May day Morris dancing

The Palo Alto Baylands before dawn on the first day in May is a chilly place, quiet except for a few startled shorebirds and the shuffling of feet. People gather in the parking lot, talking quietly between yawns. Later there will be revelry, laughter, and silliness, but right now they wait. And just before the sun comes up, men carrying deer horns emerge from the darkness to dance to a haunting tune in a minor key.

Abbots Brumley Horn Dance (Thaxted version)  Watercolor on Arches paper
Abbots Bromley Horn Dance (Thaxted version) Watercolor on Arches paper

This is Morris Dancing, an English style of folk dance that is very old. No one is quite sure how old it is, but evidently records dating back to the 1600s mention it. It’s almost died out several times—Cromwell and his puritans put a temporary halt to it, then the industrial revolution bled people from their culture and nearly killed it—but was revived in the early part of the 20th century. How ironic that it’s had another revival in this age of technology killing culture. In fact, it may be that technology has helped it grow (although some predict a decline),  and now Morris teams all over the world clash swords, shake bells, wave hankies, and dance to the music of accordions and fiddles. They dance to help the sun rise on May 1, a brilliant endeavor, and a happy one. Then, I believe, they go have some beer.

The dance I’ve painted here is the Thaxted version of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance.  The Thaxted version is haunting, mystical. You feel like you’ve stumbled upon some primitive rite in the midst of the megalopolis. Like an ancient god will spring from the bay mud and perhaps accept  a sacrifice as the dancers make their moves. It’s deliciously chilling and meaningful.

But the Thaxted version an after-market dance. The original, still performed in Abbots Bromley after something like 800 years, is lively, fun, and a little goofy. Danced in daylight. Lot’s of bouncy tunes. To this Yank, Monty Python springs to mind. In the best possible sense, of course.

This is a study for a larger painting I have in mind. As always, I imagine I’ll paint it many times before I get it to the place I want it to be.

If you’re up before dawn on May 1, find a Morris team near you and go help them dance up the sun.

Music from Quebec sets us dancing

Pierre-Luc Dupuis, accordion and harp player. He's seated in this sketch, but he was just about to stand up and do a little dance.
Pierre-Luc Dupuis, accordion and harp player. He's seated in this sketch, but he was just about to stand up and do a little dance.

One of the reasons we wanted to visit the Port Townsend area was because it is the home of the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, a week long fiddle extravaganza featuring workshops and performances by some of the best traditional musicians in the Americas.

Synchronicity was working in our favor this March. Centrum, the force behind Fiddle Tunes, had hosted a three-day intensive workshop on music from Quebec, and the teachers were three lads who form the group De Temps Antan. Thursday night they played for an old fashioned Québécois-style dance. I’d found out about it before hand and bought tickets. Glad I did; it was sold out.

It was fantastic. These three young men are hot musicians (and easy on the eyes too). This is high-energy music; like good rock music, it forced my feet into motion and I danced sets until I was dizzy. When I got tired of dancing I tried to draw the band, but they were in such constant motion, all I could manage were gesture drawings (tiny because all I had was a tiny note book).

Éric Beaudry was guitarist and rhythm section for the band, keeping time by stamping his feet (called foot clapping or podorhythm).
Éric Beaudry was guitarist and rhythm section for the band, keeping time by stamping his feet (called foot clapping or podorhythm).

After I came home, head still swirling with music, trying to figure out  3/2 rhythms and crooked tunes, and feet still clapping and clattering, I tried to sketch portraits of the lads based on my gesture drawings, and, to be honest, watching them on YouTube videos. I never could get André Brunet, the fiddle player right. He was in constant motion, even more than the other two musicians, and that’s saying something. The box player was fond of standing up and dancing while playing.

I’m just posting the drawings of the accordionist Pierre-Luc Dupuis (seated in this drawing) and the guitar player Éric Beaudry.

Get their cd, or better yet, keep track of where they’re playing and go see them. They’re terrific!