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Boss Morris walking with their beasts
Photo credit: S. Jakubowska

Boss Morris – the interview

Boss Morris are one of the most prominent Morris dance sides of today. Jon Wilks caught up with Alex Merry and Lily Cheetham to find out how they took the folk scene by storm.

I first saw Boss Morris performing at the Barbican in London in June, 2019. It was the Topic Records 80th Anniversary event, and their explosive arrival on stage was nothing short of eye-opening. Here was a Morris side like no other – wild, colourful, vibrant, urgent, and entirely relevant to the times we live in. They seemed as much an avant garde happening as they were a group of tradition bearers. Somehow, they’d found a way to marry the two effortlessly, and in a way that made everyone in that hall sit up and take notice.

In fact, it was their appearance on the scene, along with the work of Ben Edge, that made me think there was more to maintaining the tradition than simply singing the songs or dancing the dances. Boss Morris seemed to breathe extra life into the idea of, “the living tradition”, rephrasing it through their performances to something more like a “thriving tradition”. At the time, I was winding down the Grizzly Folk blog – a precursor to the website you’re reading now – and it’s no overstatement to say that these people made me think carefully about the need to relaunch it.

When we were finally able to catch up for a long chinwag, I was delighted to find that the inclusivity they represent onstage is simply an extension of who they are as people. The Boss Morris community in Stroud is made up of friends, partners, children, and “plus-ones”, all of whom are involved in creating the costumes, the beasts, and the passion that goes to the heart of what they do.

Over the course of 90 minutes or so, I chatted with founder, Alex Merry, and initial side member, Lily Cheetham (who also happens to be Nell Leyshon‘s niece), about all things Boss. From Damien Hirst’s flat feet to makeup and costume designs, being tradition bearers rather than historical reenactors, Morris dancing’s image problem, hanky symbolism, an updated Morris On remixes album, the Radical Landscapes exhibition at Tate Liverpool, the Boss Morris Beasts, and a connection with nature in times of hardship.

Kind of like a Boss Morris dance out, this one spreads the joy everywhere. Get your warpaint on and get stuck in.

We didn’t sit down and say, “Right, we’re going to change how people perceive Morris dancing”.

Alex Merry, Boss Morris

How did Boss Morris get underway, Alex?

Alex Merry: Well, I got into Morris dancing in London when I was living in London. I think it was 2008. I started Morrising at Cecil Sharp House and then set up a Morris side in London called The Belles of London City. There were just three of us initially, and we had an amazing run of it in London. Boss started when I moved back to Stroud. I wasn’t dancing with any Morris side, and it was my sister, who had seen all the Morris things that I’d been doing in London, who really wanted to give it a go. So we ask around our friends in Stroud, and it kind of started that way. We’re totally amazed when people were like, “Yes, OK. I’d be up for giving it a go.”

Did the Boss Morris community congregate quite quickly, then?

AM: I think it did, didn’t it?

Lily Cheetham: I don’t know how far you’d gotten by the time you asked me, I’m not really sure.

When was that? When did you get Boss Morris off the ground in Stroud?

AM: It was 2015. We were friends working together. We were mostly artists and crafters, and we were working as studio assistants, actually. We were working with Damien Hirst. We’ve all done a stint with him.

Does Damien Hirst dance the Morris?

AM: Never [laughs]!

LC: He’s probably really flat-footed. That’s my take. I can’t see it in him.

AM: He’s not cool enough for Morris [laughs]. This is very much the reverse of the art world that we were inhabiting and that we were working in – this kind of capitalist money-making enterprise. From that to the folk world. I was far more interested in those little crafters that make things just for the beauty of making something, or folk music – not an ego in sight. This world is way more real, isn’t it?

LC: I always feel that it’s way more real than any of the pretense, the things associated with money, that we found when we were working in the high-end art world. That’s a very different thing. It doesn’t feel real. It’s about pretense and what people think about other people, whereas, I don’t know, folky stuff is laypeople, their stories; it’s things handed down, isn’t it? It feels much more real.

My dad did Morris dancing when he was at university, but never when we were growing up. We wouldn’t have allowed him!

Alex Merry, Boss Morris

Did any of the Boss Morris side have a more traditionally folkie background?

LC: I don’t, really. But Alex does.

AM: Yes, my dad did Morris dancing when he was a young chap at university, but never when we were growing up. We wouldn’t have allowed him [laughs]! But, yeah, I was definitely aware of Morris. Mum and dad’s record collection was very folkie – Steeleye Span, that kind of thing. And then I learnt the accordion. That’s kind of how I got into Morris. I was going along to Cecil Sharp House and I spotted that they were doing classes there. So, yeah, it was through folk music that I cottoned on to Morris dancing.

LC: Some of the others have got folkie backgrounds, haven’t they? Rhia grew up in the Southwest with broom dancing. Maddie has been going to Sidmouth Folk Festival since she was a kid, and going to see the Obby Oss in Cornwall, where she grew up. It’s definitely in her blood.

Boss Morris. Photo credit: Jonathan Cherry

I first saw Boss Morris at the Barbican, dancing at the Topic Records 80th anniversary event a few years ago, and I was astounded by the energy and the vitality of what you were doing. Are you dancing for fun or are you on some kind of mission?

LC: I think it was never really intended to be this kind of mission. It was definitely a fun thing. We live in a rural village so it seemed appropriate. And then, because of the nature of our collective – a group of relatively young, progressive women – I think it has become a bit of a mission. So many points of conversation have developed. We find ourselves talking about the tradition, the dancing, the way we dress up, and how our creativity is involved. We’ve found ourselves having this little platform to be able to comment on all this related material. But it was never intentional, I don’t think, was it?

AM: No, not at all. I think it surprised all of us that we’re in the position to, like you say, comment on stuff. But, no, we didn’t sit down and say, “Right, we’re going to change how people perceive Morris dancing”. It’s very much like Lily says: it’s a kind of organic recipe combining all of us together that we’ve cooked up.

LC: It has kind of become a bit of a mission, but a true mission, really. Something that feels like something we should be doing, rather than it being a prescribed constitution or anything like that.

What would that mission be if you were to try to define it?

LC: Maybe this is just me, but one of the key things is to take Morris to different audiences. I think that’s a big part of it. I mean, I like doing the traditional stuff but the part that gets me really excited is going to places where people are not expecting to see it. Then they see us and hopefully it surpasses any stereotypes and it becomes something different in people’s eyes. We’ve danced in the streets with hula hoop artists and things like that. I find that quite exciting.

Where else have you been and found a positive reaction from people who wouldn’t normally expect to encounter Morris dancing?

AM: I love the moments when we’ve travelled on the Tube, the London Underground, and through other big cities, just getting from A to B. That can be the fun part. Sometimes, if we’re carrying the beasts and all that, just seeing a Morris dancer in all their get-up can really ruffle the norm. And I think that’s a really good thing. That’s quite exciting. Morris dancing still has a reputation for being a bit nerdy. I like to think that, by seeing us, that preconception is shattered a little bit.

I don’t know where we get the idea that Morris dancing is an uncool thing to be doing. I suppose for my age group, it has to do with going to country fetes when I was a kid and seeing middle-aged and older men, out of shape, dancing badly. But when I took my daughter to Sidmouth about four years ago – she was about nine at the time – we got off the bus in the town centre and we could hear a Morris side walking around the corner. We couldn’t see them yet, but we could hear the bells and she was so excited. It was like Father Christmas was coming. So I wonder if there’s a way that we can bypass that bit where we get a bit jaded about Morris dancers and retain that sense that we’re seeing something a little bit magic.

LC: Yes. Kids absolutely love it. We’ve done a few kids’ workshops over the years. When we have our beast heads and they see our bright faces and our costumes, they just love it.

AM: They can kind of tap into the pure joy of it instantly because it is a joyful thing to do. It’s brilliant.

With the makeup, I feel that it’s permission just to go a bit nuts.

Lily Cheetham, Boss Morris

Is there anything traditional or significant in the makeup and clothes that you wear? Any kind of historical background, or is it simply a case of applying the warpaint and getting out there?

LC: [Laughs] There are definitely nods to things in our costume designs and I think, as we’ve gone on, we have definitely become a bit more conscious of what they represent. We’ve looked at the history of Stroud’s textile industry, and we’ve made references to that in some of the patterns. That kind of thing has definitely become a bit more considered. With the makeup, I feel that it’s permission just to go a bit nuts. It’s like having permission to be silly with it: to have blacked-out teeth, to kind of look ridiculous, and to be a bit of a tribe.

AM: Yeah, but the makeup is an interesting one, isn’t it? We’ve never sat down and planned out what the face paint will be. We’ve all got a general understanding of the kind of thing we want to do, but then it always seems to be the case that, before a dance out, one of us will just be like, “BAM! WHAT ABOUT THIS?!”

LC: [Laughs] And suddenly there’s a massive spiral on your face! The makeup thing is completely spontaneous, really. I haven’t really thought about it much before because it obviously can be anything – unlike the costumes, which have to be a bit premeditated.

I had assumed that it was a nod to Border Morris. You’ve just said that when you put on the makeup, it gives you permission to be somebody else. And whatever Border Morris sides were putting on their faces, controversial or otherwise, it was an attempt to be somebody else in some shape or form, I think. Is that not the case with Boss Morris?

LC: I think it was. One of the first things we did was create a kind of white mask with big eyelashes.

An early incarnation of Boss Morris with their white face paint masks and eyelashes.
An early incarnation of Boss Morris. White masks with large eyelashes.

AM: Yeah, but again, even for that very first performance, we didn’t have it designed before we got into kit and we were all together. But having makeup on is a really important thing because it instantly transforms you into “The Other”. There have been a few occasions where we didn’t wear makeup, or there was the option not to, and everyone’s like, “No, we have to have makeup on.” It was far more exposing if we didn’t wear it.

LC: I think a few of us are not what you’d call natural performers. There are a few that are really shy. I’d never done any performing before, as such. I think that kind of transformation makes you a unit. And, like I said, it gives you permission. It’s a bit of confidence, isn’t it? The minute we disband, some of us are quite keen to get the makeup off because they don’t want to be wandering streets with blacked-out teeth or a black monobrow on their own, or driving home dressed like that at 11pm. I have done that before and I’ve caught myself in the mirror and remembered what I look like [laughs]. So, yeah, it’s definitely a group thing.

Do you feel that you’ve been accepted by other Morris sides, or are you looked upon with suspicion given the flamboyant visual style that you use?

AM: I think we have been accepted, yeah, although I think it takes a while to be fully accepted into the community, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I appreciate that there are these guardians of the tradition. I think that the anxiety they feel when there’s a new Morris side on the scene is that it’s a gimmick. And I think, because we were so far out there with our costumes right from the beginning, there was the slight worry that we were just in it for dressing up and hopping about. But I think enough years have passed. We’re still a relatively young Morris side, in that we’ve only been dancing for six years, two of which were during the pandemic. But I think people know now that we do take it seriously. At the heart of it is the actual dancing, and I think people can really see that now.

LC: I think any negative reaction has been quite small, really. There’s always that temptation to focus on the few comments you get online from the old purist guard, or whatever, but actually, we get so many nice comments most of the time. I think it’s probably fair to say they’re mostly really encouraging and nice to hear.

I’ve often wondered how many Morris sides are secretly fulfilling a massive cosplay fantasy.

AM: Yeah [laughs].

Somebody said to me recently that there’s a direct correlation between the amount that a Morris side dresses up and how badly they dance. In spite of the costumes, I don’t think that is the case with you guys.

AM: Hopefully not. Although, the kit is definitely an important aspect. I don’t think we could have got a side together as quickly and as excitedly as we did if we hadn’t really gone for it with the kit. I think it’s such a great way of capturing the imagination and forming this really strong identity when you’re just wanting to gel a group together and take away the preciousness of it.

Alex Merry, the founder member of Boss Morris, wearing tribal costume and holding two Morris dancing sticks with eyes painted on them.
Alex Merry of Boss Morris. Photo credit: Jonathan Cherry

LC: But Morris sides have always had a costume, haven’t they? I don’t know how often they look again at the designs of their costume, but it seems to me that their trademark is often the way that they look. We just decided that we were going to change it up. I don’t think we’ve ever danced in exactly the same outfit or in the same makeup ever. It always changes. I think the costumes and the face paint really make it visually very interesting and definitely more contemporary.

That’s what makes Morris a living tradition, I suppose – that ability to change with the times. The way it’s sometimes talked about makes it sound like a historical reenactment. There is a real difference, isn’t it?

LC: I think you know what the difference is by the reaction that you get. So, the fact that Morris has had a bit of a reputation problem over the last few years should tell you that something’s ringing the wrong bells… literally. There was a documentary on BBC Four a few years ago. I was a bit late to the party, but he spent a lot of time with some of the older boys.

I remember that.

LC: You could see they blamed their problems on external things. And I think, when it came down to it, they couldn’t really understand why people weren’t attracted to it. I don’t know. I think you look at yourself and what you’re doing, and if you’re struggling to get other people involved, you have to ask yourself why. Whereas, if you’re doing something that’s quite exciting and it’s getting new people and new voices involved, then I think, you know, that’s something that’s living and it’s relevant. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Yes, you could certainly say it has an image problem. I think a lot of people still perceive it as an old person’s pursuit. Unfortunately, the aging process gets us all in the end. Not much you can do about that. About 15 years ago my grandmother came and stayed with me and my wife for about three months. One day she said to me, “Did I ever tell you how I met your grandfather?” She told me he was a Morris dancer. She said, “Whenever the Morris came into town, we’d get all dolled up.” It didn’t make sense to me because, again, I’m thinking of the Morris as being the middle-aged men with paunches. But then you go and see Morris dancers at the John Gasson Jig Competition in Sidmouth [see the video below], and they’re young, fit, slim, muscular people.

AM: Athletic.

Yeah, ‘athletic’ is totally the right word. And then you get it.

AM: That’s what it would’ve been originally, right? It would’ve been this huge, showy-offy, athletic spectacle. And I love thinking that Morris was born from that.

Do you come across many other female sides? I mean, to people not in the know it’s perhaps still seen as a predominantly male tradition, wouldn’t you say? But all-female or mixed sides are much more common now.

AM: Yeah, it’s not so much an issue these days. I think it’s actually the other way around. In my experience, it has been harder to get young men dancing Morris than it is young women. It seems to have flipped. There’s talk of a young men’s side starting in Stroud. Did I tell you, Lily? It’d be so exciting for some young men to get together and start Morrising.

There are some amazing sides out there. I love Hammersmith. Have you ever seen them? So exciting and gutsy. When they dance, there’ll be shards of wood all over the ground after they’ve been smashing their sticks.

Am I right in thinking that the dances that you perform are traditional dances? It’s only the look that’s non-traditional, right?

AM: Pretty much, yeah. It takes a long time to learn the dances and the foundation steps and stuff like that. But now that we’re so many years down the line, we’re starting to tweak dances and add things, and have the confidence to do that. It felt really important to learn the tradition and learn the double stepping and a few of the different traditions.

You started off in another Morris side, Alex, so you must have been able to bring some of the dances that you’d already learnt. But did you have somebody else who came in to teach the rest of Boss Morris?

AM: Yeah. I had a limited repertoire of dances that I knew, but it was mostly jigs because there were only three of us in The Belles of London City. So I hadn’t really danced many set dances before. There’s a chap called Steve Rowley – a brilliant Morris man – and he lives really near to us in Stroud, so he was great. He came along and he taught us some dances and helped us set up the structure of Boss Morris, I guess. But, yeah, I’ve kind of taken over the teaching of the dances. Actually, we’ve just had a workshop with Laurel Swift, which was amazing. She brought a different perspective. She’s a really experienced Morris dancer, and it felt exciting to be adding to our dance repertoire.

LC: It’s not something we’ve done before, is it?

AM: No.

LC: Fresh eyes on it.

AM: Yeah, totally. As I said, it took a long time to learn the basics, but now we’ve done it for a while, we’ve started to tweak the traditional dances here and there. If something doesn’t feel right, then we’ll be like, “Oh, we’ll just put an extra hop in there and we’ll take that figure out there.”

LC: It’s an organic process. People just chip in. It’s purely collaborative in that respect, isn’t it?

Boss Morris, mid-flight. Photo credit: Lily Cheetham

You get the most amazing satisfaction from being out in nature and dancing with your friends. You can’t buy that.

Alex Merry, Boss Morris

AM: Definitely. And I think that embodies exactly what Morris is about because, with every Morris tradition where the dances are collected village by village, they’ve all got their own unique way of dancing these dances. So it feels completely right to be developing our own way of doing it.

LC: It connects us and the place that we’re in, doesn’t it? That hanky wiggle in a certain way, you know, relates to a specific village.

It’s quite amazing, isn’t it? I don’t think people realize that a particular hanky wiggle could be so significant. Everything has its own symbolism, doesn’t it? I was going to ask whether you see yourself as dancing a certain style – Border or Cotswold Morris. But now it’s obvious. You’re from Stroud, so it must be Cotswold.

AM: Yeah, definitely Cotswold. We got the Lionel Bacon book, the Morris bible. Most of what we dance is based on, or are actually some of those traditional collected dances. But, yeah, we’re pushing it in different ways and tweaking it. We’ve got a handful of Morris remixes as well, which is another way of engaging with different audiences. And they are super fun to dance out. They’re so good.

What does a Morris remix involve?

AM: They’re like updated, electronic remixes of Morris tunes – something that we can dance to. If we go to a festival, say, and they have a late-night stage with a sound system, it means that we can perform a couple of dances, but with, like…

LC: …drum and bass!

AM: [Laughs] Yeah! It’s proper good. We’ve been wanting to do a kind of updated Morris On, you know – that amazing Morris album from the 70s. They plugged in and went electric, which at the time was like, “Woah!” So it would be a kind of nod to that. We’d love to take that even further and do more with that.

LC: I feel like we made a really good start on that and we’ve kind of tested it out. We’ve tried to work quite hard to really tailor our dances to certain events. We’ll always try to get a remix in there if we think it will work, or the audience is going to be really up for it. You know, if they don’t mind foghorn or two and a drum and bass beat [laughs].

You need to get Eliza Carthy involved, don’t you? That’s kind of what she became known for back in the 90s.

LC: Yeah! Totally up for that collaboration.

You heard it here first!

LC: It’s definitely something that we would like to develop further.

Morris dancing feels to me a bit like an old knitting pattern for a really smart Aran jumper.

Alex Merry, Boss Morris

Given that your dances were collected in and around Stroud, do you feel a connection there with the dancers of the past? I certainly feel it when I’m singing traditional songs – a tangible sense of singing the songs that thousands have sung in the past. It’s that kind of egoless thing: it’s not about you, it’s about the song or the tune. Do you ever feel that yourselves with dancing?

AM: I kind of do, yeah. I don’t think it’s quite as intense as singing a lyric or a song. I think that’s possibly a more intense connection. I’m not sure, but Morris dancing feels to me a bit like an old knitting pattern for a really smart Aran jumper, because the dances are made up of patterns. There’s another Morris side that my parents sometimes dance with and they actually go to the villages where the dances were collected. They’ll do a set of Oddington dances in Oddington, outside the local pub. That would be a lovely thing to do, which we haven’t actually done as Boss Morris yet.

LC: I think this is my personal interest when it comes to looking at any of the creative arts, but if you can find a way of relating it to you, or where you’re from, it has way more resonance. I’ve lived in Stoud for 11 years or so, but the fact that I know that we’re dancing these dances that I’ve seen in really sketchy black and white films – I really like that connection. And I like the fact that we draw on influences that relate to where we’re from. It gives it a real sense of relevance. I guess it grounds us, as well, when we’re doing new things with it – taking it leftfield, or whatever. It definitely makes it more interesting for me when you do a bit of research into a dance and you find that it’s from the village you grew up in. I really like finding those connections. I think a lot of people do.

One of my favorite folk descriptions is that traditional songs are, “songs with a postcode”. There’s something wonderful about that. It sends shivers down my spine.

AM: Oh, wow! Yeah!

LC: I think we all do it in one way or another. I think people are always looking for connections or coincidences. It’s just a way of feeling connected to something, isn’t it?

It really is. Do you feel connected to the folk scene in general, or do you see yourself as being something a little bit outside of it? A little bit different?

LC: Both.

AM: I think you can definitely be both.

We kind of live Morris. It’s something we do, rather than look at it from the outside, observing it as a tradition.

Lily Cheetham, Boss Morris

You obviously get invited to dance at places like Sidmouth Folk Festival, but you’ve also mentioned other festivals. Where have you been invited to dance that, say, a traditional Morris side might not find themselves?

LC: Glastonbury Festival?

AM: We get all kinds of very strange invites. It’s very random and very surprising.

LC: A networking event in Bath for graphic designers, or the local bowls club [laughs].

AM: The art scene. We’re due to do a hop with the Tate in Liverpool. I think that’s a really exciting crossover. It’s called Radical Landscapes, and it looks amazing. It’s happening in May. We just did an interview for their catalogue.

LC: It was interesting to suddenly be in the position where we were asked, in quite an academic, Artspeak sort of way, to comment about traditions and what we do and the relationship between these dances and the land. That was a bit of a shock to us. I think we talk about a lot of these things quite informally and, I’ll say it again, organically. And then suddenly, in an environment like the Tate Liverpool, you’re kind of talking about it, I don’t know, from a more slightly voyeuristic perspective. We kind of live Morris. It’s something we do, rather than look at it from the outside, observing it as a tradition.

AM: We live the traditions. We almost don’t want to talk about them too much.

LC: We don’t really want to intellectualise it.

AM: We were on Women’s Hour. That was good, but also terrifying. I’m much better at Morris dancing than I am at stringing a sentence together [laughs].

LC: That’s a good thing. That’s the right way around.

Tell me a bit about the beasts. How do the beasts fit into the world of Morris?

AM: I think beasts predate Morris dancing, from the little that I know about it. I think it’s a very old tradition. When I was first getting into Morris dancing, I would make a beeline for any beast that was at any event. I totally fell in love with all these weird hobby horses and strange goggly-eyed clacky things on the sidelines.

I made Ewegenie, our big sheep, quite early on, just because I was desperate to have a go at making one. With The Belles of London City, I had a go at making Betley, their horse, but Ewegenie was for Stroud Fringe Festival, so I made a big sheep as a kind of emblem of Strowd, really, because of the wool trade. That was with the help of Steve Rowley again, as he’s a brilliant expert on it. We all really love the beasts, so everybody has been involved. We’ve had the most amazing characters pop up. People would just make one in their kitchen, and they’d be like, “Um, here’s a giant owl”.

That owl is amazing.

LC: I always feel like the beasts really add to our presence at a performance. Obviously, with the Boss Morris side, we try and get as many people out when we’re performing, but the beasts tend to be some of our partners or our plus-ones or whatever [laughs]. And obviously, if any kids are around then they all end up in the middle of the dances. It helps make it an interactive thing, doesn’t it? Sometimes there’ll be an interlude in the dancing, so we introduce a beast and they do a little jig of their own. It’s just another facet that makes it look even more interesting, rather than just being straight dancing all the time.

How many beasts do you have at the moment?

AM: I think we’ve got maybe five or six.

Do they get their own bus?

AM: That would be amazing! [Laughs] All of them on the bus! I was saying recently, I wish I’d put little trackers on these beasts because they have been everywhere. They’ve been on film shoots, they’ve been to people’s weddings, to festivals… One of them flew to Italy! They do feel like part of the family, don’t they? They’ve all got funny names. A beast will appear and then someone names it, often Josie’s little girl, Mary. One of them is called Sweet Red Onion.

Which one is Sweet Red Onion?

AM: She’s the big sulky Boss face. She’s always furious. Absolutely livid [laughs].

LC: You should see Alex driving around Stroud in her old estate car. There are usually a couple of beasts living in the back. You’ll see Ewegenie riding around [laughs]. We’ll go to certain gigs and there are five beasts shoved in the back, with half-dressed Morris dancers in the front. It’s quite a sight.

When you’re looking at other traditional events and customs that still thrive in this country, which ones do you admire? Which ones get you excited?

AM: I love all the traditional events that go on. I love the Burryman. We danced at Ben Edge’s exhibition. It was so exciting. I feel so passionate about these amazing rituals and traditions up and down the country. I’m in awe of them. I’m majorly inspired by the Saddleworth Rushcart. How about you, Lily?

LC: I don’t know if I know enough about certain traditions and the people behind them, but what I like about a lot of those traditions is that many are quite ridiculous. I bought a map the other day and it had all the weird ritualistic stuff people do around the UK, like wife-carrying races and races. I like the ridiculousness of it. I don’t know. I think it just takes people out of themselves a little bit. And every tradition or craft has its own language, doesn’t it? When Alex and I did a weaving workshop at Rhia’s Weven shop, she used all these old words I’d never heard of that have a very specific definition of what you’re doing.

Yes. Just to get into traditional folk music, you have to understand what a collector is. You have to understand what a source singer is. You have to know what a Roud number is. And you can’t assume that everyone knows. When I start my gigs, I always check. Not everyone will know what I’m talking about. I explain, very quickly, so they can keep up with the stuff I talk about between songs.

LC: It’s about giving it a broader appeal.

Yeah, absolutely. I wonder, do you feel that there’s a growing interest in traditions again? And if so, why do you think that might be? Alex is nodding very vigorously…

LC: We talked a little bit about this when we were doing the interview for the Tate Liverpool thing. I think COVID has really made people think about the connection they have with the place they’re in, especially if they live in a city. Suddenly, people weren’t allowed to go out and have that right to outdoor space, especially people that live in a high-rise flat. The fact that a lot of people have moved out of cities as a result of it, I think, suggests that people are thinking a bit more about what they’ve got and where they are. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just having had that time out from life to evaluate what’s important. We talk a lot about our traditions and how they are so closely related to the place you exist in.

People have been isolated in the last couple of years, and they’re definitely looking at this differently.

Lily Cheetham, Boss Morris

I just feel like it’s a good time. And I think, sometimes, when times are hard or you face uncertainty, people look for different things politically. For example, if the economy is bad, people will vote for someone who’s perhaps a bit extreme. I think it just feels like a time when people are looking at things differently. And, as we said earlier, I think it often comes down to connection – finding a connection with something that identifies you, or the people around you. I never wanted to start Morris dancing, and certainly never imagined it would become this really broad thing. But people have been isolated in the last couple of years, and they’re definitely looking at this differently.

Gareth Iwan Jones took this photo of Lilly Cheetham, a Boss Morris founder member, dressed in makeup and modernised smock.
Lilly Cheetham of Boss Morris. Photo credit: Gareth Iwan Jones

AM: Just from setting up Boss Morris, it feels like we’ve set up a mini-community. We can connect locally, but also globally as well. It’s part of something that people are looking for at the moment. And it’s free! You don’t have to pay to do all of this. You get the most amazing satisfaction from being out in nature and dancing with your friends. You can’t buy that.

LC: I think it relates to everything. Even climate change.

In what way, do you think?

LC: Well, how do I explain it? I’m not the most articulate person.

Give it a go. It’s something that Ben Edge said when I interviewed him. I’m really interested in how people are making these connections.

LC: Well, the more I think about it, climate change is linked to the way we consume things, and the way we consume things has resulted in a loss of connection with how things are made, how people exist. We’re so far from the root of a product that you buy in a shop that it loses meaning. And I think traditions and things like Morris dancing really bring that back, that connectedness. The relationship these traditions have to the land – our dancing and our singing of traditional folk songs – are so closely related to identity. Maybe, having had a couple of years to think about that stuff, and being isolated, and not having those things that usually preoccupy us and keep us busy all the time, people are thinking more about the fundamental things in life. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. And I think, if you can encourage people to think about how they live and get them doing much more simplistic things like dancing and singing – those things that relate to places and being and identity – it all ties in.

Quite a lot of Morris dances are seasonal, aren’t they? They’re related to the wheel of the year; the turning of the year. I hate the word because it’s so overused, but these traditions encourage you into that ‘mindful’ state – being aware of what’s immediately around you.

LC: And that goes back to how you eat – eating things that are more seasonal. Don’t take more than you need. That kind of sustainability. It’s really profound. Even watching The Green Planet and seeing how trees all talk to each other and tell each other what’s going on. It’s that interconnectedness thing. I really do think it’s all related.

When I was out touring last week, somebody came up to me after a gig and said, “I’d never considered this before because I’m not particularly into traditional stuff, but while I was listening to your concert, I realized that you’re talking about a kind of cultural mycelium.”

AM: Yes! That should be a Morris side: Mycelium Morris.

LC: Yeah, and it’s connected to things like indigenous knowledge. I think people will start to look at that as being just as valuable as clear, scientific fact. There are things you can’t always explain. That’s where folk stories come in and seasonal living. It kind of mystifies it again a bit, rather than just focusing on bare facts and data – things I feel we’ve come to rely on a bit too much.

I know quite a number of people who seem to be really inspired by what you’re doing and want to take it up themselves. How do they go about it?

AM: Ask around your local area and see if there are any existing sides and kind of quiz them. Maybe think about starting something up yourself. There’s nothing really stopping you. You just need a teacher and someone to help you set up the main structure of it.

I suppose that’s where EFDSS comes into play. They might be able to help you find a teacher.

AM: Yeah. That’s such a great resource. And there are things like Morris Team Finder online. You type in your postcode and it’ll give you the nearest Morris side.

And how do people catch up with Boss Morris this year? What events have you got planned?

We’ve got Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire on May Day. They’re putting on a huge Beltane event that we’ll be dancing at. And we’ve got our own Spring Festival in the planning.

LC: I think we might be dancing at Saddleworth Rushcart, too.

AM: Then there’s May in a Day at Cecil Sharp House. That’s May 7th. We’ll be doing a performance and some workshops as well. It’ll be lush to go back to Cecil Sharp House and for all the girls to see it.

For more information on Boss Morris, head to bossmorris.com, or follow them on Instagram.