Vol 1, April 2016
Cecil Sharp and the Origins of the Country Dance & Song Society
by Daniel J. Walkowitz, Ph.D.
Daniel Walkowitz, a social and cultural historian, recently retired as professor of history at New York University. His book City Folk: English Country Dance and the Politics of the Folk in Twentieth-Century America (NYU Press, 2010/2014) served as the background for the documentary film, City Folk: The Story of Pinewoods and English Country Dance in America (Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, 2015). A folk dancer for over fifty years, Daniel has danced with Narad, a Balkan troop in Baltimore, The Chelsea English Country Dancers in New York, and he has called and danced with Country Dance New York since 1992.
On December 23, 1914, on a bracing cold morning with temperatures hovering in the mid-twenties, the SS Lusitania docked in the harbor of New York City bearing the renowned folklorist Cecil Sharp, chair of the English Folk Dance Society (EFDS). The ostensible reason for Sharp’s visit was to reprise the dance sequences that he had staged for Granville Barker’s ground-breaking London production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Barker’s New York production. But the theatrical assignment also offered Sharp the opportunity to pursue his personal interests in advancing English country dance in America.
Several prominent American folkdance enthusiasts, who had attended one of the English country dance Summer Schools led by Sharp in Stratford, anticipated his arrival. Four, in particular—the New York folklorist and dance educator Elizabeth Burchenal, the Boston grand dame and social reformer Helen Storrow, Harvard professor of Dramatic Literature George P. Baker, and Pittsburgh’s Mrs. James Dawson Callery (her husband was a major industrialist)—characterized the social elite that formed the base of Sharp’s American constituency. They also developed a personal allegiance to Sharp that would inform the leadership role he was to come to play in English country dance in America. Affluent Anglophile tourists and researchers, these four had traveled to England at the same time as millions of poor immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, often seeking political asylum, had arrived on American shores to “flood” American cities, and they shared Sharp’s interest in advancing the English heritage of their ancestors.
Burchenal’s writings and her role in initiating robust folk dance programs in the Playground Association and the Girls’ Branch of the New York Public School Athletic League (PSAL) during the decade preceding Sharp’s arrival in New York, is representative of the group’s enthusiasms. Her views and activity in advancing English country dance as a social, educational and moral enterprise echoed Sharp’s opinions. The first of the American dance enthusiasts to study with Sharp, Burchenal did pioneering folk dance research in northern Europe, including in England. By 1907, under her leadership, 233 New York City teachers were teaching folk dance to 8,219 school children in 128 city schools. Such activity, she wrote, had great possibilities as a “Democratic Socializing Agent,” providing, in the words of her colleague Luther Halsey Gulick, the founder of the PSAL, “social ceremonial life for the boy and girl in their teens… [for] development of that social control which is related to the corporate conscience that is rendered necessary by the complex interdependence of modern life.”
Burchenal stood ready to help Sharp upon his arrival in New York. Indeed, she had worked to advance his reputation for some time, most notably to complicate if not undermine the 1911 dance tour to America by Sharp’s one-time collaborator and more recent competitor, Mary Neal. In 1907, Neal and Sharp had worked together to establish English country dance and collaborated on a volume on morris dance. But by 1909, increasingly bitter differences between the two over the style of the dance—and ultimately over who would be the emergent movement’s authority—divided them. Neal’s Espérance dancers, a group of young girls drawn from the Espérance Club and Social Guild, a settlement house in northeast London that she directed for seamstresses, performed morris dances with a youthful exuberance; Sharp, wedded to the embodiment of the dance as graceful simplicity that would counter the perceived debauchery of the tango craze and music halls beloved by the immigrant working class, complained the Club had a low artistic standard that performed “a graceless, undignified, and uncouth dance quite unfitted for educational uses.” In December 1910, when Neal arrived with her leading Espérance dancer, Florence Warren, for their American dance tour, they found all their engagements had been canceled. Neal was told that a friend of Sharp’s—presumably Burchenal—had told all the New York societies and educators that the English education authorities had “thrown [them] over” in favor of Sharp. Neal and Warren managed to rebook their engagements and the New York Times heralded their performance as a refreshing example of the revival underway in England that the reporter hoped would reawaken the repressed spirit of the Anglo-American race. In a letter back to London, Neal crowed, “Cecil Sharp has done his best to poison people’s minds over here. But we are here and he is not! . . . . Nor do I think he will ever come now!”
Mary Neal was one of two of Sharp’s predecessors to teach English country dance in America. The second, A. Claud Wright, one of the six original members of Sharp’s demonstration morris team, visited twice in the summers of 1913 and 1914. Harvard professor George Baker, captivated by Wright’s boldly energetic style of dance, invited him to visit and teach morris dance at Baker’s summer camp in Chocorua, New Hampshire—a predecessor to the summer dance camps to follow. Wright’s vertical style of dance and his energy won him an enthusiastic following in the select but receptive New York and Boston dance communities, notably with the support of both Baker and the wealthy patron Helen Storrow. For Wright, who came from modest means, the enthusiasm and money connections also translated into a potential career in teaching English country dance in America. This was not to be, however, for complicated reasons both personal and political. With the coming of the Great War, political pressures from Anglophiles on both sides of the Atlantic mounted on Wright to return to England and enlist. At the same time, Sharp had his own plans for America and the opportunities there, and they did not include Wright. As the war engulfed Europe and with increased reluctance by Americans to hire the youthful Wright, his plans for a third visit in early 1915 collapsed. Sharp now had the American field to himself.
Neal’s and Wright’s visits had helped lay the groundwork for Sharp’s reception, but Sharp’s ascendance in their place—both over what was the “authentic” style of the dance as well as over who was to authorize it—fundamentally shaped the way English country dance came to be embodied in America. The spirit of the dance would be codified by “experts” like Sharp, rather than given the more free-form expression of the Espérance working girls; and rather than the athleticism of Wright, the dance would be moving and fluid but more restrained and contained, more horizontal than vertical.
Sharp and the Formation of the American Branch of the EFDS
The days during Sharp’s first month and a half in New York were filled with rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but he quickly moved to explore his possibilities as a lecturer on English folk song and dance. His success in teaching two country dances, Gathering Peascods and Hey Boys, Up Go We, to twenty young women at Susan Gilman’s fashionable studio in late January, 1915, convinced Sharp that he had a future in the United States, but that it was not as a lecturer. The success got Sharp’s mind racing. He began to envision sources of income that would alleviate his always-present financial anxieties; in awarding dance certificates, students would be encouraged to attend his summer school at Stratford-on-Avon and purchase back issues of the English Folk Dance Society’s Folk Music Journal. Moreover, Sharp began to envision establishing a permanent presence of the English Folk Dance Society in the U.S. Writing to Maud Karpeles, one of his demonstration dancers in London, he wished she were there to team with him to make it happen: “There is heaps of talk here of folk dance but absolutely no knowledge whatsoever…. If you were here, one demonstration would do the trick.
Sharp’s personal and, as director of EFDS, his institutional motivations were matched by his considerable organizational skills. Sharp was particularly fortunate to have an unusually competent assistant as well: back in London Maud Karpeles expeditiously handled his EFDS business and in her regular correspondence with Sharp, offered a steady stream of good advice. So, buoyed by the response of audiences, Sharp set up a course of six lessons (for a fee of $15) that culminated in an examination and presumably, if passed, a certificate. With Karpeles’ administrative assistance and a program strategy, he then set out to build a movement of dancers and dance leaders.
New York and Boston had well-established communities of dancers and Sharp’s prior contacts facilitated his entry into both. Elizabeth Burchenal used her social, institutional and financial connections to smooth Sharp’s reception in New York. As head of the Girl’s Branch of the PSAL, she had overseen the training of legions of folk dance teachers. She was also friends with important social reformers, such as Luther Halsey Gulick of the Playground Association, Boston’s Dr. Richard Cabot, a scion of the Brahmin Cabot family and renowned pioneer at the Boston Psychiatric Hospital, and Professor Farnham of Columbia University’s Teachers College. These individuals saw folk dance as an amelioration of the social stresses of urban, industrial life, and Columbia’s Teachers College was to be a training ground for folk dance as a form of physical education.
In Boston, Sharp quickly found he had a sympathetic friend in Helen Storrow. Within a week of his arrival in New York he was off to Boston to take up Storrow’s invitation to visit her at her Lincoln, Massachusetts, estate. The two hit it off right away and forged a lasting relationship. Storrow’s patronage—both institutional and financial—would forever shape Sharp’s fortunes as well as the future of English country dance in the United States. Storrow would train with Sharp and go on to teach English country dance in Boston. She also helped smooth Sharp’s introduction to Baker, who had been devoted to Wright, and to the dancers who congregated around Harvard and Wellesley College. And, ultimately, she would prove a benefactor to fund Sharp’s folk-song collecting work in America.
Finally, Sharp, using contacts with those individuals like Pittsburgh’s Mrs. Callery who had attended his Stratford classes, set off in early March 1915 on a whirlwind, three-week tour to teach, demonstrate and spread the gospel of English folk dance across the land. He found the trip, which took him to Boston, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, enormously encouraging. Surveying the whole of his tour, he reflected that he “could make a heap of money” in the United States, and in letters home he began to think of return trips. But, in the middle of his tour, word reached Sharp that supporters had agreed to meet in New York to consider the creation of an American branch of the English Folk Dance Society.
On March 19, 1915, a select group of English folk dance enthusiasts gathered with Sharp at lunch at a Miss Ware’s home to discuss the possibilities. The host seems to have been the sister of a local dancer, and “several others” from New York joined her. Storrow, Baker and a Mrs. Morris from Wellesley College represented the Boston dance community.
But Sharp was particularly concerned to have a representative of his own choosing direct the American branch, a person who, in his words, could function “as a central authority with respect to English folk-dancing.” He believed in the importance of a national movement and was also concerned to oversee teachers who would shape “authentic” English dance—authentic, that is, as he imagined it—in far-flung reaches of the country. For Sharp, then, the appointment of one of EFDS’s senior teachers whom he had personally certified to run the American branch was of paramount importance for English folk dance in the United States, for Anglo-American culture rooted in the dance tradition, and for folk dance as an ameliorative moral and social factor in America more generally.
Sharp knew early on that the challenge for him in controlling the American branch required that he negotiate the expectations of American stalwarts like Baker and Burchenal. Baker, Sharp acknowledged, had an interest in appointing Wright, and appointing someone else would be a “difficult matter to engineer.” Sharp noted he would have to “think straight & walk warily” if he was “to pull it off.” Burchenal was a problem of a different sort. Sharp and Baker, though they never developed a close relationship, remained respectful of one another; in contrast, ultimately, Sharp could not abide Burchenal. Storrow, perhaps trying to help Sharp negotiate competing interests from Boston and New York, proposed that the American branch be a subcommittee of the New York-based Playground Association then led by Burchenal. As we have seen, Sharp did not want the organization subject to anyone, much less to a person like Burchenal, whose ambition and will made him increasingly wary. Sharp, as the conflict with Neal had presaged, tended not to get along well with strong women who challenged him. In a sweeping indictment he dismissed both Burchenal’s considerable experience in the training of legions of folk dance teachers for PSAL and a relationship with the Playground Association itself asserting that the Association “produces no results in the way of folk-dancing as no one knows any!” On March 23, the solution agreed upon at a meeting at the toney Colony Club met Sharp’s concerns: the branch was to be based in New York but with officers from Boston: Baker and Storrow would be president and secretary respectively.
Equally important to Sharp, other developments coming out of this meeting jump-started his desire to create a national movement under the leadership of EFDS-trained protégés. The meeting authorized four centers of the American Branch: New York, Boston, Pittsburgh and Chicago. (Folk dancer Mary Wood Hinman, who directed a teacher-training school for dance and physical education in Chicago, had attended the Stratford Summer School in 1913.) In truth, at the time only New York and Boston had bona fide groups; cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago would struggle to muster enough dancers to sustain longways sets, and Sharp would in the next years travel to both to help build their dance communities. A surprise development at the founding meeting though showed a way forward: the Americans wanted Sharp to present, as he excitedly exclaimed in a letter that evening to Maud Karpeles, “a Summer School during the coming June!!!!!”
Thrilled with the prospect, Sharp moved to staff the Summer School with a teacher of his own choosing, a person who he expected would go on to direct the American Branch. Writing to Maud Karpeles, he asked her to offer the post first to her sister, Helen, another of his demonstration team, and if that failed to the young woman recently installed as the head of the Scarborough branch, Lily Roberts. Helen had, however, recently married another of the team members, Douglas Kennedy, and the offer thus went to Roberts. Sharp also insisted to Maud Karpeles that she would have to join them at the Summer School, a decision to which she happily agreed.
On April 21, 1915, Sharp set sail on the SS Adriatic for his return to England. In four months he had overseen the establishment of the first permanent folk dance organization in the United States, the American Branch of the English Folk Dance Society. Moreover, he had a cadre of devoted followers in organized dance groups in New York and Boston, and had planted the seeds of a national organization in Pittsburgh and Chicago.
Creating an Anglo-American Dance Tradition
Sharp returned to the United States in June 1915 for six weeks, primarily to run the first American English folk dance Summer School. While preparing for the session, however, he became bedridden with excruciating back pain. Diagnosed with lumbago, he was confined to bed at the Storrow home where he had an unexpected bonus: a visit from Olive Dame Campbell and her husband John C. Campbell, the director of the Highland Division of the Russell Sage Foundation. Sharp had invited them to visit after hearing that Olive Dame Campbell had been collecting southern mountain ballads while accompanying her husband on his research trips, songs, he had been told, that were reminiscent of those Sharp had collected in the English West Country. Olive had other commitments that did not allow her to resume her collecting, but she encouraged Sharp to carry on her work. Sharp’s primary benefactor for his subsequent fieldwork research trips was Helen Storrow and her gift of $650 funded his initial trip in the summer of 1916.
The 1915 Summer School proved to be great success, one that Sharp and his followers would build into an enduring American English folk dance institution. After 1933, the American Summer School would be housed at Storrow’s former Girl Scout Camp named Pine Tree Camp (later called Pinewoods Camp), located between two ponds just west of Cape Cod, an institution which would prove to be a training ground for legions of American English folk dance teachers across the country for the next century. The meeting with Olive Dame Campbell, however, shaped how the American country dance community would come to imagine its tradition as part of an Anglo-American transatlantic movement.
Sharp returned to America in the spring 1916. He did not travel alone, however, as Maud Karpeles accompanied him. While historians have credited his exploratory folk-song collecting trips, they have underappreciated Karpeles’ role. Often described as his amanuensis, she nominally served as his secretary, agent, and confidant. This odd couple—she short and a youthful thirty-one; he tall, erect, formal, often sickly with lumbago and debilitating asthma, and twenty-six years her senior—were very much collaborators. The song collecting that they did were also extraordinary personal achievements made under arduous circumstances in which they walked, often miles, up and down dusty mountain roads. During the summers of 1916, 1917 and 1918 (wartime danger to ships did not allow them to return to England in 1917), they spent forty-six weeks visiting seventy to eighty small towns and settlements in the mountains of North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia collecting folk songs. According to Karpeles, Sharp “collected from 281 different singers a total of 1,612 songs, including variants, representing about 500 different songs and ballads.”
The collecting had far-reaching consequences on both sides of the Atlantic for the development of an Anglo-American folk movement in both song and dance. A Harvard Shakespearean scholar steeped in the lore of “Merrie England”—Francis James Child (1825-1896)—had published a ten-volume collection, The English and Scottish Ballads between 1882 and 1889, but he did his research in Harvard’s Widener Library, not the field. By contrast, Sharp and Karpeles documented the living folk traditions in the southern Appalachian Mountains. As importantly, they and their followers attributed both “Englishness” and “peasant” meaning to these songs and dances. Early in his first trip in 1916, Sharp wrote in his diary that the people he saw were “very decidedly English.” Moreover, by the next month he had come to see them as a pristine version of the English peasantry—even “freer than the English peasant.” To Sharp, “they are exactly what the English peasant was one hundred years ago.”
It was a “discovery” in dance among the mountain folk that most transported Sharp and confirmed to him the Anglo-American character of English country dance. One evening “after dark,” in early September 1917, while visiting the Pine Mountain Settlement School in Harlan County, Kentucky, “the air seemed literally to pulsate.” “One dim lantern and the moon lit up a wondrous sight of whirling dancers moving to “only the stamping and clapping of onlookers” and “the falsetto tones of the Caller.” Sharp had seen the “Kentucky Running Set,” a “most wonderful,” “strenuous,” “circular country dance” for four couples.
The dance was unlike anything Sharp had ever seen and he came to believe he had “found” a critical missing piece in the history of English country dance that had been preserved in the backwoods by descendants of English immigrants. In the “Running Set,” they had preserved a “lineal descendant of the May-day Round, a pagan, quasi-religious ceremonial….” Sharp proclaimed the dance to be no less than the “sole survival” of a dance that had “preceded the Playford dance” and “once flourished in other parts of England and Scotland.”
Sharp, of course, romanticized English village life and wrongly characterized it as peasant; just as importantly, he did not appreciate the influences on mountain song from immigrant and African American cultures. Because English country dance had roots in colonial America among English colonists, Sharp’s “discovery” of its peasant purity was misguided, but his confirmation of it as an Anglo-American tradition was not completely off the mark. Contra dance and mountain square dance were American cousins derived from the English country dance tradition. So, Sharp’s discovery of the “Running Set” helped create the rationale for a national Anglo-American country dance tradition on both sides of the Atlantic, a formulation that would in time bring English country dance and Englishness and American country dance and Americanness under one roof in what would become the Country Dance and Song Society.
Sharp and Karpeles remained in the United States until the Armistice in November 1918. He would not return to the U.S., and died on June 23, 1924. In the interim, both while in the U.S. and from his London base as Director of EFDS, he played a leading role in the establishment of the American branch. When not engaged in fieldwork in the southern mountains or running a summer school, he traveled tirelessly to dance communities. He had long identified college physical education programs with well-educated young women who often had a British heritage to be appropriate subjects for English folk dance. His 1915 American trip began with a May Day program for Wellesley College, but he regularly visited Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, Kalamazoo College in Michigan, and emerging Physical Education programs at the land grant universities in Midwestern states such as Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. In the mountains, in addition to visiting the Pine Mountain Settlement, he went to Berea College in Kentucky and subsequently published a book of folk tunes he collected there. In the Northeast and Midwest, in addition to Boston, New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh, he helped develop centers in Rochester, St. Louis and Cincinnati.
With the appointment of Lily Roberts as the initial director of the American Branch, Sharp also ensured that English folk dance in the U.S. would embody the spirit of the dance as he knew it. A young social work educator, Richard Conant, attended a country dance that Roberts taught in October 1915 on the Storrow’s lawn in Lincoln and, smitten with each other, they married two years later in December 1917. Roberts continued to direct the American branch, but by 1926, as family life increasingly made that difficult, Douglas Kennedy, who had succeeded Sharp as Director of EFDS, was importuned to send over someone to assume the lead. In 1926, Marjorie Barnett, another of the English regional branch directors who had been trained by Sharp, arrived; however, she shortly took up a position at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and the American branch needed yet another leader. And yet again, another Sharp-trained teacher arrived, this time, the leader of the Northumberland regional branch—May Gadd. In 1927, Gadd assumed the mantle of the national director of the American branch and that of the head teacher of the New York center, positions she would hold for the next forty-five years, until 1972.
In 1915, Cecil Sharp had played a leading role in the formation of the American branch. He then put the infrastructure in place to sustain it. The women he trained and appointed (or who won appointments after his death) worked faithfully as his surrogates, tirelessly advancing an Anglo-American country dance tradition as he had imagined and loved it. A century later, English folk dancing in America, even as it evolves and changes, still bears his imprint in its repertoire, its embodiments, and its commitment to what he celebrated as “gay simplicity.”
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