In the merry month of Spring

…we crown thee with blossoms today
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.”

— Queen of the May, traditional

We went a-maying yesterday. That’s a phrase I love, one you don’t hear much anymore. “Won’t you come a-maying with us?” It conjures up images of gay young ladies and gentlemen strolling through meadows and gathering flowers in their smartest attire, reciting at whiles bits of Dryden and Donne to each other, but not Coleridge. It’s an activity too unspecific in its goals to be well remembered in this age. In fact, I didn’t really know we were gone a-maying until we were nearly on our way home from a-maying.

The lass gives a genteel curtsey. I don't know where she learned to do this. Cross my heart, I had nothing to do with it.

Every year University Avenue (“the Ave”) is closed off from about 41st or 43rd up to at least 50th, a good stretch of the University of Washington’s main business street, and artists and craftsmen set up their booths and performers come to play. An assortment of food booths that gets broader each year lines both sides of 45th street where it crosses the Ave, and the whole affair — known as the University Street Fair — is extremely well attended. Yesterday was sunny and warm, it felt as though the late winter we’ve had here suddenly ended, so people came out in droves.

This is why I never get anything constructive done around the house.

Like break dancing only in slow motion. A capoeirist draws the energy of the circle into the middle and makes art of it.

One thing that captured our attention right away was the demonstration by Candeias Capoeira, a group of capoeira dancers. Capoeira is a Brazilian art form descended from African slave traditions that looks like a cross between break dancing and martial arts. A circle had formed and people started clapping, and one man started singing in what I guess must have been Portuguese. While the circle of his fellow capoeirists clapped and sang, the littlest practitioner stepped out and started jukin’ and jivin’ and twirlin’. When he was done, the next oldest stepped out. In this, capoeira and break dancing both share the “spotlight” format with the ancient art of flamenco dancing, wherein a spontaneous gathering of dancers will take turns “showing off” individually accompanied by the clapping of the others (in flamenco this is called palmas), someone singing, and sometimes also the playing of a guitar. It was fun to see little blond suburban kids performing this venerable and earthy art.

We have a collection of photos, starting when Mara was a toddler, of her staring worriedly at people dressed up in strange or extremely large customes at public events. There was a giant yellow hen at the Woodland Park Zoo’s Bunny Jump egg hunting event one year. We called her the Chicken Lady. Then there was the white-painted Fairy Lady at Folklife the last couple of years. Yesterday there was a cowboy riding a giant chicken. I don’t know why. Mara was amused and kept her distance. She was even a little leary of the balloon lady, possibly because she was wearing a tophat and vest and so looked a little mannish. Remind me to discuss the “uncanny valley” sometime. This was not that, but the ideas are related.

There's one in every crowd.

Mara hangs back a little, but a free balloon is a free balloon.

We had timed our visit to the street fair so that we would be able to see the MossyBack Morris Men. Morris dancing looks silly. And it is silly. Grown men with bells strapped to their limbs jumping up and waving handkerchiefs, is what it is. But it’s a very old tradition with dark and earthy roots in England’s “benighted” pagan past. These days it’s something that gamesome gents do in the vicinity of a pint of bitter. Still, it’s always fun to watch. I had a hard time getting decent photographs of the dancing because they moved so fast that they jumped out of the frame, and because I kept being distracted by the visual and metaphorical implications of the Jack in the Box sign directly behind them.

Yes they wear bells and toss hankies around, but they beat on each other with sticks too, so step off.

I dunno. It kinda works for me, but you can ignore the sign if it helps.

The Morrisers picked Angela out of the crowd of onlookers to be Queen of the May. They sat her down on a box (they told her that had they not been shorthanded that day she would have been sitting on one of their knees, and they apologized for the failure) and performed for her good pleasure, with the guitarist and the concertina player giving accompaniment and singing a song about the Queen of the May. Each dancer bowed before her, then each leapt as high as he could in front of her while waving his kerchiefs. At the end of the song they lined up and each one bent and kissed her on the cheek.

Queen of the May, huh? I'll never live this down.

I guess jumping like this counted for a lot back in Olde England.

The kissing line. Each one walks away a better man, if I know my woman.

When the kissing line started, a man standing next to me who realized that I was the cuckold in this metaphor said “they didn’t tell you about this part, huh?”

I said I wasn’t particularly worried. Angela knew many lords a-leaping and she chose me, for good or ill. And besides, I could leap. I could leap if I wanted ta…

...but I might not look this cool.



11 Responses to “In the merry month of Spring”

  1. 1 kiwidutch May 16, 2010 at 20:29

    Great Post! I know that Morris Dancing is a very English thing but had no clue that the traditions were ever transported abroad, I was quite stunned that you have people who follow it in the USA.
    Like you, I don’t exactly “get” Morris Dancing either… maybe in this case it’s better to not ask for too much information but to just enjoy the fun LOL.
    Angela looks like she enjoyed it too…secretly I have no clue if kissing pretty ladies is actually a real part of the Morris Traditions, maybe they just added it as conpensation for the giggles of the crowd at the dancing and the costumes (and the Jack-in-the-Box sign)…surely they should learn this it’s *not* the toy factory they should be dancing in front of if they didn’t want people to have a giggle! Tee hee !

  2. 2 jstwndrng May 16, 2010 at 21:54

    Hi kiwidutch,
    Good to have you back. Yes, Morris dancing is pretty big in the states. Angela is pretty game about stuff like that and is also a dancer, and she actually performed a little Morris dancing herself as part of the Christmas Revels a few years ago (see my post “Sing we now of rationalists and existentialists” for more of her involvement with Revels). In fact, yesterday when she was being dragged out of the crowd to be Queen I thought she was being asked to join them dancing. She told me later that this same group of Morrisers has picked her to be the Queen before, years ago, somewhere else, which I think is hilarious and kinda spooky.

    Jack in the Box (bless you for being unaware of this) is not a toy factory but a fast food chain here in the land of “drive through everything”, a rival of McDonalds.

  3. 3 kiwidutch May 17, 2010 at 00:57

    Jack in the Box is a fast food chain?! ROFL, Oops… did I get that one wrong (Duh, sorry)!!! I’ve traveled in America last year but managed to miss this one entirely LOL. We steered clear of cities for the most part and stayed far away from the beaten track on Maine on a Lake.
    Fast food places feature in our menu at most a few times a year and we view it as option-of-last-resort rather than option-of-choice, so I wouldn’t have been looking out for this anyway. I don’t remember seeing it at all while we were in the USA, but I think that if I had spotted that sign I would have also assumed “toy factory” anyway LOL.
    I was actually amazed at just how many billboards and BIG advertising there is in North America. Most of it went past in a blur.
    I think Angela must be a very confident person, being very much a “behind the scenes type of person” I would *hate* to be drawn out before the public like that and you’d find me at that moment staring at my feet trying hard NOT to be noticed and pulled out LOL. I think it’s brilliant that she had the nerve to get up there and enjoy it.
    Surely they might well have remembered her too from the previous time! or they made eye contact and she smiled… however it happened she made and excellent Queen by the looks of things 🙂

    • 4 jstwndrng May 17, 2010 at 08:18

      Glad you got to see rural Maine. I’ve never been (we’re in the other corner), but you probably couldn’t have done better in America.

      We’ve been fortunate in that the other families we hang out with, and whom Mara is likely to spend a mealtime with, don’t really eat fast food much, or at all. So she doesn’t know anything about Jack in the Box, which anyway is not nearly the kidly “destination” that McD’s is. We work hard to feed her and ourselves in ways that honor our bodies [readers, kiwidutch’s website is full of wonderful recipes wonderfully illustrated; click on her name to see]. It’s difficult. We have so much going on, and preparing food sometimes seems like a hassle. We duck into Burger Master every now and then (range fed beef with no antibiotics, at least), and even that place has an uncanny pull on our daughter…mainly because there’s a candy treat with every kids meal.

      It’s as you say, Angela is pretty centered and fearless, and yes she makes an excellent Queen 😉

  4. 5 Louis May 17, 2010 at 12:19

    Oh, how I loved going to the University Street Fair. Your story conjured up a memory of a sign at the fair I once saw that read, “WATER FOR DOGS”..As this was the 1980´s, I thought at the time if I ever started a band, I would call it WATER FOR DOGS.

    • 6 jstwndrng May 17, 2010 at 13:38

      Somebody probably did start a band with that name. And the practice of setting out large bowls of cool water on the sidewalk is now widespread around here. They don’t even put up signs anymore, you just know. If you’re a dog.

  5. 7 Invisible Mikey May 18, 2010 at 19:59

    I’m into folk traditions too, and I like the way they evolve and change as they travel the globe. They always have a symbolic component worth appreciating. Good post, good photos.

    (The last one I did of this sort was about the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance:

    • 8 jstwndrng May 19, 2010 at 08:20

      I strongly agree. We’re losing folk traditions, and that’s one of the things I have done considerable hand-wringing over: when traditions are abandoned our links to folkways are cut, and they don’t grow back, they’re just gone. With their loss we lose a way of knowing and understanding ourselves and our places.

      The link you supply here worked yesterday, but I didn’t have time to read your article yesterday. Since you changed your theme last night, “Page No Longer Exists”. I’d like to read what you wrote about the Abbots Bromley dance. My wife used to perform in the Christmas Revels with the Puget Sound Revels group, and one of the pieces the revelers perform every year is the horn dance. It’s one of my favorites.

      Here’s my post about Angela and the Revels, though it’s really about community and participation:

  6. 9 Invisible Mikey May 20, 2010 at 22:20

    Dang! Changing themes removes all my old links. That’s gonna mean LOTS of updating. Here’s the new one for the Horn Dance:

    • 10 jstwndrng May 21, 2010 at 10:30

      I’m a little worried about your experience of losing all your links by simply applying a new theme.

      I read your post. Wow, I had no idea that you meant you’d actually gone over there and seen the actual, original event. What a great thing! I’ll own some jealousy here.

  1. 1 Festivities: a fast rewind « Just Wondering Trackback on June 22, 2011 at 09:47

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