Pagan rituals and vodka tears: A Sweep’s Festival diary

Prelude: Waking Jack

Morris Dancers, seen walking between cars in the dark at five am, are a pretty menacing yet surreal sight. I follow behind a group them, at a distance, their jackets of primary colours at odds with the black face paint. As yet, there are no bells to be heard.

Entering Blue Bell Hill, I’m momentarily convinced space and time have warped and brought a tiny part of the Glastonbury festival to me, but this passes and I look around at the scene. To my left is a halo of flaming pots, around a tall bush, that I have seen a few times at the closing parade of the Sweeps festival: this is our Jack in the Green.

Many people are milling around, preparing to wake Jack up. I look around for any serious Beltane revellers, but I realise quickly that most people here probably woke up around four am to put on black face and sling their bags and sticks into their cars before driving here.

There are no drunken wiccans, no committed pagans that had been dancing around a fire all night. I think I was expecting a few in the crowd, but I was trying to function after a stupid three hour nap that was meant to be a full night’s sleep so my expectations were hazy.

The waking of the Jack in the Green ceremony has been going on for at least four years: I only say that because that was the first time I ever heard of it, for all I know it may have been going on for hundreds of years.

My original plan was to actually ask a few people who seemed like they knew, but extreme tiredness meant that I was only communicating through lame grunts and clicks at this point, so I thought it best to just find a corner and just enjoy the proceedings.

The place was filling up now, a mixture of Morris Dancers that were there to participate and people (including various families) there for the spectacle. I overheard a few people saying they were glad that it wasn’t raining, like last year. I’ve been at music festivals when it rains, so I can understand the horror involved trying to participate in a downpour.

There was a hush in the crowd. A Morris Dancer with a child on his shoulders approached the Jack in the Green with what looked like a giant daisy chain. This was thrown over the top, and sat there like a crown. This elicits a cheer from the crowd. Then the group of Morris Dancers with the tassled jackets of primary colours surround the Jack and the ceremony begins, with a song:

Now winter is over I'm happy to say
And we're all met again in our ribbons so gay
And we're all met again on the first day of spring
To go about dancing with Jack in the green 

These words are sung by a Morris Dancer in an orange jacket, before those that know the next lines join in:

Jack in the green, Jack in the green
To go about dancing with Jack in the green 

The song gives me chills, whether it’s the solemn intonation, or the fact that the words are full of history I can’t tell, but I know instinctively that this is the only way a ceremony like this could start. My imagined post Beltane bacchanalia is forgotten. The song finishes are there is traditional, typical Morris Dancing, the likes of which I know I will be watching at the Sweeps festival the coming weekend. I watch each of the groups do their first dance, my dad (who has attended several of these) tells me that each group does two dances.

Rudely, my stomach makes me aware I need to fill it and soon so my dad and I leave the site, but I know that I have witnessed the Jack in the Green being woken up, and that I’ll see many of the same dancers on Saturday, where there will be dancing and flowing ale, and hopefully sunshine.

The Sweep’s Festival:  Gypsy-punk skiffle and ritual liver abuse

The last thing I really remember from the Friday night before the Sweeps festival started was many many vodka martinis and the primal bluesy growl of Stuart Turner, warming up his vocals the same way I was warming up my liver for the weekend, both in the garden of the Singapora Lounge.

I felt it fitting to return there on Saturday morning (under strong complaint from my booze soaked internal organs) to try some ales and listen to Sweeps festival favourites: bawdy performers of skiffle Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs.

I’d already shouldered my way through Rochester High Street, stopping to watch another bunch of festival regulars, morris dancing troupe Wolfshead and Vixen, outside the cultural abyss chain pub Wetherspoons.

I had  seen Wolfshead and Vixen help kick off proceedings upon Bluebell Hill at dawn the Wednesday before, taking their turn at the ceremony of the waking of the Jack in the Green, but it’s always fun to watch a group of people who look like extras from a parallel dimension version of Mad Max, set in the South Downs instead of the Outback where the people are  committed pagans rather than leather-clad bikers.

Into the Singapora where my liver weeps tears of pure vodka, past the spirit bottles with the glass skull in the middle: a brand owned by actor Dan Aykroyd (a fact that the evening before had completely blown my mind), and into the garden that is a dad’s wet dream of decking.

Then to the ‘FU-BAR’ to sample some Black Dragon cider, that at 7.2% ABV makes my liver convulse and thrash inside me. I find a space at the back, in my shambolic state missing the fact that the area in front of me is raised which means all I could see of the band was a couple of top hats. Hobo Jones start to a packed marquee, which includes, amongst the crowd, a few children.

I mention the children because, if you haven’t ever witnessed Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs, they like to shout out a fair few expletives. This doesn’t stop people from bringing kids to see a group that play skiffle covers, that have transcended their faux vagrant gimmick to look really cool and have a lead singer that looks like post ‘Young Ones’ Alexei Sayle who incites the audience to bellow swear words. So the kids in the audience get to hear gutter language, not just from the band but from an enthralled bunch of adults, presumably including their own parents.

Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs are comprised of three members:  Hobo Jones himself, who plays the one stringed tea chest bass and guitar; Vagabond Johnson, who plays the washboard and Miser Bill who plays guitar and kazoo.

They perform skiffle covers of bands like The Clash, Led Zepplin, AC/DC and Green Day and some of their own tracks (which are available on an album, the front cover of which is a photo taken outside of the Man of Kent pub) and some country and folk standards, like ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ (which over the course of the Sweeps weekend I heard about eight thousand different renditions of) and an amazing, crowd pleasing ‘Drunken Sailor’.

The band does two sets. The songs in the first set seem to take a back seat to audience interaction and swearing, which I assume is to give audience members who will be stopping only briefly what they want before they leave to see more morris dancing groups and find themselves to not be able to walk more than ten yards before the crowds of people make it impossible to move (grump grump).

The second set goes the other way and the songs become the focus with the comedy drops a notch. I wish I could remember the set list better, but trying to enjoy both the band and the ales meant I was enjoying the music on a primal, scream-the-words-into-my-dads-ear way and not in an ‘I think I’ll write about this later for the Broadside’ way.

I do recall the bands rendition of ‘Drunken Sailor’ being the penultimate song and had the whole audience hollering along and that it seemed like the perfect song to end on, it seemed like the perfect song full stop at this point in the day. But it wasn’t the final song.

The final song was the loudest spectacle of audience participation I’ve ever witnessed. This time, instead of provoking the crowd to bawl expletives, the band handed out assorted pots and pans and spoons and many other household items that could be whacked like percussion to make a terrible cacophony and bangs and clangs and other sharp onomatopoeic word-sounds. I’d like to think that noise was loud enough to be heard over the din from the High Street.

The song finishes and the terrible noise stops. Hobo Jones thanks the audience for being amazing, (which is equally reciprocated from the clapping and cheers) and there is the obligatory plug for the bands CD, and the crowd start to thin out.

If you ignore the spectacle going on outside the Singapora, the wandering drunks, the amazingly dressed morris dancing troupes, the smells of dozens of different stalls selling burgers and hotdogs and all the other bands that make Medway seem so vibrant and are intrinsically linked to the Sweeps festival, this set feels like reverse TS Elliot: this is how the festival begins, not with a whimper but with a bang, a crash, a clang, a cheer, some (many) swear words, and lots of ale.

Words: Dan Adie

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