Morris and Maypole Return to Merrymount

The Inhabitants of Pasonagessit (having translated the name Ma-reMount [MerryMount]; ... did devise amongst themselves to have it performed in a solemne manner with Revels, & merriment after the old English custome: prepared to sett up a Maypole upon the festivall day of Philip and Jacob .... And because they would have it in a complete forme, they had prepared a song fitting to the time and present occasion. And upon Mayday they brought the Maypole to the place appointed, with drums, guns, pistols, and other fitting instruments, for that purpose ; and there erected it with the help of Salvages, that came thether of purpose to see the manner of our Revels. A goodly pine tree of 80 foot long, was reared up, with a pair of buckshorns nailed one, somewhat neare unto the top of it : where it stood as a faire sea marke for directions; how to finde out the way to mine Hoste of Ma-reMount.

May 2008 marks the 381st anniversary of the first and most celebrated Maypole in North America at Merrymount, in Quincy, MA. English trader, attorney, and adventurer Thomas Morton brought his West Country customs from Devon in 1624, and raised a Maypole in 1627 to revel with the Massachusetts and other Native peoples at the Merrymount settlement.

The Plimoth Puritans disapproved. Myles Standish arrested Morton in 1628 for trading in guns and liquor. Morton was exiled without trial on the Isles of Shoals, shipped back to England, tried, and then freed to return to his "New Canaan." Pilgrim John Endicott chopped down the Maypole and the Puritans of Boston burned Merrymount. Morton settled in Maine and died there in 1647, after having been instrumental in revoking the Pilgrims' Massachusetts Bay Colony charter. Sadly, it came too late for his Maypole.

In celebration of Morton's life and times, morris dancers will raise a Maypole on the site in Quincy, MA (map) and dance around the Maypole as we did in 2007. Quincy native Chris Pahud leads us in the title song from his CD Morton's Return, composed by Jim Ryan who also sang and danced with us that day. Check out Chris's MySpace page for his arrangement of Morton's Songe.

There was likewise a merry song made, which (to make their Revells more fashionable) was sung with a chorus, every man bearing his part; which they performed in a dance, hand in hand about the Maypole, whiles one of the Company sung, and filled out the good liquor like gammedes and Jupiter.

Drinke and be merry, merry, merry boyes,
Let all your delight be in Hymens joyes,
Lo to Hymen now the day is come,
About the merry Maypole take a Roome.

Make greene garlands, bring bottles out;
And fill sweet Nectar, freely about,
Uncover thy head, and feare no harm,
For here's good liquor to keepe it warme.

(For group participation, the morris dancers sing The Songe to our familiar traditional tune of Staines Morris, sung each May morning on the banks of the Charles River from 1974 to this coming Mayday.)

The Merrymount Maypole festivities are part of the 2008 Kettle of Fish Morris Ale, organized by Red Herring Morris of Belmont, MA. This year we will have a special guest, Morton scholar Jack Dempsey, who has produced both a critical biography of Morton and a new edition of the colonist's New English Canaan. Dr. Dempsey, who teaches at Bentley College, has also written a movie script about Morton's 1627 Revells, entitled Merrymount: A True Adventure Comedy. Jack will be leading an informal discussion on Morton's life and times on Maypole Hill while we await the morris dancers' return.

I look forward to researching and photographing traditional and revival West Country Maypole sites and customs from Morton's home ground of Devon and Plymouth on my August 1-15 trip to Sidmouth Folk Week this summer. I'll be the guest of Mike Gibson and the Middle Bar Singers for their session at the Anchor Inn, continuing on to South Devon and Cornwall the following week.

For more information about Thomas Morton and Merrymount, check out my collection of links tagged Merrymount. Or enjoy this video of Staines Morris and other dawn festivities at the 2003 Newtowne Mayday on the Charles.