May Day is a day for socialist action, and for folk adventure, as we celebrate the end of darkness and the beginning of the summer months.
In more recent times, the folk tradition of May Day is, in the public imagination, a rather genteel thing: kids dancing around the May Pole on some village green from John Major’s imaginary forever England.
Hastings’ Jack in the Green, revived for modern times but with roots dating back to the 17th century, is feels more in the Roman tradition of The Floralia, which took place from 28th April til 3rd of May in honour of the goddess of flowers. These were “notorious for lewd and chaotic behaviour… vegetables were pelted and wild hares and deer were released into the crowds as symbols of fecundity.”
What I’m trying to say is, everyone is absolutely on one.
The Brighton Folk Choir, run by the fabulous Jo Burke, were invited along to sing and take part in the procession, which makes its way around Hastings’ old streets – blessedly car free, for one day at least – and then up to West Hill, where Jack – a most mysterious Green Man, frightening children along the route with his antics and dead staring eyes – is unleashed for another summer.
It’s an unusual gig for a folk choir, but there should be more of it. The procession was made up of many a Morris troupe, as well as some samba drummers and some incredible costumes and avatars of spring and rebirth. It meant it was tricky on occasion for us to be heard over the din and general revelry; I jokingly suggested that next time we all have Steps-style headset microphones.
“That wouldn’t be very folk,” Jo pointed out.
“It could be our very own Dylan going electric”.
I got down early, as the parade gathered at 9:30 and we wanted to give ourselves some practice time. On my way to the harbour I passed lots of people revving the engines of their motorbikes – it seems there was some kind of biker meet happening at the same time.
“We should fight them, it could be our very own Mods v Rockers,” I suggested during our warm up; my own role apparently being to say as many silly things as possible in as short a time as possible.
Outside the Dolphin pub, Morrismen and women were already drinking whisky and beer – and fair enough, given a lot of them had probably been up at 4am to dance in the dawn.
By 10:15, Jack had been released, and we were underway. I felt a bit under-dressed, but other choir members kindly helped me out with a mask, extra greenery for my hat, and even a tail.
Singing in harmony while walking is, it turns out, really hard. I’ve done it a little bit at the Walthamstow Wassail; here I kept finding myself alone, and trying very much to keep to my part and to remember the words. Sometimes I managed the first bit, sometimes I manager the latter. On occasion, I managed both, and felt extremely proud.
It’s a long old route around the town, and one had to stop on occasion to allow Jack and his minions to rush back and forth and unleash more chaos.
Peering out from my mask, peripheral vision barely existent, as we walked around added to the surreal nature of the thing.
The whole town seemed to get in on the act, with locals and families similarly dressed up, people hanging out of upstairs windows to cheer us along, and – again, I really can’t stress this enough – everyone along the route seemingly having an inexhaustable supply of alcohol.
Heading back to the folk/communism connection, being in the procession felt a bit like being on a particularly well attended protest, except with more singing, and no real demands other than everyone have a good time.
Half way up the hill, we paused for a break, so that folk club members could have some water and go for a wee. This took a while, and we were overtaken by much of the rest of the procession, which gave us the opportunity to admire all the costumes and psychedelic mushroom fantasies writ large.
When we were ready to move again, we were at the very back, behind St John’s Ambulance volunteers and that most folk of traditions, a local samba band.
The arrival at the top of the hill felt like the end of a marathon, the crowds barely holding back, and cheering us along til the end, right by the maypole and the stage. I spotted my friends who had come down for the weekend, Lucy and Steve, and in the process lost the rest of the choir.
We were due to perform on stage, and Jo waited patiently to be told when our performance would be. Finally, we got the news: on in twenty minutes. I wandered off for a wee, then came back and sat on the grass by the stage with my friends. Immediately, the announcement came from the compere: “and next, the Brighton Folk Choir!”.
That was a quick twenty minutes. I know on May Day time and space lose all meaning, but I think someone’s watch might have been broken.
I got up and stood by the side of the stage, peering out for my fellows, who I believe had stopped to rest right at the back, beyond the Maypole. The master of ceremonies was getting impatient, suggested I go on stage alone (no thanks!), and threatened us with losing our spot altogether.
Soon enough, everyone came rushing, and we gathered up on stage. It was demanded that one of us introduce ourselves, so I did it.
“Hello, Wembley!” I said. I then introduced us as the Brighton Folk Choir and introduced Jo, who I thought was going to say something, but she was too busy giving us our note and preparing us to sing.
We only had five minutes, which felt more like thirty seconds, or possibly half an hour. We did a couple of our tunes, both arranged by Jo – Good Morning Lords and Ladies, and Cheshire May Day carol. My friends in the front row said it sounded great, and again, from a personal perspective… I remembered *most* of the words.
Our songs duly sung to many thousands of people, we retired to the pub, and returned a few hours later to see Jack defenestrated for another year. Some rain headed in off the sea, and we all got briefly soaked in our green finery. But soon enough, the sun returned, and it was time for Jack to be torn to pieces, all in the name of summer.
Hastings is a beautiful town, and the folk choir is a beautiful endeavour. Many thanks to Jo, who puts in an incredible amount of effort to make this thing happen, and all the choir members, many of whom I got a proper chance to talk to over the course of the day and greatly enjoyed all the conversations both serious and silly. I hope, as always, that I was not too annoying.