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Whitsun Dance / Dancing at Whitsun

[words Austin John Marshall, music trad.]

The tradition of Morris Dancing had been performed exclusively by men for several hundred years. During the First World War, when the male mortality rate in some English towns and villages approached seventy percent, this tradition would have been lost were it not for the women who chose to carry it on. Austin John Marshall has written this poignant song as a tribute to the widows, sweethearts, sisters and daughters of those men, who kept the tradition alive.
(Note from Priscilla Herdman's album The Water Lily)

Austin John Marshall wrote Whitsun Dance to the tune of The Week Before Easter. It was first published in 1968 in Karl Dallas' Book The Cruel Wars. Marshall's then wife Shirley Collins sang it as part of the Anthems in Eden Suite on her and Dolly Collins' albums Anthems in Eden (July 1969) and Amaranth (August 1976). It was also included in 2002 on Shirley Collins' anthology Within Sound.

Austin John Marshall comments:

Many of the old ladies who swell the membership lists of Country Dance Societies are 1914/18 war widows, or ladies who have lost fiancés and lovers. Country dancing kept the memory of their young men alive. When Shirley Collins started singing the piece to the tune of The False Bride, the impact was disturbing, for many people in audiences identified with it. Tears were frequent. Now a sharp relevance in contemporary song is one thing but such a pessimistic effect was not what was intended. So when Shirley recorded the song we showed the way the spirit of the generation sacrificed in the mud of France had been caught and brought to life by the new generation born since World War II by concluding with the chorus of the Staines Morris:

Come you young men come along
With your music, dance and song
Bring your lasses in your hands
For 'tis that which love commands
Then to the Maypole haste away
For 'tis now a holiday.

Tim Hart and Maddy Prior recorded Dancing at Whitsun in 1971 for their third duo album, Summer Solstice, and June Tabor sang it, accompanied by Tim Hart on guitar, on a BBC Radio 1 John Peel Session recorded on March 4, 1975 and broadcast on March 10, 1975. I don't know if this recording has ever been released on an album.

The Taverners sang The Ladies Dance at Whitsun on their 1973 Trailer album Blowing Sands.

Geoff Harris sang Whitsun Dance in 1975 on Martyn Wyndham-Read, Geoff & Pennie Harris and Arky's Toast's Trailer album Maypoles to Mistletoe. Martyn Wyndham-Read sang Ladies Go Dancing at Whitsun in 1998 on the follow-up CD of the same name on the Country Branch label, Maypoles to Mistletoe.

Priscilla Herdman sang Dancing at Whitsun in 1977 on her first album, The Water Lily.

Bram Taylor sang Dancing at Whitsun on his 1986 Fellside album Dreams and Songs to Sing.

Crucible (Jess and Rich Arrowsmith, Gavin Davenport and Helena Reynolds) sang Dancing at Whitsun in 2008 on their Fellside CD Love & Money. They commented:

This well-known collaboration between Austin John Marshall and Shirley Collins had lingered at the back of our collective minds until we were called upon to perform at a concert themed on ‘Music of the Flanders Landscape’ for the 2006 Dranouter Folk Festival.It felt appropriate to follow it with morris tune The Valentine.

Sound Tradition sang The Ladies Go Dancing at Whitsun in 2012 on their CD Under the Moon. They commented in their liner notes:

This beautiful song tells of the wives of World War I soldiers who, during their husbands' absence, continued the village dancing traditions which may have otherwise been forgotten. Sadly man men never returned from the war and this wonderfully written song stands as a fitting memorial to them. The village maypole was often replaced by a war memorial to the, all too often, youngest members of the village community.

We've tried to end on an optimistic note by adding a verse of Staines Morris at the end, an idea taken from Shirley Collins' version of this song.

This video shows Hector Gilchrist and Sue Graves singing Whitsun Dance at the Ram Club in Thames Ditton on December 12, 2014:

Andy Turner learned Whitsun Dance from Shirley Collins' recording and sang it as the May 28, 2016 entry of his blog A Folk Song a Week.


Shirley Collins sings Whitsun Dance

It's fifty-one springtimes since she was a bride,
But still you may see her at each Whitsuntide
In a dress of white linen and ribbons of green,
As green as her memories of loving.

The feet that were nimble tread carefully now,
As gentle a measure as age do allow,
Through groves of white blossom, by fields of young corn,
Where once she was pledged to her true love.

The fields they are empty, the hedges grow free,
No young men to tend them, or pastures go see.
They've gone where the forests of oak trees before
Had gone to be wasted in battle.

Down from their green farmlands and from their loved ones
Marched husbands and brothers and fathers and sons.
There's a fine roll of honour where the Maypole once was,
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.

There's a row of straight houses in these latter days
Are covering the Downs where the sheep used to graze.
There's a field of red poppies, a wreath from the Queen.
But the ladies remember at Whitsun,
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.


See also the Mudcat Café thread Lyr Add: Dancing at Whitsun.