Roger Cartwright: The Johnny Appleseed of Morris
By Mitch Diamond
A few years back, I researched the early days of New Cambridge Morris Men, a team I danced with that was started by Roger Cartwright in the 1970s morris revival. In 1976, a friend introduced me to Roger, and I joined the team. Morris dancing gave me a spiritual center, and I met dancers who have since remained good friends. When I learned what I believed to be New Cambridge’s roots, I was surprised to see how many other branches of the same tree there were. At the base of the tree was Roger Cartwright.
In the 1960s there were two adult teams in the US: the Pinewoods Morris Men and the Village Morris Men in Greenwich Village. At that time, PMM members lived all over the world and got together only at Pinewoods Camp and for an occasional tour. The Village Morris Men began in the late ‘60s but ended when Roger and Eric Leiber moved from New York City. This left a lot of people who wanted to dance, but no team to dance with. Here’s where Roger’s greatest gift came into play. He got people excited and pushed them into action.
Roger had specific ideas about what he wanted to see in morris dance in the US. In a letter from January 1973, Roger wrote:
This is an initial attempt to put forth a few ideas about stimulating Morris in New England. I crave deeply to be, simply a happy, secure member of a team… which is a primary group… which meets again and again, and does the same old dances—with the same magic music, same musician, and in familiar settings.
In the U.S. the Country Dance society has been just great for […] opening up Country Dance and Morris and all the great friendships, spirit, times. The early pioneers brought Morris to the U.S. and sustained it all these years. Morris owes a great deal to the Society’s support and thrust. Now, having been brought so far, I sense it is time for the Morris to grow on its own; to begin experimenting with developing a folk base. Not as a “cute” imitation of old village life, but in ways which seem genuine and consistent to our present lives. If there has been a wide revival and vitality in Folk Music, why not in Morris?
Pinewoods Morris Men, as an association, has been a fine way to preserve and strengthen the Morris and the bond among the men, and to popularize Morris among both men and women in Morris classes and workshops in N.Y. and Boston. Now I think we are ready for a new stage in which the proper local spirit, identity and team history find a strong focus.
Roger took action. He held a small May Day celebration in Cambridge, MA, which was the first of its kind in the country. Newtowne Morris Men (today’s New Cambridge) hosted the 47th annual May Day in 2019.
Roger started a small dance group with the intent of creating a morris side and taking it to England. (In morris, a “side” is a group of dancers sufficiently large to perform a morris dance; smaller or more transient than a “team.”) Until that time, individuals had gone to the UK to dance the morris, but never as a side. Roger called the side the Pinewoods New Englanders. In June 1973, they went to England to tour, danced at Thaxted, and practiced with Chipping Campden, Headington, and Oxford teams. The side included Roger, Karl Rodgers, Dick Van Kleeck, Andy Woolf, Fred Breunig, Ed Mason, Sam Rubin, Howie Seidel, and John Dexter, plus Englishmen Philip Smither and Michael Blanford. Jody Evans, a woman from NY, came as a guest.
See a video of the New Englanders:
This tour was the “big bang” of morris—where the morris revival in the US got its start. Roger was the catalyst. Of course, this did not happen in a vacuum. Tony Barrand and John Roberts had become interested in morris after seeing it in college. Shag Graetz, Arthur Cornelius, George Fogg, Ed Mason, Dudley Laufman, Jim Morrison, and others were teaching along the East Coast. Pinewoods and CDSS programs drew people in, but nowhere was the impact as quick and as energizing as what grew from the Pinewoods New Englanders tour.
Fred Breunig told me that he returned from the England tour knowing that he wanted to get involved in morris. Mark Wilke, one of the original New Cambridge Morris Men, says that Roger’s bags weren’t even unpacked before he started a practice at Currier House in Radcliffe. By the end of 1973, there were two new teams in the states: John Dexter started the Binghamton Morris Men, and Roger’s group later named themselves the New Cambridge Morris Men.
By 1974, things progressed rapidly. Karl Rodgers came back from the England tour and, with Jim Morrison, started the Greenwich Morris Men. Jody Evans began the first women’s team, Ring O’ Bells. Tony Barrand started Marlboro Morris and Sword. Fred Breunig started a morris class in Brattleboro, VT, with John Roberts playing music; from there, Marlboro recruited enough people to have both a men’s and a women’s side. Roger and John Dexter organized the first American Travelling Morrice in 1976.
The branches did not stop there. Cathy Mason, whose father, Ed, was a Pinewoods New Englander, was heard to say while on a New Cambridge tour “Why are we carrying their sticks? We can do this as well as they can, probably better. They should be carrying our sticks!” Cathy, along with Cynthia Whear, Kathy Tighe, and Janet Holtz, started Muddy River.
Greg Fabian, a dancer at Fred Breunig’s class in Marlboro, moved to Washington, DC, and helped create Foggy Bottom. Fred was also instrumental in helping Tony Barrand start the Marlboro Morris Ale.
At an early meeting of New Cambridge, the idea that morris teams could exist outside the classes that CDSS/CDS Boston was currently offering was reinforced. Some people felt that this would never work, and went their own way. A year later, after they saw New Cambridge working, the Black Jokers were formed.
There was no stopping it now. Chris Nelson, of the Black Jokers, moved to Philadelphia and started Kingsessing. Bob Greco, of the Binghamton team, moved to Seattle and started the Mossy Backs. Hearts of Oak sprang from Binghamton as did the Bouwerie Boys when John Dexter moved back to NYC. Jody McGeen of Ring O’ Bells started Mayfield Morris in California.
Cammy Kaynor, along with Don Campbell, left New Cambridge and started Juggler Meadow, keeping in mind all that he had learned from Roger.
John Van Sorosin, a New Cambridge member, travelled to Northampton, MA, to teach Northampton Morris to dance. Peter Temple left Northampton, started the Barkshire Morris and had Roger visit from Maine to teach. Peter later moved on to start Harrisville Morris in New Hampshire.
Another New Cambridge Member, Bob Mumford, went to Canada to join a team called Green Fiddle. Green Fiddle only knew four dances they had learned at Pinewoods. Mumford expanded their repertoire and created the Hogtown tradition.
Alistair Brown left Green Fiddle and started Forest City. From Forest City came Goat’s Head and then Thames Valley. Green Fiddle also gave birth to the Hogtown team. Toronto Morris Men was created out of Hogtown and Green Fiddle. Also from Green Fiddle came Black Sheep (a defunct women’s team in Ontario) which led to Bread and Roses, and then to Toronto Women’s Sword. Roger also directly started Stillwater Morris (1979-1984) in Orono, ME, and Rapscallion in Amherst, MA (2003-2011). Rapscallion was a women’s rapper team, the last that Roger taught.
It’s astounding to consider the number of teams that can be traced back to the Pinewoods New Englanders Tour that Roger set up. The chain reaction just kept going.
I’d like to finish with a little more from Roger’s January 1973 letter. He says:
These themes are of value to me. They are clumsy, too vague and corny in these words but I’m going to say them anyway.
- Human community—manageable size, primary group, working, sharing, building together
- rooted—in some ancient past, a craving for un-interruptedness, a faithfulness
- power of the dance—serious, evocative at different levels: ritual, social , personal
- deep physical body response—, in sync, responsivity to music, rhythm, sky, men.
- thirsty for those moments of relief from self-consciousness; pulled away to a different plane or dimension of unstudied self!!
- Easing framework for release of competition, challenge, aggression, skill display, fooling
- mutuality with on-lookers • some invisible thing • can’t say how it grows but potent once it comes
- deep sense of place—consecration of ground faithful return to places familiar and long danced.
- strong autonomy of team in its plans, activities, style.
Oh, now, isn’t there some thing odd about this whole presentation? I sure felt it was a curious kind of bumbling effort on my part, as I was reading up to this point. I realized it’s either stupid or rash, likely both. I think it’s nervy or cheeky in this way. I believe we can tamper with American Society. Yes, I do. In one way, that’s what it’s about. I am confident that by experimenting (takes energy, time, etc.) we can develop that growth. I am ready to put energy, time, money into this vision.
6 clubs in 10 years!
How audacious. Who plans like that Nowadays?
I say we do it, and we can do it!
This is Roger’s legacy, his gift to us. He put his ideas and plan for morris dancing into writing and set out to achieve his goals. He always promoted morris, and wherever he went, a new team sprung up. That’s why he’s the Johnny Appleseed of morris.
Mitch Diamond was 19 years old when he first saw morris dancing at Pinewoods Camp in 1970. He has been “Squire” of Newtowne Morris for over two decades. He’s been an English country dancer for many years. He currently makes a living selling concert posters that date back as far as the 1920s.
Thanks to Rhett Krause for fact-checking this article.