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May Day Festivals in America, 1830 to the Present.

May Day Festivals in America, 1830 to the Present

Allison Thompson. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 2009. Illus. Bibliog. Index. ISBN 978-0-7864-3915-7. [x] + 270 pp. [pounds sterling]46.95.

Allison Thompson is an American dance historian, dancer, and musician, who has written on themes of social and folk dance in literature. In this volume, she examines several manifestations of a custom in which she participated as a young woman, and which, somewhat diminished, still persists to this day. English-style May Day celebrations had, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, become widespread and popular in certain parts of the United States. The illustration on the front cover of a massed children's maypole dance in remote Mendon, Utah, is just one example of a community-based festival that has continued for well over a century. These are not remnants of colonial celebrations, but rather an invented tradition that was transplanted and took root. Ironically, North American May queens often flourished in populations that were largely of non-English descent.


Sadly, twenty-first-century authors must still debunk the 'ancient pagan fertility ritual' myths surrounding maypoles and morris dancing. Thompson makes her stand, backed by authorities such as Ronald Hutton, Roy Judge, and John Forrest. Instead of a long-standing tradition with mystical origins, 'Merrie May Day', Thompson writes, was a 'construction of romantic poets, nostalgic antiquarians, and politicians with varying agendas' (p. 25). John Ruskin's well-known involvement with the Whitelands College May Queen festival is given its own chapter, and she shows that this was not the only source, but rather one of many tributaries. The pervasive imagery and symbolism found in these events has such a literary basis that one feels the lack of a bibliography of relevant works.

Once the initial seed was planted in American soil, it thrived. Thompson traces the trends that contributed to its growth, including the endorsement of folk dance as a beneficial recreation for children and young women, the burgeoning pageantry movement and its efforts at building social unity through large-scale open-air performances, attempts to anglicize the influx of European immigrants, the encouragement of 'womanly' virtues among female college students, and politicians who vied with one another in supporting large, elaborate civic festivities in order to impress potential voters. To some extent, the civic and collegiate May Day celebrations fed upon each other. Participants in the college festivals went forth as teachers and charitable workers to spread the May Day celebrations to schools, rural communities, and inner cities. Instructors in pageantry and folk dance (including Cecil Sharp, in one instance) were deeply involved in both forms of the custom.

The book is divided into two sections--May Day and the college festivals--and is illustrated throughout. Part one explains how and when the English plaited maypoles and May queens came into being, and describes their importation into North America. Thompson discusses the rise and decline in the popularity of May queens and festivals, the often immense size and complexity of the productions, the selection of the queens and their entourages, and the costumes, dances, music, and dramatic pieces that featured in these events. She concludes this section with a discussion of May Day today and its relevance as a community-based custom, steeped in nostalgia for a time that never was. She writes: 'Celebrating May Day satisfied and still satisfies a basic need to experience a repeated, calendar-based celebration, that offers us a sense--even if it is illusory--of permanence and continuity'(p. 180).

In the second part, Thompson lists eighty colleges that held May festivals that included the five key elements of procession, coronation, one or more maypoles, dancing, and a pageant or play given in the queen's honour. She admits her methods for discovering which schools held festivals were less than scientific, but the result appears to be a reasonable cross-section. She had initially anticipated that the festivals would be limited to small, women-only institutions, but soon discovered them at large, mixed-gender universities too. Each school is listed, with its location and a brief description, followed by a summary of its celebrations. Thompson depends heavily on the work of the many archivists who provided information such as starting and ending dates and sent her copies of relevant articles and photographs. She also contacted a few former May queens, a more thorough exploration of which would be a fascinating study in itself.

The text is free of needless jargon, though occasionally marred by hyperbole. Thompson writes in a conversational style, which enlivens a potentially dry survey. In the process, she sheds light on the changing nature of young womanhood as reflected in the evolution of the May festival in North America. This is a readable account of an intriguing and largely unexplored custom and the culture that gave rise to it.


Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, London
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Author:Bradtke, E.
Publication:Folk Music Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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