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Margaret Dean-Smith

(1899—1997) folklorist


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(1899–1997). The stepdaughter of Arnold Dunbar-Smith (1866–1933), a well-known architect within the Arts and Crafts movement, and thus brought up in an artistic and intellectual circle which influenced her later interests in music and literature. She worked in bookselling and libraries, and her first contact with folklore came with the English Folk Dance Society in London in the early 1920s, and after the war she took on the important task of organizing the library of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (now the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library). At the same time she started writing a string of influential articles in the journals of that society (which she edited from 1947to 1950), the Folklore Society, and others. In many ways, Dean-Smith was a direct descendant of the 19th century folkloreantiquarians who sought to explain literary material by reference to folklore, while she sought to understand and elucidate folklore by tracing literary examples, but unusually for her generation she was equally at home with a number of genres including dance, song, music, drama, and literary history, and wrote also on fairy-lore, calendar customs, and other topics. Her indispensible series on John Playford's English Dancing-Master (1943–5) displayed considerable bibliographic, literary, and musical knowledge, and her delightfully titled article ‘The Pre-Disposition to Folkery’ (1968) sought to explain the flowering of interest in ‘folk’ material in England in the late 19th century by tracing international currents and fashions of romanticism and nationalism back to the 18th century and beyond. Her views on the mummers play, although only expressed in a handful of articles, greatly influenced Alex Helm, and through him the post-war generation of traditional drama scholarship.

Dean-Smith's works include (with E. J. Nicol), ‘The Dancing Master 1651–1728’, JEFDSS 4:4 (1943), 131–45; 4:5 (1944), 167–79; 4:6 (1945), 211–31; ‘The Preservation of English Folk-Song and Popular Music’, JEFDSS 6:2 (1950), 29–44; A Guide to English Folk Song Collections 1822–1952 (1954); ‘The Life-Cycle or Folk Play’, Folklore 69 (1958), 237–53; ‘An Un-Romantic View of the Mummers’ Play’, Theatre Research 8:2 (1966), 89–99; ‘The Pre-Disposition to Folkery’, Folklore 79 (1968), 161–75; ‘The Ominous Wood: An Investigation into some Traditionary Sources of Milton's Comus’, in Venetia Newall, The Witch Figure (1973), 42–71.

From A Dictionary of English Folklore in Oxford Reference.


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