Tag Archives: folk

Review of two Rhiannon Giddens songs

I listened to the “Folk Songs” album from Kronos Quartet, partly because of the two Rhiannon Giddens songs. I was interested to know the backstory on her songs, but I got annoyed by reading reviews of these songs that seemed to miss critical pieces. The only review I could find of “Lullaby” called it “sprightly”, apparently entirely missing the point. The review I read of “Factory Girl” didn’t go into the changes Giddens made to the traditional song.

Giddens is a North Carolinian of European, African, and American Indian descent, and her music often reminds me that the white folk music traditions I’m familiar with tell only part of the region’s story.

A cuckoo is a “brood parasite” that lays its eggs in another bird’s nest. The other birds go through the trouble of feeding and protecting the young cuckoo, not realizing it’s not their own. It’s the origin of the word “cuckold” – a man who doesn’t realize he may be raising another man’s child in his nest. It appears in folk music in various contexts, most often people lamenting their false lovers.

But to hear a black woman address her young charge as “little cuckoo” is even more grimly appropriate. The child is described as blond and blue-eyed, a child the speaker cares for although “you are not my own, but I’ll nurse you til you’ve grown.”

The repetition of “go to sleepy, little baby” echoes All the Pretty Little Horses, a traditional song thought to be from the viewpoint of a black mother lulling a white child.

But what of her own child? A cuckoo doesn’t just lay its egg in another nest it pushes one egg out first. “If you see my darling girl / Treat her nice now, little baby” the speaker asks. Her voice disappears into grief before resuming the lullaby. We don’t know how many enslaved women had their children taken from them or forced into neglect so they could nurse white children. We can guess at the fears that are the flip side of the mother’s plea to “treat her nice.”

Yes, it’s sprightly. But it’s the hidden pain that makes this a gem of a song.

Factory Girl

The first few verses are traditional. I learned the song from the singing of one of my mother’s friends, and as a teenager I found the ending incomplete. A young man courts a girl on her way to work at a factory. She turns him down:

“Go find you a lady and may you do well
For I am an orphan with ne’er a relation
And besides, I’m a hard working factory girl.”

When I was younger, I expected the song might end by him forswearing his fortune or something. But that’s it, the song ends there. She doesn’t think it can ever work, and she’s probably more realistic than he is about the reception she’d get from his friends and family.

Giddens’ version has the relationship develop instead. But one day the man goes to meet her and finds the factory lying in ashes. In one introduction, Giddens refers to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire which killed 146 garment workers in 1911, and to the 2013 collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than a thousand people.

I like the twist on the traditional song. I like the attention to the working conditions this girl experiences when she’s not traipsing along the lane with her boyfriend.

But the last verse kind of spoils it for me:

“As I stood there, a whisper it did caress me
A faint scent of roses my senses begun
I lifted my face and I saw that above me
A thousand young butterflies darkened the sun.”

The girl and her coworkers haven’t turned into roses. They haven’t turned into butterflies. They have turned into ash. I find it a weird switchback after bringing the song in a grim direction, to try to patch it up with a supernatural ending.


Sociology of Morris dancing

I saw a post on an Effective Altruism board recently about group dynamics and how groups form and continue. Shortly afterward I was talking with a friend about how Morris dancing works, and thinking that Morris is actually a really interesting sort of social group.

In many ways, it functions like a sports team (members gather for practice on local teams to do an organized physical activity, then gather with other teams at larger events). Except most people only do sports in school, leading to constant turnover on sports teams. Whereas many Morris teams have the same team members for decades.

So I wrote up some things about how Morris teams work, because it may be interesting to people thinking about how groups “gel” in the first place and how they survive long-term.

This is about Morris in the US; I don’t know much about how it works in England or other countries.


Age of teams:

Morris was taught to American schoolchildren in the early 20th century, disappeared for a while, and then was re-introduced in the 1960s. The first men’s teams started in the 60s and the first mixed and women’s teams in the 70s. So most teams are between 40-0 years old. All the teams I’ve danced on have at least one member who was there at or near the beginning of the team.

Number of members:

I’ve seen teams ranging from 2 people (who danced jigs together after splitting from a larger team) to my current team which has maybe 35 people that sometimes come to practice and 15-20 people at any given practice.


There are single-gender and mixed-gender adult teams, with a few teens’ and children’s teams. Some adult teams have one or two children on them. American teams tend to attract college-educated white people with hippie-ish tendencies. The quip about contra dancers applies fairly well: “The women are all social workers, and the men are all computer programmers named Dave.” At an event when my mother was pregnant with me, she did a skit speculating which of the Bluemont Morris men might be the father: “I know he was about this tall and had dark hair and a beard . . . ” (describing my father and virtually all the other men on the team).

Teams tend to be bi-generational, with some baby boomers who have been dancing since the 70s or 80s and other members in their teens or twenties, often the children of folk dancers. I have always liked having a multi-generational group of friends; as a teenager it was refreshing to know adults who treated me as a peer.

I think most adults of my demographic don’t have a same-sex social group, and a single-sex team seems to be something that a lot of people enjoy. I heard one man describe his team as his fraternity (which, as a gay pagan hippie, he was unlikely to have had in college).


Most teams meet weekly for at least part of the year (often taking summers off). Practice usually lasts about 2 hours, with time for stretching and kvetching. Team members often gather for beer or ice cream after practice. A few teams are geographically scattered and only practice occasionally but mostly just perform a few times a year.

Teams may perform several times a year with just their team, often at festivals or events that will pay them. They likely also dance at larger gatherings of Morris dancers, called ales, several times a year. (This won’t interest non-Morris people, but I found Tony Barrand’s piece on the invention of the ale to be fascinating reading.)

Ales are celebratory weekends of performing, eating, drinking, and often camping outdoors. They aren’t officially competitive in nature, and there are no winners or prizes, but teams do make an effort to show off for each other. People who don’t come to practice all year will show up in the spring season in order to get ready for ales and other events where they’ll dance with other teams. More on why ales are fun.

Socializing outside dance events:

Teams may gather for social events (potlucks, “drinking practice” at a bar) aside from usual practices. They may host parties, baby showers, etc. for members. If a person wants Morris dancing at their wedding or funeral, their team or other dance friends will usually do so.

I’ll just say that when I was pregnant, I did not let my relatives throw a baby shower because that seemed like it would be awkward and weird. I did let my Morris team do a potluck dinner/shower because it sounded like fun. And it was.

How people join

People join either because they have friends who dance, they saw the team performing, or they grew up around Morris. Of the young women on my team, at least half of us have parents who were active in folk dancing.

Smaller teams that are desperate for able bodies will probably take just about anyone. Larger teams may have some sort of admission process, but I’ve never seen this actually followed.

Why people leave

Reasons I know people have left teams:

  • They broke up with their partner who was on the team
  • They were told their dancing wasn’t good enough and asked to leave
  • They didn’t want to be on a team where other people were kicked off for not dancing well enough
  • Strict attendance policies (being told off for visiting one’s mother in the hospital rather than coming to practice. Supposedly this is why the person left to found a new team altogether.)
  • Favorite team member left, feeling the team won’t be fun without them
  • Difficult to take young children with them to events (including one reportedly quit because no one would hold her baby while she went to the bathroom.)
  • Children don’t want to go to events (this is why my parents quit from when I was about 5 to about 13, at which point I wanted to dance)
  • Knee and ankle problems

And reasons for conflict within teams, even if not leading to people quitting:

  • Artistic differences (e.g. if one dancer is not dressed like the others at a performance, should we all not dance, or just go ahead? Should less-apt dancers dance at performances or be sidelined?)
  • Conflict about teaching/managing style, feeling that the leader is too controlling
  • Taking sides in conflicts between couples
  • Generally getting on each other’s nerves

Morris is physically demanding, and teams often dwindle more due to decline of physical ability to jump around than from lack of interest. But members may continue as a social unit even if they’re not dancing together. One team had enough people for seperate men’s and women’s sides in the 1980s, combined into a mixed side in the 90s, and is currently a supper club because they don’t have enough people who are well enough to dance. Another team has a rule that you never actually leave the team, and even members who no longer dance at all still join the others for beer after practice.

Schisms within a team can be very painful. People have known each other for years, and feelings get very strong. My home team splintered when I was 14, and I remember it feeling like a miniature divorce, with people not speaking to each other and long tense meetings about what to do.

Starting new teams

Reasons for founding new teams:

  • There was no team in the area
  • Existing team wouldn’t let you on it (because they had too many people, or you were of a gender/gender identity they didn’t accept)
  • Starting a mixed team because you did not like the idea of single-sex teams
  • Left your old team for some reason and still wanted to dance

Who founds new teams?

  • People who have danced on other established teams before
  • People who have gone to workshops at summer camps, etc.


A team’s leadership consists of a foreman (who teaches dances and is the arbiter of style points), a squire (who organizes events), and a bagman (treasurer). Women’s or mixed teams may call these roles “fore,” “squire”, and “bag,” rather than gendered terms. Some teams have more than one fore, each teaching different kinds of dances (e.g. Catherine teaches Adderbury dances and Cora teaches Fieldtown).


Team members usually pay dues to cover the cost of practice space.  Events such as ales charge for food and lodging. Musicians are not normally paid unless a team’s usual musician is unavailable and they need the services of another musician – in which case the musician’s travel, food, and drink costs would be covered by the team.

Relationships outside the team

Most Morris dancers do not have partners who are also Morris dancers. More often partners either aren’t interested at all, or come along for social events such as ales. In the early days of American Morris, it was still very much a men’s event and women and children were sometimes made to feel unwelcome. I no longer find this to be the case; particularly as they’ve now seen a second generation of dancers join, I find people are excited about me bringing my daughter to events (often with stories about their child’s first night camping at an ale, or the cute Morris imitations their three-year-old used to do).

early morris

My parents preparing to dance, early 90s



Tradition gone bad

Yesterday at a family gathering, people were flipping through a songbook and began to sing “Sleep, Kentucky Babe.”

Various people were dismayed by various parts of the song—some by the second verse, which threatens the wakeful child with being snatched by the bogeyman, but mostly by the 1890s minstrel-show feel of the language.

’Skeeters am a hummin’ on de honeysuckle vine,—
Sleep, Kentucky Babe!
Sandman am a comin’ to dis little coon of mine,—
Sleep, Kentucky Babe!
Silv’ry moon am shinin’ in de heabens up above,
Bobolink am pinin’ fo’ his little lady love:
Yo’ is mighty lucky,
Babe of old Kentucky,—
Close yo’ eyes in sleep.

The version in our songbook was considerably cleaned up from the original, but still pretty bad. I understand people’s attachment to songs from their childhood, especially ones they learned from their parents.  But does it really fix things to change “Lay yo’ kinky, woolly head on yo’ mammy’s breast” to “Lay your little curly head on your mama’s breast”?

A similarly awkward piece of my childhood is the book “Little Black Sambo.” White people love to complain that this cherished piece of their childhood has been taken away by political correctness.

It seems likely that Helen Bannerman’s original 1899 book was about a Tamil or South Indian child, since she traveled in India (and since tigers live there). But the names “black Sambo,” “black Mumbo,” and “black Jumbo,” combined with the illustrations, seem more American than Tamil:

sambo's family

The actual story has nothing wrong with it; it’s essentially about dealing with bullies. A young boy with a fine new outfit goes for a walk. He meets a series of tigers that want to eat him, but he bribes each of them with a piece of his clothing and praises their fancy clothes. The vain tigers argue about who is the grandest tiger in the jungle, and their fight becomes so heated that they melt into a puddle of butter. The boy collects his clothes and the butter, and when he goes home his mother makes pancakes.

Various modern authors have tried to rehabilitate the story—one returns it to India, while another sets it in the American South. But after 115 years as “Little Black Sambo” with illustrations like the above, there’s really no going back.

American Morris dancers find it easy to see that English Morris dancers should not wear blackface, but English dancers find this harder to see and tend to bring up explanations about it representing chimney sweeps or coal miners. To someone more removed from the tradition, it’s pretty clear that when your costume offends lots of people, you should change it rather than insisting they’re wrong to be offended. Be pragmatic.

I thought about this kind of thing a lot when Jeff and I were considering adopting a child from foster care. Our child could have been from any race, and I started to realize how few of the books, stories, songs, movies, etc. from my childhood showed children of color in any positive way. Now that we have a white child, I could delay thinking about it until she’s older, raising her on the same mostly white media I loved. I could try to salvage the beautiful melody of “Kentucky Babe” or the plotline of “Sambo.”

But what happens if she grows up to have a partner of a different race and multiracial children? Do I want to pass the buck to her, letting her weed out the bad old material at the same time as she’s struggling to find positive material for her children?

I’d rather Lily not have to make that editorial decision. She can encounter “Sambo” and “Kentucky Babe” when she’s older, maybe on Wikipedia. But by then they won’t have the patina of something she learned from her parents. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of good stories and songs for white children. It’s not like we have no choice but to recycle 1890s-era racism.

I love tradition. I love songs. I love books. But no song, book, or story is worth perpetuating something that’s hurtful to so many people.

(I was feeling very satisfied about this post until I remembered that I can’t imagine raising kids without watching Mary Martin in Peter Pan, despite its ludicrous depiction of American Indians. The version coming out next month may be slightly less ludicrous. I’m hoping I’ve thought of a good solution within a few years.)

Old-fashioned pleasures

I spent the weekend at a gathering of 200 or so Morris dancers doing English folkdance in the Vermont countryside. It rained and snowed. We had a great time.

And it had me thinking about why Morris is such a delightful occupation, because it doesn’t sound that fun. It’s hard to explain to people: “We wear costumes and jump up and down. We have sticks and bells.” At times during the weekend I heard dancers joking, “Why do we do this? What a stupid hobby!”

sword dancing in the rainIMG_5277

But Morris is also significantly about hedonism. At a Morris ale (a gathering) people spend perhaps 1/3 the time actually doing or watching Morris dance. The other time is spent catching up with old friends, drinking beer, eating, singing, social dancing, playing tunes, and enjoying the countryside.  People stay up until dawn singing and playing music with their friends.  (Sex is perhaps the only primal pleasure that’s underrepresented at Morris ales, due to physical exhaustion and lack of privacy. But also that ales are about large group interaction, and isolating with one other person would feel kind of wasteful.)

dancing for fun after dinnerIMG_5236

I notice a conflict between two lines of thought that I often hear: the reactionary strain says human life is pretty much as it has always been, and we’d better glean the best from the past rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. The other, progressive strain says that we can do better, and that change is good.

In some ways, progress has clearly made Morris better than it was.  The dance itself may be medieval,  but I’m very glad to be living in the 21st century.  Women weren’t really welcome in certain styles of Morris dance until the 1980s, and there was significant conflict over what their role could be. That dispute is largely past, and it’s hard for me to believe there was a time when women and children weren’t welcome at events like the one I just went to.

Toronto Women’s Sword performs in a pubIMG_5265

But it also seems that a Morris gathering taps into some things that run very deep in our mammalian heritage.  It combines things that have made people happy for a long time – socializing, showing off for their friends, physical exertion, alcohol, good food, and song.  It’s hard to beat the old-fashioned pleasures.

In the words of one favorite pub song:

Eating and drinking are so charming,
Piping and dancing there’s no harm in.
All these things we take delight in,
While we are together.

Let union be in all our hearts,
Let all our hearts be joined as one.
We’ll end the day as we begun,
We’ll end it all in pleasure.