I was completely tongue-tied," says Steve Cleary, P.Eng., recalling his introduction to the Open Mike English folk music club at Brunel University in London, England. Cleary studied mechanical enginee...
I was completely tongue-tied,” says Steve Cleary, P.Eng., recalling his introduction to the Open Mike English folk music club at Brunel University in London, England. Cleary studied mechanical engineering at Brunel during London’s Swinging Sixties. Bands such as Pentangle and Steeleye Span topped the music charts and traditional songs were enjoying a popular resurgence.
Four decades later, it is hard to believe Cleary’s reticence to sing. With like-minded friends, he has transplanted English music and dancing traditions to Vancouver and sustained them with a distinctly West Coast edge.
After graduating in 1972, he moved to the Midlands and then arrived in Canada and settled in Sudbury with his family. His engineering career has since been spent in mining consulting, for Inco in Sudbury, Wright Engineers and then Cominco Engineering, which later became part of H.A. Simons and then AMEC. He started his own company, SPC Project Management in Vancouver in December 2006, specializing in facilitating group planning and workshops for mining projects.
Cleary first tiptoed into performing through a Morris dancing group at Brunel. After moving to Vancouver in 1979, Cleary helped form the Vancouver Morris Men with fellow engineer Graham Baldwin.
But it wasn’t until Expo 86 that he finally began singing as well as dancing in public. The Morris Men were performing during the fair and met Norman Stanfield, one of only a handful of North American musicians who played the pipe and tabor, an original Morris dancing accompaniment. Stanfield joined Cleary’s group and introduced them to Mummer plays. “All of a sudden we were singers, dancers and actors,” says Cleary.
Morris dancing is traditionally done in a market place and Vancouver’s Granville Island was a natural fit. They began with “guerrilla” appearances amongst the produce stands, but eventually they arranged to do performances with the market management. That led to their appearance every winter solstice for the past decade at False Creek’s Festival of Light.
The Morris Men attracted new members, many of whom also played instruments. About 70% of the members are of English background. Spin-off groups such as the Rattlebone Band were formed.
Then, “the thing exploded into other areas,” Cleary says. In 1999, he teamed up with Eric and Betty Armstrong, a script writer and theatre director respectively. They were the driving force behind “Now Christmas is Come,” a celebration of English midwinter traditions such as wassailing, Morris dancing and English folk music. The first show, staged over three nights in a rowing club, a legion hall and a cafe, was a sellout. “The reaction was overwhelming. We touched a cord with an audience that was probably 50% English,” says Cleary. Many in the audience return to the show every year. The Vancouver Morris Men, Tiddley Cove Morris (a women’s group) and the Rattlebone Band amalgamate as the Vancouver Folk Players to produce the show.
In the third year of “Now Christmas is Come,” Cleary took on his signature comedy character — Dame Clapp, the traditional pantomime dame. The character is thought to originate from a tradition of country folk poking fun at the gentry with outrageous cross-dressing and a falsetto voice. Show regulars eagerly look forward to Dame Clapp’s appearance.
“We have established something here that is quite special.” And like all traditions, it will evolve, says Cleary.
Heather Kent is a freelance writer based in Vancouver.