“Morris Music – a History” by the Taborers Society

Review of the talk “Morris Music – A History”, or “Whatever did the old dead guys ever do for us?” presented by Stephen Rowley and Andy Richards of the Taborers Society on 6th March 2021.

by Dave Milner:

“This talk focused almost exclusively on what is known as Cotswold Morris and considered the history of the three hole pipe and tabor (small drum). These instruments are played together and for many years were the predominant Morris dance accompaniment. The players are known as taborers. As well as an exposition of the history of the instrument in relation to morris dancing the talk dealt with techniques for playing.  Through the techniques of the old taborers we find a specific methodology of playing for Cotswold for all instruments. In a time when the quality of morris music varies immensely, there is a significant value in understanding this methodology.

“The two presenters were enthusiastic, well prepared and knowledgable. They opened up the subject and were not afraid to give their own (considered) views on playing for dancing. The talk was illustrated with informative pictures, instruments and some playing. This all made for interesting discussions in the Q&A.

“The first section dealt with morris from its earliest known reference (1448) to the early 1800s. Stephen showed us well known depictions of taborers playing for moresk (morris) from books, windows, carvings and paintings. We saw the oldest extant pipe; played for dancing at Chipping Camden. Stephen gave examples of 18th century taborers and 19th century musicians known to have played for dance teams near the Oxford/Gloucestershire border. He described the decline in use of the pipe and tabor from the 1840s and its replacement by fiddles and reed boxed instruments by the 1880s.

“The second section considered the reasons for this decline: the lack of taborers teachers, instruments and little general use of the instruments elsewhere. Stephen view was that taborers could provide excellent dance music. He supported this with many instances where late 19th century and early 20th century informants lamented that the replacement instruments did not give the same experience. It is unfortunate that there are no known recordings of English taborers who played for morris dancing before 1920, though it is possible to discern how they might have sounded from fiddle players who are thought to have inherited some of the characteristic phrasings.

“The third section outlined the place of the tabor in the Morris revival from the 1920s. The part played by Kenworthy Scholfield and Russell Wortley in making and developing playing styles was a major theme.  Stephen discussed their different approaches (Russell an older style, staccato, less ornaments and the tabor beat on the dancers footfall, Kenworthy more flowing and even tempoed).  Reference was made to other European taboring traditions.

“In the last section the decline from the 1970s to 1990s in interest and use of taborers was noted. The setting up of the Taborers Society as a means of arresting this decline was instrumental in producing an increase in players and instrument makers.

“Finally some pointers for learning were outlined: the Taborers Society can give advice and access to various tutor books, plus their youtube channel offers instructional videos.

“35 minutes of Q&A followed, with discussion on the importance and role of the musician playing for dancing. This included illustration by Andy of various techniques. These included, fills, rolls and ornaments on the pipe and different ways to strike the tabor. The presenters both stressed the importance of emphasising the lead dancers footfall. Other topics covered included makers of instruments, different types of pipes and tabors and ways to reduce the loudness/shrillness when practising indoors.

“A very interesting and well presented talk. The c.90 people attending gained valuable historical insights and perhaps more importantly were made aware of ways that musicians using any instrument can facilitate better morris dancing.

by Dave Milner of Frome Valley Morris in Dorset, and Downes on Tour Morris of no fixed abode

Donations from participants raised money for Bowel Cancer UK: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/stephen-rowley2

For more informaton on the Taborers Society, see: http://www.pipeandtabor.org/

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