If I had a bucket list (and I don’t because the concept offends me), getting up at 4am on May 1 to watch the Morris men dance up the sun would have to be near the top. In Brisbane, this happens every year at the summit of Mt Coot-Tha, just as the sun begins to rise. For reasons manifold I am yet to make an appearance at this traditional event, which is celebrated by local Morris dancers and musicians and sundry followers. It is a little early (and dark) for television and newspaper reporters to get out of bed, so dancing up the sun rarely gets a mention in the press. The tradition has been preserved in music, however. Songwriter John Thompson (Cloudstreet) penned a song a few years ago which starts: “Dance up the sun on a fine May morning, dance up to sun to call in the spring…” and traces the English tradition that spawned this annual event. Morris dancing is so old it figures in Shakespeare’s writings and it was ancient then. The May Day legend has it that if Morris men (and women), do not dance up the sun, the sun will nevermore rise.
Workers around the world feel much the same way about May Day, which also commemorates those who struggled to win the right to fair pay and an eight-hour day. More on that later.
Those with even a passing interest in folk music and folk festivals will have seen and heard Morris dancers as they walk around festival sites with bells attached to their legs. Dancers either use garlands of flowers or hankies for the gentle dances, or they clash sticks and bump bellies, symbolising the battle between the seasons. Morris men usually wear hats with flowers, and “tatter coats” and many paint their faces, but there are as many variations in dress and dance style as there are Morris teams. The tradition flourishes in the UK but there are also about 150 Morris teams in the US and it lives on in colonial outposts like Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Morris dancers are the traditional butt of jokes among the folkies who prefer to sit around tables in pubs playing tunes. You know the ones – the A part and the B part repeated until whoever is running the tunes session changes to another tune of the same ilk. This is a curious irony as Morris dancers are accompanied by three or four musicians thumping out folk tunes using instruments like accordions, whistles, drums and hurdy-gurdys. The tunes are typically in 2/4, 6/8 or 4/4 time or a slow march tempo so the dancers have time to execute dramatic stick clashes, accompanied by visceral screaming and occasional bodily injuries.
Those who have no time for Morris men would remember this, from Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder: “Morris dancing is the most fatuous, tenth-rate entertainment ever devised by man. Forty effeminate blacksmiths waving bits of cloth they’ve just wiped their noses on. How it’s still going on in this day and age I’ll never know.”
Well to hell with Blackadder – some of my best friends are Morris dancers. A bunch of them came to my 60th birthday party and dragged me up for the Upton Stick Dance. I’m OK now.
That Australia’s Morris teams get up early on the first of May is a credit to them, as this is typically a misty mid-autumn day Down Under. What they are actually celebrating is an ancient Northern Hemisphere Spring festival – the darling buds of May and all that. May Day celebrations pre-date Christianity. The Romans celebrated the festival of Flora (the goddess of flower) and in Celtic countries this dates back to the Beltane festival.
These pagan traditions were stamped out when Europe was Christianised, but the maypole dance survives in many countries as a reminder of what Sigmund Freud interpreted as a phallic fertility ritual. Dancers assemble around a tall pole, each holding a colored ribbon as they dance in a circle. The multi-coloured ribbons form a rainbow around the pole and when the dancers turn and go back the other way, the ribbons unravel. Just don’t tell your kids about Freud – silly old man.
The first day of May is also very big with the international Labour movement. Unions have a proud history of international solidarity and the tradition of marching in the streets on May Day goes back to the 18th century battle to ensure workers’ rights to fair pay and an eight-hour day. Amid times of great social unrest and austerity, thousands of workers marched in European countries this year. The Guardian reported on street marches throughout the world, starting with Jakarta, where protesters supported women who were earning $1 an hour making Adidas shoes, until they were fired for speaking out. Workers in Moscow marched on Red Square for the first time since 1991. (The celebrations had been restricted to a Moscow highway for 23 years.)New York revived its Occupy Wall Street protests and in London the rally commemorated rail union leader Bob Crow and MP and campaigner Tony Benn, who both died in March.
In Australia, the May Day traditions of the Labour movement have become fragmented as most States moved the public holiday from the first Monday in May to October. In Queensland, the Conservative government last year moved the holiday to the first Monday in October, restoring the Queen’s Birthday holiday to June.(The previous Labor government had moved Queens Birthday from June to October, leaving the Labour Day holiday unchanged.) Despite this, marches are planned this weekend in Adelaide, Sydney, Fremantle, Brisbane and Newcastle.
May Day or the first Monday in May is a national public holiday in more than 80 countries, held to celebrate Labour Day and/or the pagan spring festival.
You may wonder why workers cherish May 1 as a day to support international labour rights. It commemorates the Haymarket Affair, as Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago on May 4, 1886. Seven police officers and at least four civilians were killed amid gunfire and a bomb blast (thrown by an unknown person). This day has been a global symbol of the struggle for workers’ rights since it became International Workers’ Day in May 1889.
So dwell on that people, as you head off to work on Monday. You will still get your public holiday in October, but the symbolism embodying the struggle of the urban proletariat is lost, maybe forever.
What if we changed Anzac Day to the first Tuesday in November? Try selling that to returned servicemen and Melbourne Cup punters. Then we’d see some marching in the streets.