Friday, 21 January 2011

The Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band - The Floral Dance (1977/ No. 2/ 13 weeks/ Transatlantic)

For a single that sold half a million copies, The Floral Dance has left remarkably little trace in British cultural history. Nobody even makes jokes about it. Part of the reason for this neglect is that it didn't get to number one, so isn't a record that you'd recognise the title of without having heard. Instead, it was kept at number two for six weeks over Christmas 1977, behind Paul McCartney's Mull Of Kintyre.

Both singles are records that look backwards to a rural life and its (perhaps) simpler and more immediate pleasures, capturing a certain national mood amongst British people who weren't habitual pop consumers at the time, a sense of exhaustion at present day worries of inflation, strikes, Northern Ireland, etc, but also a desire for a sense of national cohesion and harmony, a mood carried on from the Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations of that summer.

The Floral Dance wins out over Mull of Kintyre to these ears, because its an infinitely better tune than McCartney's dirge, and although an instrumental, derives from a better source song. 'The Floral Dance' was only written in 1912, but which describes attending a rite of spring that goes back to the middle ages.

The Floral Dance, more correctly known as the Furry Dance takes place in Helston in Cornwall and is one of the oldest British customs still practiced today. The dance is very well attended every year and people travel from all over the world to see it: The Helston Town band play all the music for the dances. The Furry Dance takes place every year on May 8, and is a celebration of the passing of Winter and the arrival of Spring. Of the various dances, the midday dance is perhaps the best known: it was traditionally the dance of the gentry in the town, and today the men wear top hats and tails while the women dance in their finest frocks.

Traditionally, the dancers wear lily of the valley, which is Helston's symbolic flower. The gentlemen wear it on the left, with the flowers pointing upwards, and the ladies wear it upside down on the right.

The band play from memory, as the music for the dance has never been written down. In 1890 Cornish antiquarian M.A. Courtney wrote that the tune was sometimes known as "John the Bone", the following rhyme often being attached to the tune by local children, "John the Bone was walking home, / When he met with Sally Dover, / He kissed her once, / He kissed her twice, / And kissed her three times over".

In 1911 Katie Moss, a London composer visiting Helston, observed the Furry Dance and joined in the dancing herself in the evening. On the train home she wrote words and music of a song about her experience, calling the song `The Floral Dance', leading listeners to expect that her song is the actual dance tune ever since. 80% of this composition is her own work, but she quotes the furry dance tune in the piano accompaniment to the chorus - though altering the melody in two bars. The song tells a simple and timeless story of dancefloor hope;

As I walked home on a Summer night
When stars in Heav'n were shining bright
Far away from the footlights's glare
Into the sweet and scented air
Of a quaint old Cornish town

Borne from afar on the gentle breeze
Joining the murmur of the summer seas
Distant tones of an old world dance
Played by the village band perchance
On the calm air came floating down

I thought I could hear the curious tone
Of the cornet, clarinet and big trombone
Fiddle, 'cello, big bass drum
Bassoon, flute and euphonium
Far away, as in a trance
I heard the sound of the Floral Dance

And soon I heard such a bustling and prancing
And then I saw the whole village was dancing
In and out of the houses they came
Old folk, young folk, all the same
In that quaint old Cornish town

Every boy took a girl 'round the waist
And hurried her off in tremendous haste
Whether they knew one another I care not
Whether they cared at all, I know not
But they kissed as they danced along.

And there was the band with that curious tone
Of the cornet, clarinet and big trombone
Fiddle, 'cello, big bass drum
Bassoon, flute and euphonium
Each one making the most of his chance
All together in the Floral Dance

I felt so lonely standing there
And I could only stand and stare
For I had no boy with me
Lonely I should have to be
In that quaint old Cornish town.

When suddenly hast'ning down the lane
A figure I knew I saw quite plain
With outstretched hands he came along
And carried me into that merry throng
And fiddle and all went dancing down.

We danced to the band with the curious tone
Of the cornet, clarinet and big trombone
Fiddle, 'cello, big bass drum
Bassoon, flute and euphonium
Each one making the most of his chance
Altogether in the Floral Dance.

Dancing here, prancing there
Jigging, jogging ev'rywhere
Up and down, and round the town
Hurrah! For the Cornish Floral Dance

The Brighouse & Rastrick Band wisely avoid giving the tune a 1977 jazzing-up, their straight reading meaning that the single stands up today as well as it did then. The only concession to pop arrangement is the addition of a drumbeat, which craftily draws the listener's attention to the inherent rhythm of the piece, rather than imposing one upon the song. There's also a neat piece of production, where the trumpets appear to be treated to sound as though heard at a distance just before the chorus, this drawing-back emphasising the warmth and surge of the tune. The piece as a whole seems to swell and overflow from the precise chassis of structure set by the drums, evoking and creating a real, tactile, sense of delight.

The band might have looked a bit severe on Top Of The Pops, but all of their concentration was spent on making the song glorious. The addictive experience of playing it is best undergone through hearing it on a seven inch single, lifting the needle back to the start for just one more time. Play it again! Play it again!

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