Sharif Gemie wrote to me last year:
I'm thinking of writing an article on Cecil Sharp in comparative perspective. I should stress here that I'm a cultural and social historian. I like folk music, and so know many of the songs that are discussed, but I'm not a musician or a musicologist. My focus would be on Sharp's political, cultural and social views, not directly on his approach to music. Would you be interested in this?
I'm a retired History lecturer, who's now in the enviable position to be able to just write for fun. I read Steve Roud's Folk Song in England, and I wrote a review of it for an American journal. It was a reasonably positive review: it's impossible not to be impressed by Roud's scholarship! But since then, I've been going back over some of Roud's sources and - in particular - I've read Lloyd's Folk Song in England. I was surprised to find that, in many ways, Lloyd's is the better work. This has led me to think over a few things, and to go back to the source: Cecil Sharp. In the process of doing this, I've come across your excellent web-site.
You won't be surprised to hear that I replied 'Yes please'. Sharif contacted me again, saying that he'd decided to leave Lloyd for another day, but was sending 12,500 words on Sharp. Here they are.
I'm thinking of writing an article on Cecil Sharp in comparative perspective. I should stress here that I'm a cultural and social historian. I like folk music, and so know many of the songs that are discussed, but I'm not a musician or a musicologist. My focus would be on Sharp's political, cultural and social views, not directly on his approach to music. Would you be interested in this?
The Oak and the Acorn - Music and Political Values in the Work of Cecil Sharp
'The ruse rarely fails.'
Cecil Sharp, 19071
'I am not cut out to make money.'
Cecil Sharp, 19143
Everyone probably knows the story. In September 1903, Cecil Sharp visited his friend Reverend Charles Marson in Hambridge (Somerset). During his stay, he heard Marson's gardener, the appropriately named John England, singing The Seeds of Love as he mowed the lawn. Sharp was gripped by some strange enthusiasm. He grabbed a pencil and notebook, then wrote down the melody and words. Over the next few hours, Sharp worked on his notes, and devised a piano accompaniment for the song. That evening, The Seeds of Love was sung by his protégé, Mattie Kay, to the other visitors in the house. Someone present remarked of Sharp's new arrangement that it was the first time that folk-song had been presented in evening dress.3
In a sense, it's a shame that the story doesn't end there. If Cecil Sharp was remembered simply as an enthusiast, quick with his pencil and notebook, assiduous in his searches for old songs, then the development of British folk music might have been different. But Sharp was a man of his time: it was not sufficient to be gripped by an idea, you had to have a system. This was the age of Marx and Darwin, Comte and Freud. Even novelists were gripped by the same urge: Dickens studied the 'State of England' question; Zola labelled his 20-novel series, the Rougon-Macquart, The Natural and Social History of a Family During the Second Empire; Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, Dostoyevsky produced Crime and Punishment. Sharp felt obliged to follow the example of these established thinkers: his work was a small ripple within this vast systematizing wave.
Reading between the lines, Sharp appears to have been motivated by several factors. The first was his search for a position. His family failed to provide for him: although he was the eldest son, his father did not assist him in getting a job. He left Britain in 1882 to try his chances in Australia.5 For seven years he lived in Adelaide, on the fringes of middle-class respectability. For a while he was clearly grasping at any opportunity that came his way, but eventually he settled on music-teaching as a career, giving private lessons and directing a string quartet. His big opportunity seemed to come when Reimann, a German migrant, offered him the post of joint Director of the Adelaide College of Music.6 There was a sort of division of responsibilities between them: Reimann provided the capital, Sharp provided the contacts. For the first year, this worked well. Attendance at the college doubled: it attracted 60 pupils.
But it was clear that Sharp was not satisfied with this minor position. He wanted recognition as a composer: he travelled back to Britain in early 1891 to find a publisher for his music (without success), and while he was away Reimann seized back control of the College, asserting his right to be sole Director.7 This was a lesson for Sharp on the difficulties of earning money from his musical abilities: it seems to have left with a long-term suspicion of collaborators and co-workers. By 1892, Sharp was permanently resident in Britain, and working in the same positions that he had found in Australia: teaching in public schools, taking private pupils, and conducting choirs. He married in 1893: after a few years he also had to provide for four children and his wife.
Intellectually, he followed the fashions of the time. He was enthusiastic about Wagner, even citing an aphorism by Wagner on love to his wife-to-be.8 He read Schopenhauer, Ibsen and the Catholic reformer Cardinal Newman. He joined the Folk-Song Society in 1901, but was not immediately active in it.9 In December 1900, he joined the Fabian Society: a choice has understandably puzzled scholars and researchers. Could he have seen the Fabians as an updated version of the Free Masons, providing him with a network of contacts and connections? Had his experience with Reimann left him with a vestigial anti-capitalism, and was he therefore attracted by the Fabians' promise of orderly, moderate reform of the marketplace? Had he been inspired by the idealistic Christian Socialism of his friend, Charles Marson? Certainly, the Fabians' steady commitment to rational, scientific progress is at odds with Sharp's increasingly backward-looking enthusiasms. His own description of his political beliefs - 'Conservative Socialist' - coupled with his regular support for Liberal Party candidates, only serves to deepen the confusion concerning his political values.10
While Sharp frequently gained the respect of pupils and parents, he often quarrelled with employers and benefactors. In 1897 he argued with Hubert Parry, a well-known composer, scholar and Director of the Royal College of Music. The issue which divided them was relatively trivial: a disagreement over the participation of one of his pupils at a concert in the Albert Hall, which was probably caused by a misunderstanding. A compromise was proposed, but refused by Sharp, who then resigned from the Finsbury Choral Association. In 1904 - 05 he argued with the owner of the Hampstead Conservatoire, who employed him as Principal. The issue here was Sharp's salary. Once again, Sharp resigned.11
In 1903 Cecil Sharp was 43 and still searching for his place within the British society. There's no doubt that he was ambitious, and frustrated by his lack of success. Following the argument with Reimann, he was mistrustful of those who wished to work with him as partners, and he lacked the political sense to cultivate patrons. He clearly had some musical talent: while he would never be a great composer, he could arrange, direct and organise. What he looked for was a field which he could call his own, in which he would be undisputed master, and from which he could earn a regular income. Folk Song beckoned.
Sharp published A Book of British Song for Home and School in 1902. This was a collection of 78 songs: he classified all the material in the book as 'traditional', but it included songs like The Roast Beef of Old England, which few today would consider as a traditional folk song.13 Sharp's ideas about the nature of traditional folk song changed after his moment of revelation in 1903. He and Marson tramped round Somerset, walking along tracks and in fields, stopping in cottages and barns. Sharp found he had an unexpected talent: he could hold the attention of poor rural folk. Possibly his previous experience with pupils and difficult parents helped. He was used to talking to shy youngsters, he had learnt how to persuade them to do better. He could flatter and cajole the rural singers he met: some, such as the morris dancer William Kimber, were grateful for the attention he gave them, and wrote to him for years afterwards.14 There's nice description of his approach given by his biographer, A H Fox Strangways:
His assiduous collecting came at some personal cost. Sharp's health was deteriorating: he suffered from asthma, gout, and a mysterious (and painful) eye condition. Yet for the next two decades he devoted himself to collecting folk songs in difficult outdoor conditions, contributing to seventy volumes between 1907 and 1924, and identifying almost five thousand songs.16 His first initial flush of enthusiasm took him across Somerset with his friend Marson: between 1903 and 1907 he devoted 330 days to searching for folk songs, met roughly 300 singers, and noted about 1500 tunes.17
This astonishing dedication gave Sharp a new confidence. Even in November 1903, only two months after his moment of revelation, he gave a public lecture on folk music in Hampstead, illustrated with a presentation of folk songs and morris dance tunes.18 Sharp had begun to think more carefully about the material he was collecting: he considered its nature and its potential. His contacts with the educational world meant that he was quick to consider the use of folk song within the classroom. Initial contacts with the Board of Education seemed promising: in 1906 they recommended the use of 'National or Folk-Songs' in elementary schools, and published a list of fifty such songs.19 But Sharp was critical of their choices. While these songs certainly resembled the material which Sharp had chosen for his 1902 publication, A Book of British Song for Home and School, by 1906 he was thinking along different lines. By this point, he considered that the songs he'd found in rural Somerset were the true examples of English music.
The FSS took a more relaxed attitude to the Board of Education's recommendations. Some active folk song collectors in their ranks probably shared Sharp's doubts, but as a body the FSS was more interested in validating the Board's acceptance of the principle that folk songs were suitable for classrooms, than in criticizing the limitations of the Board's choice of material.20 There was probably another issue at stake: the FSS was a small, respectable middle-class body. The idea of publicly challenging an official government institution was not something which came naturally to its members.
Sharp, however, did just that. Two letters by him in the Morning Post and Daily Chronicle criticized the Board's choice of material as not being truly folk music. This in turn drew an indignant response from Sir Charles Stanford, a founder of the Royal College of Music, who defended the Board's list as 'songs of the people songs of and for the nation which have stood the test of a long life in the public ear'.21 Stanford contrasted these with Sharp's 'more recent discoveries', and implied that Sharp was acting out of egotism.
Despite Sharp's obvious anger, the FSS refused to support him in this public argument. Sharp's response was to throw himself into writing a longer expression of his ideas, which eventually became English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions. (Sharp was unable to find a publisher to print this work, so it was self-published in 1907.22 This 172-page work constitutes Sharp's major philosophical statement.
Some Conclusions successfully communicates his sense of excitement. With some understandable exaggeration, he spoke of his pioneering journeys into the 'still virgin soil' of rural England.23 Others had ignored the gems to be found there: Sharp gleefully noted how many rural vicars listened to his stories first with 'polite incredulity' and then 'amazement'.24 Sharp believed that the songs and tunes that he had uncovered 'in country lanes, fields and villages'25 had some vital quality that would interest 'the historian, musician, ethnologist, educationalist, social reformer, archaeologist and student of folk-lore'.26 Their main value was nationalistic and didactic, according to Sharp: these songs formed 'the last link' in 'a great tradition that stretches back into the mists of the past in one long, unbroken chain'.27
To justify this claim, Sharp presented a type of anthropological perspective. He had concentrated on the rural labouring classes as these people were the 'least affected by extraneous educational influences': they were 'the native and aboriginal inhabitants' of England; they had benefitted from 'no formal training whatsoever'.28 For Sharp, this lack of culture and education meant they possessed a certain purity, making them perfect examples of native English culture. In passing, one should note that while such arguments are often repeated, they make bad anthropology. No matter how poor and ignorant were the people that Sharp met, they did not exist in the condition of extreme cultural innocence that he suggested. No one is born knowing how to plough a field or milk a cow: to carry out these tasks requires training. These comments also apply specifically to music: despite Sharp's curious idealization of ignorance/innocence, of 'the formless song of the savage,'29 no labourer was born knowing how to sing The Seeds of Love. Singing also required training, if only of an informal, amateur, autodidactic nature. Furthermore, the English countryside was not the isolated island that Sharp suggested. The railway, the newspaper and even the school had been affecting rural culture for decades before Sharp's arrival.
Part of Sharp's argument was that his versions of rural folk songs were accurate and authentic, and - therefore - other versions were less so. This led Sharp to question the versions that circulated in broadsides from the sixteenth century onwards.30 Sharp was scathing about these versions: they were the product of 'literary hacks', they were 'garbled forms', 'vulgarized', or 'corrupt'.31 These comments might be another expression of Sharp's vestigial anti-capitalism, leading him to criticize the intrusion of market pressures into the circulation of folk song; more likely, they were a sort of cultural policing tactic, through which Sharp wanted to see off a possible rival source of authority.
Sharp's ruralism was not original. It echoed existing themes in the wider late Victorian and Edwardian re-discovery of rural England, which formed the now-common cliché of the countryside as the true heart of the country. His ideas could be compared with the images that circulated in publications like The Clarion, a left-leaning cyclists' weekly which began in 1891 and Country Life (which began in 1897), with the interest in folklore and superstitions voiced in James Frazer's Golden Bough (first published in 1890) or with the home-grown mysticism of Alfred Watkins, the investigator of ley-lines, who published his Old Straight Track in 1925.32 During these decades durable images of rural life was forged, forming a 'mystical geography' that endures to the present day.33 If there was an original aspect to Sharp's anthropology, it was his concentration on, almost his obsession with, the unlearned peasant. Where others cultivated an interest in rural parish churches, rural folklore, the bleak beauty of upland moors or leylines, Sharp insisted that the key to the mystery of Englishness lay in the mind of the peasant. 'Peasant music is genuine music; peasant speech is genuine language.'34
In part, this perspective was anthropological, in part it was based on a sense of history. Sharp idealised these songs because - he argued - they were direct inheritances from some past period which was only loosely evoked in his writing; his songs came from somewhere in 'the mists of far off days', in 'Merrie England', they dated back to 'the Conquest, and very probably to a still earlier period'.35 Once again, Sharp's attitudes are not original. Medievalism was a full-blown Victorian cult, producing architectural masterpieces such as Augustus Pugin's designs for the House of Commons, sustaining artistic movements like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, stimulating the architectural critic and cultural commentator John Ruskin to rave about the Gothic cathedrals of northern France, and inspiring William Morris to dream of a native English socialism.36
What was new in Sharp's writing was the promise of another form of access to this precious, aboriginal medieval culture. Here, Sharp contributed an arresting image. 'The folk-songs, which the country people are now singing, may be compared to the acorns which fell last autumn from an oak. The tree is, perhaps, an old one and has its roots in the past, but the acorns are the product of a season's growth.'37 Many ideas are crammed into these two sentences: it's worth spending a few moments considering them.
Firstly, note how Sharp's image deliberately downplays any element of creativity among rural singers. For him, the process of song-production is biological and unthinking, for no oak thinks about which acorns it will produce. Indeed, Sharp even chose some quasi-Darwinian concepts and vocabulary to analyse the circulation of folk song: continuity, variation and selection formed the general culture of the folk song. Sharp compared 'the evolutionary origin of the folk-song' to the processes to 'the evolution of species of the animal and vegetable worlds'.38
Secondly, the words suggests Sharp's self-image as an omniscient scientific authority. While the ordinary person - perhaps the unthinking vicars who Sharp teased for their ignorance of the rich culture around them - could only see the humble acorn; Sharp could see the greater tree behind it.
This image also gives the key to understanding Sharp's curious and rather disturbing attitude to the rural singers. By his own account, he deliberately searched 'in out-of-the-way nooks and corners'39 for marginal people: the unschooled, the isolated, the old and the poor, those with 'aged and quavering throats'.40 'Cripples, and those whose infirmities have kept them within doors engaged in sedentary occupations, sometimes retain the old traditions with greater fidelity than their more fortunate brothers and sisters.'41 While other Victorian and Edwardian ruralists admired the stout virtues of the strapping, sun-tanned yeoman, or the ruddy-cheeked milkmaid, this type of easy, romantic admiration is absent in Sharp's work.42
Yet while targeting marginal, frail figures, no sense of sympathy for them comes out in Sharp's writing. This was exceptional. One of Sharp's contemporaries, Reverend S Baring-Gould, went folk song collecting in the 1880s. Like Sharp, he decided that it was among the oldest rural people that he was most likely to find the material he was looking for. Unlike Sharp, he noted their physical distress, and - appropriately - raised money to help them by presenting the songs he'd collected from them in a public concert, and sending the takings back to the people who'd provided him with the songs.43 Obviously, this was a small gesture, but in all Sharp's seventy volumes of publications one searches for any similar indication of Sharp's sympathy for the rural poor or - indeed - of any awareness of their physical distress.
One could compare Sharp with the American folk song collector, Alan Lomax. One of Lomax's first folk song collecting expeditions was in 1934: it took him to the black people of the rural south. On one occasion he found four women singing:
Lomax stressed that he saw his research as a two-way process: yes, he took something from his source singers, but it was his job, even his duty, to give something back in return. 'The role of the folklorist is that of the advocate of the folk.'45 He recommended the use of folk music as vehicle for community action in the distressed south. Once again, there are no such attitudes expressed in Sharp's writing. Sharp is only concerned with what he can draw out from the rural singers. His interest in them, his considerations of their psychology and preferences are all tactics he deploys as part of his greater quest. Looking again at his brief descriptions of his interviews and contacts, one can hear this tone. 'You must be on exceedingly good terms with [the singer] if you would hear him talk in his native tongue; and still more intimate with him before he will sing you his own native songs.'46 He writes of playing tricks on the singer to draw him out, for example asking if he had heard of a song beginning with the phrase 'As I went out ', knowing that this was a common first line to many folk songs. 'The ruse rarely fails,' he commented.47 In place of Lomax's two-way street, in Sharp's writing there is only a one-way channel. The rural singer appears as a truculent, difficult child, who must first be mollified and assuaged, if necessary tricked, before s/he can be persuaded to cooperate. Affection, respect or sympathy are absent from Sharp's writing.
Many of these attitudes were revealed with greater clarity in Sharp's two visits to the Appalachians in 1916 and 1917. By this point, Sharp has a clear confidence in his own abilities. 'I do not think that I should find much difficulty in getting on with them and persuading them to sing,' he noted before setting out.48 On arrival, he was delighted: these people were English! 'The people are just English of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. They speak English, look English, and their manners are old-fashioned English. Heaps of words and expressions they use habitually in ordinary conversation are obsolete, and have been in England a long time.'49 Once again, he stressed the virtue of their isolation from modern culture. 'They have been so isolated and protected from outside influence that their own music and song have not only been uncorrupted, but also uninfluenced by art music in any way.'50 The physical discomfort of the journey and the lands through which they travelled is stressed: the heat, dust, and flies.51 But, in a sense, this too was a positive quality. 'It is sad that cleanliness and good music, or good taste in music rarely go together. Dirt and good music are the usual bed-fellows.'52
Sharp threw himself into folk song collecting, despite the physical discomfort it caused him. It was worth it, he considered, for two reasons. Firstly, ideologically, the folk song was to be an instrument in a Britain's national revival. It would revive British music, which had been moribund since the death of Purcell in 1695.53 French, Italian and then German music had replaced it, and contemporary British musicians had consciously chosen to imitate foreign models. 'The present vogue of training English musicians to lisp in the tongue of the foreigner can have no beneficial outcome.'54 Here, Sharp could claim some success. Ideas about musical nationalism had become fashionable in mid-nineteenth-century Europe: Sharp's writing constituted an English or British variant of the same thesis. Prominent composers such as Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Grainger were inspired by Sharp's ideas and his folk songs; they composed some self-consciously English material.55
But Sharp was thinking in broader terms than simply a new form of British classic music. His second justification for collecting folk songs related to the state of British culture. If folk songs were restored to their correct place, then:
In this way, Sharp adds, folk songs would aid the work of the recently constituted patriotic societies.
Sharp returned to themes of culture and education during his visit to the Appalachians. In one passage he sketched out his ideal of schooling:
In Some Conclusions, Sharp suggested that folk music had the power to solve what the Victorians had termed 'the Social Question'. It could civilize and uplift the sad creatures of the slums; it would unite the diverse classes; it would inspire a moral renaissance in a nation which was suffering a blow to its national self-confidence following Germany's rise to economic prominence.
Yet there's a curious paradox here: despite his continual involvement with forms of education, Sharp constantly wrote of schools in extremely negative terms.59
At the beginning of Some Conclusions, Sharp introduced a distinction between 'the uneducated' and 'the non-educated'.60 The terms are initially confusing, as Sharp was writing with a polemical, sarcastic tone: 'the uneducated' here means those who have gone through elementary schooling and who are therefore, in his eyes, poorly educated. The 'non-educated' are those who exist in the state of cultural virginity that Sharp so valued: the illiterate, untrained and unlettered, those who had no contact with 'formal systems of training or education'.61 These characteristics formed 'the common people'. (In passing, one can note Sharp's decision to define this group in cultural terms, rather than socio-economic terms.) These were the people who possessed the treasure that Sharp so valued: true folk music. He therefore insisted on the need to distinguish carefully between 'the instinctive music of the common people and the debased street-music of the vulgar.'62 If folk song survived in the villages, it survived among the former: the untrained, unschooled and illiterate.
Sharp took such arguments a stage further, and included polemical attacks against state schooling in his publications. The new schools led to the depopulation of the villages and the 'debasing' of rural people's tastes.63 Folk song - and indeed, the folk themselves - could only exist where there were no 'extraneous educational influences'.64 Sharp returned to these themes in his visits to the Appalachians. There was the same admiration for supposed virtues of the unschooled common people. 'Although uneducated, in the sense in which that term is usually understood, they possess that elemental wisdom, abundant knowledge, and intuitive understanding which those only who live in constant touch with Nature and face to face with reality seem to be able to acquire.'65 Working against them: 'There are the schools, which, whatever may be said in their favour, will always be the sworn enemies of the folk-song collector.'66 Given the social and cultural importance which Sharp placed on folk song, this observation suggests a deep hostility to schooling.
There's something extremely odd about these passages. Readers may recall a passage from Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest. Lady Bracknell tells Jack Worthing: 'I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound.'67 Wilde's intention was to caricature a minority strand of hard-line religious thinking which - in reality - defended natural 'innocence' (sometimes a euphemism for virginity) against the claims of an educating, rationalistic, modernizing state. This was an exceptional attitude in the years before 1914, and so made an easy target for satire. Schooling seemed self-evidently good to most contemporary commentators; while some worried about its long-term effects, few thought to oppose it.68 Certainly, the Fabian Society, to which Sharp attached himself, were in the forefront of encouraging the development of schooling for all. Sidney Webb, the Fabians' leading thinker, accurately noted 'No Education Minister has ever found the House of Commons cut down his estimates, or express[ed] anything but satisfaction at the growth of the education vote.'69 Webb went on to propose radical reform of schools in Britain: 'the whole system is to be so reorganized that every clever child in every part of the country shall get the best possible training that can be devised'.70 Another Fabian pamphlet included the statement: 'We cannot afford, as a nation, to leave any brains uncultivated, merely because of the poverty of the family.'71
Astonishingly, Sharp seems to place himself alongside Lady Bracknell and against the Fabians. His hostility to the new elementary schools was stubborn and unrelenting: he never credited them with producing any social benefits. This would have struck his readers as strange, and leads one to ask why Sharp included these observations. Could it have been a tactic to appeal to the conservative rural vicars on whom he depended for his initial contacts in rural areas? Was it a deliberate attempt to shock?
There's one possible explanation for Sharp's attitude to schooling. Perhaps, in popularizing folk song in schools, Sharp hoped this injection of authentic culture would reform and humanize schools. Perhaps his resentment of them could be seen as reflecting some of the themes of Dickens's Hard Times (1854), in which Gradgrind's school and its obsession with cold facts is a target for Dickens's sentimental, humanistic critique of the educational process and of the bureaucratization of Victorian society. Could Sharp be seen as a humanist defender of the English imagination against the dryness of the elementary school?
Sharp had been interested in folk dance since 1899, when he was apparently 'spell-bound' by the performance of a group of eight Morris men performing in Headington.72 While he copied down five of their tunes, he did not immediately follow up this interest. His historical perspective on folk dance was broadly similar to his thoughts on folk song. While not labouring the point, or providing evidence, he considered that morris dances had ancient origins, derived from 'primitive nature ceremonies'. Importantly, there was no 'love motive' for their performance: they were not danced for pleasure. Initially, Sharp took a different approach for what he termed 'country dances': these were originally danced by couples, and 'flirtation or coquetry' were their basis.73 However, in his later courses, Sharp once again stressed the importance of the collective over the individual, recommending that even for country dances that the dancers should aim for 'a communal feeling and understanding'.74
Dance grew more important for him as it became clear that, despite his extraordinary assiduity in folk song collecting, the FSS was not going to accept him as their leader. He was then contacted by Mary Neal in 1905.75 Neal represented a type of left-leaning tendency within Edwardian charitable programmes: she worked with working-class girls in London, teaching them but also clearly attempting to empower them. It's a sign of the times that she came to believe that folk dancing could be part of a programme for the cultural regeneration of the East End. Her Esperance project took in working-class girls, and soon became the base for an energetic girls' dance group. She asked Sharp to advise the classes. Quickly there were differences between them. Sharp wanted 'replication'; Neal aimed at 'dynamic recreation'.76 The confrontation came as something of a shock to Sharp: he slowly realized that just because someone like Neal was keen, dedicated and enthusiastic about traditional folk dance, this did not necessarily mean that she was aiming for the same goal as him. Neal herself distinguished between 'the bookman and the workman': between the person who took a purely pedantic interest in replicating the 'correct' form of the dances, and the person who was creative, attempting to adapt older dance forms to local circumstances.77 These words stung Sharp, who in 1912 presented a defence of 'pedantry', arguing that it was a sign of commitment to the 'firm' establishment of the folk dance. Folk song and dance collectors were 'trustees' argued Sharp, with a duty to disseminate an art in its correct form to the whole nation: another profoundly conservative, Burkean argument.78
In December 1911, the English Folk Dance Society (EFDS) started. This was different from the FSS, which was designed to be an elite research organisation. The EFDS concentrated on providing training courses in folk dance, with graduated certificates for those who passed. For a while, the courses were fashionable: in the late 1920s over a thousand people attended the EFDS's weekly folk dance classes in London.79 By 1914 the organisation had 21 branches, attracting over five hundred members; by 1924 there were 43 branches.80
From the beginning, Sharp dominated the organisation. He was the principal collector of folk dances; other collectors were disavowed.81 Sharp decided what counted as a legitimate folk dance and what could be ignored. Thus the disruptive, disreputable East Anglian tradition of molly-dancing, in which male rural labourers blacked their faces and wore women's clothes, was of no interest to the EFDS.82 In general, the EFDS ignored existing morris teams, and traditional dancers were not invited to their classes.83 Sharp established what were the 'correct' forms of the traditional dances. In the FSS, Sharp's influence had been limited by the rival presence of other folk song collectors and culturally-prestigious figures. In his brief period of collaboration with Neal, Sharp had been openly challenged. In the EFDS, he at last created what he had been looking for since 1903: an organisation within which his ideas went unchallenged. The majority of the EFDS's members were probably female primary schoolteachers: women with little power, who looked to improve their situations by obtaining the relevant certificates, and who were therefore in a poor position to defy Sharp.
As has been seen, Sharp's first priority was 'the establishment and recognition of a standard' in folk dance.84 This aim clearly shaped Sharp's teaching of folk dance. His approach was rigid: he demanded that 'every movement be executed with scientific precision'; he informed his pupils that 'self-consciousness [was] the arch-foe of all natural, instinctive, artistic expression.'85 Instead of expressing themselves, the dancers were to aim for the cultivation of a communal feeling. Sharp did not want folk dance to be a romantic experience through which boy might meet girl; instead - arguably - he was trying to return dance to its communal, village origins. One can immediately see what is missing from Sharp's teaching. Anyone who attends a morris dance will note it: fun. The dancers - and the audience - are clearly enjoying themselves. Such points seem to have been irrelevant to Sharp.
Sharp was unswerving. When visiting Pittsburgh in 1915, where he acted as dance advisor for a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, he told his pupils: 'if the performer attempts to intrude his own personality or to add the graces of execution appropriate to more cultivated songs, the wild flavour evaporates.'86 The phrase which Sharp seems to have repeated to countless pupils is that they should aim for 'gay simplicity' in their performances.87 Sharp was aware of one danger of his training: he could over-emphasise the crushing of the individual personality. So he claimed that his aim was a type of sensible middle ground: 'Vigour under complete control is the dominant note of the Morris Dance, as it is also its chief claim to educational recognition. The greatest care must be exercised lest, on the one hand, the dance degenerate into a disorderly romp, or, on the other hand, curbed by too rigid a restraint, it become tame and lifeless.'88
The interesting point here is the consistency of Sharp's thinking. Just as he did not admire the rural singers as singers, but only as latest producers of acorns from an ancient tree, so he did not expect dancers to express their personalities, but instead to replicate an (allegedly) ancient ritual. On one occasion Sharp even denied that dance could be learnt. Instead, acquiring proficiency in dance was supposed to be an 'intuitive' process: something which the individual dancer was expected to feel as he or she accepted the communal discipline.89 (Reading between the lines, one understands that Sharp was expecting some sort of racial memory to awaken in the dancer.) While the basis of Neal's Esperance project had been working-class self-empowerment through dance, Sharp's directed courses aimed at almost the opposite: disempowerment through conformity to pseudo-ancient, pseudo-biological imperatives. There's no room for creativity in Sharp's aesthetics, only for the performers mechanically playing out greater rules.
One is left to wonder what Sharp's pupils took from all this. The one published analysis specifically of his dance classes emphasises their social conservatism. The nouveaux-riches avoided the classes, while the lower-classes responded enthusiastically, but needed guidance, and the upper-classes took on the role of guiders and teachers. 'What could be more conservative than the picture of happy villagers dancing around the Maypole under the benevolent but firm eye of the presiding gentry?'90 Predictably, local nobles were recruited as presidents of local branches of the EFDS: in 1931, 27 of the 40 branches had aristocratic presidents.91 There are some descriptions of pupils being moved to tears by the beauty of the dance: at their best, the dances could have a 'spiritually redemptive' role for the individual pupils.92 Certainly, there is evidence here of Sharp's competence and even his charisma as a dance director.
Under Sharp's guidance, the EFDS had some real cultural influence in British society. Folk dance entered the cultural calendar: the courses were well-attended, and re-enactments of allegedly ancient dances were introduced to village fêtes. To an extent, Sharp achieved his goal: instead of fading into obscurity, morris dancing has been preserved, and even renovated. There's even been something of a revival of morris dancing more recently.93
One consequence of the new popularity of the biological sciences was that many writers applied racially-derived concepts to some surprising fields. In Some Conclusions, Sharp mused in passing that the similarities between many Europe folk ballads suggested that they must be derived from some common cultural storehouse of the 'Arian race'.94 What is one to make of such references? Should we merely conclude that Sharp was a man of his times who occasionally, unthinkingly, echoed its clichés?
There's no doubt that some early twentieth-century racism was relatively innocent. You probably already know one such example: the lines from a socialist hymn, 'Bread and Roses', composed in 1912:
One obvious problem with this thinking is that 'race' is a difficult concept to apply consistently. How many 'races' live in the UK today? How should they be identified and classified? Secondly, once the various races have been identified, almost inexorably ideas of superiority and inferiority then slip in. While there's no suggestion of the racial superiority of 'the women' in 'Bread and Roses', many other contemporary writers and commentators used concepts of race differently. The astonishing spread of the British Empire over 12 million square miles in 1914 was often taken as proof of the superiority of the white 'race' over the others.95 Unfortunately, the 'innocent' racism of 'Bread and Roses' was not typical of Sharp's time. How did racial thinking shape Sharp's theories on folk music?
Sharp made some scattered racial references in his writing. Discussing the tendency of young rural people to reject the songs of their parents, he wrote 'their children were the first of their race to reject the songs of their forefathers.'96 With reference to his cultural-political project of introducing schoolchildren to folk music, Sharp asked 'what better form of music or of literature can we give them than the folk-songs and folk-ballads of the race to which they belong?'97 His biographer, commenting on Sharp's thinking, explained that for him 'the singer is no more than the mouthpiece of the race'.98 Sharp's idea of a folk inheritance, formed somewhere in the mists of time and then revived through folk dance courses in the 1910s and 1920s, also suggests a racial concept. Is this important?
This issue becomes important when we consider how Sharp evaluated folk song: how did he decide which forms of music counted as relevant to his project? This can be seen most clearly when we consider Sharp's visits to the Appalachians in 1916 and 1917. Firstly, Sharp needed to establish that the Appalachian songs were relevant to his research. He had already encountered an aspect of this issue when offering Americans English folk dances: given the 'melting pot' model of American culture, why should they accept English material as necessarily more relevant than Jewish, German, French or Italian folk dances? Sharp's answer was to refer to language as indicating a deep bond between English and American culture: not an obviously racial argument.99
In this instance, Sharp was arguing for the export of English material to the USA. However, when collecting folk songs in the Appalachians he needed to construct an argument in the other direction: that the Appalachian material was relevant to the British of the 1910s. Sharp's writing shows that he felt no uncertainty at all: the Appalachians he met were English. He referred to 'race' to support this argument:
Sharp referred to black people as 'niggers' several times. While this is an offensive term, it could be argued that Sharp had simply picked up the term from white Americans he met, and used it unthinkingly. But, in his private writing, Sharp also used the word 'nigger' in an explicitly derogatory manner:
Sharp's Appalachian research shows the limits of his thinking. One wonders why he was so certain that black people's music was of no interest to him. (There is a historical irony here: Sharp arrived in the USA at the moment when the blues - a fusion music which certainly involved learning from English folk song traditions - was being identified.)102 Perhaps Sharp's conspicuous lack of interest may have been because of the relatively low status of much apparently black music: blackface minstrelsy and medicine show music would probably have reminded Sharp of the dreaded music hall, and therefore would have been automatically rejected by him as invalid.103 Just as importantly, what Sharp's racial perspective prevented him from seeing was the extent to which white music had been positively affected by the presence of black folk musicians: spirituals had been 'discovered' and admired by white observers in the late nineteenth century; some black American choirs had even toured in the UK.104 The use of the banjo by white Appalachians should have alerted Sharp to what was happening: the banjo was originally an African instrument.105 There had been a process of interchange and fusion between diverse musical streams in the Appalachians, long before Sharp's arrival. Robert Cantwell, the leading authority on Appalachian musical culture, notes:
There's an important lesson here. Sharp's research into Appalachian folk music was based on racial concepts: he believed that some English musical quality had been (biologically?) preserved among mountain people. But this perspective blinded him to the far more complex reality of musical culture in the Appalachians, which actually demonstrated the contrary: the singing and playing that he heard was the result of a process of fusion and interchange between cultures, not the product of a racially pure musical culture. The lesson we can take concerning the limitations of his Appalachian research can also be applied to the methods he used in England: his search for purity often blinded him to the reality of the musical cultures in front of him.
Scott's political views are difficult to place within twenty-first-century categories. Scott sincerely believed that Scotland - particularly the Highlands - was different from England. He noted linguistic differences, and peppered his novels with Highland characters speaking Gaelic; he noted religious differences (Catholicism persisted in the Highlands), economic differences (an undeveloped pastoral economy still existed) and even physical differences (the Highlanders in his novels are tall, muscular people who tower over the English). In his Waverley novels, one senses his sympathy for these people. And yet the story of the rebellions of 1715 and 1745, as illustrated by Scott's novels, are stories of the defeat of the brave Highlanders by English and lowland Scots armies.
Scott's considered analysis was that these defeats, while tragic, were necessary. For Scott, the best future for Scotland, even with all its specificities and virtues, was union with England. While he was undoubtedly a Scottish patriot, he was also a sincere Unionist, and perhaps his greatest cultural work was the packaging and presentation of Scotland in a form that was acceptable London's monarchs.108 We live with the results today: Prince Charles and countless minor royals can still be seen occasionally sporting tartan and kilts; tartanry and Burn's Night are part of the English cultural calendar.
In other words, the defeat of one form of Scottishness led to a more important victory: the successful union of Scotland with England. Similar stories of victory-in-defeat are told in other nations. In France, 'our ancestors the Gauls' mark the beginning of the history school textbooks, and French pupils are taught a similar story of the necessary defeat of the noble Gauls, led by brave Vercingetorix, by Julius Caesar: an action which was needed for the founding of the French nation.109 Finally, in the USA, a similar cult of the defeated 'Red Indian' has produced artefacts such as the Washington Redskins football team (founded in 1932), the Apache dive-bomber (1942), the Chinook helicopter (1957), the Iroquois helicopter (1959) and the Tomahawk cruise missile (1983).
How can we explain Sharp's clear antipathy to the presence of schools and his advocacy of schooling as a means to found a national culture? His admiration for folk song and his relative indifference to folk singers? His commitment to dance education and his regimentation of dancers? This 'Conservative Socialist' found himself caught between epochs - or, more accurately, caught between his mythologized, racialized image of past epochs and his pseudo-Darwinistic fears for the future of the British 'race'. His contradictory, backward-looking perspectives could well be another example of a Scott-ian 'victory-in-defeat'. Like Scott, Sharp admired the virtues of the old-fashioned English peasant. But, like Scott, he considered that this way of life was inevitably doomed to extinction.
Two passages from his Appalachian writings capture this ambiguity:
On the other hand, another Appalachian passage shows that Sharp did have some awareness of the processes that would inevitably arrive in the Appalachians, just as they had arrived in English villages. 'Already the forests are attracting the attention of the commercial world; lumber companies are being formed to cut down and carry off the timber, and it is not difficult to foresee the inevitable effect which this will have upon the simple, Arcadian life of the mountains.'111 The basis of Sharp's cultural politics was that the communities he admired were inevitably doomed. Lumber companies and elementary schools were destroying them, indeed, had destroyed them. Like Scott, he could lament the passing of the primitive utopia; like Scott, he considered that the process of modernisation was overwhelming. If this was case, then the task of the folklorist was to preserve what could be saved, and leave the doomed folk to their fate. Scott selected tartanry as the vehicle by which to remember the Highlanders; Sharp chose folk song to represent the 'Merrie England' of the distant past.
Sharp's achievements are indisputable. His research encouraged the turn to folk song for inspiration among early twentieth-century British classical composers. The EFDS's dance courses must have encouraged thousands of people to take an interest in folk dance. Sharp's collection of folk songs is still consulted by folk singers today. And Sharp's propagandizing helped to get folk song into primary school classes. (As someone who went to a primary school in London in the 1960s, I probably owe Cecil Sharp some thanks for introducing me to What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor? - the only song I can remember from those classes at more than 50 years' distance.)
But alongside these successes, we need also to note limitations and outright failures. First among these is that tricky and obstinate question of definition. Steve Roud's simple assertion - that obviously 'something existed' before the song-collecting began - sidesteps this point.115 Who decides what constitutes folk song? Which songs are 'collectable'? Which tunes and lyrics are seen as part of that 'something', and which are excluded? Why? (The densely argued works of David Harker and Georgina Boyes discuss this point in some detail.) Sharp's answer wasn't an original one: he searched for an imagined purity in people who he imagined were primitive, unschooled and untrained, and considered he had the ability to recognise that musical purity when he found it. Before him, the same kind of research had been carried out by the Grimm brothers in Germany, Walter Scott in Scotland, Théodore Hersart de La Villemarqué in Brittany and Franz Liszt in Hungary. But the bulk of recent research (and just plain common sense) demonstrates that this quest is fruitless: villagers were more complex people than these nineteenth-century researchers thought; their cultures were more varied and more subtle than the researchers' models of racial or cultural purity suggested. Rather than researchers' projects uncovering the unadulterated purity of the folk which then provide the key to national identity, the researchers' definitions and concepts exploit, distort and mis-represent folk culture in order to provide a radically new image of national identity, always under the guise of asserting its ancient qualities.116
If we return to John England singing on the lawn: yes, 'The Seeds of Love' existed before Cecil Sharp noted it. But England would never have termed it 'a folk song'; as far as we know, rural singers like England thought in terms of 'old songs', but in this category they would have included old music hall material, hymns they had learnt in church and plenty of the sexually suggestive songs that caused the well-meaning Victorian and Edwardian collectors such problems. The assumed category of 'folk song' has since caused most serious researchers intense problems, to the point where an intelligent and original writer like Mark Slobin eventually comes round to saying 'we know it when we hear it'.117
Martin Carthy has an attractive, pragmatic, free-wheeling approach to this questions of authenticity and tradition: 'the only way to damage a folk song is not to sing it'.118 But didn't Sharp's approach damage folk song? His exploitation of folk song for conservative, patriotic purposes, and the racially-based perspective he developed were both issues which worried the activists of the second folk revival in the 1950s and 1960s.
Then there's the question of theft. Defenders of Sharp grow furious when they hear such terms.119 Sharp can be presented in almost Biblical terms as a suffering, ageing man, working almost alone, dedicating himself with a selfless, single-minded intensity to the preservation of a folk heritage. How could anyone call this secular saint a thief? It must be remembered that for much of his life folk song wasn't simply a passion for Sharp, it was also a career. He earnt his bread and butter by talking about and teaching folk song. Inevitably, he had to present himself as an authority on the topic, and this led him to downplay or deny the influence of other collectors.
But more seriously than this, Sharp actually copyrighted much of the material he collected: if not the original tune or dance, then his arrangement of the tune or dance. Legal experts Richard Jones and Euan Cameron note: 'The "folk" were seen to have passed on the folk song, but had no conception of this process and, in consequence, made no creative contribution to the song.'120 On at least one occasion, a dance troupe realized the implications of his actions, and denied Sharp permission to use their material.121 Sharp's collecting was not a two-way street: he gave nothing back to the people from whom he took material.
Finally, there was a clear cultural distortion produced by the Sharp's re-representation of folk music. Roud has a good rejoinder on this: while 'folk music in evening dress' may sound ridiculous, it's no more incongruous than folk music by a singer wearing denim and playing a guitar.122 But, once again, Roud sidesteps an important issue: there is a qualitative difference between the regimented, patriotic, non-expressive aesthetic that seems to have been Sharp's default position, and the generally participatory ethic that inspired the singers of the second Folk Revival. Maybe both are 'incongruous', but they're incongruous in different ways. If we accept that, for a host of historical and cultural reasons, it is impossible to simply 'replicate' traditional folk music, then it is probable that the methods and ethics of second Revival did less violence to the body of traditional material than Sharp's folk dance classes.
Finally: folk song in schools. This was probably less of a success than it seems at first sight. The Grimm Brothers had intended their folk tales to be read by adults: their decline into 'fairy tales' for children, and the inevitable tidying-up, dumbing-down and smoothing-out that went with that process, led directly to the Disney version of the original tales. Sharp set up an association between folk songs and infant schools, and thereby - unwittingly - encouraged the belief that they weren't suitable for adults. Britta Sweers, to my knowledge, is the only person who has looked directly at this question in any detail. Her conclusions are devastatingly clear: for singers like Maddy Prior or Jacqui McShee, exposure to folk song at school was a positive disincentive to learn about folk music. Folk at school lacked life and vigour; it did not inspire. Instead, a whole British generation was introduced to folk music by American singers such as Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly - ironically, precisely the sort of singer than Sharp would have dismissed as inauthentic.123 Rather than making the Anglo-British tradition live, Sharp's efforts seem to have killed it off for a whole generation of enterprising, enthusiastic and original folk singers.124
Surveying Sharp's work and career, his concentration on rules and regulations is surprising and noteworthy. Most of his famous arguments occurred when he considered that the other person has overstepped the mark. His own explanation for his regulatory obsession - that the folk heritage needed the clear establishment of orthodox forms - does have some merit. Any serious musician, singer or dancer will say that acquiring proficiency requires discipline; the beginner needs to learn techniques, and needs to follow them. But, equally, any serious musician, singer or dancer would add that having learnt these, the joy of any art lies in self-expression, whether collective or individual. Putting this at its most basic, one would therefore expect the Birmingham Morris's version of The Nutting Girl to be different from the Bristol Morris's version of the same dance: not necessarily better, just different. One would expect dedicated and trained teams to bring something to the material they use: they never simply replicate (apparently) ancient rituals: they develop, enhance, even improve the material, while staying in sympathy with its spirit. This is what 'a tradition' really means. And it's a dimension that's simply absent from Sharp's work.
Ultimately, Sharp treated folk dance and folk song like the relics that colonists found in Africa and Asia. Because the colonists were certain that they had encountered a primitive, backward society, they therefore felt they had every right to take these relics from their natural environment and display them in the British Museum: indeed, they could even argue that this was a public service. Their claim to ownership seemed self-evident. Similarly, Sharp considered that he had the right to own the acorns he found in the fields, villages and pathways of early twentieth-century England.
Sharif Gemie - 17.4.19
|Top||Home Page||MT Records||Articles||Reviews||News||Editorial||Map|