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The EFDSS - The Tradition Lives
by Derek Schofield & Martin Frost -
Issue 28 August/September '98


In this article Derek Schofield and Martin Frost offer a different perspective of the EFDSS. Roger Marriott's guest editorial - Living Tradition 27 - posed some fundamental questions about the EFDSS. This has provoked healthy debate and prompted people to consider whether they should again add their efforts to furthering the aims of the EFDSS. This centenary year is a crucial time for the organisation and there is much internal discussion taking place.

As Mark Twain once said, "The report of my death was an exaggeration", and so it is with the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). Roger Marriott's guest editorial in the last issue of The Living Tradition, "The EFDSS - a future?" concludes, "The eventual death of the EFDSS seems inevitable". However, any organisation that has operated for 100 years will have had a fair share of success and failure, but to select isolated points does not give a true picture and to call for a new organisation is not always the answer.

There is little point revisiting the past: Roger does that in the article, and although his personal interpretation of the history of the EFDSS can be queried in a couple of instances, many of his facts are correct and indeed his concerns are shared by the elected National Council (NC) of the EFDSS.

The EFDSS has remained central to the folk and traditional music, dance and song movement since 1898. There is a wide recognition within the membership, and especially amongst the elected NC of the EFDSS, that the organisation must continue to evolve if it is to meet, and be relevant to, future needs, preserve traditions and continue making the valued contribution to the folk arts it has made in the past. Indeed, over recent months, the NC has been considering what this change and emphasis should be and, as a result, a new Strategic Plan, 1998-2001 has just been published.

The pessimistic view of Roger's article that the EFDSS has no future, that the existence of the Library would be threatened by the demise of the EFDSS and that a new organisation would always have the option of supporting the Library is in a way a rallying call for the existence of the EFDSS. Central to the Strategic Plan is recognition of the importance of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (VWML), and central to the future of the EFDSS is the development of the Library. This is not simply an option but a commitment to support, preserve and develop a valuable national resource.

A new organisation called for by Roger Marriott is not the answer. It simply would not have the resources for this level of commitment and the Library's future could not be guaranteed. The answer is respond to developing needs, introduce reform and change and plan for the future from the EFDSS's strengths - thereby protecting the VWML for future generations.

The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library
What is the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library? When folk song and dance collector Cecil Sharp died in 1924, his collection of books formed the basis of the Cecil Sharp Library in the memorial building Cecil Sharp House. Enlarged by donation and purchase, plus the addition of the Folk Song Society's library in 1932, the Library was re-named in memory of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was also the EFDSS's President, in 1958.

Today, the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (VWML) is England's national archive and resource centre for folk music, dance and song. It is a multi-media collection, which includes books, periodicals, manuscripts, records, tapes, CDs, photographic images, films, videos and artefacts. It contains the originals or copies of almost all the major fieldwork collections carried out in England in the 20th century, either in manuscript or audio formats. Quite apart from the materials it contains, many of which are unique, the crucial value of the Library lies in the fact that all the various media relevant to the subject are held in one place and can be consulted together. The collections include many important materials from the whole of Britain and Ireland, as well as from other countries, especially the USA.

The VWML is the essential first source of information and repertoire for all those involved in performance in the folk arts. Singers looking for repertoire and information about singing style use the Library - just ask Martin Carthy. Dancers, dance musicians, callers, teachers, workshop leaders, researchers, educationalists, the media - many of them use the Library either in person, or by post or telephone enquiry. Many more people benefit as a result - audiences, other performers, schoolchildren, and people who attend the workshops. The impact of the Library collections is enormous.

Four of the aims in the Strategic Plan centre on the Library. It is the intention to develop the Library collections, and to extend the acquisition of materials to include documentation of current practice. The existing collections concentrate on the music, dances and songs as collected from ongoing traditions and their revival. There is scope for the revival to be more systematically recorded, particularly through the acquisition of CDs, photographs, videos and archival materials. Wouldn't it be marvellous to be able to have video recordings of the traditional singers and dancers from the early years of the century? It would be equally exciting to have videos of the early years of the post-1945 revival, or even from 20 years ago. Unless we record what is happening now, we will regret our lack of action in 20 years time. The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library is the natural instigator of a project to record what is currently happening in England and further afield, and the obvious archive for holding such a record.

Public access to the Library collections is an important principle. The existing Library accommodation is over-crowded and cramped, and there are detailed plans for the Library to be moved to the first floor at Cecil Sharp House, which would improve access. The Library has extensive indexes of songs, tunes and dances, and these are being computerised. A further means of extending public access will be through the use of information and communications technology, including the development of an internet site for the EFDSS, especially the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. It is hoped to set up the web site by the end of 1998. In the future, it may be possible to make Library materials available on the web site.

Not for its own sake
There is no doubting the Library's national importance and its educational and cultural value, but the EFDSS recognises there is greater scope for using the collections for educational activities, workshops, publications and events.

The EFDSS has an education programme for folk dance funded by the Sports Council and there is a need for an education policy for folk music, a recognition of the value in training leaders in appropriate leadership skills, and a clear demand within the folk music, dance and song movement for further workshops and master classes. Resources for these activities and for teaching and learning can be drawn from the Library collections.

The EFDSS currently produces three periodicals - English Dance and Song magazine and the Folk Music Journal, which are free to members, and The Folk Directory. Each periodical has a different focus, and therefore different target audiences. Other publications include CDs, cassettes, books, study guides and educational materials. Once again, the Library is a marvellous resource that can be utilised for publications.

It all has to be paid for!
The Strategic Plan is a forward-looking and grounded document that looks to the future whilst preserving the rich history and tradition of the past. The plan aims to underpin the EFDSS's financial position, its existing activities and provide a new level of provision and support to the folk arts.

An increase in resources will be essential if progress is to be made over the Strategic Plan's implementation. It is sad that Roger Marriott is not a member of the EFDSS, and therefore does not make a financial contribution to the up-keep of the Library he is so concerned about. He is not alone. How many folk music, dance and song enthusiasts attend festivals, concerts and clubs in England and beyond every year? Many of them would agree with the aims of the EFDSS regarding the preservation, the encouragement of the performance, the promotion of knowledge and research of folk music, dance and song, but relatively few choose to become members.

It is important that the arts funding structure within the UK should recognise the folk arts, and support events, artists and touring. Yet without a resource base of repertoire, information about style, a record of what has gone before, the potential for future development may be adversely affected. The folk arts may have their roots in oral tradition, but there are plenty of examples of music, dances and songs being lost because no-one actually got round to recording them. There is an excellent case for government support of this national archive and resource centre, in the same way that the Irish government and the Northern Ireland Office supports the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin.

Working with others
The folk arts have always evolved and this ability has preserved their tradition, now today there is a diverse and flourishing folk music, dance and song movement in Britain. Within its artistic policy contained in the Strategic Plan, the EFDSS aims to support both the preservation and reinterpretation of the folk arts - not as a museum piece, but as a living and breathing bridge between the past and the future. The Strategic Plan recognises the role of the EFDSS in establishing "mutually beneficial relationships with other organisations and individuals in the field" and in developing partnerships with other regional and national bodies to expand the available infrastructure and networks. This will also provide a forum for discussion and for the EFDSS to champion and lobby for the traditional folk arts in the wider public forum and folk music world.

In doing so the EFDSS aims to develop Cecil Sharp House as a National Centre for the folk arts and promote an increasing number of self-generated events - concerts, tours, workshops, publications, lectures and recordings - the most recent being a new CD "A Century of Song", which contains recordings of traditional singers from England (and the USA) stretching from phonograph recordings made in the first decade of the 20th century, to digital recordings made at this year's National Folk Music Festival in Sutton Bonington.

Responses to the plan
In the pre-publication consultation process, the Strategic Plan met with enthusiastic support: "realistic and sensible, .. what the EFDSS should be doing, ..glad to see the Library as being central, important initiative, ..raises the EFDSS's credibility, ..of all the 'folk' bodies, the EFDSS has the greatest potential and best resources for further development" are just some of the comments. And although he had some queries about the Plan's implementation, even Roger Marriott's response was positive, "on the whole, I agree with most of what is said" he wrote.

The EFDSS has made a significant contribution to the development of the folk music, dance and song movement throughout the 20th century, and aims to continue that contribution into the next century. Judge us by our actions!

Copies of the Strategic Plan 1998-2001 are obtainable from the EFDSS: please send a large S.A.E. (26p stamp) to EFDSS, Cecil Sharp House, 2 Regent's Park Road, London, NW1 7AY. Enquiries about membership, the Library and the education programme can be sent to this address, marking the envelope accordingly.

Coinciding with the publication of its new Strategic Plan, the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) has appointed a new Chief Executive - Martin Frost, an experienced fund-raiser, venue manager and music promoter whose previous posts include Director of Prema Arts Centre, Union Chapel and Oval House and more recently SPACE studios. He has organised a number of folk/traditional music festivals including Women Alive (featuring women folk singers from across the world) and Solas - a festival of traditional music and dance from the minority communities of London.

Derek Schofield is a member of the EFDSS's National Council, which is its governing body, and chairperson of its Library Advisory Committee. He has been involved in many aspects of folk music and dance performance and promotion. For five years he was Arena Director at the Sidmouth International Festival of Folk Arts, and continues as its International Relations Officer. He has written for a variety of magazines, and been involved with several EFDSS projects including, most recently, the new CD 'A Century of Song'.

Editor's comment
In June I visited Cecil Sharp House. My general impression of the building was that it was in a fairly shabby state, but with plenty of potential. The offices were well equipped and the fabric of an organisation was there. What is less easy to judge in a brief visit is vision and passion. Throughout the organisation I detected a slight air of pessimism and in this centenary year there is no real buzz of anticipation.

For visitors to London, Cecil Sharp House is not on the tourist maps as a place to visit. I have no wish, and I am not advocating, that it becomes simply a tourist attraction, but the House should be a mecca for anybody with a serious interest in our folk culture - a centre of excellence and a source of knowledge for traditional music. Something should be happening all the time, relevant and vibrant, and a booking at Cecil Sharp House should be a prestigious gig for the professional and an honour for an amateur musician.

It is encouraging that most of Roger Marriott's criticism has been acknowledged. Roger feels change would be hard and focussed on the importance of the library. In the strategic plan the EFDSS has also put the library centre stage.

My first impression of Martin Frost, their new Chief Executive, was positive. He has a successful track record and is capable of putting plans into action. Will he be given the chance?

It is not clear whether there is enough understanding among all the management and staff of what the folk tradition is. Cecil Sharp House could become a good arts centre interested in - dare I use the modern term - roots music. With the library at the heart of the strategy, some will say that there is no need to define the focus of the organisation too strongly, but if the EFDSS is to rekindle its membership (at one time it had more members than The National Trust) people need to know what they are joining and why.

The EFDSS should be more of an enabling organisation. The strategic plan talks of reaching young people. Folk festivals are doing that quite well. The EFDSS would be more effective by asking these festival organisers how they can help them expose their young customers to some deeper experience of traditional music.

The EFDSS will also need to stop thinking of events they may run as being a source of profit. If they do that, they will find themselves following the same commercial road as many of the festivals. The Royal Ballet does not put on 'jazz fusion rock ballet' to raise funds. It seeks proper funding for an artform, which is expensive. The EFDSS should do similar.

Derek asks that we 'judge them by their actions'. In order to judge people need to know the judging criteria - the aim. Is it a profitable society, a healthy bank balance, a growing membership, a vibrant arts centre?

People will need to make their own decisions on whether to join the society. Derek Schofield has chosen to work from the inside. In the position the Society now finds itself in, there is everything to gain by him pushing hard for positive progress and change. Derek came to a different conclusion to Roger Marriott on the way forward yet both recognise each other's common concerns. I trust Derek is honest enough to be open in his own judgement of progress made and if he sees things drifting to speak out. The EFDSS is too important to get this wrong.

I have offered Roger's article for publication in English Dance and Song, the magazine that goes to all EFDSS members. This would encourage debate within the EFDSS. If there is a genuine desire to move the organisation forward, its members need to either generate or recognise people with vision and allow them to move forward.

Pete Heywood

Links, further information and recordings:

Read the original article - written by Roger Marriott