Spying on sword dancers: Nazis, work camps, and English folk music

In 1927, a party of 46 German students visited Newcastle. The local chief constable duly reported this to the British security services, who opened up a new file on Rolf Gardiner, the Germans’ English contact, and the spooks duly monitored Gardiner for the next twenty years. Gardiner loved folk music all his life, and he ensured that folk song and dance was an integral part of the work camps that he founded and led.

I’ve been thinking about Gardiner and race this week, as the folk festival season gets into full swing, and I pass my evenings stewarding concerts in my local rugby club. Rolf Gardiner (father of John Eliot Gardiner) has intrigued and divided historians for years. His most recent biographers sum him up as a ‘folk dancer, forester, poet and visionary’. He was all of these, and more, for Gardiner was also an adult educator, youth worker, organic farmer and lifelong Germanophile with strong public views on Jews, racial purity, and the future of Europe. He admired the Danish adult education thinker Nikolai Grundtvig, and described his own rural work camps as attempts to put the ideal of the Danish folk high school into practice in England.

He became involved in folk dancing while a pupil at Bedales School, and joined a dance side while a student at Cambridge. So when he joined a work camp in Germany in 1927, it was entirely in character that he led his young male camper comrades in a naked sun dance – at six in the morning. By 1930 he was hosting work camps for Kings’ College students at his uncle’s farm in Dorset, complete with singing around the campfire (though he seems to have found the students less adept at dancing).

By this time, Gardiner was spending time in Cleveland, researching local sword-dancing traditions and encountering a ‘people of robust Scandinavian stock’. He opened further work camps for unemployed miners that he had met through the dancing sides, as well as sympathetic students on their summer vacations, as well as visitors from the German youth movement. Again, folk singing and dancing were part of the everyday routine, along with the demanding labour of converting rough pasture into small-holdings. And they also helped Michael Tippett, himself a communist and a student volunteer in Gardiner’s, to compose a somewhat völkisch opera about Robin Hood, duly performed in the miners’ hall.

Boosbeck: the site of Gardiner's Cleveland work camp as it looks today

Boosbeck: the site of Gardiner’s Cleveland work camp as it looks today

By 1933, Gardiner had fallen out with his Cleveland partner (and owner of the land), who disliked Hitler’s treatment of German Jews. By now he had his own farm in Dorset, at Springhead, and could organise his own ‘harvest camps’. Once more, the camp day started with a supposedly Nordic ritual, and closed with song; plentiful dance and song opportunities arose in the evenings.

Gardiner’s aim, whether through heavy labour or folk music, was ‘to restore and remake the real England which is basically that rural England upon whose final destruction the forces of today are willy-nilly bent’. Gardiner was clear and unambiguous in portraying Jews as among these destructive forces. In one article, published two years before the Nazi seizure of power, he denounced ‘deliberate misinformation by our Jew-controlled press, cinema, wireless and advertising’ for having ‘corrupted the soul of England’.

By contrast to these dark forces, both labour and dance, he said, taught ‘order, beauty and rhythm’, which ultimately ‘come of the soil and care of the soil’. These were, of course, fundamentally masculine – he would have said ‘virile’ – qualities. And the folk high school model was attractive because, as conceived by Grundtvig, it provided a form of ‘national education’ that underpinned work and cultural activities with a suitably nationalist – or Nordic and Germanic – knowledge of history, agriculture and current affairs.

Gardiner was, then, more than a Germanophile. His understanding of history and culture was racially based, and he was more than a sympathiser with the Nazi Party. He was on good terms with Otto Bene, the Nazi Party’s Landesgruppenleiter for the British Isles (ironically, given the Irish Republican movement’s sympathies, when it came to their own organisation, the Nazis treated Ireland and the UK as a single political space). Gardiner disparaged Oswald Mosley to Bene as ‘very shallow’. In exchange, Bene reported to Berlin that Gardiner’s work camp movement, while puny by German standards, was ‘well above the average English one’.

What Britain’s spooks made of this is another matter. While they opened his mail, and monitored his connections, a report in March 1940 mocked him for ‘still worshipping the sun, Wotan etc at a Dorset farm and being generally “nordic” and “voelkisch”‘, concluding that ‘I do not think he is a danger’. Nevertheless, the authorities carried out period checks, including an inquiry into rumours that he had planted trees on his farm in the shape of a swastika, and was engaging young men ‘in disgusting practices under the influence of hypnotism’ (neither of which could be confirmed). The last report, in 1949, asked for British security officers in Germany to monitor Gardiner’s contacts during a visit to recruit managers for a tea company.

Don’t for a moment think I am damning the whole of English folk music with this reminder of a dark, racially-rooted past. Gardiner was denounced on several occasions by other folk enthusiasts for his attempts to weave dance and music into a mystical pan-Nordic völkisch world-view. But there was enough overlap to cause discomfort: in presenting folk dancing as manly, for example, Gardiner was echoing the views of Cecil Sharp, and an interest in national culture often went together with beliefs in racial purity. I have blogged previously about Scottish nationalist thinking on race and work camps.

I see Gardiner as a man of his time. He shared the racial assumptions of many English and German men of his generation, and was certainly guilty of anti-Semitism; unlike some, I do not minimise his Nazi sympathies. But I’m also not persuaded that I should see sword dancing and folk singing as quintessentially tainted by association. Far more important to me is how we reposition British traditional music today so that it appeals to and engages a more diverse audience that is representative of the entire population of these islands. British folk festivals routinely include Irish, Australian and American performers; it is high time that they also made space for black British traditional music.

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5 thoughts on “Spying on sword dancers: Nazis, work camps, and English folk music

  1. Very interesting article John, and relevant to my current project. Where you mention the Republic movement, do you mean the current one? Do you mean that republicans are nationalist, in a manner of speaking, if they propose to let each separate ‘nation’ in the current United Kingdom decide its own future with regard to subjection to the monarchy?

  2. Good piece John. I think it is difficult to read those times from a post-holocaust perspective. For instance, eugenics and racial science were accepted notions across the political spectrum. We only need to remind ourselves that the use of euthanasia to control genetic pollution from the mentally ill was common enough practice in social democratic Sweden until the 1970s.

  3. Pingback: Excavating the Great Depression in England | Day of Archaeology

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