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Cecil Sharp

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Cecil James Sharp (22 November 1859 – 23 June 1924) was a key leader of the folk-song revival in England as a collector, archivist, teacher and promotor. He gathered thousands of tunes both from rural England and the Southern Appalachians region of the United States, and wrote an influential volume, English Folk Song: Some Conclusions. Based on his study of surviving rural folk dances as well as written sources, he collected, curated and popularized the latent practices of English country dance and Morris dancing. In 1911, he co-founded the English Folk Dance Society (later merged into the English Folk Dance and Song Society). Sharp's legacy survives, as enthusiast participants in North America and the UK (primarily) have performed folk-content collected by Sharp for over a century.
Sharp was born in Camberwell, Surrey, the eldest son of James Sharp (a slate merchant who was interested in archaeology, architecture, old furniture and music) and his wife, Jane née Bloyd, who was also a music lover. They named him after the patron saint of music, on whose feast he was born. Sharp was educated at Uppingham, but left at 15 and was privately coached for the University of Cambridge, where he rowed in the Clare College boat and graduated B.A. in 1882.
Sharp decided to emigrate to Australia on his father's suggestion. He arrived in Adelaide 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 he became conductor of the Adelaide Philharmonic, and in 1889 entered into partnership with I. G. Reimann as joint director of the Adelaide College of Music. He was very successful as a lecturer but about the middle of 1891 the partnership was dissolved. The school 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 an operetta Dimple's Lovers performed by the Adelaide Garrick Club at the Albert Hall on 9 September 1890, and two light operas, Sylvia, which was produced at the Theatre Royal on 4 December 1890, and The Jonquil. The libretto in each case was written by Guy Boothby. Sharp also wrote the music for some nursery rhymes which were sung by the Cathedral Choral Society.
In 1892 Sharp returned to England and on 22 August 1893 at East Clevedon, Somerset, he married Constance Dorothea Birch, also a music lover. They had three daughters and a son. Also in 1893 he was taken on as a music teacher by Ludgrove School, a preparatory school then in North London. During his seventeen years in the post, he took on a number of other musical jobs.
From 1896 Sharp was Principal of the Hampstead Conservatoire of Music, a half-time post which provided a house. In 1904 he met Emma Overd for the first time. She was a barely literate agricultural labourer with six children. Sharp enthused about her singing and transcribed many of her songs. In July 1905 he resigned from this post after a prolonged dispute about payment and his right to take on students for extra tuition. He had to leave the Principal's house, and apart from his position at Ludgrove his income was henceforth derived largely from lecturing and publishing on folk music.
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. He began collecting folk songs in 1903 when visiting his friend (and lyrics editor) Charles Marson in Hambridge, South Somerset. Over 1,600 tunes or texts were collected from 350 singers, and Sharp used these songs in his lectures and press campaign to urge the rescue of English folk song. Although Sharp collected songs from 15 other counties after 1907, the Somerset songs were the core of his experience and theories.
Sharp became interested in traditional English dance when he saw a group of morris dancers with their concertina player William Kimber at the village of Headington Quarry, just outside Oxford, at Christmas 1899. At this time, morris dancing was danced in regional forms in rural areas across England; the interest generated by Sharp's notations spread the practice to urban areas, and resulted in certain Sharp-preferred morris styles to be popularized above other regional styles.
The revival of the morris dances started when Mary Neal, the organizer of the Esperance Girls' Club in London, used Sharp's (then unpublished) notations to teach the dances to the club's members in 1905. Their enthusiasm for morris dance 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 Northumbria and Long Sword dance of Yorkshire. This led to the revival of both traditions in their home areas, and later elsewhere.
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 unaccompanied) 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 bowdlerisation of some of the song texts, which, at least among English folk songs, often contained erotic double entendres, when not outright bawdy 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 (especially in a school textbook context), 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." The immediate goal of Sharp's project – disseminating the distinctive, and hitherto little known melodies of these songs through music education – also explains why he considered the song texts relatively less important.
In 1911 Sharp co-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 Society (EFDSS). The current London headquarters of the EFDSS is named Cecil Sharp House in his honor.
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, Sussex and Surrey. 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.
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. During the visit, made with his collaborator Maud Karpeles during the years 1916–1918, 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 and Katherine Jackson French. Traveling through the Appalachian mountains in Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, 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.
By the time of Sharp's visit, Appalachia had been a cultural mosaic of ethnic white people, African Americans, and Indigenous Americans for over 300 years resulting in a folk tradition that was difficult to culturally parse and uniquely American; despite this fact, Sharp actively refused to collect folk material from non-white people during his visit. And, as a nationalist, Sharp was quick to label folk material he deemed high-quality English in origin. This led to Sharp misrepresenting some American folk content originated by Black, Indigenous or white ethnic artists, and work that resulted from cross-cultural collaborations or appropriation.
While at Cambridge, Sharp heard the lectures of William Morris and became a Fabian Socialist and lifelong vegetarian. He was cautious in his public statements, however, feeling that he had much to lose, since, unlike Morris, he was not independently wealthy but dependent on outside funding for his researches. Respectability was important to him, increasingly so as he got older. According to his biographer, Maud Karpeles: "Any display of singularity was displeasing to him; and he followed the convention in behaviour as well as in appearance unless there was a very good reason for departing from them. 'It saves so much trouble,' he would say." During the post World War II "second" British folk revival of the 1950s and 60s, Sharp was occasionally chided for this by leftist critics such as Bert Lloyd. C. J. Bearman writes that "Lloyd was effectively the first to offer public criticism of Sharp and of the first revival generally. This critique was from a Marxist perspective: Lloyd (1908–82) had associated himself with the Communist Party since the 1930s. ... However, he was always more pragmatic than doctrinaire, and he combined criticism of Sharp's philosophy and methods with high and unreserved praise for his motivation and the epic scale of his achievement."
Sharp was against the women's suffrage movement. His sister, Helen Sharp, was an avid Suffragist who risked arrest and violence for her views. Sharp leveraged sexism throughout his career to undermine female leaders in the first folk revival movement in order to advance his own relative standing and commercial value.
Throughout his career, Sharp actively undermined the work of leading female contemporaries including Mary Neal and Elizabeth Burchenal. In turn, Neal, Burchenal, and others criticized Sharp's acerbic and competitive personality, sexism, and insistence on exclusively controlling the ongoing Folk Revival for status and commercial purposes.
In the 1970s David Harker, a Cambridge post-graduate specializing in English literature, initiated a sustained attack on the motivations and methods of the first folk revival, singling out Cecil Sharp and accusing him of having manipulated his research for ideological reasons. Harker's criticisms of Sharp reflected a framework that tends to view 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 considered intrinsically at odds with what he termed the "official culture" of the schools. An expert on printed broadsides, Harker argued against the very existence of an oral tradition: "It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the English folk-song was invented by Cecil Sharp. Of course the songs were collected from singers who were supposed to have learned them through an organic and continuous tradition." Harker sustains that all of what is termed "folk song" in fact originated from broadsides and further maintained 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".
Harker described Sharp's activities this way:
"[F]olk 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 expanded his allegations in a book, Fakesong (1984). The following year Vic Gammon commented that Fakesong was "the beginning of critical work'" on the first folk revival, and also that it had taken on "the status of an orthodoxy in some quarters of the British left.". In the 1990 Folk Music Journal, Michael Pickering concluded that Fakesong was "the best example of this kind of work to date... Harker has provided a firm foundation for future work."
In 1993 Georgina Boyes produced her book The Imagined Village – Culture, ideology and the English Folk Revival, which was also highly critical of Sharp. Scholarship by David E. Whisnant, Benjamin Filene, and Daniel Walkowitz later criticized Sharp for manipulating and selectively curating the content of the first revival based on his own class, gender, and racial ideologies, as well as for commercial purposes. American essayist and music journalist Robert Christgau has also been critical of Sharp. Elizabeth DiSavino, in her 2020 biography of Katherine Jackson French and in subsequent interviews, criticized Sharp's minimization of his female and Scottish-diaspora sources.