Traditional folk music, dance and customs - Harrogate, North Yorkshire - Chas Marshall's Website

The Flag and Bone Gang:An Insight (Ref 1)

My earliest experiences dancing the morris dance took place in the 1970's with Pomfret Morris based in the West Yorkshire town of Pontefract. Pomfret were formed around a time when there was great emphasis placed on regional dance styles and the development and interpretation of single Cotswold traditions and the team concentrated on the tradition from the village of Bucknell. This was performed in a vigorous style which has been labelled by some observers as "white shoe" (Ref 2), though Pomfret did in fact wear black shoes!

Around this same time there a number of exciting developments in the morris dance revival - for example, the Shropshire Bedlams were redefining Border Morris, the Seven Champions were developing their ideas around Molly Dance and Preston Royal were stamping their authority on North West Morris. They and others have set standards and styles which many other teams followed.

I remember reading and hearing many exhortations for teams to research and develop dance styles based on those from their own locality. These people seemed to be telling me that I should dance Yorkshire Longsword! However I continued to dance Cotswold and later North West Morris.

In the early 1990's I was amongst a number of experienced dancers who met to discuss ideas for a new morris team and new style. Our collective dance experience encompassed the Seven Champions, the Shropshire Bedlams, Wakefield Morris Dancers, Ripon City Morris Dancers and Betty Lupton's Ladle Laikers. However, nothing concrete really came out of our meetings and I suspect that main reason was the lack of roots or "traditional authority" for the ideas. Enthusiasm waned leaving the ideas to lay fallow for a few years.

However, the belief that the only kind of traditional Yorkshire dance was Longsword, received an unexpected challenge with the appearance of a booklet written and privately published by EDS Editor Paul Davenport in 1993 (Ref 3). This describes a dance style based mainly in the Holderness area of East Yorkshire. The dances belong essentially to the winter season, as are the various associated customs of Plough Stotting, Plough Dragging, Longsword dancing and mumming. There was "no regular dance", but the main essence involved a single line of dancers performing reels and either rattling bones (also known as "knick knacks") or waving small flags. A solo dance performed over the poker and tongs from the fireplace in the manner of the Cotswold "Bacca Pipes" jig is also reported.

Some details of Paul's researches were previously published in the Morris Dancer (Ref 4). A copy of this article was studied in connection with research into another Plough Monday custom - the Blue Stots plays from the Vale of York. The Blue Stots play is a sub-type of the Hero-Combat mummers play peculiar to the Vale of York and the first details of these findings were already in print (Ref 5). (I hope to publish an in depth study of the Blue Stots in the very near future). However, the dance opportunities that this new local material presented did not strike me at the time, even after witnessing an appearance (in January 1984) of the East Yorkshire Vessel Cuppers at the Derby-based "Dancing England" traditional dance showcase. My mind was focused elsewhere then.

Our researches reveal that a dance of some sort was performed at the end of the Marton-cum-Grafton Blue Stots Play and this feature was included in the revival of the Marton play by the Knaresborough Mummers. Subsequent reviews of our Blue Stots play material reveals that, around Christmas and New Year, the "shepherds" of Roecliffe and Aldborough (near Boroughbridge) used to dance heys in a line. This type of performance seems to have the same roots, or at least spirit, as the dances described by Paul Davenport.

However we must return to our main story. Jeff Garner obtained a copy of "The Forgotten Morris" at Whitby Folk Week in 1994 and was filled with enthusiasm again for the concept of a new morris team - at last there was some basis to work on. Jeff Garner, Dave Williams and I, with the help of a couple of people not actively involved in dancing, began to study the material and put together two dances in the winter of 1995. We created one bone dance and one flag dance which were reasonably faithful to the notations provided in "The Forgotten Morris". The team first appeared in public in 1996 with just these two dances. It was considered important that we got a feel for dancing these two before we then went on to look at extending the repertoire.

The combination of dancing while playing the bones is the really unique aspect of this form of dance. However at the start we had no bones playing skills so this aspect needed practise and development in addition to the actual dance. Consequently we started with the very simple idea of a single click on the off beat and as our skills improved we were able to introduce some more elaborate rhythms. We are still by no means experts and there continues to be difficulties encountered playing the bones and dancing at the same time.

The use of flags provides a contrast to the bones. The source information suggests flags of the size waved by the crowds at jubilees and festivals in the late 19th century. The size of the flags certainly has an impact on how the flag movements are performed and there is a need in our mind to try and avoid the movements of the flags becoming too much like Cotswold handkerchief movements.

There were some problems with dancing costumes. Some of the old teams blackened their faces and had strips of cloth pinned to their clothes, which is a fairly widespread form of dress for either dancers or mummers. We decided against black faces and tatter jackets at the outset because there was a strong desire to avoid any suggestion of Border Morris, though there are parallels between the styles of dance. We have discovered evidence of masks being used in Plough Stot customs in the Vale of York and we opted for a hat with a black veil as a form of disguise. A fool plough costume suggested the idea of arm and leg tatters (Ref 6). These arrangements seemed far more practical than the chicken feathers reported in Paul Davenport's booklet, in spite of having a poultry farmer among our number! The tatters were made of red satin and were originally intended to provide a unifying theme over a shirt, trousers and shoes of any dark colour. Later the majority agreed that the shirt, trousers and shoes should be black. This made the costume look like a uniform rather then just having a unifying theme. This is, to my mind at odds, with background of this style of dance and how I hoped it might develop. But since the team is made up largely of the normal middle class morris dancer, this type of change is perhaps inevitable and maybe even appropriate. A further unfortunate development occurred when some members started to iron their tatters, but then this is a morris team from "posh" Harrogate, when all said and done!

The black veils avoid the practical problems associated with blacking up and hopefully help to avoid the Border Morris tag. However they produce their own problems. While the visibility is sufficient to allow the dances to be performed, the performers are isolated from each other and the audience. The lack of eye contact is both disturbing and certainly reduces the pleasure of dancing. Equally it's no good someone hissing "back to back with me" when you have no idea from where the advice came! The hot and humid micro-climate which develops under the veil has to be experienced to be believed.

We began using hornpipes played fairly slowly to fit in with a relaxed single step. At first any convenient tune was used, but later we decided to try to use local tunes (or at least northern ones) which were not currently connected with any particular morris dance tradition. We have since focused on two music collections from villages situated a few miles from Harrogate (Ref 7).

About the time of our first public performances the Morris Federation address list included a new team in the Selby area - the Infamous Audreys. Our enquiries revealed they too were working on the same source of information. Some of our team members saw them during a joint performance with Ripon City Morris Dancers in July 1996. Subsequently there has been little contact and we believe the "Audreys" disbanded but later reformed under the name of "Fourpenny Plough". Member of this team have discovered some details of a dance from Snaith and this was included in the second edition of Forgotten Morris which was published by the South Riding Folk Network.

It is interesting that the family responsible for the Snaith dance also appears to be the family that I found to be responsible for running the Plough Stots who did the mummers play. In fact there seems to be quite a quantity of material coming to light and Paul Davenport has talked of a publishing a third edition.

Paul also tells of a team called "Rattlejag", from Nottinghamshire, who are using his material - what an excellent name! One of our number suggested the name "Flag and Bone Men" - a play on the name of "rag and bone men", those travelled by horse and cart from door to door collecting material for recycling in years gone by. We liked it but modified it slightly to the Flag and Bone Gang as the original teams were generally referred to as gangs.

If you were to ask a member of, say, Windsor Morris what style of morris dance they perform, you will (hopefully!) get the answer "Cotswold". Ask the same question of a member of the Flag and Bone Gang and you are unlikely to get such a succinct reply. The lack of a defining name can be a bit of a problem. The style of dance may be related to other forms but we feel it is sufficiently distinct to merit a name of its own.

At Sidmouth 2000 we found ourselves labelled as "Northern Border", whilst Paul Davenport has suggested "Yorkshire Morris". Since these dances are associated with Plough Stotting and Plough Monday customs we concluded that they should be called Plough Stot Dances.

The gang seems to have caused some interest in the last year or two, though we are not in the same league as the trend-setting teams mentioned at the beginning of this article. Nevertheless it will be interesting to see if anyone else picks up and develops our ideas or whether they come up with some different. We would welcome any contact with teams who are working on the same sources of material.

There are a number of fertile minds in the team producing a consistent flow of ideas for new dances. The dance repertoire now comprises eight set dances plus a processional dance. However, some judgement is needed to ensure the flow of ideas from different people doesn't produce a hotchpotch of unrelated steps, styles and figures. There is also evidence that the team has already become fossilised in its approach. New dances are based solely on flag or bones rather than drawing on the wider body of material suggested in Paul Davenport's second edition of the "Forgotten Morris" and on the related material on Plough Monday and Plough Stotting customs. I feel that an opportunity has been lost and it seems as though it will be left to other teams to develop these other ideas.

References

1. This article is based on material used for the workshop "Tradition from the Bare Bones", which was run by the Gang at Sidmouth 2000. This same material also provided the "bare bones" of similar articles written for the Winter 1997 edition of our local folk magazine "Tykes News" and the January 2001 edition of "Morris Matters".

2. A Molly Dancer's Guide to the Cotswold Morris of today - or the White Shoe question. Morris Matters Volume 9 Number 1.

3. Forgotten Morris - An investigation into Traditional Dance in Yorkshire.

4. The Morris Dancer Number 15 March 1983.

5. The return of the Blue Stots.Tykes News Autumn 1982.

6. Plate XI "The Fool Plough", Costumes of Yorkshire, George Walker, 1814.

7. Tunes, Songs and Dances from the 1798 manuscript of Joshua Jackson,Yorkshire Dales Workshop. The Fiddler of Helperby, Dragonfly Music.