Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Gilmour Jenkins

Letter No.: 
16th January, 1952

Private & Confidential
for Executive Committee,1 6th February, 1952.


I should prefer the whole discussion of the Director’s memorandum to be postponed until he is well and can be present. Meanwhile the cause is greater than the man and I cannot be silent in the face of the many mis-statements and distortions of fact contained in the Director’s Memorandum, according to my opinion.3
The worst case seems to me to be the astonishing attack on Sharp’s work in America which is entirely, as far as I know, contrary to the facts. According to the Director, Sharp described his Kentucky discoveries as “Museum antiquity stuff”. Where did Sharp ever say that? I ask for chapter and verse.
The Director, as a pupil of Cecil Sharp, ought to know that the whole of his life was devoted to proving that Folk song and dance was a living art and not a “museum piece”. True he added pianoforte accompaniments to the tunes, because he believed that in such ways people unaccustomed to unharmonised music would more easily grasp their beauty. Does not the Director sanction accompaniments to country dance tunes now at classes and parties? These I admit are entirely suitable to the class of tune which is usually played at these meetings.
I suppose these accompaniments are “raw” which at present appears to be the Director’s ideal. As a matter of fact, Folk song and dance are not “raw” but rather a highly developed art, based, it is true, on oral tradition which is carried on on a different line from the development of written art. The “rawness” which the Director admires so much came in, I believe, from foreign sources, such as the polka step which has found its way into our country dances, and this “rawness” has, I suspect, been artifically stimulated by the hierophants of the “new look” in folk dancing.
I believe that it is the duty of the E.F.D.S. to preserve and develop for modern use the essence of our folk art, taking away all impurities and accretions and letting the art develop on its true lines. To inculcate an artificial “rawness” is indeed to make the folk dance into a museum piece, just as to imitate the accent and style of an original folk singer is to put the accidental before the essential.
The parallel columns which the Director labels “Right” “left” seem to me entirely biased and unfair and to be chiefly a collection of mis-statements. I feel that I must go through these paragraphs in detail.

1. According to the Director the “Right” “treated” the dances and the “Left” left them untampered. This is contrary to facts. Part of Sharp’s life work was to see that the tunes and dances were preserved exactly as he heard and saw them. I do not think the “Left” are quite guiltless of tampering. I am told that there was scarcely a dance in the Albert Hall the other day which was not slightly altered. Personally I do not mind; I believe these things have to develop. But when the Director talks about tampering he must be careful he does not live in a glass house. I remember a particular case of the Abbots Bromley dance which used always to be played in its purely melodic form, but one day it was re-arranged for a musical ensemble and to my mind was entirely spoilt. Luckily this new version has now been dropped.

2. The Director says that the “Right” section condition the tune by harmony. I presume him to mean that when the tune is harmonised it is played or sung in the tempered scale; but are not the tunes we hear for so-called country dances and square dances at our meetings also played in the tempered scale?

3. The Director’s paragraph about “Folk forms” is just contrary to the facts. Neither Sharp nor any of his followers have ever suggested that Playford saved country dances from degeneration, nor did he ever think of “modernising” the material for public use except by adding an accompaniment, and so far as I know the “Left” so-called traditional country dances are also played with accompaniments.

I fear that the right-hand paragraph about “folk-forms” is unintelligible to me. Perhaps the Committee will understand it.

4. The Director speaks about not imposing a technique or teaching an individual and he goes on to say that traditional sources can be the only authentic sources. May I ask of any dance in Sharp’s books which departs from tradition? I am quite sure on the other hand that it is contrary to tradition - the idea of not imposing a technique & c. I feel sure that the traditional teacher worked on the principle of “do this and he doeth it”, and if he did not do it, out he went. I do not believe in this artificial inculcation of individuality. If individuality is there it will shine through. If it is not it cannot be artificially pumped in. On the other hand, individuality cannot shine through unless the technique is properly taught.

After all, Cecil Sharp knew more about tradition than all the rest of us put together. He upheld tradition and the true development of tradition.

Finally I have not the slightest idea what “planting alien corn” means. The only alien corn planted lately in this society has been American corn.

It seems to me unfair to mention two distinguished members of our Society as being in agreement with the new style and not to mention the names of other distinguished members who think otherwise.

In one thing I agree with the Director - we must do all we can to avoid a split. I have written my mind openly here but of course only confidentially to the Committee. I will do my best to keep silent in public unless I am forced to do otherwise, but I think those of us who see great danger in the Director’s present policy ought to expect some quid pro quo as the price of our silence.
The Director’s only suggestion is to form a “Playford” Society within the E.F.D.S. This would only accentuate what I believe to be the Director’s purely artificial and entirely erroneous iron curtain between “Playford” and “traditional”. A great deal of Playford I have no doubt is traditional and a good deal of what is now passing as traditional country dance is not so.
R. Vaughan Williams

16th January, 19524

1. Of the English Folk Dance Society
2. Chairman.
3. The Director was Douglas Kennedy.
4. UVW says that much of the fault lay with Kennedy’s wife Helen. In desperation they went elsewhere for dancing.


Location of copy:

Shelfmark of copy: 
MS Mus. 1714/1/19, ff. 142-143
General notes: 


Original database number: