If The Guardian is correct in its assertions, the Morris is making a comeback.
Maybe it’s because yesterday was Mayday and, for a few brief hours at least, also quite sunny, but a good number of people on the folkie social media channels (myself very much included) were getting quite giddy about the sudden revived interest. However, as I sat in a local cafe this morning and watched the weather threatening this weekend’s maypole celebrations, the cynic in me reappeared. The stereo pumped out a thumping, electronic Spotify playlist, and I wondered – as so many must have before me – quite where Morris dancing fits into 2018.
I should point out that this isn’t my default situation. I’m not often found pondering English folk dance on a wet Tuesday morning (although, over the past year, it has happened more often than I’d have ever thought healthy). It’s just that, in one of life’s more pleasing quirks of fate, the aforementioned Guardian article turned up approximately 24 hours before I was due to give Will Pound a call to discuss his new album, Through The Seasons: A Year in Morris and Folk Dance. The Morris was very much on my mind.
I’ve had the album playing in the background for the last couple of weeks, and much like Tim Plester’s Way of the Morris film, it has nudged something inside me, moving my Morris-o-metre upwards from ‘indifference’ to ‘worrying levels of interest’. I jumped at the chance to interview Will, and the Guardian article simply served as a kind of warm-up act. As I dialled his number, I was pretty much Morris-a-go-go. So many questions. So many prejudices to unpick…
How’s the tour going, Will?
It started last night, and it the first night went really well. It’s like an experiment in some ways. I’ve not done a tour quite like this before. It was packed last night, it’s sold out tonight, and tomorrow we’re playing Kenilworth, which is my local town. But it’s a new show and people haven’t heard of it before, so it’s one of those things. To sell out tonight’s show is great, because the climate in the folk scene right now is quite dicey.
We’ll come back to that dicey-ness in a moment, because I think that’s an interesting talking point, but what is the show exactly? You’re talking about it almost as if it’s a theatrical production.
OK. So, the show is called Through the Seasons, and the concept, or what I’ve tried to illustrate, is the idea that Morris dancing is not something that happens for one month starting on Mayday. It happens throughout the year, and, particularly in this day and age, it gets performed all the time. I wanted to have a storyteller involved in order to get the point across. She makes up stories using characters from the Morris tradition.
Who is the storyteller?
I got Debs Newbold. She’s been brilliant at making up the stories, but also using the factual stories from the Morris dancing world. She interweaves them. The music is the stuff from the album, and we’ve incorporated it into the show with Debs speaking over some of it. Then there’s an animation element to it as well. It’s quite nice because people get a bit of everything. They get to see old pictures, but we’ve animated them so that they’re quite colourful and moving. It’s impressive stuff!
It sounds it.
Yeah, but on the other hand, the logistical thing in putting all of that together is kind of a nightmare! But it went so well last night. People came up to me and said they hadn’t really thought of Morris dancing in that way.
So, the show isn’t just a straightforward history piece?
I didn’t want to just make it a historical show where people learn the history of Morris dancing, no. A lot of people know that stuff already, and the general public might find it a bit dry. So, having the stories in there, and the way we’ve done it, it actually created quite a bit of emotion last night for some of the Morris dancers in the audience.
You say that a lot of people probably know the history of Morris dancing – I’m not so sure! I’m about to prove something quite the opposite over the course of this interview…
Yeah, I just mean among the Morris dancers. Some of the people who come to the show are dancers, and it’s tricky, you know? You want to give people a brief outline of what it is and what it means. Some people who come along might not know anything about it, so they get to learn about the characters and the famous dancers, and what Morris dance is through the animation. But, obviously, Morris dancers want a bit more than that. They already know who William Kimber is.
Another side of what we’re doing is showing people that it’s not just men who dance Morris. Debs is also a Morris dancer. In fact, everyone in the show is a Morris person – they know so much about it. I was brought up in two Morris teams – Chinewrde, which is a women’s team [more on that later] and Earlsdon, which is a men’s team. A lot of people presume that women don’t do it, but obviously there are a lot of traditions around Britain. There a mixed Morris dance teams, men’s teams, women’s teams – historically as well.
You said earlier that it’s a dicey time for the folk scene, but yesterday The Guardian published an article saying that the number of registered Morris teams has risen this year.
I saw that, yeah! It’s great! That’s the thing – you have this weird parallel where people see Morris dancing, usually at the pub or in the town, and they think, “that’s great”, but they’re not going out to see it.
Music in general – not just the folk scene – is in a real battle against the fact that people have access to everything. People tend to stay at home a lot more than they used to. They stay in rather than go to the pub. That effects other things, too, like going to the theatre or going to gigs. And because you can instantly buy tickets these days, it effects people buying in advance. That battle is what makes it dicey.
So where are all these new Morris dancers coming from, then? Watching your album video, I was struck by the presence of young people!
I think a lot of people my age – early 40s – see Morris as something to be laughed at; something to be mocked, perhaps something that ought to be left to die away.
I’ve been trying to shake off my prejudices. I’ve not strapped on a set of bells yet..
Hahaha! Bugger the bells, mate! Get some clogs on! That’s what you need to do.
I pray you never have to see that, Will. However, I did venture up to Bampton last year, and that was a real eye-opener. Youngsters everywhere! What’s the sudden appeal?
There are more young people now doing Morris dancing than there ever has been. Even more than the 70s revival, I’d argue. And I think the thing is that if you dance really good quality Morris, people will be attracted to it. Also, youth attracts youth, and there are a few teams that I know, and some that I dance with, that have really thought about a strategy. They’ve really thought about how to get people in. It’s not easy, and it’s something they’ve had to build up.
10 years ago, my men’s team – Earlsdon – had four members left. They were all young guys, though, and they managed to attract others of their age. The average age now in that team is 35. Some of them are under 30. I’m 30, for example, and I’m one of the old ones! [Laughs] There are 20 of us now, probably, all of that kind of age.
What have you done with all the old blokes, then?
Well, there are still some there, but they’re all really good dancers. And that’s the thing. If the standard is really good then people will enjoy it. If you dance badly in public… [laughs]. It’s like going to see a band. You’re not going to go and see a bad band, so why would you go and see a bad Morris team? It’s the same with the women’s team: the standard has always been really top notch.
How do you get the youngsters involved?
There are teams like Moulton, who are a kind of village team. They’re all youngsters who have built it up from the village. They’ve looked locally. Most of the people they have are from villages nearby. That’s a bit like Bampton, I guess.
Then there are teams like Wakefield, a Northwest team. Their recruitment drive is fantastic because they use social media really well.
But I think, fundamentally, if you have a really good reputation that really helps.
I guess one of the things that I’ve noticed in prepping for this interview is that education plays a huge part. So, when you say that it’s about whether your team can dance well, I’m not entirely sure that your average person on the street would know if they were seeing good Morris dancing or not.
Oh, I think they would!
Yeah! In fact, I saw an incident in Birmingham recently that backs this up. There were about five or six teams and the crowd were laughing at one of the teams because they really were bad. And then I saw the same crowd watching one of the better teams a bit later, and you could see them going, “That’s awesome!” I think the general public can tell the difference. If you see bad dancing, it’s pretty obvious. It’s there in how the crowd react.
What does good dancing mean to you as a Morris dancer, though? Is it about good moves? Syncopation? Are you throwing sick shapes?
Haha! Yeah, all of that. Being inventive with the dance. Both of the teams I’m involved with write our own dances as well as doing traditional ones. We’ll incorporate steps from other traditions, but then invent our own. There are a few amazing dances with some amazing shapes! We practice every week and it’s with military precision.
I imagine it keeps you pretty fit, doesn’t it?
Yeah, it does. But I do Northwest Morris, which is with clogs and bobbins. The dances are from Lancashire and Cheshire. I have done Cotswold Morris in the past. I just think if you do it well, then you do it well!
Are you from a Morris family, then? Is that how you got into it?
Yeah, I was born into it. My mum is a founder member of a women’s team. My dad joined the band about three weeks after that started. That’s how they met. I met my wife through the Morris, too – through the same team, in fact [laughs].
That’s the key, then, isn’t it? Mixed sides! I was talking to someone recently about how much longevity there is in the folk club scene, and they said that back in the day, as long as there were members of the opposite sex and the same age group present, young people would show up.
There’s an element of that, yeah. The folk club scene is interesting. As far as I’m concerned, the folk club scene has been taken over by house concerts. I used to do loads of folk clubs. I’d tour them a lot. These days I don’t – not out of choice and not because I don’t like them, but I seem to get offered a lot of house concerts. Maybe it just fits my act a bit better. I guess it depends on the kind of performer you are.
With Morris dance, however, it’s more difficult to say. Take my teams, for example. A lot of the people we’ve attracted have joined because we practice in the back of a pub. People see us and go, “What’s this?” You invite them in and that’s it. You just get them in – you don’t mess about! Many of them don’t even realise that it’s Morris dancing. They think Morris dancing is all hankies and sticks. You give them bobbins and clogs and they’re confused. But many of them get hooked.
A lot of them aren’t folkies, though. That’s interesting. They may like some of the music, but they’re not folkies. I quite like that.
On your travels, making this album, have you noticed whether certain regions are more open to Morris dance? Are there places where it feels more alive?
That’s a really interesting question. I think there are two things going on here. There’s the Morris dancers’ world, with teams like the ones I’m in, where we go down to festivals and we do local events in the community, and then there are traditional teams who only dance maybe once or twice a year, but it’s part of their culture. It’s an interesting thing. There are two worlds going on there.
The Bampton thing is a good example. It’ll never stop. It has been going for hundreds and hundreds of years, and it won’t stop because there’s such enthusiasm in the village for it to happen. They’ve got three teams, you know?
I think the press also has a lot to do with it. If the press says it’s on the up, people will believe it and look out for it. If you tell them it’s on the way down… They did that once before. They said it was on the wane, when in reality it was probably stronger than it is now [laughs].
Haha! Yeah, but they can really have an effect on what people think. If the press says Morris dancing is fantastic, people will agree. If they say, “What is this joke of a thing?!” then people will start asking the same question. It’s very powerful.
Moving on to your album, it’s not entirely about Morris dance, is it?
No, it’s more about the music. It’s about celebrating tradition. It’s about making people realise that it’s not just an English thing – that there are tunes from all around the world.
Who is the album for, then? Obviously you’ll say “everybody”, but have you made it with the dancers in mind? Aficionados?
The general public, I’d say. But it’s a really interesting question. The album was really difficult to make because you’re trying to please people from different worlds. Morris music, by its very nature, is quite amateur. Not the tunes or the melodic structures; I’m talking in terms of the musicians themselves. They’re not usually professional musicians. They’re people who maybe do it part time, or do it as a hobby. And then there’s the fact that each tradition has its own style – how the tunes are played, how they’re danced, etc.
Now, to put all of that into an album and make it sound professional so that you can send it to a magazine and have it reviewed is very tricky. You want it to be respected and reviewed alongside an album by Kate Rusby or Robbie Williams [laughs]. You know what I mean? That’s the level of professionalism you want it to be at. You can’t say, “Well, it’s amateur music so I’ll let it sound amateur.” You’ve got to make it sound as good as it can be.
So, to answer your question, I wanted to make it sound as good as something that Chris Thile or Stuart Duncan would do. They’re obviously different genres, but they’re at the top of their game. That’s how I look at it. For me it’s, “how good can I make this and which musicians are going to be best suited to each of the tracks?”
Which segues neatly into my next question: how did you go about selecting the musicians who play on this album?
OK, so take the track, ‘Liberty Bell’. I played the tune myself, and then I thought about who would play it really well. And the first person I thought of was John Kirkpatrick. It wasn’t because he’s a Morris musician. It was because he is the right man to play that tune. I could hear him playing it. When I actually went to play it with him, he played it and I said, “That’s exactly it!” It’s exactly what I’d heard in my head.
Similarly, there’s the rapper track I did with Suzanne Fivey – a pianist up in Scotland. She has been a rapper musician before, but I thought, firstly, that she’s a wonderful pianist who really understands dance. And we recorded that with live dancing. It had to be someone who really gets dance.
All of the people on the album have played with Morris dance, or with folk dance, in some way. Eliza Carthy, for example. She plays with a longsword team quite regularly. Then there’s Benji Kirkpatrick, who is a Morris man himself.
So, yeah… arranging all of that so that so many people might like it… that was tricky! It wasn’t the same as my other records where I play the harmonica and then play a bit of piano.
A couple of questions occur to me. One is to do with the authenticity of the tunes that you’ve used on the album, in terms of how you arranged them for your musicians, and the second is to do with the recording of the pieces. Take, for example, what you said about John Kirkpatrick. Are you rolling up to his house, showing him your arrangement, rehearsing for a couple of hours and then recording it in the afternoon?
No. With John, I did go to his house and we did sit down and play it. But it was more, “How is this going to work?” I didn’t go there with an idea of “this is how it’s going to be”, because I knew I had to listen to what he’s doing first – I had to listen to how he plays it. Luckily [laughs], it went well immediately!
We played it through a couple of times, and I said, “OK, let’s just change that little bit there and that thing over here”, but I kept it fairly simple in terms of the arrangement because I knew that later on I’d be adding percussion and clogs. So I had to make sure that we weren’t over-complicating the tune, or doing crazy shit all over the place. I was quite restrained, which is unusual for me [laughs]. The track works really well because we kept it simple. Aside from that, the tune’s complicated enough [laughs]. We had enough to worry about with that on its own.
And how about the authenticity of the tunes? Presumably you aren’t sticking strictly to what was taken down in William Kimber times?
Well, take ‘Brighton Camp’, for example. It’s another Northwest tune. What I’ve done with the melody, if you listen very carefully, is changed it slightly, especially the A music. It sounds like the original. All I’ve done is changed some of the notes in the order slightly. When people listen to it, they go, “Oh, that’s ‘Brighton Camp'”, but when they try to play it they go, “What the hell’s he done?!”
[Laughs] What I’ve tried to do is reinvent it but in a way that is not going to offend people. I’m not just trying to do mad shit everywhere!
What you had to say about ‘Brighton Camp’ in your sleevenotes is really interesting. You mentioned that it’s also known as ‘The Rushcart Tune’, which was used to accompany rushbearing up until the 1800s. Just reading about all of these tunes that were used to accompany various cultural or seasonal events, you get the impression that the British Isles must’ve been an incredibly musical place, whether you were indoors or out.
I think so. I also like that ‘Brighton Camp’ shows that you can have the same tune but with different names all over the place. It could be the same tune with different variations. It happens in Irish music a lot. That one’s called ‘The Rushcart Tune’ in Saddleworth, but down South they’ll call it ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’, or something different. What I noticed with that tune, as well, is that it’s played in all of the Morris dance traditions, more or less, apart from longsword or rapper. In fact, we use that tune in the show to demonstrate how it can be used in different variations. We’ve even made it into a longsword and rapper tune. People hear it and it’s the same tune but it’s being played in 9/8 or 6/8 or whatever.
Here’s another thing that may be slightly forbidding for those coming to Morris dancing for the first time, though. It seems to me that you can’t really get properly involved until you’ve studied the lingo. You talk about longsword style and rapper style. In your sleevenotes you talk about a “half-hey”. I want to understand but, like most people, I simply don’t know what you’re talking about!
I think you’re right, and that was one of the tricky things about writing those sleevenotes. You go down the route of making it so simple. And here’s the problem: when you’re writing about “half-hey”, you can’t call it anything else because that’s what it is!
But what is it?!
Hahaha! OK, so “half-hey” is when you’re opposite someone and you go forwards and then you go around them. It’s not far off a do-si-do.
Are there any other key phrases we need to know before we can dance the Morris?
Err… let’s have a think. There are different phrases for different traditions. ‘Step-back’, ‘anacrusis’…
Anacrusis. When you start, there’s an intro to the tune, and then you do a few steps before the dance starts.
How do you spell that?
God knows! [Laughs] I’m rubbish at spelling!
I’ll take a guess. On a very basic level, what’s the difference between one kind of tune and, say, a rapper tune?
Rapper tunes are in 6/8 – a kind of jig format. In Cotswold Morris, you get that a bit but it tends to be slower, and sometimes it gets played in halftime. A tune like ‘The Princess Royal’, for example, often gets played in halftime when you do slows.
That’s when you half the time in the music and you half the stepping, so you’re stepping slower in certain parts of the dance. People might jump high in the air… or attempt to!
The album is obviously to do with seasons, so I’m wondering if it’s obvious to you, as a musician and a Morris dancer, that certain tunes have a particular aspect to them that could be connected to those times of year?
Yeah, definitely. The most obvious ones, I think, are the summer ones. They have a very bright sound. If you look at the Spring tunes, they’re quite leapy! They’re bright as well. Then there’s a tune like ‘Fanny Frail’ in which we pitch into a minor, and that’s quite autumnal.
I have this thing where I see colours in music. That’s how I think of this album. The colours in the music helped me to put them with their different seasons. There are darker ones in the autumn, and they might have lower keys. There’s a tune I do with John Kirkpatrick that’s in F. It’s slightly lower. It’s subtle, and perhaps people might not notice. I do because I’m a bit fanatical about it [laughs].
So the new Will Pound album is a veritable kaleidoscope of music!
Yeah, it is. Totally. That’s a good way of describing it.
OK, I’m going to hit you with a couple more idiot questions now.
Go for it.
The album’s subtitle is ‘A Year in Morris and Folk Dance’. What is the difference between a Morris tune and, for want of a better word, a normal folk tune?
There’s not much in it, but I think the difference is in how you play it. If you’re playing for a Morris dance, you’re [with emphasis] playing for a dance, and a particular type of dance as well. With a folk dance you might play the phrasing slightly differently. But if you think of traditional English dance music in general, it’s always going to have that particular rhythmic thing happening.
It’s really interesting with Morris dance, though, because there are so many traditions within that style. Again, I reference ‘Brighton Camp’. There could be six different ways to play that according to the type of dance. That means different rhythms, different time signatures… It all depends on how you play it.
From a musical perspective, I think one of the things that amazes me about this kind of music is how it’s perceived, especially when it’s being derided, as being ‘simple music’. And yet, when you get down into it, you’re coming up against the time signatures that you just mentioned – 9/8, and all of that. There are all of these cross-rhythms and syncopations. It must be one of the hardest styles of music to try and play.
Well, one of the weirdest tunes I’ve come across is a tune called ‘Wheatly Trunkles’.
John Spiers did a recording of it. The A music is really simple, and you’re there thinking, “This is great, and… Oh my god! What the hell’s happening now?!” The B music goes all over the place. The time signatures are bonkers. It’s like 5/8 or something.
Is that a different tune to the ‘Trunkles’ on your album, then?
Yeah, totally different. That’s the other thing: within Cotswolds Morris, there are like 20 different trunkles. I could’ve done a whole album on trunkles. It wouldn’t have been any good [laughs]…
In fact, it would’ve been pretty boring. I could’ve done the same thing with ‘The Princess Royal’, you know what I mean?
Morris is obviously a dance, but I watched the Tim Plester film, Way of the Morris the other day, and I was surprised to find that singing is a big part of it, too. On your album you’ve got ‘The Nutting Girl’. Is that particularly known as a Morris song?
Yep. It’s particular used in a Cotswold tradition called Fieldtown, but people do just sing it generally. I’ve seen people sing and dance to it all at the same time.
Is that what you made Eliza Carthy do? Because on the album she gives a pretty breathless performance!
She was playing the fiddle as well as singing, and I was playing the box. That arrangement was quite interesting because we played it in G throughout most of the song, and then I nicked a chord sequence from Bach.
As you do.
It ends up in E-flat major. I can actually play the chord sequence on the piano. Hold on, I’ve got a piano here.
Of course you have.
[Plays G, C, F, B-flat, E-flat] See? It’s a very typical Bach chord sequence. So I was sitting there trying to work out how to fit Bach into this tune, and Eliza’s sat there going, “What the fuck are you doing?!” [Laughs]
That came out of the way I play melodeon. I have a D/G melodeon, which is a system that a lot of people play over here. But the way I play it is more like an Irish musician. I play it like a B/C, which is why I can transpose it up into E-flat. Anyway, I wanted ‘The Nutting Girl’ to sound a bit different. It was done on [legendary 70s album] Morris On, so I wanted to make it as different from that as I could. I wanted it to be kind of original.
You’re obviously known as a harmonica player, but you play the box a huge amount on this album. Have you always played melodeon?
Yeah, it’s just that I haven’t played it out in public much. It’s related to the harmonica. In fact, my box works in exactly the same way. It’s just been about me rehearsing and trying to get good on it. I use it a lot in gigs these days. I often play the box and the harmonica at the same time.
Isn’t that just showing off?
Hahaha! Maybe, yeah. Or maybe it’s just complete idiocy. One of the two [laughs]. Actually, it’s great because it has opened things up for me to do more solo shows, which I hadn’t been able to do when I was playing harmonica on my own. Now I can put them together, which is quite an interesting sound. I’ll be doing more of that next year, I think. I want to experiment with it. I want to see how far I can take it. But the harp [harmonica] is still my first instrument.
You mentioned the Morris On album earlier. If someone’s coming to Morris dancing music for the first time, what other albums would you recommend that they listen to (aside from yours, obviously)?
Plain Capers by John Kirkpatrick. That’s really good. The other Morris On albums that followed the first one – Son Of Morris On, and all that. I’m sure there are others. Some teams have done their own albums, and some bands record Morris sets on their albums, even if it’s not a Morris album. John Kirkpatrick has done a lot. He’s the kind of master at it, really. He’s brilliant. That’s why I got him to come and play on the record. He’s just so good at dance.
And, presumably, that’s part of the reason you’ve got his son, Benji, on there as well.
Benji is a brilliant dance musician because he’s a Morris dancer himself. It does help.
It’s interesting, though. I had a discussion with someone recently who said, “You have to dance in order to be able to play for the dance.” I have two examples of where that’s not true at all. One of my best friends, Ed, is the musician for the Earlsdon team. He’s a top, top melodeon player but he’s never danced in his life. He completely breaks the rules. My own dad – he’s got two left feet, but he’s a brilliant dance musician. It’s fascinating.
We’ve talked about the albums, but how about the events and the occasions? If people are coming to Morris dancing for the first time, who should they go and see? Where should they head to?
I’m going to have to be very biased! [Laughs] For Cotswold, Windsor Morris are fantastic, as are Moulton. Chinewrde, Earlsdon – my two teams – sorry! There are so many good teams. There are loads to choose from, which is great – a really good sign.
What are you hoping for the album?
I’m just hoping that people enjoy it. That’s the main thing. If they enjoy the album and they get pleasure out of the CD and the shows, and it makes them happy, then that’s it, really. The world is a crazy place at the moment, so if people can get some happiness from it… I make music in order to make people feel happy. It’s not about making loads and loads of money – although I’ve gotta pay my rent! – but if people come away from it and say they enjoyed it, then that’s my job done.
Will Pound’s album, Through the Seasons: A Year in Morris and Folk Dance, is available to purchase now (click on the previous link). To find out more about Will and his current show, head to www.willpound.com. All pictures in this article were taken by Elly Lucas, unless otherwise stated.