We often dance to the music of the pipe and tabor, considered by some to be the seminal instrument of the morris. You can go directly to the Taborers Society here.
These are Peter's comments.
The pipe and tabor is a pair of musical instruments played from medieval times onward often for dance. Commonly played individually in England but more usually in consort in European countries such as France and Spain.
Evidence for the ancient nature of pipe and tabor playing is manifold, for example, some pipes survive in the collection from ‘The Mary Rose’ King Henry VIII’s warship sunk in 1545; there are quotations in contemporary texts such as William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; and an illustration in the ‘Betley Window’ a stained glass panel currently in the Victoria and Albert museum dated between 1550 and 1621. Click the picture for a larger version.
The key parts of the morris version of the instrument are a three holed pipe and a snared drum.
My understanding of a definition of a Tabor being ‘a drum commonly with a snare used with a three holed pipe’. Consequently any drum used as such becomes a tabor. More typically morris players use string tensioned drums with skin heads and a snare on the bottom. Surviving drums from the beginning of the 20th century are small enough to hang from the fingers of the pipe hand, having been fashioned from cheese boxes. Earlier illustrations suggest much deeper drums being used hung from the waist.
My current favoured tabor is quite large being some 12” deep and 10” in diameter. It has skin heads, a double gut snare and a cloth damper in the bottom head. This provides me with a drum that creates volume, a note I can tune to C (typically the key in which I play), but has a brief enough reverberation for the rapid beating typical for morris. It was made for me by Marcus Music.
The pipes, known either as ‘three holed pipes’ or ‘tabor pipes’ are somewhat harder to obtain. However basic versions can be made either from adapting tin whistles or other suitable tubes (I have one I made from a goose bone stopped with beeswax). In principle these are three holed in nature, though longer ones often have a fourth and a hook from which to balance the pipe.
My preferred pipes were made for me by Jim Jones when I was 15, and I have not yet found their match. Though I have several of different sizes and hence keys, the one used most often is a ‘G’ pipe just over 18” long made from stainless steel. It is tuneable via a telescopic sleeve near the upper end. On occasion, to play with other instruments I move to a ‘D’ pipe of 11½”in length.
Three holed pipes utilise the principle of over blows on a tube open at one end. A pipe producing a fundamental note of ‘G’ over blows at an octave, followed by a fifth, then a forth. Consequently three holes enable a full scale plus a few further notes at the top end providing the first, second and third over blows are used. A consequence of this however is that the ‘G’ pipe as preferred by myself is in fact played usually in ‘C’ for this allows a Morris tune, of about an octave, above & below the key note to be accommodated.
Effective playing of the two instruments can be a little difficult to master at first (as both hands are required to do different things at the same time), but by learning and mastering the pipe first drum rhythms can then be used to support the dancing. Hence players typically lead with the drum but need a good understanding of the dance for this to be effective. Few good morris musicians are unable to dance well.
My personal history with morris dance and music goes back as far as I can remember. I was involved in country dancing through my parents’ connection with the Avencroft folk dance group and the Birmingham folk festivals from when I was born. It was at these groups I first encountered members of Green Man's Morris and Sword Club in the form of Colin Spencer, Bob Bailes, Dick Hodges, Cliff Day, Ken Smith, and John Burgess, plus others in the festivals (also one or two members of Jockey Morris men in passing). During holidays as a child with the Folk Camps society (a division of the EFDSS) I encountered a wide range of other morris, sword, rapper and clog dance learning a little from each as I went.
At the age of 14 as my father and brother Tim were already members of Green Man so it was natural for me to join too. I was in the fortunate position though of knowing many dances already and having even danced with the club at a couple of bookings when they were short on numbers. Over the next few years there were a number of other sons from the club who joined too providing much youth and energy to the club’s dance. I danced in to gain my club head some 12 months after joining while on a tour in the Black Country. I have been a member of the club ever since - some 28 years now!
As for morris music, soon after joining the club, Bob Bailes (the Fool) turned up at our house with a tabor pipe and instructed me – “Here, you want to learn to play that!” this instruction I duly followed, finding more relevance in morris music than that for the French Horn I was charged with by my school. This pipe, a brass affair in the key of C with a lead block (!) in the mouthpiece soon progressed to ‘Generation’ D pipes with a catering size coffee tin (with plastic lid) as an improvised tabor.
In learning the problem I had was there was no one I knew who could advise me. All I had available was a recording of Bert Cleaver playing ‘The Vandals of Hammerwich’ on the LP ‘Morris On’ to go by. The most support I received was 12 months later, when on a holiday, through a chance meeting with Ron Eldridge of the Sherborne men. He most willingly gave me a few days tuition and the contact details for Jim Jones the maker of his pipes. From thereon I developed my own style, though influenced by the comments of Jim and listening to the playing of Bert Cleaver, and Mike Chandler at Morris Ring meetings. Since then it has been more often the case that I have been advising those wishing to play themselves. I do feel however that my development has probably been much in the true style of the folk tradition plus as moulded from an understanding of dance better in keeping with the needs of the club.
The unusual nature of the instrument and it’s affinity with the dance makes me understand how dancers interviewed by Cecil Sharp reported difficulty in dancing to any other form of music and so I hope to be able to contribute to maintaining its place as a feature of our Morris for many years to come.
Peter Taylor, January 2007. Please contact the Webmaster if you would like to get in touch with Peter.
There is a lot of information about the pipe and tabor available on the internet. This one gives a lot of good background.