History of the English Dance and Song Society
by Derek Schofield
The English Folk Dance and Song Society was formed in 1932 by the merger of two organisations, the Folk-Song Society and the English Folk Dance Society formed by Cecil Sharp in 1911.
The Folk-Song Society, founded in 1898, was the outcome of a number of individual folk song collectors and enthusiasts who wanted to share their experience and improve the quality of collecting and publishing. No geographical limit was set to the Society's activities, and although the main interest were the folk songs of Britain and Ireland, the Journal of the Folk-Song Society published articles from other countries as well.
From 1904, the Folk-Song Society became the focus of the new breed of folksong collectors, led by Cecil Sharp, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth, George Gardiner, Henry Hammond, Annie Gilchrist and Ella Leather, and the Journal published songs from this 'golden age' of folksong collecting.
The First World War was a watershed: by 1918 many of the collectors were reaching old age, and it was felt that folksong would not have survived the horrors of the war. Some collecting took place, and the Journal continued to be published, but by the late 1920's, it was (wrongfully) assumed that all the folksongs had been collected.
The English Folk Dance Society was founded in 1911 by Cecil Sharp. Sharp's folksong collecting, which started in 1903, was preceded by his meeting with the Headington Quarry Morris Dancers and their musician, William Kimber, on Boxing Day 1899. Apart from noting the tunes, he did no more until 1905 when Mary Neal, who organised the Esperance Girls' Club in London, asked Sharp if there were any folk dances which she could teach the girls. Sharp remembered the Morris dancers, and William Kimber was invited to London to teach. This proved to be the start of the Morris dance revival.
The purpose of the EFDS was to preserve and promote English folk dances in their traditional forms, and Sharp was aided in the Society's formation by two sisters, Helen and Maud Karpeles. The Society's repertoire included Morris and sword dances, traditional social dances, and Sharp also devised interpretations of the dances published by John Playford. Again, the First World War had a dramatic effect, but the popularisation of folk dance continued.
In 1924, Cecil Sharp died, and the English Folk Dance Society set about a fund-raising campaign for a memorial building to serve as the national headquarters. Cecil Sharp House was opened in 1930, and Sharp's replacement as Director of the Society, Douglas Kennedy (married to Helen Karpeles) invited the Folk-Song Society to merge to form the English Folk Dance and Song Society.
By the late 1930's, Douglas Kennedy recognised that changes to the EFDSS were needed: there was too much reliance on Sharp's published dances, with little scope for evolution of style, interpretation, repertoire and context to take account of changing conditions.
The Second World War delayed change, but also gave Kennedy the opportunity to plan and introduce structural and artistic change. A new network of Districts replaced the older Branches and staff were employed and directed centrally. A 'folk dancing for all' policy was introduced so that folk dance could become a social activity once again. This required an 'easier' repertoire of traditional dances, with some imports of American square dances; the dance 'caller' to explain the dance movements (another American import); and folk dance bands in the style of the London-based The Folk Dance Band, whose members were Nan and Brian Fleming-Williams, Helen and Douglas Kennedy.
The post-1945 period saw a renewed interest in folksong, largely stimulated by the experience in the USA. Much of the new interest took place outside the EFDSS, although the EFDSS made essential contributions to the movement. These contributions included the resources contained in the Society's Library, named the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, in 1958 following the death of its President. The EFDSS, through its employee Peter Kennedy (son of Douglas and Helen), worked with the BBC on a major scheme to record traditional folksong, music and custom for the BBC Archive, and copies of the recordings were added to the Library.
One of the greatest contributions that the EFDSS made to the folk movement, both dance and song, was the folk festival. Starting with the Stratford-upon-Avon Festival in the 1940s, it was Douglas Kennedy's vision to take folk dance back to the population as a whole, and public performance and participation were encouraged. The Sidmouth Festival started in 1955 as an EFDSS event for dancers, but the events were gradually expanded to include folk song and international dance and music. Later, festivals in Whitby, Holmfirth, Chippenham and elsewhere were started by the EFDSS, and in many ways the format of what a folk festival should look like was established by the EFDSS.
Douglas Kennedy retired in 1961 and after a period of time S A (Nibs) Matthews became Artistic Director, later Director, retiring in 1986.
Eventually, and inevitably perhaps, many of the activities which the EFDSS founded continued outside the Society. The EFDSS is proud that these seedbed activities have flourished and the organisation looks forward to the challenges and new role for the EFDSS in the future.