My alarm went off at 4:15 this a.m., which is strange enough all by itself but even stranger when you consider that not just my alarm but the alarms of scores of Morris dancers from the four active teams in the Twin Cities went off about the same time. I suppose thousands of alarms of Morris dancers all over the U.S went off at their time-zone equivalents (I'm not certain how widespread the practice of dancing in the dawn on Mayday is in England, whence this tradition arises). Morris dancers, by the way, are not generally known for being the healthy, wealthy, and wise of Mr. B. Franklin's proverb, so this mass lunatic behavior should have some great significance, indeed.
But it doesn't. Oh, well, any random Morris dancer will wax glib on ritual and seasonal cycles. I myself explained to my boss (when I realized that a work obligation would prevent me from taking the morning off so that I would arrive in a sort of costume and incredibly exhausted) that I had to dance in the May, to ensure that the crops would come in this year and that summer would come 'round again (that's always the kicker in Minnesota). But these explanations we give are lies. Not lies, I guess, but coded communications of why we dance Morris, something that can't be explained in words. If we could explain it in words, we wouldn't need to dance it. So we tell tales of suspect historical accuracy, letting people think we are charmingly touched in the head rather than dangerously crazed.
This is the outline of Mayday, minus the stuff that really matters: We all head out to this big plateau overlooking the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Each team does some dances, and everybody together does some dances. We tend a fire, where some people burn their Christmas trees (to signify the end of winter) and the kids who have come roast marshmellow "peeps" (I consider that one of the more disgusting of the Minnesota Mayday rituals). Then we go to breakfast, where we sing some very specific Mayday songs (Hal and toe, Jolly Rumbalo; We were up long before the day-o; To welcome in the summer, to welcome in the May-O). Those who can take the day off work spend it traveling around the Twin Cities doing "Guerilla (Gorilla?) Morris" -- gathering at various institutions and public places, dancing, and moving on. At 6 pm each local team meets at a different corner of downtown Minneapolis and dances towards the IDS Tower, where everybody does a big dance before heading over to a tavern and drinking beer and singing songs.
Here's the stuff that really matters: It is dawn, you've been up a long time already, it is quite cold (this morning's 40 degrees and partial sun was the warmest Mayday dawn I remember since moving here), and there, waiting for you and arriving by the carload, are dozens and dozens of other people, many of whom are very important to you. You have all decided to be together -- to practice for months and months, to wear bells on your shins and archaic baldrics -- strictly for your own pleasure. There is no audience for the morning's dancing (although over the years some of the folks who live in the neighborhood have started to make it a tradition to come and watch). There is nobody making any money off the dancing (although this morning we decided that Dayton's ought to have a Morris department, the way they have a Girl Scout department). This is all done by and for and because of ourselves. This happens because a hundred or so people want it to happen. Nobody is in charge, although specific Mayday events sometimes require a squire.
This is a way of being with other people. This is a way of affirming connections. This is also great fun. I don't think I have ever heard anybody even question out loud why they are getting up so darned early and putting on kit.
I have spent my life living in a culture that has rejected art as participation and replaced it with art as commodity. I have seen music as something to be purchased and agented and sold. I see people who think it is important to know what band is "new", what musical trend is "hot", to whom the idea that music could have a lifetime or even many lifetimes of resonance and significance is "cute" (at best). I have seen dance turned into something that divides into the professionally-skilled and their observers. I'm part of this culture -- and I don't entirely reject it. But I also know -- intimately know -- these assorted pockets where music and dance retain the meanings that I absolutely believe they have held for longer than written memory. I have seen and felt the significance, the deep-down pervasive joy that being part of a culture and community, even self-defined, can bring. I read tale after tale of personal isolation and alienation -- I even read of entire generations who feel they can be characterized this way -- and I start to believe that the marginalization and loss of participatory ritual, which I believe has happened, is not a good thing.
Remember, though, that since I am a Morris Dancer, you are advised to take anything I say that even approaches applying significance to Morris Dancing as the mutterings of a fool.