Rollicking Rapper
The Kingsmen's 1951 Tours

This article by Bill Cassie describes the 1951 tours of the King's College Morris Men, who later became the Newcastle Kingsmen and who celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1999. It was first published in English Dance and Song in 1952.

RAPPER dances are often performed before audiences of folk dancers that treat the dance as music enthusiasts treat a symphony – in respectful silence. The applause at the end may be appreciative, and these audiences well aware of subtleties of performance, but only amongst the pitmen of the rapper country does the full rollicking flavour of the dance become apparent.

For the third year in succession the Morris Men of King's College in the University of Durham have made a winter tour of the Tyneside villages – ostensibly to help in the College's annual collection for medical research, but in reality to enjoy dancing, in the authentic atmosphere. On some evenings there were three teams out, each covering a different route, the experienced dancers ‘talking’ the beginners through; on other evenings a ‘crack’ team with a longer repertoire would visit districts where native rapper skill is high and where a more polished performance was appropriate. “Ye're brave chaps comin' here,” said one old miner to me; “this is whear the champeens come fra.”

One of the pleasant aspects of these tours is that there is no need to explain to the audiences what it is all about. “The sword dancers!” they say when we appear, and settle down to enjoy the show. They have seen it often in the past, and there's not so much sword dancing now, but it warms their hearts to see it again.

The rooms in these working men's clubs and pubs may be large or small but they have several features in common -smoke, noise, friendly welcome and lots of beer. The mouth organ or tin whistle sets the feet tapping; the traditional cry of “Ha-way me bonny lads” is heard from a table in the corner, and the antics of the Betty are hailed with roars of delight. Sometimes movement is restricted, even after tables and chairs have been pushed back to clear a space. The nearest people tuck their feet in, and No. 1 guides the team so that they don't trip over the table legs. Sometimes there is a tiny stage so small that the musician must wedge himself between the piano and the wall, and in the single guard figure careful control is required. At Swalwell, the preliminary clash of the rappers brought down the Christmas decorations, to the delight of the crowd.

The pitmen don't mind what dance is performed; to them it is just “the sword dance.” At one time teams performed in every village, and figures were copied and interchanged; if the team could develop a new figure they did. The artificial ‘freezing’ of the rapper traditions by publication indicates a static condition which never existed. To the Walbottle men, for example, ‘North Walbottle’ includes most of the so-called ‘Newbiggin’ figures, and it is doubtful whether ‘North Walbottle’ is a correct title; Westerhope was a much stronger centre for this particular variant of the rapper tradition.

These merry evenings held many amusing incidents. There is the tough old miner who jocularly told us to clear out. He had no need of research on peptic ulcers! To prove his point, he pulled up his pullover and stood with a broad grin on his face while the team solemnly punched a stomach apparently made of the best cast iron. There were others who, given the slightest encouragement, would have shown us their operations! We met many old sword dancers, and the leader of the old Prudhoe team said he had seen someone on the wrong foot! “The Winlaton men neevor dae that!” said one old boy in a disapproving tone, and at Westerhope there was great disappointment that, on that visit, we didn't ‘coup the rapper’ (i.e. do a back somersault). Although we do coup the rapper when the right man is at No. 3, it might have been, as Cecil Sharp remarks, a “dangerous movement” in the crowded bars and clubrooms.

The stay at each club was short, for the liquid hospitality showered on us at each stop would have made the dancing unconventional, if not peculiar. We still have memories of a tall member of one team leaning over a diminutive pitman while they both spelled out in loud unison “B-E-D-L-I-N-G-T-O-N.” The pitman was convinced that there, and there only, the rapper and terrier dogs were at their finest. The only person who felt himself to be in a foreign land was the Chairman of one of the Midland Districts of the E.F.D.S., who prefers to remain anonymous! We took him with us as he happened to be in the area, but although the friendly handshakes of the miners could be understood, their flow of anecdote and comment was to him quite incomprehensible. Indeed, there was one ancient and toothless conversationalist whose remarks confounded even native members of the team. It was, as in past years, rollicking rapper with the right background. In Westerhope, Blaydon, Swalwell, Winlaton, Dudley, Ryton, Shiremoor and many other villages the ancient dance of Northumbria came to life once more.