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Cecil James Sharp (22 November 1859 – 23 June 1924) was the founding father of the folklore revival in Englandmarker in the early 20th century, and many of England's traditional dances and music owe their continuing existence to his work in recording and publishing them.

Early life

Sharp was born at Denmark Hillmarker, Londonmarker, his father was a slate merchant, much interested in archaeology, architecture, old furniture, and music. His mother, Jane Bloyd, was also a music-lover. Sharp was educated at Uppinghammarker, but left at 15 and was privately coached for the University of Cambridgemarker, where he rowed in the Clare Collegemarker boat and graduated B.A. in 1882.

In Australia

It was necessary for him to find work and Sharp decided to try Australia. He arrived in Adelaidemarker in November 1882 and early in 1883 obtained a position as a clerk in the Commercial Bank of South Australia. He read some law, and in April 1884 became associate to the chief justice, Sir Samuel James Way. He held this position until 1889 when he resigned and gave his whole time to music. He had become assistant organist at St Peter's cathedral soon after he arrived, and had been conductor of the government house choral society and the cathedral choral society. Later on he became conductor of the Adelaide Philharmonic, and in 1889 entered into partnership with I. G. Reimann as joint director of the Adelaide school of music. He was very successful as a lecturer but about the middle of 1891 the partnership was dissolved. The school was continued under Reimann, and in 1898 developed into the Elder conservatorium of music in connexion with the university. Sharp had made many friends and an address with over 300 signatures asked him to continue his work at Adelaide, but he decided to return to England and arrived there in January 1892. During his stay in Adelaide he composed the music for two light operas, Sylvia, which was produced at the Theatre Royal Adelaide, on 4 December 1890, and The Jonquil. The libretto in each case was written by Guy Boothby. He also wrote the music for some nursery rhymes which were sung by the cathedral choral society.

Return to England

Folk music of England

Sharp taught and composed music. Because music pedagogy of his time originated from Germany and was entirely based on tunes from German folk music, Sharp, as a music teacher, became interested in the vocal and instrumental (dance) folk music of the British Isles, especially the tunes. He felt that speakers of English (and the other languages spoken in Britain and Ireland) ought to become acquainted with the patrimony of melodic expression that had grown up in the various regions there. Sharp became interested in traditional English dance when he saw a group of Morris dancers at the village of Headington Quarrymarker, just outside Oxfordmarker, at Christmas 1899. At this time, Morris dancing was almost extinct, and the interest generated by Sharp's notations kept the tradition alive.

The revival of the Morris dances started when Mary Neal, the organiser of the Esperance Girls' Club in Londonmarker, used Sharp's (then unpublished) notations to teach the traditional dances to the club's members in 1905. Their enthusiasm for the dances persuaded Sharp to publish his notations in the form of his Morris Books, starting in 1907.

Between 1911 and 1913 Sharp published a three-volume work, The Sword Dances of Northern England, which described the obscure and near-extinct Rapper sword dance of Northumbriamarker and Long Sword dance of Yorkshiremarker. This led to the revival of both traditions in their home areas, and later elsewhere.

Song books for teachers and pupils
At a time when state-sponsored mass public schooling was in its infancy, Sharp published song books intended for use by teachers and children in the then-being-formulated music curriculum. These song books often included arrangements of songs he had collected with piano accompaniment composed by Sharp himself, arrangements intended for choral singing. Although, it has been alleged that had they heard them, traditional singers (who in England virtually always sang a cappella) might well have found Sharp's piano parts distracting, the arrangements with piano accompaniment did help Sharp in his goal of disseminating the sound of English folk melodies to children in schools, thus acquainting them with their national musical heritage.

The schools project also explains Sharp's bowdlerization of some of the song texts, which, at least among English folk songs, were often full of erotic double entendres, when not outright bawdy and or violent. However, Sharp did accurately note such lyrics in his field notebooks, which, given the prudery of the Victorian era could never have been openly published, thus preserving them for posterity. An example of the transformation of a formerly erotic song into one suitable for all audiences is the well-known "The Keeper."

English Folk Dance Society, afterwards English Folk Dance and Song Society
In 1911 Sharp founded the English Folk Dance Society, which promoted the traditional dances through workshops held nationwide, and which later merged with the Folk Song Society in 1932 to form the English Folk Dance and Song Societymarker (EFDSS). The current London headquarters of the EFDSS is named Cecil Sharp Housemarker in his honour.

In America

During the years of the First World War, Sharp found it difficult to support himself through his customary efforts at lecturing and writing, and decided to make an extended visit to the United States. The visit, made with his collaborator Maud Karpeles during the years 1916–1918, was a great success. Large audiences came to hear Sharp lecture about folk music, and Sharp also took the opportunity to do field work on English folk songs that had survived in the more remote regions of southern Appalachia, pursuing a line of research pioneered by Olive Dame Campbell. Traveling through the mountains of Virginiamarker, North Carolinamarker, Kentuckymarker, and Tennesseemarker, Sharp and Karpeles recorded a treasure trove of folk songs, many using the pentatonic scale and many in versions quite different from those Sharp had collected in rural England. Generally, Sharp recorded the tunes, while Karpeles was responsible for the words.

Sharp was greatly struck by the dignity, courtesy, and natural grace of the people who welcomed him and Karpeles in the Appalachians, and he defended their values and their way of life in print.

Sharp's work in promoting English folk song dance traditions in the USA is carried on by the Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS).

In the 1970s Cecil Sharp's reputation underwent a steep decline as his work and integrity came under attack by revisionist critics in Britain. In an attempt to discover some of the facts about Cecil Sharp and his career, British folklorist Mike Yates, who had himself originally shared some of these negative views, retraced Sharp's steps in Appalachia, in the process becoming aware of the scope of Sharp's accomplishment. In the introduction the article, " Cecil Sharp in America" (1999) that resulted from his investigations, he wrote:
When I had completed my first draft of the article I found that I had totally revised my ideas about Sharp, and I hope that readers will also come to share in these ideas and opinions.
Cecil Sharp is, I believe, the most important English folksong collector of the century.
His achievements are truly monumental.
[The noted American ballad scholar] Bertrand Bronson once said that Sharp's Appalachian collection was the best regional song collection ever made in America.
I hope that by reading this article, people will at long last come to realize just how much Sharp gave of himself in the assembly of his collection.

Influence on English classical music

Sharp's work coincided with a period of nationalism in classical music, the idea being to reinvigorate and give distinctiveness to English classical composition by grounding it in the characteristic melodic patterns and recognizable tone intervals and ornaments of its national folk music. Among the composers who took up this goal was Ralph Vaughan Williams, who carried out his own field work in folk song in Norfolk. The use of folk songs and dance melodies and motifs in classical music to inject vitality and excitement, is of course as old as "La Folia" and Marin Marais' "Bells of St. Genevieve" ("Sonnerie de Ste-Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris"), but the attempt to give music a sense of place was novel to the Historical particularism of late-nineteenth-century Romanticism.

Recent criticisms and rebuttal

In the later twentieth century, a revisionist scholar, Dave Harker, charged Sharp with having "invented" a tradition, accusing Sharp of having been dishonest in altering some of the songs and in his collection methods. These criticisms were taken up by others who were doubtless in part motivated by an understandable reaction to the previous hagiographical treatment of Sharp.

Dave Harker's harsh criticisms of Sharp, however, reflect an idiosyncratic Trotskyist Marxist framework that views any and all folk song collecting, scholarship, and attempts at revival as forms of appropriation and exploitation by the bourgeoisie of the working class, whose tastes Harker considers instrinsically at odds with what he terms the "official culture" of the schools. Harker, an expert on printed broadsides, argues against the very existence of an oral tradition. He believes that all of what is termed "folk song" in fact originated from broadsides. He further maintains that it was absurd to claim that late-nineteenth century England possessed a rural culture. In his view the small hamlets of less than 300 people from which Sharp collected were actually centers of the "urban proletariat", whom Sharp had misrepresented as (agrarian) "folk".

In 1972, when the editors of Folk Music Journal first accepted an article by Harker criticizing Sharp and his methods, one member of the journal's board, Pat Shaw, expressed skepticism of Harker's statistics and only agreed to publish it on condition that someone would write an accompanying rebuttal. Unfortunately, however, the rebuttal never appeared, and Pat Shaw himself died in 1977, so that Harker's allegations went unchallenged for fifteen years. Harker described Sharp's activities this way:
"folk song" as mediated by Cecil Sharp, [is] to be used as "raw material" or "instrument", being extracted from a tiny fraction of the rural proletariat and .
. imposed upon town and country alike for the people’s own good, not in its original form, but, suitably integrated into the Conservatoire curriculum, made the basis of nationalistic sentiments and bourgeois values.
The working people of England rejected, and still have to reject, as children, "folk song" as official culture.
In fact, of course, they’d rejected it in its original state before Sharp was born, by creating the first generation of music halls, but that story belongs to history, and not to the analysis of myth.

Harker's allegations got considerable traction, and he expanded them in a book, Fakesong (1984). The writings of Harker, however, and by extension of Harker's followers in the U.S. (such as David E. Whisnant, Benjamin Filene, and Robert Christgau, who have backgrounds in political science, American Studies, and journalism, not ethnography) have now themselves in turn come under scrutiny as overly harsh, exaggerated, distorted, and unjust.

In the meantime, Mike Yates, the Folk Music Journal editor who had originally accepted Harker's article for publication in 1972, began to investigate the ethnography of Cecil Sharp for himself, traveling to America in his footsteps to do so.
I realized that, for the sake of accuracy, I had to do more research into Sharp’s Appalachian trips, if I was to fully understand just who Sharp was and exactly what it was that he had done in the mountains.
In the end I wrote an article, "Cecil Sharp in America", which remained unpublished for some fifteen years, until it appeared in Musical Traditions in 1999.
By the time I had written the article I had come to see Cecil Sharp as something of a giant - a man who, with unbelievable dedication, had almost single-handedly preserved a whole tradition that would otherwise have vanished under the indifference of a rapidly changing world.
And yet, strange as it may now seem, I still held to some of Dave Harker’s views concerning Sharp’s English collecting and prose writing.
One man, however, was not so trusting and, unlike Pat Shaw, he was prepared to put his thoughts and findings onto paper.
This man was C. J. Bearman, who in 2001 completed his Ph.D. thesis, "The English Folk Music Movement 1898-1914". Bearman's two papers, "Who Were the Folk? The Demography of Cecil Sharp’s Somerset Folk Singers" in Historical Journal: 43 (2000):3: 751-75, and "Cecil Sharp in Somerset: Some Reflections on the Work of David Harker" in Folklore 113 (2002): 11 -34), were a devastating deconstruction of Dave Harker’s "orthodoxy", charging Harker with having misrepresenting the data and distorted statistics for ideological reasons.

Yates writes:
True, Sharp was lax in asking singers where they learned their songs, but we do know that out of the 311 singers that he met during the period 1904-1909, sixty singers provided provenance for 77 of their songs.
Only one of these songs was learned directly from a broadside, while 73 songs came directly from an oral source - parents, grandparents, friends, etc. It could, I suppose, be argued that very few English broadsides were being printed in the first decade of the twentieth century, but most of these singers would have been around at the end of the nineteenth century when broadsides were still being printed.
Does all this nit-picking really matter?
Well, yes it does.
Because if our foundations are based on false assumptions, then the whole subsequent body of folksong and folklore studies is liable to come tumbling down around us.
In the last thirty-odd years writers such as Raymond Williams (who wrote The Country and the City, 1973), Eric Hobsbawn (the editor of The Invention of Tradition, 1983), Ronald Hutton (author of The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 1996) and Georgina Boyes (The Imagined Village .
.) have all attacked Sharp, taking Dave Harker as their starting point.
And much of what they say is wrong.
My own beliefs have always been to the left, and it gives me no great pleasure to see respected left-wing writers coming in for such criticism.
But, this criticism does appear to be justified and cannot be pushed under the carpet.
There are already others seeking to question Harker and his followers.
In a recent review in the Folk Music Journal, Mike Heaney has criticized Georgina Boyes for a recent work (Step Change: New Views on Traditional Dance, 2001), where he says that "Factual errors and misrepresentations abound" (Folk Music Journal 2003 page 369).
Bearman has made a number of extremely serious allegations against Dave Harker’s methodology.
"Factual errors and misrepresentations (also) abound" in Dave Harker’s published works, is what he is clearly saying.
Perhaps it is time to follow up Dave Harker’s own comment, given above, about Sharp, but now seemingly more applicable to himself -- it’s the one made in 1972 about the story belonging to history, "and not to the analysis of myth".
According to Bearman, it was, after all, Harker, and not Sharp, who was creating the myth, and, in the process, jumping to the wrong conclusions.


Maud Karpeles lived on for many decades after Sharp, and gradually succeeded in converting the collected Sharp manuscript materials into massive, well-organized volumes. These books are now out of print, but can be found in some libraries.

  • Cecil Sharp's Collection of English Folk Songs, Oxford University Press, 1974; ISBN 0-19-313125-0.

  • English folk songs from the southern Appalachians, collected by Cecil J. Sharp; comprising two hundred and seventy-four songs and ballads with nine hundred and sixty-eight tunes, including thirty-nine tunes contributed by Olive Dame Campbell, edited by Maud Karpeles. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932.

For a sampling of English folk songs as they emerged from Sharp's editorial pen along with his piano accompaniments, see:

  • English folk songs, collected and arranged with pianoforte accompaniment by Cecil J. Sharp, London: Novello (1916). This volume has been reprinted by Dover Publications under ISBN 0-486-23192-5 and is in print.

Sharp also wrote up his opinions and theories about folk song in an influential volume:

  • English Folk Song: Some Conclusions (originally published 1907. London: Simpkin; Novello). This work has been reprinted a number of times. For the most recent (Charles River Books), see ISBN 0-85409-929-8.

The following is a biography of Cecil Sharp:

  • Cecil Sharp, by A. H. Fox Strangways in collaboration with Maud Karpeles. London: Oxford University Press, 1933. Reprinted 1980, Da Capo Press; ISBN 0-306-76019-3.




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