The Royal Albert Hall, whose reputation as a live music venue was widely known since opening in 1871, presented one style of performance for its Hall debut on 1 January 1927  when the English Folk Dance Society held a performance of, as its name implies, English folk dance.

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Folk dancing in full swing at the Royal Albert Hall

Cecil Sharp and the English Folk Dance Society

The Society was founded by Cecil Sharp in 1911 to preserve the traditions of English folk dancing. As the industrial revolution took its grip on 19^th^ century Britain and dark satanic mills scattered the landscape, many folk traditions which had been preserved through centuries of generations were quickly being eroded as a great exodus of people swept from the county and into the ever-growing urban metropolises.

Sharp made it his mission to record the folk dances and songs of the English countryside, which up till then only existed in the minds of those to whom had been passed on the traditions by their predecessors. Prior to Sharp, there had been no written record on how the folk dances of the county should be performed, save what had been observed from bystanders. Sharp’s publication ‘The Morris Book’ (1907) became the bedrock for a*revival of English folk dancing*, which by 1927 had found a momentum strong enough to fill the Royal Albert Hall.

Folk Festival at the Royal Albert Hall

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Folk Festival programmes: 1950, 1952 and 1953

The sound of the Royal Albert Hall’s great organ reverberating deep amid the recesses of the auditorium was replaced by the wheeze of the concertina, the screech of the fiddle and the jingle of Morris bells. Revived Folk groups and Morris sides from across the country flocked to the Folk Festival to perform. The white handkerchiefs, which have become synonymous with Morris dancing, are only a part of a certain tradition of Morris dancing which originated in the Cotswolds. Morris sides from the entire county performed their local dances using the props as their respected traditions dictated: sticks, swords (as well as handkerchiefs). What had once been the preserve of the pub beer garden or the village green was now being performed at one of the most prestigious venues in the world. It would seem that the Hall’s affectionate title as ‘The Nation’s Village Hall’ found one of its truest actualisations in the Folk Festival.

One character who proved to be a real asset to Cecil Sharp’s research was William Kimber, a concertina player and Morris dancer from the village of Headington Quarry, Oxfordshire, where Sharp found one of the few remaining Morris sides still in existence. Following the Folk dance and music revival, Kimber become something of a celebrity, performing before dignitaries, royalty and of course at the Folk Festivals held at the Royal Albert Hall. For Kimber it must have been nothing short of surreal to see the dances and songs of his youth revived from the brink of their twilight and to witness them performed in the Hall.

It was not only the sound of concertina players filling the Hall during the Festival. Mixed and varied orchestras and bands would take to the stage to perform the songs and tunes which Cecil Sharp had helped to save from extinction. For the first ten yeas of its existence the composer Vaughan Williams would often take the conductor’s podium at the Folk Festival – Williams was himself an instrumental figure in the reveal of English folk music, he set many tunes and melodies to orchestral settings.

Growth in popularity

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1980: Dustbins used as part of the folk music revival

In 1932 The English Folk Dance Society merged with the Folk Song Society, forming The English Folk Dance and Song Society. Under this new organisation the Folk Festival continued to grow in popularity, becoming an annual event at the Hall in early January as well as making frequent visits at other times during the year. After a hiatus during the Second World War, the Festival continued and by the early 1950s the Festival had expanded into a two day event, performed over Friday and Saturday.

The Festival’s growth in popularity prompted the organisers in 1957 to produce two shows on the Saturday; this arrangement was used for subsequent Festivals. Between the morning and the evening shows many of the performers would remain in the Hall for a picnic lunch in the middle of the auditorium on the arena floor. For other performers, a visit to a local pub was the order of the day, undertaken with the knowledge that they had to perform again in the afternoon before 5,000 people.

Despite being a restoration of a traditional practice, the revival in folk music and dance was not static in terms of progress. The Folk Festival provided an opportunity to perform new music and dances in continuity with tradition, and to share them with other teams. In 1980 a dance was performed entitled ‘The Streets of London’, and was described in the event programme as “Four Cameos of London life through the centuries presented in a light-hearted manner with an amazing miscellany of music, songs and dances both contemporary and anachronistic”. One of the most unusual features of the performance was a dance involving dustbins as props. In 1959 member of the Royal Ballet School made an appearance at the Folk Festival to perform classical ballet with a fusion of technique from the traditions of English folk dancing, the result of which was described in The Times as “…a lightness and freedom of movement that looked at once natural and skilful”.

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The Festival did not confine itself only to the Folk traditions of the British Isles. From the earliest days of the Festival’s conception many performers from the continent performed their native dances. Traditions from Belgium, France, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Macedonia, Russia and many others were all performed under the Royal Albert Hall’s glass dome at the Folk Festival. For many members of the audience in the early years of the Festival, the international performers provided something of great excitement in an age before mass travel. The exotic dances were one of the closest experiences the British audience had of lands beyond the coast.

Decline

The 1980s brought with it a declining interest for the traditions of folk dance and song. An increasingly urbanised culture had little time for handkerchiefs and bells, and so it was on 18 February 1984 that the last Folk Festival was held at the Hall, 57 years after of its debut. The Folk Festivals at the Hall are remembered fondly among the Folk community today, and one to which many members who had the opportunity of performing at will always have a personal story to tell of their experience.