Obituary: Alex Helm 1920-1970
[Folk Music Journal, 1970, Vol.2 No. 1, pp.72-73]
Alex was born in Burnley, the son of weavers, and became interested in Folk Dancing while at Burnley Grammar School. He trained as a teacher at St. John's College, York, where his principal subject was Physical Education, but he also studied German and French, which he used in his later Folklore studies. After a year, he enlisted, and was later commissioned into the Indian Army. He had asked to join the Navy, and as a result (Alex believed) he was posted to the Ordnance Corps, where he rose to Major, and became responsible for the supply of military transport throughout India - no small job during the advance into Burma. He used this indexing experience for the later Index of Ritual Customs. He was a bookbinder, and an Indian shopkeeper was amazed to meet for the first time an Englishman who used his hands, and was willing to talk with him on equal terms. He took a book to sew when he went courting.
On returning to England, he married, and after a year in Kent moved to Danesford School, Congleton, where he worked until his sudden death. The Headmaster then wrote: " He was a most able, meticulous, and utterly reliable colleague, with a great range of skills and of interests which he devoted unstintingly to his pupils". He had a deep understanding of the mental and social problems of his boys, and gave them support after they left school. He visited London several times a year in his work for the National Association of Schoolmasters.
He helped Miss Margaret Dean-Smith to sort and index papers in the Library of Cecil Sharp House, where his knowledge of printing and binding was useful; and when he moved to Cheshire he took up her suggestion to investigate the Souling Play. This started twenty-one years of correspondence, for though he did little field collecting he had a great ability to interest and stimulate others, and to guide them with his deep and growing knowledge. He was to have been the Director of a week-long course on Folk Life and Custom at Keele University in July 1970, which is some measure of his scholarship, seeing that nearly all his staff were university graduates.
His particular interest was the Folk Play and its ritual origin, but he made a study of all seasonal rituals, and with his colleagues, started a geographical index in 1956 which is continuing. The geographical index of the Morris Dance appeared in the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society in 1960, and the Play section was published by the Folk-Lore Society in 1967 as English Ritual Drama. An index of animal disguise was nearly complete when he died.
His other publications include articles in JEFDSS in 1950 and 1951 (the latter on the Lymm Morris Dance), and in Folklore in 1955 and 1965. "The Godley Hill Morris Dance" in The Manchester District Newsletter, April, 1954 (which he printed), "The Mummers' Play" in Theatre Notebook, Winter 1963/64, Five Mumming Plays for Schools (F.L.S. and E.F.D.S.S. 1965), Six Mummers' Acts (1967), Cheshire Folk Drama (1968) and The Chapbook Mummers' Plays (1969). Several other works are to be printed soon, but his work was cut short when he was reaching his peak.
His manuscript collection is ultimately to be held by University College, London; it includes a large collection of coloured drawings of traditional costumes produced by his daughter Alison, with his advice. To Sunny Helm, and to Alison and Ian, we offer our sympathy, but also our gratitude.