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A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
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Jumping to Conclusions

Mike Yates examines a row that is bubbling away beneath the surface of British folksong scholarship

We all know that a ‘folk-revival’ occurred at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.  Today, this is usually referred to as the ‘first revival’, to distinguish it from the ‘second revival’, which started towards the end of the 1950s.  Most people also know that one man, Cecil James Sharp (1859-1924) was possibly the most important figure to emerge from the first revival, both as a song and dance collector and as a publicist for the material that he was collecting.  To begin with, Sharp worked mainly in Somerset, where he noted his first song in 1903, and his early publications included five volumes of songs collected in that county.  By 1907, Sharp felt that he was ready to produce a work devoted to the study of folkmusic.  This was English Folk Song.  Some Conclusions.

By the time the second revival began to kick-in, Cecil Sharp was becoming somewhat marginalized.  In order to preserve the songs, and to encourage people to sing them again, Sharp presented much of his material in arrangements that were suitable for singing by school-children.  In other words, he bowdlerized some of the songs, removing some of the more explicit sexual references, and, by doing so, antagonized a number of people.  This statement from Georgina Boyes is fairly typical, ‘the cultural products of the rural working class were taken from them and daintily and selectively re-worked for school and drawing room consumption.’ (The Imagined Village.  See below).  We will return to the concept of folkmusic belonging to ‘the rural working class’ later.  In fact, the situation was such that in 1965 A L Lloyd felt the need to redress the balance by writing a sympathetic piece about Sharp in Karl Dallas’s magazine Folk Music (vol.1.no.10.pp.9-12).

In 1972 I was the editor of the EFDSS Folk Music Journal, the annual publication that was then struggling to find enough material to fill each issue.  Publication date was looming, and we were still short of material.  Bob Thomson happened to mentioned that a person called Dave Harker had recently presented a paper on Cecil Sharp and that Harker was looking for somewhere to print his paper.  I wrote to Dave Harker asking if we might have a look at his work.  This turned out to be Cecil Sharp in Somerset - Some Conclusions, a paper that was critical of Sharp and his work in Somerset.  It was also provocative, beginning, as it did, with the opening sentence, ‘Who was Cecil Sharp, anyway?’

In the paper Harker argued that Sharp was guilty of misrepresentation on a number of counts.  Following a brief biography, Harker moved to Sharp’s first encounter with folksong in 1903 and to his subsequent forages into rural Somerset, where he sought out further songs.  There was much made of what exactly constitutes a ‘rural’ population, or, to use one of Sharp’s own terms, ‘the common people’, and also whether or not Sharp’s singers were really ‘peasants’.  Much was made of Sharp’s ‘tinkering’ with song texts and of the importance of the broadside press, a fact apparently, and possibly, deliberately ignored by Sharp.  The article ended with the following conclusion:

There you have it, "folk song" as mediated by Cecil Sharp, to be used as "raw material" or "instrument", being extracted from a tiny fraction of the rural proletariat and to be 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.
Unfortunately there was no time to circulate the paper to all the members of the Editorial Board, as was usual, and, having read the piece, I made the decision to include it in that year’s Journal.  One member of the Board, Pat Shaw, commented that he was unhappy about the accuracy of some of Dave Harker’s statistics.  ‘OK’, I said.  ‘Let me have a rebuttal that we can also print.’  But Pat died in 1977, sadly without putting pen to paper, and that, so far as I was concerned, was the end of the matter.

Others, however, were happy to accept Harker’s work, which he incorporated into his later book Fakesong, that was published in 1985.  The following year Vic Gammon commented that Fakesong was ‘the beginning of critical work’ on the first revival, and also that it had taken on ‘the status of an orthodoxy in some quarters of the British left.’ (‘Two for the Show.  Dave Harker, Politics and Popular Song’ in History Workshop Journal 21 (1986), p.147).  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.’  Harker’s work had, indeed, become an orthodoxy and was being quoted by a number of prominent left-wing historians.  In 1993 Georgina Boyes produced her book The Imagined Village - Culture, ideology and the English Folk Revival which, following Harker, was also highly critical of Sharp.

In 1979 I visited the Appalachian Mountains of North America, looking for folksongs.  Cecil Sharp had, of course, previously visited the mountains at the time of the Great War and his monumental, if somewhat mis-titled, English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (published posthumously in 1932) had long taken pride of place on my bookshelf.  The following year I wrote a short piece on the Virginian singer Dan Tate, which appeared in the 1980 Folk Music Journal.  In the piece I made one or two mildly critical comments about Cecil Sharp, which rather upset Douglas Kennedy, who had known Sharp in the early 1920s.  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 MT 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.

C J Bearman had entered Hull University in 1991, and in 2001 completed his PhD thesis, The English Folk Music Movement 1898-1914.  In 2000 and 2002 he produced two papers, ‘Who Were the Folk?  The Demography of Cecil Sharp’s Somerset Folk Singers’ in Historical Journal (43, 3.  pp.751-775), and ‘Cecil Sharp in Somerset: Some Reflections on the Work of David Harker’ in Folklore (113, pp.11 - 34).  These two papers were to turn Dave Harker’s ‘orthodoxy’ on its head!

Who Were the Folk? is a densely argued piece which begins by examining how Sharp’s definition of folksong as, ‘the song created by the common people’, (‘the common people’ being, ‘the remnants of the peasantry’), was changed by A L Lloyd into ‘lower-class’ song.  In other words, according to Bearman (p.755), ‘Sharp defined folk music in terms of his sources’ culture.  His Marxist critics define it in terms of their class, and this redefinition enables a whole set of ready-made concepts to be applied.’ Sharp’s use of the term ‘peasantry’ seems to have really annoyed many of these critics.  ‘The notion of a peasantry in England at the end of the nineteenth century is nonsensical’ (A E Green & Tony Wales, quoted in Who Were the Folk p.744) and yet, as Bearman now shows, the word ‘peasantry’ had a common usage in Sharp’s day, and there are dictionary definitions which show exactly how Sharp was using the word.  ‘Peasants’, according to Harker, were ‘English working men (sic) (cultivating) a patch of land for subsistence’ (Harker’s italics.  Bearman p.757), whereas the 1989 Oxford English dictionary gives the following primary definition.  ‘One who lives in the country and works on the land, either as a small farmer or as a labourer’.  And, John Murray’s New English dictionary, printed in 1905 when Sharp was working in Somerset, says that a peasant was, ‘One who lives in the country and works on the land, either as a small farmer or as a labourer; the name is also applied to any rustic of the working classes; a countryman, a rustic.’ Almost all of Sharp’s Somerset singers fall within this definition.  True, some lived in towns.  But, again, Bearman shows how Harker’s terminology (without benefit of definition) had been manipulated for its own ends.  ‘(Harker) also classifies communities as "towns" or "villages" without defining what he means by those terms, and without knowledge on which to base his classifications.  Harker calls Langport a "small town", but in 1901 it had 813 people, just over 100 more than its neighbour Huish Episcopi, which to Harker is "a large village", and considerably less than the 1,021 of Cannington, another "large village".  High Ham, which Harker calls "tiny", had 898 people - more than Langport.’ (Who Were the Folk? p.761).  Bearman continues, ‘Agricultural workers could be found in all the smaller towns in which Sharp collected...  In communities like these there was no clear division between urban and rural, and it is foolish to assume one.  Harker’s motivation seems to be the ideological desire to count any "town", however small and rural, as the equivalent of an industrial city, and to enroll its citizens among an urban proletariat.’ (Who Were the Folk? p.762). 

Bearman continued to question Dave Harker’s statistics in his second paper, Cecil Sharp in Somerset: Some Reflections on the Work of David Harker:

If Harker’s argument is a simple matter of arithmetic - that Sharp tried to present a more "rural" image by publishing more songs attributed to villages than to towns - these points illustrate the ignorance, false assumptions, and doubtful methods which lie behind his statistics.  Here is a passage from Fakesong:
In the first four parts of Folk Songs from Somerset, Sharp and Marson (his co-editor) published 20% of the 146 songs collected in the village of Hambridge, but only 9% of the 129 from the town of Bridgwater.  They used 10% of the songs collected in Somerton, but the only piece found in tiny High Ham.  From the large village of Cannington they used 5% of the 43 pieces they had collected, while from the smaller East Harptree they used 17% of the 40 items they found...Sharp and Marson published 25% of Louie and Lucy’s (i.e.  Lucy White’s and Louisa Hooper’s) 100 songs...Five from William King’s 11 songs went into print...(p.195).
By twenty per cent of 146, Harker presumably means 29.  Twenty-four songs and one tune from Hambridge were published in the four parts of Folk Songs from Somerset he analysed.  Nineteen of these songs and the one tune were attributed to Louisa Hooper and Lucy White, not the 25 which Harker’s figure suggests.  By seventeen per cent of 40.  Harker presumably means seven.  Only four songs and one set of words were attributed to East Harptree.  William King sang these four songs, not five, and the set of words came from another singer.  To get four sets of figures wrong in the same half-paragraph must be some sort of record.  It is also an interesting variety of mistake which so consistently produces errors in favour of the argument being presented.’ (Bearman Cecil Sharp in Somerset p.16).
Bearman is equally scathing when it comes to Dave Harker’s allegation that Sharp not only bowdlerized texts, but also altered texts for social reasons.  ‘In Mrs Overd’s version of Geordie, for example, it is the judge who looks down unpityingly on the horse-thief he is about to condemn, but in the published text it is "the people" who take this attitude and are implicated in the condemnation made by the "public" agent.  "Bohenny" is rendered as "Bohemia", and her "London" as "Newcastle"...’ (Harker Cecil Sharp in Somerset p.196).  This is just untrue.  It is indeed the judge who ‘look-ed down’ on poor Geordie and both Bohenny and London are printed as collected.  A second example, given by Harker on the same page of Cecil Sharp in Somerset, is equally wrong.

‘In the published text (of The Wraggle-Taggle Gipsies)...  Sharp and Marson reduce the heroes of the title to mere "ragged ragged rags," and de-lyricize "Spanish livery" to "hose of leather".  When Mrs Overd sang of the wife who was wholeheartedly sick of her lord and all his possessions, the editors convert her (with their customary masculine bias) to a kind of unthinking, shameless hussy, particularly by the subtle change to "I’ll follow" from "I’m off" when she decides to go with her chosen partner.’ In this case Sharp and Marson had collated two versions of the song - from Emma Overd and Anna Pond - and the lines attributed to editorial intervention, "ragged ragged rags" and "hose of leather", are actually taken from Anna Pond’s version.  Again, the printed set does use the phrase "I’m off" and, not "I’ll follow", despite what Dave Harker says.

Bearman finally turns to a controversy regarding the oral tradition versus the broadside press.  Although Cecil Sharp owned a collection of broadside song texts, he made little mention of broadside influence on the oral tradition.  Yet, according to Dave Harker ‘the chief criterion for popularity as regards songs for working people from 1800 onwards, was repeated printing’.  (Harker.  Introduction to Rhymes of Northern Bards 1971.  This was Dave Harker’s first published work).  Sharp, on the other hand,seemed to believe that a song’s popularity could be gauged by the number of singers who knew the song, rather than the number of printers who issued the song on a broadside.  Is this important?  The answer is, yes - to a Marxist.  In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels actually congratulate capitalism for liberating some of the proletariat from ‘the idiocy of rural life’.  Broadsides, it would seem, were a way to integrate the "rural proletariat" into an urban-based culture.

Sharp, on the other hand, was guilty of attempting to hide this urban bias, just as he had been guilty of ‘misusing’ the term ‘peasantry’.  ‘Harker treated oral tradition by ignoring it.  He laid heavy emphasis on printed material and quoted examples of singers learning songs from broadsides, alleging that Sharp "deliberately ignored the significance of their testimony, especially if it conflicted with his own values and assumptions".  (Fakesong p.194, quoted in Bearman Cecil Sharp in Somerset p.26).  And yet, again, the evidence from Sharp contradicts Dave Harker.  True, Sharp was lax in asking singers where they learnt their songs, but we do know that out of the 311 singers that he met during the period 1904-09, sixty singers provided provenance for 77 of their songs.  Only one of these songs was learnt 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 20th century, but most of these singers would have been around at the end of the 19th 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 already mentioned) 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.p.369).

C J 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.

Mike Yates - 8.3.03.

Acknowledgment: I would like to thank Malcolm Taylor, Librarian at Cecil Sharp House, London, for assistance in the preparation of this article.

A response to the above, from an American perspective, by Mark Wilson (Editor of Rounder's North American Traditions series) can be found in Letters Jan-May 2003.

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