fact, this strange comment isn't indirect evidence that the self-promoting Chase attended. As for Morris, he mentions travelling in the U.S. with student performers from Pine Mountain School, but not a trip to England -- it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't, if he had gone.

The official welcomes at the festival were pronounced by "Lord Rennell of Rodd," who noted, "It is gratifying that the United States have nominated an official delegate to attend, and that he will not be alone. I wish we could have had a group from the Appalachian Mountains, where I believe that many of the folk songs and dances of Elizabethan days have survived in remote valleys" (p.9).

This, so far, is all I have. I believe, but can't yet prove, that the hoist shown in Whisnant's book came about under the influence of the dancing at the July, 1935, London festival. Chase, or Morris, or whoever were the Americans who attended, could have seen the Austrian or Italian dancers, taken the idea of hoisting on swords from them, and taught it a few weeks later to the boys at the White Top festival. But this is all conjecture. To try to confirm or correct this notion, I would need, at least, the following.

  1. Information that Chase (or Morris, or someone else involved in the settlement schools movement or the White Top festival) was in London for that event. If the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library can't help, are there records preserved anywhere else? For example, photographs with helpful captions. (Perhaps, "This is a photo of that audacious, skillfully self-promoting Yank, Richard Chase, taking notes while the Italians hoist someone on their swords"). With regard to Chase, who still seems the most likely suspect, his correspondence and papers are distributed among a number of libraries throughout the southern states and elsewhere in the U.S. Considering the distances involved, and the scattering of Chase's papers, it's not going to be a quick or simple trip.
  2. If #1 were confirmed, I'd still need information that the American visitor saw, or reasonably could have seen, this hoist, in London. Or at least, seen some sort of hoist, and been inspired by it to use the English lock as a means. The photo in Whisnant's book shows what might be called a "perimeter lock and hoist," using the standard English six-pointed lock, with the hoistee standing on the perimeter. The English-style lock of swords was not a traditional continental method for hoisting, by any means; rather, they would lay the swords across one another, or weave them together, to create a platform. But that is not much of a problem, because Sharp's detailed descriptions of English dances were well known at least to German and Austrian sword dance teachers by this time, and in fact the English lock appears in German-language manuals describing allegedly "Germanic" dances in the 1930s. If I could be sure of points #1 and 2, above, I'd be reasonably certain that my conjecture is correct. There may well be more information out there, somewhere, to confirm either or both points. But as things stand now, it is only a surprising photo in Whisnant's excellent book, and an idea to speculate happily about.

Stephen D. Corrsin
531 Hill St.
Mamaroneck NY 10543