Numbers aren’t everything

Like any Morris side, Red Cuthbert’s membership size varies from year to year. When it goes up, we feel like good; when it drops, we worry and ask “what are we doing wrong?”

This came to mind when recently when I was reading a Facebook discussion about Northumbrian smallpiping’s lowest ebb. In the second half of the 19th century and first half of the twentieth, there were probably fewer than 100 players of the Northumbrian smallpipes at any given time based on known pipers and sets of pipes from the period – and it is claimed (though I’m not sure on what grounds) that at one point there were only two pipers left (and that they weren’t on speaking terms!).

One comment in the discussion was that there’s a long-lasting belief that because there aren’t a lot of players there is an imminent risk of the instrument dying out, so something must be done to save it. That is something that may sound familiar in the context of Morris dancing – whether because a side has shrunk this year, because there’s been another “silly season” newspaper story about the tradition being at risk, or a when a couple of times recently far-right groups have proposed they join to “save” the tradition that they think won’t survive without them (and drag its ethos away from the inclusiveness that is such a key part of it, and grows every year).

But the tradition doesn’t need saving, and isn’t dying out. Morris dancing doesn’t have the mass appeal of football that sees everyone doing it as a child (though it has featured on Top of the Pops). It does appeal to enough people though, and there’s no reason why it won’t continue to do so – whether they’re into folk music, are drawn into it by friends for the social side, or just think it looks fun (it is, you should try it!).

We shouldn’t expect Morris to have universal appeal any more than we’d expect absolutely everyone to enjoy experimental jazz music (sorry, when does the music start?).

That’s not to say we shouldn’t make an effort, of course, but we needn’t have unrealistic expectations. A newspaper article from the mid-eighties (again spotted in a Facebook group), the Morris Federation and Open Morris had about 200 sides between them. I haven’t been able to find a number for the Morris Ring at that time, though with patience it could probably be worked out from their Morris Ring Member and Associate Side Formation Dates webpage: glancing over it I guess there could have been at least the same again, but not more than twice as many (i.e. 200-400), giving a total of 400-600 sides dancing in the UK in the mid-1980s.

Today, an online Morris Dance Database lists almost 900 sides in the UK. That doesn’t sound like we are doing badly.

Oh, and to come back to the start point, nor are the Northumbrian smallpipes. In the last forty years over 4,000 sets of pipes are thought to have been made and today the Northumbrian Pipers’ Society has almost 1,000 members – though membership isn’t universal. That’s not doing badly, from a reputed low of two players, and we’ve a way to go before we need think that the smallpiping tradition or Morris dancing is really “in danger”.

So once we’re able to, we’ll be out dancing again, doing what we love. Along the way we’ll pick up the odd member, while from time to time someone will drift away, and that’s what happens. We expect to still be here in some years, and whether or not our side is still here in Bedford, Morris dancing certainly will be.

Blast from the past #1 – Red Cuthbert’s first dance out: The Three Cups, 20 September 2012

During lockdown our roving reporter interviewed (okay, swapped emails from home with!) one of the original members about the side’s first public appearance. It was a September evening at one of Bedford’s finest pubs. What they found out is preserved here for posterity…

The side was formed in the spring of 2012, and first danced out that autumn. Could you tell me about the time in-between? It must have been busy finding somewhere to practice, learning and writing dances, recruiting enough dancers and musicians? How long was there between starting the side and that first performance?

We did our very first practice, 5 of us, on a patio on Friday 13th April 2012, an all-round Good Friday. We were wanting to see if it would be possible to start our own side, especially changing dances written for 6 people down to 4. We found quite quickly that we could adjust them especially once we’d invented the teardrop hey in that first session (adaptation of the Adderbury hey from 6 to 4 people).

Red Cuthbert dancing at their first gig
A six person dance being performed by four

We looked at different practice venues but found St Cuthbert’s Hall pretty quickly. We spent some time faffing with other practicalities, but once JB (seasoned Morris Man and county supplier of seasoned sticks!) had furnished us with some old sticks he had lying around, we were up and running.

When was the first dance out decided? How did you pick the time and place? There are a lot of good pubs in Bedford, was it a controversial decision to go to the Three Cups?

We ended up at The Three Cups by serendipity, like most of Red Cuthbert’s fortune. We finished our first practice, decided to go for a drink so walked down Newnham Street. The Castle looked a bit full that day so we carried on to The Three Cups. They’ve been welcoming to us ever since! We did quite a few practices, every other week for the first year or so, but soon decided we needed an aim so booked the first dance out for the September. That made a big difference to our practices – we were focussed on getting ourselves presentable.

Red Cuthbert posing in the pub after their first dance out

How big was the side? Some of the photos show dances for four, but there is a fair sized band in others as well as you and another dancer taking photos…

We started with 5 of us who had Morris danced before and quickly gained a 6th experienced dancer. By the time we did the first dance out we had also enlisted 2 friends new to Morris – one dancer and one musician as well as taking in a Folk musician who was new to these parts and was found wandering in The Three Cups.

Red Cuthbert’s musicians

So, how did it go? Do you remember a favourite moment?

Cake is often a feature of Red Cuthbert’s morris activities

It’s difficult to remember back to that first dance out now. I definitely remember a festive and excited feel.

S—- made a black and red cake (no mean feat, not sure how much food colouring went into that). It was a little chilly outside, although not for the dancers!

I can probably guess some of the dances from the photographs, do you know what the set list was?

I know we danced Bluebells (Adderbury), Vandals (Lichfield), plus there’s one photo that looks like we’re about to dance the Upton-Upon-Severn Stick Dance (Chingford tradition, for the precision Morris connoisseur) all adapted for 4 but I couldn’t tell you what other dances we had in the set at that point.

Red Cuthbert performing The Vandals of Hammerwich at their first dance out

An uncertain dance at Red Cuthbert’s first public performance. It’s probably the start of the “morris” figure that begins the Upton Upon Severn (Chingford) stick dance?

We felt from the beginning that we wanted to do a mix of traditional Morris dances (Cotswold and Border) but also keep it as a live tradition by adding dances we made up. I’m can’t remember if we had any ready by the time we did this first dance out – if we did it may well have been the Cuthbert’s Brawl to the tune of The Bear.

This definitely looks like the start of “Cuthbert’s Brawl”, a new morris dance written by the side

What was the audience like? How did they enjoy it?

We had great support from friends and punters at the pub. I don’t believe any of them watching were familiar with Morris, but we took their compliments all the same.

Anyway, what happened next? Were there “lessons learned” from the first gig?

We learnt a lot from that first dance out. Mainly that having a dance out to work towards makes all the difference to practice. But another lesson that we’ve taken with us since is that it takes a long time to face paint on every side member and no matter what you do, face paint will always run off M—‘s face.

Red Cuthbert’s Original Costume

It’s May 2020, and no-one’s going anywhere thanks to Covid-19, so we’ve been updating our website and as part of that have added a Blog to it. When we’re able to start practicing and dancing out again back to normal we’ll be writing about that.In the meantime, we’ll be posting about the side more generally.

Red Cuthbert in Bath for the Morris Federation Day of Dance, September 2015

When we started out in 2012 Red Cuthbert’s original costume (usually referred to as “kit”) was a fairly traditional outfit that would more-or-less fit in with both Cotswold and Border styles.

This was made up of a black skirt or trousers (officially not jeans!), shoes and waistcoat, and a smart red shirt. A black bowler hat topped it off, with a set of sixteen bells worn just below each knee.

 

Though Cotswold Morris sides stereotypically wear white shirts and trousers, with baldrics across the body, waistcoats aren’t uncommon being worn by sides such as the long established Aldbury Morris Men or the more local to Bedford Golden Hare Morris.

Red Cuthbert dancing at the Morris Federation Day of Dance in Nottingham,  September 2016

 

At the same time, the waistcoat-and-bowler-hat approach wouldn’t be out of place for traditional Border Morris though (as with Red Cuthbert) there is a general drift from waistcoats to more definitively “Border” rag coats – a few years ago Pretty Grim Border Morris were wearing waistcoats but now like us they’re in rags.

 

 

Over time this started to evolve, with T-shirts sneaking in at sweltering pub dance outs and the odd pair of jeans starting to appear. Ultimately we recognised this, and decided to have two versions of the kit: “full kit” as per the original spec and a more relaxed “summer kit” that wouldn’t be quite as hot.

Though we now tend to dress a little differently (and will write about that in a while), the original kit remains the base for what we wear and is a handy go-to that means if one of us forgets our rag coat we don’t look too out of place!

Red Cuthbert in summer kit at Ely Eel Day, May 2018