The tradition comes from the English counties on the Welsh border - principally Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire. Sadly, the combined effects of the industrial revolution and the Great War caused the tradition to die out in the early part of the 20th century. Thankfully, it was recorded by a number of folk music collectors before it finally disappeared.
When this form of morris was revived in the 1970s, it was confusingly named "Welsh Border Morris" - this was very unfortunate as it is an English tradition, and and has little to do with welsh culture.
Border Morris is one of several styles of morris dance, which today include Cotswold, North-West, Molly (East Anglia), Rapper (North-East) and Long-sword – each associated with an area of England.
Traditional forms of ritual dancing are believed to go back a very long way, and its hard to know how they originated, as the dancers were neither wealthy nor literate. Morris dancing has been documented for the last 500 years or so, and it appears that many towns and villages had their own "side".
The Border Morris dances were mainly performed in the winter by farm labourers and fishermen (on the Severn) as a means of earning a little extra money when work was scarce – it was a form of begging, and as such it was illegal. In addition, there appears to have been an understanding that a certain amount of misrule was customarily allowed on certain occasions, which might have made it difficult for the participants to find employment if they could be identified afterwards. This is usually offered as the explanation for the tradition of blacked-up faces as a means of disguise.
Blackened faces were also used as a form of disguise in the "Rebecca Riots" in South Wales in the 1830's, which were a protest against toll roads, and also involved men dressing as women. There was also a more general use of face-blacking to disguise criminals - in the early 18th century a band of footpads and ne'er-do-wells known as the "Wokingham Blacks" were a major criminal problem in the forests and roads between Wokingham and Windsor. Their lawlessness was eventually resolved by sending in the army, and led to the "Black Act" of 1723, making it a criminal offence to have a blackened face, with harsh penalties.
The use of blackened-faces in morris may have been revived following the Minstrel Shows of the early 19th century - with echoes in the 20th century TV show. It is entirely possible that face-blacking is a form of guising that goes back to ritual or religious origins, but today’s dancers explain that they enjoy a freedom from inhibition when in kit, and it's possible that the tradition survived simply because people enjoyed it.
The "kit" was traditionally anything that looked eccentric – sometimes parts of an army uniform, or a womens dress, or simply turning a jacket inside-out and decorating with ribbons. The latter is interpreted today as a rag jacket, covered with strips of cloth, or tatters.
The dances took their names from the village teams that danced them, such as White Ladies Aston, Pershore, Dilwyn and Much Wenlock, although these are now augmented by modern additions. The contemporary country dances were also adapted for display purposes, with additional or changed figures. Many Border Morris dances make use of a large stick – usually of ash or hazel – and the stick-clashing adds to the noise and spectacle that makes this form of dance attractive. Traditionally almost all forms of morris were danced exclusively by men. It is not clear why women were excluded, but this appears to have contributed to the robust style of most Morris dancing.
OBJ was formed in 1996 by a group of like-minded people who wanted to dance the flamboyant style of dancing known today as "Border Morris".
Our kit is generally black, with Green, Black and White rag jackets, and we follow the Border Morris tradition of blacking our faces.
We blacken our faces following the tradition set by some of the early Border Morris sides and with a nod to the local "Wokingham Blacks" mentioned above. In today's world we are careful to explain the history of this, and that there is no racial motive for our appearance.
OBJ is a mixed "side", comprising male and female dancers, drawn from Wokingham, Bracknell, and the surrounding area. When we formed the side, we decided that we would set out to attract new people into Morris, regardless of their number of left feet, fitness and sense of rhythm, and we believe this has paid off with a large membership, and a side that enjoys itself both during performances and socially.
Music is always live, and we are blessed with a number of talented people who play melodians (button accordians), piano accordians, fiddles, drums, brass, strings and just about anything else that can be carried. Additional musicians and dancers – with or without experience – are always welcome.