Maud Karpeles was born in London in 1885, into a middle-class family of German-Jewish descent. On leaving school, she studied piano for six months at the Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin and then undertook voluntary social work in the East End of London where she developed an interest in politics, becoming a member of the Fabian Society.
Karpeles and her sister Helen (1887-1976) first came across folk dances and songs when they attended the Stratford-upon-Avon Festival in 1909. They subsequently formed a folk dance club and gave demonstrations to illustrate Cecil Sharp's public lectures, thereby forming the nucleus of Sharp's English Folk Dance Society (EFDS), founded in 1911, which merged with the Folk-Song Society in 1932 to form the English Folk Dance and Song Society. By 1913, Karpeles had offered her services as Sharp's amanuensis and effectively took up residence with his family. She accompanied him on all but the first of his visits to America, and on all of his collecting trips to the Appalachians between 1916 and 1918. Shortly before his death in 1924, Sharp had intended to “make a dive into Newfoundland next year and prospect for songs and ballads” but it was left to Karpeles to carry out this project alone, which she did in 1929 and 1930, making a substantial collection of folk songs of British origin. Later, in 1950, and again in 1955, she revisited the Appalachians and recorded singers for the BBC, including some of those whom she had previously visited with Sharp.
Karpeles was instrumental in keeping the EFDS going and, in 1929, along with musician and dancer William Kimber, she laid the foundation stone of Cecil Sharp House. During the 1920s and 1930s she continued collecting folk dances and songs in England and Wales, notably North-West morris and English country dances, and was instrumental in making the first recordings of Phil Tanner from Gower in Wales. She also organised the hugely successful International Folk Dance Festival and Conference in London in 1935, and in 1936 she visited Yugoslavia. During the Second World War she worked with refugee musicians and with the Red Cross. Afterwards, she devoted most of her energies to the International Folk Music Council.
In 1932 her edition of Sharp's English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians was published, and she collaborated with A. H. Fox Strangways on his biography of Sharp (1933), which later appeared in a second edition under their joint names (1955), with a further version under her name alone (1967). Having written a short preface to the second (1936) edition of Sharp's English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions, she then edited both its third (1954) and fourth (1965) editions. In 1973 she published her own An Introduction to English Folk Song, which is substantially a restatement of Sharp's ideas. Her Folk Songs from Newfoundland appeared in 1971, and was followed by her two-volume edition of Cecil Sharp's Collection of English Folk Songs (1974), selections from which also appeared as The Crystal Spring (1975).
In 1961, Karpeles was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to folk music, and she also received honorary degrees from the Universite Laval in Quebec (1961) and Memorial University of Newfoundland (1970). She died in 1976 and her papers, including an unpublished autobiography and diaries from her collecting trips with Sharp in the Appalachian Mountains, reside with the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (VWML). Copies of her Newfoundland notebooks, donated to Memorial University, have now been acquired to complete the collection. A Kinora film of her dancing in 1912 also exists (see the YouTube video below).
The earliest known examples of English folk dance on film, featuring sisters Maud and Helen Karpeles, Cecil Sharp and George Butterworth.