It’s been a strange couple of years for Morris sides – the 2020 practice season was cut short, there was no dancing out, no festivals, and none of the usual markers of the changing year. But in Herefordshire, something was just beginning.
Blackthorn Border Morris was formed at the end of 2019 and since then has garnered interest from across the world for their events and ‘happenings’, despite the group’s elusive nature. Now in their third year, they’re preparing to launch a brand new folk festival. Tradfolk caught up with them to find out more about it.
Now in case anyone’s a bit confused, you were originally known as Blackthorn Border Morris, but you’ve recently changed your name to ‘Blackthorn Ritualistic Folk’. How do you primarily identify – as a Morris team or something more?
We identify as a ritualistic folk group because we take influence from many different areas of folk dancing and traditions, not just Morris dancing. Therefore, we felt that we should drop the ‘Border Morris’ part of our original name because it no longer felt true to what we were doing. Although, you can clearly see that Morris dancing traditions still have a strong influence on our dances.
Unlike other folk-dance groups, we perform all year round, celebrating the turning of the wheel of the year. There are eight festivals throughout the calendar year, and we honour these by coming together to hold gatherings, in which we sing, dance, play music and perform ritualistic ceremonies based on ancient rural traditions.
Of course, anyone who’s seen your social media will already know that there’s more to Blackthorn than just Morris dancing, but for those who haven’t, what else is involved?
From the outset, we wanted to take Blackthorn down a different pathway, by writing our own dances and incorporating ritualistic ceremonies and songs into our performances. We choose songs and tunes that are either relevant to the festival we are celebrating, the time of year, or the dances we perform. Some of our members have written their own songs and tunes, and we plan to continue in this vein, so as to keep our performances original and fresh.
It might only be one element of what you do, but for the uninitiated, what is Border Morris?
It is believed that Border Morris dancing originated in the counties near to the Welsh border: Shropshire, Herefordshire, and Worcestershire. However, there are now many Border Morris sides throughout the UK and even across the pond. The term ‘Border Morris’ is now more associated with a certain style of dance and aesthetic. Most Border Morris dances incorporate the use of sticks and are very energetic, with exaggerated, bounding steps, to create an impactful performance. The performers will paint their faces (either partially or fully), they will often wear some kind of headgear and will wear a jacket covered in strips of material, otherwise known as ‘tatters’.
Could you tell us a bit about your dances – do you write them yourselves or are they borrowed from elsewhere? Will they evolve and change with the side, or are they a new tradition?
Our dances tend to symbolise a character in folklore or represent a historical event or person, or folktale. We have one dance that is our version of a Playford dance, ‘Black Nag’, that we have linked to local stories. But, otherwise, all of our dances are originals that have been written by our members. Some of them have already evolved as the side has grown, so it is likely that this will continue.
We perform all year round, celebrating the turning of the wheel of the year.
You’re a relatively new group, compared with many of the more traditional sides performing today. How and why did you form?
Blackthorn came from a desire to bring dark folk dancing to Herefordshire and the surrounding counties, as there was a distinct lack of such sides in the area. We wanted to do things a little differently; to help revive ‘the Old Ways’, bring local folklore back to life, celebrate the beauty of nature, and encourage people to embrace the simpler things in life.
And are you mostly new to dancing, or do you have some old Morris hands?
The group consists of a wonderful mix of people: some who have been a part of the Morris world for many, many years, some who have been on the sidelines, and some who never had anything to do with Morris dancing at all.
So you’ve got your patch and you’ve got your people. Where (or who) does the inspiration for what Blackthorn Ritualistic Folk does come from?
Our inspiration for the side stems from a mutual love and appreciation for nature and folklore, and a desire to bring these to life through music, song, and dance. It felt most in-keeping to perform at the eight points of the year, according to a more traditional calendar that was led by nature and the seasons, as this best reflected what we hoped to revive.
The theme of nature is obviously reflected in your name – Blackthorn. How did you settle on that?
We chose the name ‘Blackthorn’ for our group, largely because the blackthorn tree features heavily in folklore across the world, and it suited the dark ambiance and aesthetic that we were aiming for. From this came our choice of colours for our kit. The black represents the blackthorn’s dark branches and the blue signifies the sloes it bears in winter. We decided that it would be a nice addition to let our members choose a nature totem that they could incorporate into their headgear and be a nod of respect to the creatures we share this planet with.
Ah yes, your costumes and headwear are very striking. To what extent is putting on your kit and becoming part of a group intrinsic to what Blackthorn does?
Our kit is a physical representation of our namesake, which helps unite us with what we are all about: nature and the folklore attached to it. By adorning ourselves with items that symbolise the natural world, we feel more a part of it. Whilst each person’s kit is slightly different, the primary elements are there, which brings us together and displays that we are part of a group. Some of our members have likened it to a tribe.
We wanted to do things a little differently; to help revive ‘the Old Ways’…
It must be a very powerful thing to be part of when you go out and perform. Nature and being close to the earth is clearly a central theme; do members live by this ethos when they’re not in kit? We quite like the idea that you might all work Monday to Friday in a bank and perform rituals at the weekends…
Sadly, we do not all get to live by this ethos in our day-to-day lives, as much as we would like to. But we more than make up for it as and when we can!
And now for the really exciting part of this chat – you’re holding a brand new folk festival at the end of July! Tell us where the idea for the festival came from?
Having held our first ticketed event in January (Dragon Orchard Wassail), which proved to be a great success for all of those involved, we thought that we would set ourselves the challenge of putting on a small folk festival to celebrate Lughnasadh [for the uninitiated, Lughnasadh marks the beginning of the harvest season].
And why Lughnasadh?
We chose this particular celebration due to the time of year it would be held and what we felt we could do with it on a larger scale. We want to create a space for local artists and vendors to show and sell their wares, individuals involved in the folk art world to share their knowledge and experiences, local (and some not-so-local) musicians to serenade us with their folk songs, and to simply provide people with an enjoyable and chilled day out.
Blackthorn is answering the call of many; to get back in touch with our innate connection with people and nature
OK, that sounds pretty great. In case anyone’s not already convinced, can you tell us a bit more about what to expect?
As with all of our performances there will music, songs, dances, and ceremonies for the audience to feast their eyes and ears upon. Beasts will be roaming at dusk and our John Barleycorn effigy will be sacrificed on the bonfire. It is here that we will end the evening with songs around the fire.
Wow, tough day for John Barleycorn. Remind us why he’ll be featuring in this particular festival.
John Barleycorn features in English folklore as a character who is a spiritual representation of grain – grown healthy during the summer, then harvested and processed into beer and whiskey, so that his spirit may live on.
That all sounds like an absolutely brilliant day out. Where can people find out more and get their tickets?
There’s lots of information about Blackthorn Ritual Folk on our website, and all the details for the Lughnasadh Festival are on the Eventbrite page.
Do you feel like this might just the beginning? Are you hoping your festival will develop into something bigger in the future – Blackthornbury, perhaps?
To be honest, we never set out to hold any kind of ticketed events. Our intention was to simply hold our gatherings across Herefordshire and the neighbouring counties, advertising our location via a cryptic video, and hope that we would feed the curiosity of those who either worked out the clues to the video or who happened to stumble across us.
As we gained more followers and members, increased our repertoire of dances, and gained confidence in our abilities, we felt inspired to make our performances a little grander. However, as a self-funded group, we quickly discovered that we would need to find ways of raising money in order for us to continue to afford hiring our practice hall, so that we could keep doing what we’re doing.
But no plans for folk world domination?
We will continue to hold the occasional ticketed event each year, as a way of boosting funds, but our plan is to still hold smaller gatherings. The key thing for us is that we honour these traditional festivals and keep encouraging people to embrace the wonders of the natural world and the stories that have come from its being.
There has been a revival in folklore, traditional practices, and heritage pastimes, and the desire to seek out a less digitally-influenced, slower pace of living. This has lent itself well to what we are doing with Blackthorn
And just one last thought – we know that there are Morris sides across the country struggling to recruit new members. You seem to have formed and grown a brand new team relatively quickly. How easy was that process (in case anyone else fancies the task…)?
In recent years, there has been a revival in folklore, traditional practices, and heritage pastimes, and the desire to seek out a less digitally-influenced, slower pace of living. This has lent itself well to what we are doing with Blackthorn. Whilst a large part of our performance is to honour the festivals we are celebrating, we do set out to entertain our audience too. We incorporate several different elements within our performances and engage with our spectators to make them feel a part of our celebrations. It is through social media, our gatherings and word-of-mouth that we have attracted new members.
It’s interesting that social media often seems to be the catalyst in bringing together like-minded people, all keen to escape social media for a while…
Despite deciding to set up a side a few months before the world went into Lockdown, we have been very fortunate in still managing to recruit members during this time. Social media platforms have enabled us to reach a vast, worldwide audience and this has definitely helped us to create a network of like-minded people that feels a lot like a community. Several of our members feel that Blackthorn is answering the call of many; to get back in touch with our innate connection with people and nature.
For more on the Lughnasadh Folk Festival, head to eventbrite.co.uk. For more on Blackthorn Ritual Folk, head to their website. All photos on this page are by Jon Blades, David Wilkins and Kai Cummings.
I love the idea of Blackthorn Morris but am really disappointed by the use of full blackface by some of its members, which in 2022 can no longer be justified and explained away by ‘tradition’ and ‘it’s just disguise’. Tony Forster wrote a really good paper on why for the Morris Fed in 2020 chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://www.morrisfed.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/The-tradition-of-blackface-dancing-by-Tony-Forster.pdf EFDSS has had a policy against Blackface at their events since 2016 https://www.efdss.org/policies. Paint your face green, blue, purple… why insist on black (especially in this obviously not very traditional tradition) when it would make such a difference not to?