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Laurel Swift morris dancing in Bristol, 2011, wearing a red t-shirt and faded blue jeans.
Laurel Swift morris dancing in Bristol, 2011. Photo credit: Ian A. Anderson

Laurel Swift and the roots of the new morris revival

With morris dancing very definitely on the rise again, Alex Merry and Ian A. Anderson celebrate Laurel Swift, the force of energy who set the latest revival in motion more than a decade ago.

Laurel Swift may be a name that many long-time folk aficionados are aware of in England, but for those coming to the morris tradition brand new – possibly off the back of the recent Boss Morris appearance with Wet Leg at the Brits – she may well be unknown. In this article, Alex Merry (the leader of Boss Morris) and Ian A. Anderson (founder and former editor of fRoots magazine) discuss the influence Laurel has had. As Alex told Tradfolk recently, “no Laurel, no Boss”.

You know that whatever Laurel touches turns to morris gold.

Alex Merry

“I first met Laurel Swift many moons ago, when I was living in London and just starting to connect with the English folk scene. I was regularly hopping over to Cecil Sharp House to see gigs, visit the library and take part in their weekly morris dancing class. It feels like Laurel’s name was mentioned as soon as I picked up a pair of hankies, as someone who was doing exciting things in the world of morris.

“I recently had a look back through some old messages and I think we may have crossed paths for the first time at the Mary Neal Day in 2009, which feels wonderfully apt. She’s always been well ahead of the game and has pushed the boundaries of what morris dancing can be in the most inventive and creative ways. Her various projects over the years have been truly inspirational and I’m in awe of the way she can create patterns, shapes and new forms using the traditional steps. I’ve been so fortunate to have danced with her in various projects over the years and it’s always been mind-expanding stuff, deepening my appreciation of this dance form.

“We’ve been so lucky to have collaborated and developed new Boss Morris dances with her and it’s always such a booster for us and our repertoire of dances to have Laurel’s expert tutorship and creativity. She’s someone to be really championed, and you know that whatever Laurel touches turns to morris gold.”

Alex Merry, Boss Morris, 2023

Boss Morris rehearsing in Stroud, March 2023, with Laurel Swift at the helm.

Not for Resting

The following article was written and published by Ian A. Anderson in the 341st edition of fRoots, back in 2011. We reproduce it here with his kind permission.

There are many people, young and old, to whom the currently vibrant English folk scene owes a lot. But in my book the one who ought to be out in front of the queue when they hand out the awards is an infectious bundle of mass-enthusing energy called Laurel Swift.

She’s been mentioned in plenty of despatches in these pages [fRoots] before – for her activities with Morris Offspring, the Gloworms, Shooting Roots, Gadarene, winning morris jig competitions at Sidmouth Folk Festival, turning actors into dancers for Morris, A Life With Bells On and, just last month, her extraordinary Must Come Down transatlantic dance project. So if I can just pin her down for half an hour and prevent her from boinging around like Tigger in a young woman’s body, maybe I can get the whole picture out of her before she exhausts me!

Still only in her early 30s, Laurel was a child of folk-involved parents. “They got into folk in London in the ’70s and then moved to Lincolnshire just before I was born. They ended up getting involved with Kesteven Morris and Mum was the technical officer of the Morris Federation for about 20 years. We went to Sidmouth from when we were kids… though my earliest memories are really from when I was about 10. Me and my brother and Mikey and Kat Radford, we were always in Morris Minors together and we were always the best team, the only one that did it properly in our eyes!”

Laurel and Mikey Radford eventually won the double jig competition at Sidmouth in 2004, repeating that in 2006 when Laurel won the solo jig prize as well.

Somewhere in the late 1990s, what turned into Shooting Roots was seeded at Sidmouth. Before that there’d just been an EFDSS organisation for kids called The Hobby Horse Club. With the upswing in the number of young performers on the folk scene, somebody had the lightbulb idea that people of teenage and student years would prefer workshops where they could be tutored by their own age group.

“The Hobby Horse Club was for kids up to 10 or 11. It was fun, but definitely kids’ stuff. And then there was a trial of something for teenagers… Sandra Kerr ran it. There was a band and there were 12 of us. The following year they decided that young people running stuff for young people was the way forward. They got Karenza Wragg, Jenny Shotliff and Tim Van Eyken, but I think the name was Tim’s. So that was the first Shooting Roots thing.”

We wanted to be part of something, but we wanted to shape what it was we were part of.

Laurel Swift

“That ran for a couple of years and various people started coming in and different people started taking it over. Me and Belinda Jones went to it and didn’t like it… We didn’t get it. We wanted to be part of something, but we wanted to shape what it was we were part of. So we offered the following year and ran some song stuff. And it just kind of built from there. We got somebody else to take on the song stuff and I was like ‘I want to run some theatre stuff’. I kept running stuff I didn’t know anything about! It expanded quite quickly.”

“What we started finding with Shooting Roots was that people were hitting 14 or 15 and were given the choice to stay at home with their friends rather than go to Sidmouth, but instead they were choosing to bring a couple of their friends to Sidmouth, so we were suddenly tripling the number of young people at the festival. And we were also booking, by that time, about 40 young tutors and we were booking a lot of young bands.”

What does she think brought about this explosion in numbers?

“I think the kids of the revival had just got to the age where they were teenagers and there were enough of them that it was fun to hang out with. There were various festivals, particularly Sidmouth, doing a lot to encourage them. Also, the oldest kids of the revival had just reached that age where they could become performers, and the festivals and clubs were really lapping them up and giving them opportunities. Eliza Carthy was right at the front of it. A couple of years behind her were like John Spiers & Jon Boden, Tim Van Eyken, me and just lots of people. And FolkWorks had been running for about ten years by then and people who had got into that were good enough performers.”

By the turn of the century, Laurel was in charge of Shooting Roots at Sidmouth. Then it expanded to other festivals.

“In 2002 we also started at Towersey, Broadstairs and Chippenham. At Broadstairs – I said to them when we started that the first year at Sidmouth we only had 12 young people, and they were like, ‘we’re never going to get 12 young people at Broadstairs’, and last year the Pavilion, which is one of their biggest indoor spaces, we must have had three times the legal limit of people in there. So many kids and so many parents, more than they ever thought they’d get. That was really good.”

Shooting Roots stopped for a while at Sidmouth, when the festival imploded after Mrs Casey Music pulled out of organising it in 2004, But they became a bigger constituent of Towersey instead, with their own dedicated venue, The Hive. Laurel finally handed over the reins last year – it’s a standing joke that it took three people to replace her.

One of Laurel’s next great ideas was the brilliant, young, energetic Morris Offspring. How did that come about?

“This was 2002, and there’d been this long-running fiasco because the evening shows on the Arena at Sidmouth had become more and more spectacular, with bigger bands and all the international dance teams, and for quite a long time there hadn’t been any morris shown on the evening Arena. This was a bit of a bone of contention. And then the Morris On show was on in 2002 and the dancers that they had with them were Albion Morris, who hadn’t danced for a long time and were a little bit shoddy, so there was a certain amount of disquiet. So Mum put in a proposal to do an evening Arena morris show that would feature a variety of new young teams, and asking really good existing teams to do some different stuff. So Offspring was put together through the year just to do two 10-minute pieces on the Arena. It was so exciting, so much fun.

“It was actually hard to find enough really good, really fit dancers then. I watched all the videos that I could find of the jig competition from the last five years and wrote to teams and said, ‘who is this dancer, can I get in contact?’ Basically, it was people from here, there and everywhere. But, you see, Pecsaetan hadn’t started then, Dog Rose were only just about in existence. It’s not that long ago, but in morris terms it’s a very long time ago.”

Beast action! Morris Offspring, 2004. Photo credits: Alexander Brattel/ fRoots

Offspring’s main existence culminated in a national tour in 2007 when they were even featured on BBC2’s Culture Show. “That was great but I hadn’t thought it through. OK, so you do this and then what do you do? I’d put everything into just getting the tour together and not how to build on it from there. Offspring has had a 50 percent membership turnover almost every year, so it’s quite a lot of work just to keep it all rolling. So there was that tour, then a smaller tour and I wrapped it all up and said we’re not doing this any more.”

That wasn’t quite the end though. Morris Offspring reformed to team up with Maple Morris from North America in that fabulous (and Arts Council-funded) contemporary morris spectacular staged at Cecil Sharp House back in July (2010). But that is, apparently, it. For now…

Laurel’s not just a great dancer and energiser of people though. She’s also a fiddle and bass player, notably with dance bands Gloworms, and Gadarene who recently featured on our Looking For A New England CD.

“I did music at school, and I did the school orchestra, and I really wanted to be able to play folk tunes. I didn’t really care what I could play them on, I just wanted to be able to play. But I never applied myself. It was like ‘I know the essence of it, surely I don’t have to just sit down and work on playing better.’ So the whole of this time I was running all this stuff, what I really wanted to do was be in a band, but I couldn’t actually play well enough to be able to do it.”

“Gloworms was my first proper band, the first time I did anything that was any good and that was interesting. We used to practise every week, and I learned a lot from Colin [Cotter] and Jon [Brenner]. Well, it’s our 10th anniversary this year so we must have started in 2001.”

“Gadarene is probably the first band I was asked to be in, which was nice. I’m playing bass in that. The original idea was, there are really interesting manuscript tunes from the 18th Century. Loads and loads of really lovely tunes. That was Nick Wyke and Matt Norman. They were really keen to use something like samples, and what we’ve actually ended up doing is those tunes and drums and bass, and loop pedals and stuff like that. Again, it’s just a really good musical experience.”

“One of the band was ill last year and one of them was travelling, so we’ve just finished recording a live EP and we’re about to send that to everybody. So we’ve done this summer what we planned to do the previous year which was to use the springboard of the New England stuff, record a bit more, take some photos and just tell everybody about it.”

And then there’s teaching…

“I think the way I’ve learned most, probably, is from teaching. I’ve been teaching fiddle in schools and to adults since I arrived in London around 2000. FolkWorks Summer School was quite an influence. Pete Cooper was one of the tutors, so I asked him if I could be a kind of support tutor for his fiddle class. He teaches one tune in the first hour and a different tune in the second hour, and I asked if I could take off everybody who hadn’t got the tune in the first hour and go through it with them. One of the people in the group was headmistress of a primary school and she said ‘would you come and do this in my school?’’And those sessions were chaos, but I did it and then she moved on to another school and I started doing stuff there as well…”

And so it went, one thing catalysing another, all powered by that infectious Swift energy. How on earth does she remember what she’s supposed to be doing from one day to the next?

“This is the problem. Am I a dancer or a musician, and if I’m a dancer what kind of dancer am I, a morris dancer or a clog dancer? Can you be a morris dancer on your own? Am I a fiddle player or a bass player? Why on earth do I think I need to learn to sing, if neither of the above? And actually I think the space where it all interacts is the really interesting thing.”

“The best bit of careers advice I ever had was from Bernard O’Neill. I said ‘Do you think I could be good enough to make my living from being a musician?’ And he said ‘If there’s anything else you can do you should do it. You’re only ever going to be a musician if you can’t comprehend doing anything else.’ And that’s been really good careers advice just because in the end I’ve gone ‘Well, I don’t care. That’s all I want to do. I’m going to do that because what else would I do?’”

How does she view the currently fashionable state of folk-related music among her generation, especially where it seems to cross over with nu-folk, burlesque, steampunk and beyond?

“The London scene at the minute is really interesting. The vintage scene, the alternative scene and folk is part of that other slightly wibbly-wobbly world of underground stuff. I think it’s great, and it’s exciting. Some of the times I’ve been in gigs and events and I’m wondering if this is what it was like in the ’70s. I wonder if this was the vibe of it all being a bit hand-made and… just doing it. And some of the photography and stuff as well – I wonder if this is deliberately trying to make this look off-the-wall. To me it’s just normal, it’s just what you do. You’re not going to wear your best clothes to a ceilidh because you’re just going to get sweaty and dirty. That’s where you go to meet people and to hang out and to chill out. It’s just normal life. Whereas I think there’s an, ‘Oh, I’m going to wear my slightly weird jumper because I’m going to a folk club’ attitude. There’s a difference between wearing what you wear to go out in compared to wearing something that’s definitely slightly odd because ceilidhs are slightly odd. And with the nu-folk thing I always get the feeling that people are dressing to what you should wear to go to a folk club rather than wearing what you’d wear to go out in. I think I’ve always been too individual to cope with that kind of thing. I want to wear the clothes that I really like wearing and I definitely don’t want to look the same as the person next to me, but I want to be part of it.”

So, if you were to learn how to concentrate, if you pared it down to just the few things that you loved the most and could just go for those, what would you centre on?

“Well, Gadarene is part of it. But the new project that I’m doing is working with Debs Newbold. She does storytelling magnificently, and I’m doing fiddle and bass and stuff around that. There’s dance in that as well. And then after having done Must Come Down, I think there’ll probably be more morris working its way into it. But the big question is what size to start it? Because what I’ve done before is big stuff. We did Offspring which was 12 dancers, and then we did Must Come Down which was 40 dancers. A morris set is six and you don’t want it all of the time but you want it some of the time. So you don’t want to be touring with a performing company of less than seven, because you want music and some dance at some point. I think it’s interesting to see whether it’s going to come out of Offspring or it’s going to come out of the work with Debs, but I’m headed for some kind of major touring production, that’s what I’m most interested in doing, with a sustainable-sized company. Eight – surely that’s a sustainable number of people to tour with, plus techs and lights.”

It’s often said about sports people and dancers that you’ve got a finite working life before technique and physical abilities drop off. In terms of the really fit, energetic stuff that Offspring do, how old do you get to be before you can’t do that any more?

“I think it depends on how well you look after yourself and how carefully you recover from injuries. And how much attention you pay to warming up properly. There are people in their 50s and 60s who are amazing morris dancers and get miles off the ground and keep going.”

“There are so many other things. Once you’re old enough to own a car you don’t cycle everywhere. There are all those other things that affect morris dancers anyway, like how does the rest of your life work? Where do you work, what do you do for a living? Can you actually sustain being in seven morris teams and therefore keep yourself fit enough and be in the mode all the time? EFDSS kept saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re directing this thing and performing in it!’ Why on earth would I bother to direct it if I didn’t get to perform in it? But of course, in the arts world there is this thing of are you a director or a performer, and you can’t be both, unless I guess you’re running small companies.”

At the bottom of her emails she’s described as artist-in-residence at Cecil Sharp House. What does that entail?

“That means they like what I do and they try to support me where they can. And they think I’m someone that’s a good ambassador for them. They’re willing to give me space and advice which are very welcome things.”

Oh, you can be artist-in-residence at fRoots in that case!


For more info on what Laurel Swift is up to these days, head to laurelswift.co.uk. All photography on this page by Ian A. Anderson. Video of Boss Morris and Laurel Swift dancing taken by Alex Merry.