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The EFDSS - A Future
by Roger Marriot - Issue 27 June/July '98


There will be few readers of The Living Tradition who are members of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and probably many who really care little about it. Yet many (and certainly readers in England) owe it more than they realise, and should be concerned about its future.

A little history
The history of the EFDSS falls into three phases. From 1911 to 1939 it was concerned chiefly with the propagation of morris and sword dances, and the so-called Playford dances, first under its founding Director, Cecil Sharp, and after his death in 1924, under Douglas Kennedy. Although Kennedy attempted to shift the emphasis to traditional social dance as early as the late twenties, he met with considerable resistance from members, and it was only with the outbreak of war in 1939, that he was able to achieve his aim. Post-war, with a staff of about thirty, and several regional offices, and based upon traditional dance, the EFDSS was extremely successful. (In the early 50s they were queuing in the street to get into dances in Birmingham.) A country-wide local network was established, and many young people joined. There was collaboration with the BBC, and sponsorship of collecting activities in music and song. The EFDSS invented the folk festival, and several week-long teaching courses were held each year. The annual Albert Hall festival filled the hall for two nights and a children's matinZe. There were grants from central and local government, amounting to a sizable proportion of its annual income.

It is worth remembering that the Society at its best was far more than a successful organisation. It was a fellowship, within which friendships and marriages flourished, and which provided a possibility of social contacts across classes and throughout the country.

After Kennedy's retirement in 1961, there was a loss of strong central control. The members came to see the Society not as a mechanism for promoting dance and song to a wider public, but as a body to provide for their own leisure. They came to regard folk song and dance as recreations rather than as arts. Slowly the EFDSS slid downhill, losing staff and cutting back on its teaching activities. Simultaneously, there was an increase in commercial activity. The Society faced a situation where government funding was decreasing, and activities capable of generating money were being taken over by others. By 1986 the Society made redundant its last member of teaching staff, and decided that it could no longer bear the financial risk involved in promoting the Sidmouth festival.

In 1987 the Society's governing body came to the conclusion that the best option for its future was to sell the London HQ, Cecil Sharp House, and relocate into cheaper premises, putting the surplus into an endowment fund. This proposal met with furious opposition from a pressure group, the Friends of Cecil Sharp House. The desire to keep the building seems to have come from London and Home Counties members who used it as a clubhouse, and those with fond and nostalgic memories of the fifties. After a bitter campaign and an election marred by fraud, the Friends gained control.

In 1988 there was an offer of 2.3 million on the table, with a possible increase if certain planning consents could be obtained. This would (at 1988 prices) have provided adequate housing for the offices and library, and an endowment fund of about 1 million to run them. The sale was rejected by the new administration.

The battle for the Society was bitter. It destroyed the fellowship.

So... Does this matter in 1998? Do we need a traditional dance and song society of any description? I think we do, and for the reasons that follow.

The case for a national traditional arts body
is the maintenance and development of the Vaughan Williams Library, the foremost national repository of material concerning traditional dance, song and music. It contains Cecil Sharp's library, many of his notebooks and manuscripts, other important collections of papers, and films, photographs and sound recordings. Any person making a serious study of traditional musical arts will, sooner or later, come to need the resources of the Vaughan Williams Library, the focus of knowledge in the field.

Second is the encouragement and co-ordination of collection and research to further our knowledge. The tradition may be everlasting, but knowledge and understanding of it, as in any area of study, is subject to continual development.

Third is teaching in all its aspects - the dissemination of knowledge, and passing on the tradition to future generations - the running of workshops and courses, the publication of all types of teaching material, and teaching necessary skills.

Implicit in these activities is the development and propagation of a philosophy. Why is there a purpose in passing on a tradition? What is this purpose? What is the tradition? How is it most effectively passed on? Under what conditions does tradition flourish? Should there be a traditional arts movement ? If so, what is it? Is 'folk' an appropriate term? Is it the same as 'traditional'? Can either flourish in a world dominated by commercial interests? And so on... To recognise the questions is as important as to have answers.

Fourth is the upholding of standards. By this, I do not mean a sterile puritanism, engraved in stone, but the keeping of a watchful eye, to see that development does not destroy. This is a dilemma that faces all revivalists. We who today enjoy traditional music, song and dance should remember that we can do this only because the tradition, once near death, was revived. In an age of mass communication we can never be certain that the tradition will survive unaided - the social forces which attack it are always there. (In the past there was a trickle of innovation entering a lake of tradition. Today, there is a fire-hose aimed into a bucket.) The purpose of 'maintaining standards', is not to inhibit artistic growth and development, but to ensure that those who enter traditional arts, knowing little of them (as many will today), start from a basis of authentic tradition, and not at several stages removed from it. And, I would maintain, the concept of 'art' implies that some is good, some bad.

Fifth, there is need for a national coordinating mechanism, so that those involved in the traditional arts movement can work in co-operation, with each other, and with related bodies outside the folk world.

Sixth, there should be a national point of reference for contact with the traditional arts of other cultures.

Seventh, there is the maintenance of a disinterested presence, working within the traditional arts for the benefit of all, rather than for a particular section.

Currently, the most visible part of the world of what is commonly called 'folk' music is dominated by festival organisers, promoters and entertainment agencies, whose ability to provide bookings, fees and publicity has great influence over performers. A second, but growing influence, is that of the increasing band of arts administrators, who both solicit and dispense grants and subsidies. Underpinning this structure is the commercialisation of much of the folk scene, and its division into punters and performers. This world of folk has now much in common with 'show-biz', and the motive of personal self-expression is perhaps the dominating feature, to the point where the use of traditional material has been abandoned, and even a claim to be creating within a traditional framework is extremely difficult to sustain. This, I feel is an important point which must be clearly understood. Whether or not the performer is paid does not matter. What matters is motivation. Is the performer wishing to carry on a tradition and share it with others, or is he (or she) just hell-bent on getting up on a stage? Does the material come first, or the performer? (Remember Stanislavski: 'One must love the art in oneself, not oneself in the art'.) As Gerry Epstein has pointed out (Living Tradition No. 24), there is a difference between maintaining a tradition and providing entertainment.

There is clearly a need for a presence which can speak and act for those whose attitude to traditional dance, song and music is not primarily, largely, or even at all, derived from considerations of profit, or power, or career; a presence which can say, 'This we do because we believe in it, and if necessary, we will raise the money to do it at a loss, because it is right that it should be done'.

Such a presence would speak for those (and their numbers are consistently under-estimated) who wish to be neither paid performers nor paying punters, but participants . They carry on the traditional arts in a traditional way, meeting in pubs, clubs and each others' homes, and perhaps have a greater claim to be considered traditional artists than most. They have a fellowship based upon a shared enthusiasm.

Present state of the EFDSS
Forty years ago, the EFDSS had about 10,000 subscribing adherents (full members and associates). At the end of March l997 it had 3127 members. By now, assuming that the previous rate of decline continues, it will probably be less than 3000. Over 20% of members are reliably estimated to be Old Age Pensioners, and a survey a few years back revealed the average age of members to be over sixty years. This situation is not improving: to be blunt, the Society is literally dying out.

If one examines what the EFDSS actually does, a depressing picture emerges. Overwhelmingly the members are dancers, not singers. Furthermore, the dances they value and practise are not traditional, but revived dances from printed collections, or modern inventions in a similar style - the more complicated the better. (One recent invention has nine separate movements in thirty-two bars.)

Today, although each EFDSS member receives the Folk Music Journal and the quarterly English Dance and Song, there are perpetual complaints that both are 'too academic', and frequent calls to abolish the FMJ, often accompanied by the statement 'I throw it away as soon as it arrives'. A recent survey of library usage found that very few readers were EFDSS members.

The position of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library must be seen in context of the EFDSS structure.

The EFDSS is a charity, subject to charity law. It is also a company limited by guarantee. Each member, like a shareholder, has a vote at an AGM, and the members elect a governing National Council, which constitutes a board of directors for the company, who are also trustees of the charity. (The EFDSS only became a charity as late as 1963. The desire to obtain relief from rates seems to have been a consideration as important as any desire to do good to non-members.)

Cecil Sharp House is held as a subsidiary trust. (The EFDSS is the trustee.) The property is held 'to be used in perpetuity for the purposes of English Folk Dance and Song'. In practice, it is let out for other activities, and contributes to the Society, which could not now survive without the rent it generates.

The Vaughan Williams Library was created a trust in 1996. Again, the EFDSS is the trustee. It has no income except what the EFDSS gives it, what is contributed by the National Folk Music Fund, and grants from the Vaughan Williams Trust. It is accommodated in Cecil Sharp House. Library direct earnings (from admission fees and so forth) are slight.

The National Folk Music fund was established in 1958 to endow the Library. It is independent of the EFDSS, and though worthy of support, it cannot be said to have been the success hoped for at its launch, and assistance from the Vaughan Williams Trust has been vital to the Library for some years now. However, this grant has recently been cut, and (according to a well-informed source) further cuts are probable. Around 40% of the Library income is from outside the EFDSS.

Moreover, an offer of 250,000 from the VW Trust, to aid in relocating and expanding the Library within Cecil Sharp House, has now been withdrawn. The reason appears to be the Society's unwillingness to allow the VW Trust to have any representation on the Library Trust. (Considering it is the Vaughan Williams Library, this seems odd.)

Where does this leave us all?
The campaign of the Friends of Cecil Sharp House resulted in the building becoming Listed Grade II, which undoubtedly diminished its market value. The subsequent creation of inter-locking trusts within the EFDSS has made any reorganisation more difficult.

The EFDSS is now literally moribund. The prospect that a body of dancing pensioners could themselves have any serious impact on the traditional arts is not to be entertained. That they could organise and finance others to execute plans to promote what they do not themselves appear to value is improbable. With the abolition of its regional organisation it has ceased to exist as a national body. Despite having regional seats on the National Council, candidates to fill them are difficult to find.

The cost of running what is left of the Society and providing its members with periodicals is not covered by subscriptions. As at November 1997, the EFDSS had financial reserves well below the one- year reserve recommended by the Charity Commission.

The prospect of raising income from members or events is negligible. The likelihood of a grant from the National Lottery is remote. The Sports Council has cut its grant already and may do so again. Even if a substantial grant were obtained, the clarity of purpose and the machinery to use it does not exist. (The EFDSS has a new administrator every two or three years.) Without the rent from Cecil Sharp House, erected as a centre for English dance and song, but largely let out to the British American Drama Association, the whole organisation would collapse.

None of this matters. If the EFDSS folded tomorrow, traditional dance and song would hardly notice. What does matter is the Library.

Unfortunately, the Library Trust Deed contains a clause stating that it must not be moved out of Cecil Sharp House, which is situate at 2, Regents Park Road, London. Why was this clause inserted?

Events of the last few years suggest that the current EFDSS sees the Library, not as a valued asset, and the key to any traditional arts movement, but as a bargaining counter. By requiring the Library to be kept in Cecil Sharp House, those who control the Society have a card to play for the retention of this building, even if the books, manuscripts and recordings were in boxes in the basement. (Remember, the EFDSS turned down 250,000 rather than lose any control.)

Is there a way forward?
Common sense suggests that the way forward is for the Library to be made secure by whatever means, and in whatever location, and the Folk Music Journal and teaching activities to be associated with it. The EFDSS as it now stands, and Cecil Sharp House as a dance hall, are irrelevant to a future. The evidence is clear that the great majority of present Society members, whatever they say, are in practice not focussed on traditional arts, are not Library users, and are not active in teaching, performing, or research.

Such a reconstruction seems unlikely. There are gifted and dedicated people within the EFDSS who hope to reform it. The trouble is, there are not enough of them to have any effect. Reform would require the consent of the members, unless they vote themselves out of control. It would require money. It would require a vision extending beyond the latest complicated dance learned at a local club. It would require the recruitment and involvement of persons to whom the Society, as it stands, has little to offer and much to repel. In sum, it needs a revolution.

The eventual death of the EFDSS seems inevitable. In that event, the future of the Library would be uncertain. Legally, it may pass to a charitable body with similar aims and objects. Realistically, this would probably be some other library - a university's perhaps - as a successor body would have to find at least 50,000 p.a. and accommodation.

On the other hand, it is not impossible to create a fresh organisation, built on traditional arts - music, dance, song, story-telling - so as to teach them and pass them on, and seeking to create a new fellowship. It would always have the option to support the Library. There is plenty to do, and many willing to do it.

The EFDSS is dying - let a fresh torch pass to younger hands

Links, further information and recordings:

Read the response - printed in a later article