Guest Post: Making Folk Music Inclusive by EFDSS


Today we are pleased to share a guest post by Emmie Ward, Lead tutor for Inclusive Folk at the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Emmie is looking at their Inclusive Folk project and sharing some of their successes and learning.

Making Folk Music Inclusive

Inclusive Folk is a three-year project run by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) with funding from John Lyon’s Charity. The aim of the project is to introduce young people with learning disabilities to traditional folk music and dance.

We host fortnightly Folk Unlimited sessions and festival days at EFDSS’ folk arts centre, Cecil Sharp House in Camden, and deliver workshops around Northwest London. We also make freely downloadable resources, sharing ideas of songs and activities from the project. (See links at the end of this post!)

Young musicians learning folk music and dances, the focus of the picture is a young man in a wheelchair, dancing.

Histories and Traditions

Folk music is often unfamiliar to the young people we work with and it comes with history and traditions that can be complex to learn about. A good starting point is with the stories in folk songs about working life or changing seasons that people can still relate to. After all, who would have thought sea shanties, sailors’ work songs from the 19th century would capture everyone’s imagination on TikTok in 2020?!

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states (article 27) that everyone has “the right to participate in the cultural life of the community”, with the implication that we should all have opportunity to engage with the cultural expression of others and benefit from our shared cultural heritage.

Learning about British folk arts is a great way to start exploring the cultural heritage of our diverse communities, making connections between shared traditions, and creating rich musical mashups. An example of this is when we used May Day traditions as a theme for our workshops.

A few years ago, we collaborated with the community performance group Kinetika Bloco, combining their samba carnival beats with our fiddle, flute, iPad apps and percussion. This created a distinctly London edge to the Helston Furry Dance which is the centuries old processional dance at the heart of the Helston Flora Day celebration in Cornwall.

Aural Tradition

The songs we teach our groups come from the aural tradition where you learn music by ear. Songs have repeating lines, easy tunes, call and response, nonsense words, simple verse, chorus structures. All these techniques make songs quite easy to pick up and join in with.

Cecil Sharp, the notable collector of English folk song and dance, claimed that in the mid-19th century every village in England was ‘a nest of singing birds’.

It used to be an ordinary part of life to be singing around the home, in the pub, at work, and in the school playground. There was nothing unusual about it and at most celebratory gatherings, everyone was expected to contribute something.

So how do we tap in to this rich repertoire of songs, stories, dance and traditions in our sessions?


Incorporating dancing and movement in each session is a great way to develop a sense of folk rhythms, connect and have fun.

We use folk dance styles from across the UK, such as ceilidh, morris, clog and rapper sword dancing and simplify them, so young people can participate including if they need support to move around, or are wheelchair users.

In many of our workshops we find that movement is a very accessible way to engage with the music.

Before learning a sea shanty, we might swab the deck, turn the capstan, look for land ahoy and chew hard tack! This really helps people get a feel for the lyrics in the songs.

Multi -Sensory Approaches

Folk music has so many themes that inspire interesting sensory experiences.

When we did a theme about coal mining we made a soundscape representing the sounds of the machines and tools. We shone a torch underneath black cloth draped over our heads to re-create a sensory environment of being underground.

Songs like ‘What Shall We do with the Herring’s Head?’– a humorous song about things you can do with a herring – are rich with sensory imagery which can be made into sensory song stories.

Sensory stories and songs give people who may not communicate with language, the opportunity to share in the journey of a story by appealing to senses beyond language alone.

Here is a video of our sensory song ‘What Shall We do with the Herring’s Head?’ We adapted it so that it covered the senses of taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell.

Adapting songs

To make folk songs even more inclusive and flexible these are some of the ways we adapt them:

  • Using Makaton signing with songs. We tend to use just one sign per sentence and may add signs to just the verse or chorus.
  • We will often add in a repetition to a line to give people a chance to learn lyrics using call and response.
  • Changing lyrics together to re-write songs and make new stories.
  • Accompanying songs with actions or body percussion.
  • Arranging songs together with our participants and building in soundscapes and different changes such as solos, intros etc
  • Space to Improvise with words and vocal sounds, for example replacing the words in the chorus with humming or favourite vocal sounds.


If you are interested in seeing some of resources created by Inclusive Folk which contain songs and more ideas from our sessions, they are freely available on the EFDSS’ award-winning Resource Bank, along with many more.

For more information visit: or contact:

Leave a Reply