The Witchmen began life in the early eighties, started by a couple of blokes fed up with the state of the local morris teams, their politicking, their attitudes and the general over abundance of village fetes that filled our dancing year. At this time women were not encouraged to participate in the noble art of the Morris, in fact they were vigorously discouraged, even from playing the music! This didn't stop them at all and a good proportion of the male sides eventually accepted them. The rest just huffed and puffed, and still do to this very day.
There was the usual cross-section of Morris teams in our fair county of Northamptonshire: several Northwest sides - Rose and Castle (men), Polyalbion and Maids of the Mill (women), a men's rapper side at Kettering and a few men's Cotswold sides. Of these, apart from Northampton Morris and the gentlemen of Brackley, there were no other teams worthy of a mention.
After some time spent with Northampton, I rose to the dizzy heights of Squire/Foreman, where my arduous instructionals and teaching ability soon made them the leading lights in the county, a status they kept for several years.
Unfortunately team politics and savage disagreements caused me to withdraw, somewhat, and take a back seat.
I decided to let them do as they wished....... I became the tea boy!!
A .G.M.s occurred every year and became more and more venomous, so it was referred to as the night of the long knives where everyone let rip. Things became very heavy.
It culminated in a meeting at my house when several members proposed a new team to dance the Border Morris - a vague tradition from the Welsh Border Counties. "Border - Don't you mean boring?". I'd seen the border danced by Cotswold teams - the word 'fairies' springs to mind. But I also saw possibilities; at least it meant severing my ties whilst remaining in the dance.
We wanted more from a performance instead of going through the motions each time. We wanted something that sparked. And so the Witchmen were born - dancing traditional border dances plus a few of my self-penned ones. Apart from Morris Ring teams that danced border as a party piece, to show that they could, there were only five border teams in existence and these were restricted to Shropshire and Worcestershire. So it seemed pretty unusual to our locals when we finally let rip!
We started with eight dancers who were technically very good. Alas and alack, these bods lacked the soul that would be necessary in the coming years. My thoughts were to get back to a more basic form of dance; border was ideal for a start but we needed something more exciting. It took constant research and continual adjustment until we arrived at the Witchmen you see today.
Notation was pretty sparse in the eighties. Historians considered border to be a degenerate form of the Cotswold Morris tradition and not the separate and earlier form that we now know it to be. But I did all I could to amass any details relevant. A very friendly chap by name of Dave Jones, of Ledbury way, had done lots of private research on the subject for his team of Silurian and prior to publishing his book "The Roots of Welsh Border Morris" sent me reams of notes and info to get us off the ground. In later years, before he died, I was able to take part in his workshops - he was a great help.
The name we chose came upon us by chance really, a passage in a book on old Northamptonshire, referred to a motley band of mummers or guisers who used to perform around the Cambridgeshire border in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The "Witchmen" seemed an ideal name, especially considering where we are now. Our top hats were decked with feathers and FLOWERS! They looked fine but I still look back at them with horror. I guess we were still learning.
Black and amber rag waistcoats were chosen, amber socks, and then everything else was the blackest black. Black faces too to conceal our identities. Clothed in the Witches' colours, we were an awesome sight to behold.
We danced out for the first time in front of most of the local Northants sides, men's and women's by now, at a St. George's Night do. Nervous? Not 'arf! Our first dance was to the figures from the second dance. Confused? Yes so were we. But the night progressed and we settled down, then we began to realise just what we had unleashed upon our unsuspecting public. Needless to say, quite a few noses were put out of joint. After all, this wasn't Morris, was it? The audience loved it, they were enthralled, especially the women. Was it our virile dancing, or was it the way we handled our sticks? Who knows, it just felt good.
As we danced thru' the years we gradually lost the Cotswold element and a lot of the original members drifted back to "normal" teams, to be replaced by people attracted by our spectacle. It had an impact on our style but for the better. After all, I believe that ritual dancers of old were common or garden folk and not members of the Royal Ballet Company! What you see now is about 20 years of evolution. The hats are wilder (we've lost the foliage), the rag waistcoats are now tattered (yes, there is a difference) and the team has a positively aboriginal look......Well - we like to think so!
We now perform all our own dances, penned by yours truly. We've dropped the Border tag - we are now exponents of the 'other' morris, although for want of a better label, still a border team.
Our repertoire is ten dances and a variable processional that changes each time we do it, and is a blasted headache to arrange. So it isn't performed very often.
We dance to a band of women musicians, and Jon the Drummer. Our band is regarded as hot, but don't tell them this, or they'll want paying. We rely on a good percussion section led by a melodeon / concertina partnership, and a dance set of six or eight with marginal ability to know left from right and count to four. It seems to work fine.
During our years we've had many an extrovert join, from a giant trombonist who always got lost and legless, to an old git that drank rocket fuel at teatime - half a tumbler of gin topped up with Vermouth plus an olive - three glasses per session.
Today the team is made up mostly of couples. We have me and Luke (son), big Phil, Pete the feet, Martin and Alan (an original - yes he's that old). Musicians are Linda (main melodeon), Ruth (concertina), Fran, and Kala (hitting and shaking things) and honorary grandson William doing his own thing on the djembe. Did I mention Jon the Drum? He's the cool looking dude playing African drum - he's also the team tart. The tart's wife is Mezzari who plays yet another drum in the band. Mez has also taken part in the dancing as Bob or Barbara, depending on which story I'm telling.
I teach Border Morris at workshops whenever I'm asked to, either the traditional dances or ancient Witchmen ones. I take pride in the quality of our dances. I take a lot of trouble to mesh dance with tune to make it hum. A good dance with an unsuitable tune means a mediocre dance. Tune and dance must compliment each other. Each of our dark dances took at least twelve months to sort out; one took two years. These dances are unlikely to be taught at my workshops, so I'd be interested to know of any teams professing to dance them. Here's watching YOU!
We've been called the Motorhead of Morris, the Business, awesome, sex on legs (that still makes me chuckle - and ache), mad parrots and the Guinness Fairies. We seem to attract tags wherever we go. We were called "ungodly!" in the local rag, by the Wisbech Jehovah's, forty-eight hours before we'd arrived there - our reputation no doubt having winged its way to the Fens by carrier owl. These comments and others may appear on our next collectors' edition tee shirt. Then again, they may not.
It's been a long haul. We're still based at Isham Village. Our people are no longer 'local', only three couples are immediate to the area. Other members come from Kent (a couple of Maenads), Suffolk, Nott's, Berkshire, Camb's and even Yorkshire, so local events are a no-no, apart from the Lilacs pub in Isham.
We've danced at most of England's folk festivals from Warwick to Whitby, Broadstairs to Sidmouth, Ely to Belton in wildest Lincs, and numerous others. Our favourites to date are Warwick and Ely - vastly different to each other but co-ordinated by a great bunch of people that treat the dancers as they should - as artists in their own right.
We've taken part in many varied T.V. programmes and have even appeared on Thailand television. I half expect us to crop up on 'Eurotrash' one night, with a suitably bizarre commentary. We've also taken part in the concert performance of Ashley Hutchings' "Grandson of Morris On" at Sidmouth 2002. We had a really good night, but declined to take our place in the finale. I expected the stage to revolve like it used to at the end of the Sunday night palladium shows - do you get my drift? Definitely not us! We repeated this show as part of Rochester Sweeps 2003 in the Cathedral. Bless!
We are still on the look out for like-minded people to join us. We try to dance at six to eight festivals a year. So far we've succeeded and we're still going strong. Our tents are now longer and higher to accommodate bad backs and some of us have resorted to campers and caravans. Our late-night sessions are not as late as some and gin has replaced whisky. I expect it will be slippers and Horlicks presently......Nighty night.
(an earlier version of the text above appeared in the spring equinox 2003 issue of Tradition magazine)