Pageants and Folk Arts: An Exhibition at Cecil Sharp House

Pageant fever! Historical pageants and the British past

An exhibition at Cecil Sharp House, London

From 29 January 2020

For details, see the Cecil Sharp House website

This exhibition focuses on the folk music and dance that were performed in historical pageants. It is staged by the Redress of the Past project in association with the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

Historical pageants presented the history of communities through a series of scenes featuring notable people and events from local history, myth and legend. They had a significant cultural impact, and often showcased the folk arts, including dance and song. Right from the start, morris dancing and maypoles were widely featured, especially in episodes depicting the ‘Merrie England’ of Elizabeth I. Parker’s pageants were also known as ‘folk plays’, and other early ‘pageant-masters’ such as D’Arcy Ferrars were closely involved with the first folk revival. Ferrars was a particular fan of sword dancing, and worked with Cecil Sharp to revive this lost English art.

The English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) was closely associated with the pageant movement. Some of its key figures were heavily involved. Ralph Vaughan Williams collaborated with E. M. Forster (of Howards End and Passage to India fame) on two important pageants in Surrey – at Abinger (1934) and Dorking (1938). The second of these, ‘England’s Pleasant Land’, tackled the issues of rural depopulation and decline, its proceeds going towards campaigns to preserve the countryside and its footpaths.

Earlier, the Winchester branch of the English Folk Dance Society (which merged into EFDSS in 1932) had staged its own Folk Dance Pageant in 1929. This told the story of folk dance from the time of Henry IV to the twentieth century. All songs used in the pageant had been collected by Cecil Sharp.

Even in big-city pageants, folk dance and song were important. At Manchester in 1938, Vaughan Williams’s music featured, including his arrangements of traditional folk songs. Hundreds of EFDSS members took part in public demonstrations of folk song and dance that ran alongside this pageant – a common feature of pageantry between the wars.

Pageants continued to thrive after the Second World War, with EFDSS and its people retaining a key role. Arthur Swinson, secretary from 1946 to 1949, was ‘marshal of the arena’ at St Albans in 1948, and EFDSS local organiser Mollie Du Cane was ‘mistress of the folk dance’. Du Cane reprised this role in the St Albans Coronation pageant of 1953, in which EFDSS members took part in three of the ten scenes. Here, there was a maypole dance, and songs included versions of ‘Summer is Icumen in’, ‘All in a Garden Green’ and the ‘Agincourt Song’.

Like folk revivalism itself, historical pageants can be seen as conservative, nostalgic events, but they did not have to be. Some more radical elements of the folk revival were involved. A. L. Lloyd, for example, assisted the Workers’ Musical Association with ‘Music for the People’, a pageant staged by Alan Bush in the Albert Hall in 1939 to support the left-wing Popular Front. The Labour Choral Union performed in this pageant, which depicted the Peasants’ Revolt, the Diggers and Levellers, and the French Revolution – as well as featuring, yet again, the music of Vaughan Williams.