Obituary: Alex Helm
[English Dance and Song, Summer 1970, Vol.XXXII No.2, p.75]
Alex Helm died suddenly on 22nd January, 1970. It is sad enough to record the death of a man under 50, but sadder still when that man was a scholar whose work was just achieving recognition and promised so much for the future.
Alex's scholarship was based on practice - like many others he was introduced to folk dancing at school (at Burnley about 1930) but, unlike others, he kept up interest into his college days. After war service in India, he returned to dance in London and Congleton, where he organised the local Group and took part with the Manchester Morris men. As a teacher of printing he also helped many sections of the Society in other practical ways.
The late 40's were an auspicious time to come to Cheshire for the Manchester Men were beginning to rediscover many N.W. Morris Dances, the Lichfield Morris was emerging from literary obscurity and Maj. Boyd was encouraging the revival of the Antrobus Souling gang. Alex's interest in the play stemmed from conversations with Miss Margaret Dean-Smith who was then Librarian of the Society. As well as doing field work in Cheshire, he started an examination of the Ordish Papers in 1954. These included many versions of the play which had been sent to T.F. Ordish early in the century, but had lain unexamined in the Folkore Society's archives since that time. When he reported on these Papers, Alex was able to draw on much recent material from his own collection and to comment from his deepening knowledge of ritual and of English Literature. He never took a custom in isolation, either geographically or as a ritual form, and in 1955 laid the foundations of the Geographical Index of Traditional Ritual Custom on which much of his later work was based.
Three or four people were directly concerned in compiling the Index but it brought contacts all over the world. It resulted in two definitive works on geographical distribution, the article on the Morris in the Journal in 1960 and the recently published book on the Play, English Ritual Drama (Folklore Society). As well as being geographical surveys, however, these works also developed ideas about the origins and significance of these rituals. The burden of work on the Index fell on Alex who printed the forms and was also the "secretariat."
Alex never spared himself in any detail, be it chasing an obscure reference or printing a dance ticket, and when a heart attack put an end to his dancing in 1959, he became more active in his non-dancing. During the past five years he has been publicising his findings - at the Keele Conferences, in talks to small local groups, in the Guizer Press booklets and in articles contributed to learned journals. He was prompt and helpful in correspondence and always there was a welcome and unstinted hospitality from him and Sunny, his wife, for any visitor who was a serious informant or a serious enquirer. As an American correspondent said, "his death touched more people in more places than (you) would imagine."