Monday, August 4, 2008

Morris Dancers or Minstrel Show?

The influence of American minstrel shows on British music has been well documented. Early performers like Joel Walker Sweeney and Dam Emmett toured England to great acclaim, introducing the banjo and blackface humor to British audiences and inspiring homegrown performers to adapt the style. (See my brother's biography of Joel Walker Sweeney publsihed by McFarland as just one of many sources.)

This image, found by my friend Perry Werner, speaks to the influence of blackface and banjos but also to older British entertainments, specifically the Morris Dance and short plays associated with it. In fact, the motley crew here seems to borrow from many different traditions: the clown like figure on the far left playing the fiddle joined with the blackface banjo players, suggesting a circus connection (initially, some blackface banjo players in the US performed as part of traveling circuses, so perhaps the connection is there). On the other hand, the well-dressed bones player (in the rear center) and the top-hatted fiddler on the right seem to be parodies of British upper-crust performers.

Exactly what the occasion was for this photo -- whether this was a regular traveling performing troupe or a one-time gathering perhaps for a local village fundraiser or fair -- is unknown. (At least by me -- anyone out there with thoughts about who these folks might be, please post!) This kind of cross-fertilization--the crazy quilt of traditions that come together through the imaginations of performers uninhibited by any "rules" that might keep different performance styles apart--is to me the truest expression of what happens in traditional settings. Scholars try to categorize and separate but ordinary folks just perform for the fun of it -- and draw on whatever inspirations seem right to them.

No comments: