I was staying in Padstow over the 2000-2001 New year once (the real dawning of the Millennium but that’s another story!), after escaping some of the worst sounds of the party being held in a pub in the town I went to bed earlier so that I could greet the new dawn. The next day was a delightful one full of clear skies and promise, I got up early the next day to be greeted by the spectacle of local people with blackened faces playing traditional instruments of drums and accordions and singing with much gusto. A strange sight and one which in recent years has become much in contention beyond Cornwall. I’d written this post back in 2011 and did not post…perhaps I was a bit nervous of doing so…..and its only posted now as I have been ill and did not have time to do another post…..interestingly its more current than ever, what with news reports about banning black faced Morris in Birmingham so its worth examining a new.
A black mark against the town?
Listening to the songs I became wary of their odd lyrics they appears to be minstrel songs, I admitted although I had been to May day in the town I had never heard of this tradition, it was absent from my books. Clearly local people and tourists enjoyed the spectacle. I thought little more of it and was glad I had witnessed the custom
A few days later driven by an article in the Daily Mail and the Guardian I believe a storm developed over the racist element of the day, with the usual subtext of ignorant yokels (in itself racist of course). Soon prominent black politicians understandably got involved and a media storm ensued this time involving the BBC with comments from the venerable late London MP Bernie Grant:
“I thought the days when white people dressed up as black people were well behind us”
Padstonians insist that this is not the case and deny both description and allegations and indeed as early back as the 1970s the content and conduct was apparently reviewed to avoid offence…although one must remember Love Thy Neighbour and The Black and White Minstrels were popular at that time!! That said the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary did get involved and saw no reason for arrest. The Padstonians showed obvious concern and renamed it Mummer’s day but the controversy continues.
How old the custom is, is difficult to say. It is known that in eastern Cornwall, such get-togethers were common in pubs and private homes in the 19th century but antiquarian interest and indeed national press coverage is lacking, which is surprising considering the acres of footage on the town’s famed May Day. Most reports are local, the Cornish Guardian certainly report it since 1901 as Carol singing. A copy of the Padstow Echo in 1967 notes in a diary entry where 15, 7 to 13 year old children travelled the town visiting the elderly. The three women are thanked for:
“keeping alive the Padstow Darkies by training the young Padstonians with the Darky Songs which have been traditionally sung here, with also the musical accompaniment.”
An online article using local informants recollects their involvement in the 1940s and then into the early 20th century when their parents were involved. On this basis it can be included as a surviving custom if it is a rather secretive one, but possibly a changeable one.
Not all black and white
The origins of the day are confusing; the blackening of one’s face after all is very common in a wide range of folk customs from mummers to molly dancers. The overall theme being to disguise the face, so that in most cases the employers would not have recognised them, as the majority of the customs, including this one, were begging. This has probably been done for centuries long before English people ever had contact with our African relatives.
Whether confusion occurs is the claim that it stems from the town’s experience with slaves, emphasized by a tradition that slaves were allowed free time in the town and this would have naturally brought they into contact with the natives. This happened elsewhere and did not create a folk custom, which suggests that the Cornish were either more susceptible to the traditions the slaves had or in support of the non-racist origin had greater sympathy, a point I will explore later.
From what can be gathered is that the original tradition was closer to a mummer’s play and perhaps because it was undertaken mainly by children who I argue either had difficulty in remembering lines or else the play had unsuitable themes, someone changed it. Anyone who has children will know it’s easier to get to get them to sing carols than do the nativity!
In simple terms someone seems to fused minstrel songs to an older tradition and because these songs were probably better, more tuneful or memorable, this aspect dominated. This theory is supported by an article by…where one of the correspondents says:
“I believe that the mummers went from house to house performing their play and got fed up with the same old lines and tried out the new at that time Foster music hall songs. This was enjoyed and response probably favourable and the tradition took off in place of the mumming”.
Is it racist?
Anyone who’s been to Cornwall will know they can be a bit wary of anyone east of the Tamar, but I don’t think they are racist…indeed they are very friendly, just understandably protection of their traditions. From what I can gather there could be two reasons for the tradition. The simplest is that an adult in the 1920s when the minstrel songs were popular decided to build a repertoire of these songs for the children as they were easier to remember. The other theory is custom was established as albeit a rather ham-fisted attempt to show support for the American black people community or simpler a love of their music. Solidarity for them was often strong in Methodist areas and Cornwall is one of these. An example of this being the strike held in Manchester cotton mills where the pro-slavery confederate army uniforms were being made. Perhaps typically for the British we put our foot in it, and sadly what is seen as once support has naturally become offensive. A parody rather than show parity by dressing up – but again as blacking up is a common motif for begging is that a coincidence? Interestingly now the name is changed, perhaps the one thing which would stop the racist accusations would be to stop blackening their faces, costume aside which is although is claimed minstrel based is common to many folk groups. It was a sensible compromise. Now that this is done, would anyone really be offended after all we’ve all been singing Beyoncé and Michael Jackson songs and not been called racist..have we?