The Ladies Go Dancing at Whitsun. Or do they?

Down from the green farmlands and from their loved ones
Marched husbands and brothers and fathers and sons
There’s a fine roll of honour where the maypole once stood
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun

— John Austin Marshall, The Ladies Go Dancing at Whitsun
A persistent piece of morris folklore has it that during World War I, some previously all-male morris tradition or traditions survived by being done by the women while the men went off to war and, too often, never came back. A touching story, but how close to the truth is it?

Here are some comments from the Morris Dancing Discussion List on the subject:


Date:         Mon, 23 Nov 1998 09:42:11 EST
From:         KLOSKY
Subject:      Re: history is not biology  Some Morris content.

Mr Tingey writes:

…Female dancers have substituted in the past for men, when there were not enough men (e.g. some sides in The Great War)….

Specifically, which sides? While I have no doubt that some traditional sides at times made use of women in the set (Upton, for example), I suspect that a lot of this “Great War” stuff is a little apocryphal, derived from the same latter-day, pleasant romanticism that engendered “Dancing at Whitsun…”

Peter Klosky


Date:         Mon, 23 Nov 1998 15:51:11 +0000
From:         Jethro Anderson
Subject:      Re: history is not biology

Mr Tingey writes:

…Female dancers have substituted in the past for men, when there were not enough men (e.g. some sides in The Great War)…

Can some of the historians who lurk on this list comment please. I am uncomfortable at this statement – it is surely romantic to see the disappearance of Morris as a catclysmic event consequent upon the Great War. Is it not the case that the vast majority of pre-revival Morris had died prior to the 1914 – 1918 hostilities – the decline being due to changing patronage and changing social structures. For what it’s worth I do not believe it necessary to seek any historical precedent to justify women dancing in the present. Women dance, dance superbly, dance badly, dance mediocrely(?) – just like men. What else is required?

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
:Jethro Anderson - DataBase Adminstrator:
:MIS - University of Bristol            :
:Tel (+44) 117 9288078                  :
:Morris Federation - Events Officer     :
:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

Date:         Mon, 23 Nov 1998 09:19:44 PST
From:         Jenny Howard
Subject:      Re: Morris & WW1 (was history is not biology)

On Mon, 23 Nov 1998 Peter Klosky wrote:

Mr Tingey writes:

…Female dancers have substituted in the past for men, when there were not enough men (e.g. some sides in The Great War)…

Specifically, which sides? While I have no doubt that some traditional sides at times made use of women in the set (Upton, for example), I suspect that a lot of this “Great War” stuff is a little apocryphal, derived from the same latter-day, pleasant romanticism that engendered “Dancing at Whitsun…”
Now, _I_ read in ‘English Dance and Song’ some while ago (couple of years?) that this all goes back to Ascot-u-Wychwood; I gather they had a thriving Folk Dance Club, which included all sorts of traditional dance, and was kept going by the ladies in the absence of the chaps. I may be over-simplifying or even misquoting, but I think that’s what it said.

Jenny H.


Date:         Tue, 24 Nov 1998 20:40:26 -0500
From:         Chris Bartram
Subject:      The Ladies didn't go dancing at Whitsun.......!

I’ve never heard anything that convinced me that the ladies ever did have anything to do with the surviving traditional morris sides continuing to dance during WW1. That is almost certainly a fiction encouraged by Piers Bishop’s tearfully romantic, and rather misguided song. But, that’s not to say that a few remarkable women within the traditional morris communities didn’t have a major influence.

In Abingdon, the redoubtable Mrs. Clarke certainly learnt the dances from her father, the long-time Mayor of Ock Street, Tom Hemmings, but to the best of my knowledge she never danced on the street. Her sons Eric and Brian still do however. At Bampton, was it Ada Tanner who turned-out on a couple Whit Mondays in the 1920/30’s?

Women? Morris Dancing? I’ll get expelled from ATMD if I continue!

Cheers

Chris Bartram


Date:         Tue, 24 Nov 1998 23:51:10 EST
From:         KLOSKY
Subject:      Re: The Ladies didn't go dancing at Whitsun.......!

chris bartram writes:

I’ve never heard anything that convinced me that the ladies ever did have anything to do with the surviving traditional morris sides continuing to dance during WW1. That is almost certainly a fiction encouraged by Piers Bishop’s tearfully romantic, and rather misguided song.

And a fiction I confess to have fallen for (in my early dancing days), and probably helped perpetuate in some small way. I recall (as a wide-eyed neophyte) being warmly assured by a much-beloved scion of American morris romanticism that the song was indeed about a real incident. “Where?” Somewhat uncomfortable pause. “Somewhere down in Kent.” Change of topic.

Well, I surely went about sharing this nugget of inside info with anyone else dewy-eyed & air-headed enough to take it on faith! Not long later, it occured to me that there wasn’t a hell of a lot of morris going on in Kent (or in much of anywhere in England) at that time, so…

I have to admit that there is a somewhat sick & cynical part of me that enjoys the ease with which this kind of romantic pop mythos is created, spread and accepted in the current revival of morris dancing. And why not? This being a largely middle-class, suburban hobby, er, tradition, why shouldn’t its folklore be warm, seamless and comfortable?

Because it isn’t real, and it does a disservice to folks who actually existed. In the “Dancing at Whitsun” case, it de-emphasizes the courage and efforts of the women (and men) whose efforts brought dancing women out of the gymnasium and into the streets, ‘in these latter days.’ There’s enough substantial stuff for mythos in the historic morris (warts & all) and in the past 100 years of revival, no need to create a faux history of convenience and wishful thinking, however warm and fuzzy.

I still kinda like the song, though. And like every other song (it seems) a version of it, though not the best I’ve heard, is on “Maypoles to Mistletoe.”

Peter Klosky


Date:         Wed, 25 Nov 1998 15:32:36 -0800
From:         Stephen Rowley
Subject:      Re: The Ladies didn't go dancing at Whitsun.......!

On the ‘dancing at whitsun’ topic. There are a number of maypole traditions where dancing occurred at different dates during the month of May. In my mothers family, they maintained the Ickwell maypole tradition which if memory serves me, happened on the third weekend in May. I think it might have moved to the 1st weekend these days.

They had (have? It is a long time since I attended) ladies dances, mens dances and childrens dances.

[…]

High Capers

Strolls


Date:         Wed, 25 Nov 1998 15:41:20 -0800
From:         Stephen Rowley
Subject:      Re: The Ladies didn't go dancing at Whitsun.......!

When we lived in Plymouth, in the early 1980s, we knew a Mrs James who was one of the ladies who danced at Headington during WW2. Because most of the men were at war a few girls were recruited to keep the regular practices going.

She told me that they practiced very hard, but never considered dancing out. “It was a mans dance”

The foreman was concerned that if the practices stopped for the duration there was a danger they would not start again when/if the men returned.

However, I have always felt that using these examples to support/justify womens morris today is spurious. The rise of womens morris during the 80s & 90s has come about for quite different reasons. What happened in the two world wars has no relevance.

High Capers

Strolls


Date:         Wed, 25 Nov 1998 21:01:14 -0500
From:         Chris Bartram
Subject:      Re: The Ladies didn't go dancing at Whitsun.......!

Hang on! HQMM didn’t (re)form until 1949, did they? Anyone (male or female) dancing Headington dances during WW2 was almost certainly part of an EFDSS club, not the morris side.

You have to remember that William Kimber was involved in a lot of revivals, particularly around Oxford. (Oxford City MM for one) For much of his life he was a willing tool of the EFDSS. That’s not in any way to belittle him: playing the concertina must have been an awful lot more congenial than bricklaying! (And he was an effin’ good anglo player……!)

Cheers

Chris Bartram ATMD (and formerly related by marriage to HQMM!)


Date:         Tue, 24 Nov 1998 23:19:49 -0800
From:         John Carver
Subject:      Re: The Ladies didn't go dancing at Whitsun.......!

Are you speaking of “Dancing at Whitsun” by John Austin Marshall? I Don’t think we can blame the author for the myth that follows this song.

Listen to the words. You’ll find no mention of morris dancing. What is mentioned is the lady’s white dress, and “where the maypole once stood.” Morris isn’t the only kind of dancing that’s ever been done at Whitsun. And what the words suggest to me is that the ladies _continue_ to dance at Whitsun, but no longer with the men – keeping the memory of happier times.

The words have been published in “Sing Out”, along with the claim that it’s about morris, but who knows where they got that?

John Carver

Island Thyme

(with the Abg-Sbe-Wbrd)


Date:         Thu, 26 Nov 1998 00:32:16 EST
From:         KLOSKY
Subject:      Re: The Ladies didn't go dancing at Whitsun.......!

John Carver writes:

Are you speaking of “Dancing at Whitsun” by John Austin Marshall? I Don’t think we can blame the author for the myth that follows this song..

That’s the one though Chris B. seems to have another author.

Further John states:

Listen to the words. You’ll find no mention of morris dancing. What is mentioned is the lady’s white dress, and “where the maypole once stood.”…

If the Maypole “once stood,” it’s implied that it isn’t standing now. (Or maybe not in the same place?) Pretty hard for these ladies to do maypole dancing without a pole. I think it’s pretty clear (“…dress of white linen and ribbons so rare…”) that morris is intended (though it could also be the Great Wishford Faggot Dance, done at Whitsun, but I don’t think they wear white…). But of course that’s all open to interpretation. Certainly the song has been represented to me and others as being about morris. For example:

The words have been published in “Sing Out”, along with the claim that it’s about morris, but who knows where they got that?

Possibly from the author? Or just a common conception within the revival that it is. I think it is fascinating how such misinformation can readilly become part of the canon of contemporary oral “tradition.”

I’m not knocking the song, per se — indeed i’ve quoted it (“…as stately a measure as age will allow..”) in albeit a very different context on this list. But as someone recently wrote, women’s morris doesn’t need this replacement mindset as a justification.

Peter Klosky


Date:         Thu, 26 Nov 1998 20:50:21 -0800
From:         Stephen Rowley
Subject:      Re: The Ladies didn't go dancing at Whitsun.......!

Hi Chris

I may be mistaken, but I am certain Mrs James said it was Headington. And it was Kimber who taught her. Whether it was HQMM or an EFDSS club is a different matter, or possibly irrelevant.

The point she made was that the ladies were recruited to keep the dance practices going because the men were at war.

High Capers

Steve

One Response to The Ladies Go Dancing at Whitsun. Or do they?

  1. Pingback: And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun « Letouttoplay

Comments are closed.