Maud Pauline Karpeles was known for her song collecting work with Cecil Sharp, her career as a folk dance teacher and performer, and as a force for international song and dance throughout her life.
Born in London, as a young woman she became interested in working with a women’s settlement house in her London neighborhood, and joined the staff as a social worker. In 1909, she and her sister Helen attended the Stratford-on-Avon Festival. There, they were first exposed to folk songs and dance, and Maud decided to develop a folk club at the settlement.
Cecil Sharp was offering folk dance classes at Chelsea Physical Training College, and Maud and Helen attended them to prepare to teach the children the dances. Folk dance became a major focus of their lives.
At the time, Cecil Sharp was lecturing on folk dance, and Karpeles’ group demonstrated the dances as part of his presentation. In 1911, he founded the English Folk Dance Society (later the English Folk Dance and Song Society) with Maud’s dance group heavily involved in the organization.
After two visits to the US in 1914 and 1915, Cecil Sharp returned to America in 1916 to begin collecting songs, and Maud came as his assistant and fellow collector. They made three collecting trips from 1916-1918, visiting North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
During their visits with the singers, Karpeles recorded the words of songs while Sharp took down the tunes. The rigorous travel took them over treacherous footpaths and cart trails to visit with singers. Together, they collected over 1600 tunes. Their collection of 274 songs and 968 tunes was later published in two volumes in 1932. Sharp never returned to the US after 1918.
After Sharp’s death in 1924, she served as his literary executor. She published biographies of Cecil Sharp with A. H. Fox Strangways in 1933 and 1955, and later on her own in 1967. Karpeles continued her work of song and dance collecting.
During his life, Sharp had hoped to collect songs in Newfoundland, theorizing that singers there had come from England and Scotland and would still be singing those songs. Karpeles went to Newfoundland in 1929-30 and later published her book titled “Folk Songs from Newfoundland” in 1934.
She collected folk songs and dances in England and Wales in the 1920s-30s. She continued her work and involvement in the English Folk Dance and Song Society as well as her efforts to organize dance and song festivals. In 1929, she and dancer/musician William Kimber laid the foundation stone for Cecil Sharp House.
Before and during WWII, she worked with refugee children, and organized a Refugee Musicians’ Committee, in addition to working with the Red Cross. Karpeles returned to the US in 1950 and 1955 and revisited people whom she had met during her earlier trips with Cecil Sharp, some of who remembered those visits. For her services to folk music, she was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 1961. Karpeles died in 1976.