Cecil Sharp: A View from England
By Brian Peters
Ten years ago, my friend and musical collaborator Jeff Davis suggested a joint project. Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles had spent three summers during 1916-18 in the Appalachian Mountains amassing a huge collection of folk songs, many of them ballads of British origin, and for us two musicians from opposite sides of the pond the appeal was irresistible. It was clear immediately that their book English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians was going to be a fabulous source for us, while Sharp’s diaries, letters and field notes offered fascinating insights into the rigours of song-collecting—the long miles trudged over forbidding terrain, the heat, the illness—and his photographs and pen-pictures of the poor rural people who sang for him brought the songs vividly to life. Jeff and I took our audio-visual presentation on the road, culminating in a performance at the Library of Congress.
I’d previously learned a few English songs from Sharp’s books but never paid him much attention, sharing the common perception that he was a patrician reactionary who bullied people into giving up their treasures before high-tailing it away with the booty. Studying his work, however, I admired his obvious respect and affection for singers from the lower classes: agricultural labourers, working women and traveling people in England, subsistence farmers in Appalachia. He was personally generous to these people, several of whom became long standing friends, and was in many ways an exemplary collector. He could be faulted for a bias towards old ballads but, contrary to received wisdom, in Appalachia he noted down a large quantity of American-made songs, plus a number of fiddle tunes and hymns.
When I began to research more deeply, however, a prob lem emerged regarding race. Sharp and Karpeles collected almost exclusively from white folk, while Sharp’s diaries include three or four repellent comments disrespectful of Black people. This has led some to question the legitimacy of his entire Appalachian project. It’s certainly important that his attitudes and their consequences are properly examined, but it’s also essential that they are set in context accurately.
Politically, Sharp was a democratic socialist, believing that capitalism should be replaced by a more humane and collective system. But he was a member of a political left that had yet to find a voice on anti-racism. The Black and Brown population of the UK was tiny compared with that in the US (Sharp had never seen a Black person until he crossed the Atlantic), and it wasn’t until the 1950s and ‘60s, when awareness grew of discrimination against recently-arrived Caribbean and South Asian migrants, that anti-racism became a left-wing cause. I’m old enough to remember school books and comics full of racist stereotypes, and blackface minstrelsy on prime-time TV as recently as the 1970s.
Sharp’s England was the hub of a global empire in which white supremacy was a founding principle, and he did entertain racist opinions, doubtless influenced by contemporary pseudoscientific theories. He was not alone, of course: many creative figures expressed similar views and worse, but most people nowadays are prepared to appreciate their work independently of their unpalatable opinions. The real question is whether racism defined Sharp’s fieldwork. An article by Ezra Fischer in this newsletter claimed it did: that he was driven by politics rather than the music itself. I disagree, and find the quoted sources unreliable. Sharp’s early manifesto did suggest that folk song might be used for nationalist purposes, but his voluminous Appalachian correspondence confirms that he was above all a music fanatic, rhapsodizing over each rare Child Ballad or modal tune, and barely mentioning politics. There’s no reference to “immigration” in his writings; Sharp’s “Other” was Germany, whose hegemony over art music he hoped to challenge. Oral transmission was central to his theory of song evolution, and nothing to do with a “deferential society.”
Sharp traveled to the US to earn his living as a lecturer and dance consultant, attracting the attention of Helen Storrow and others who went on to found CDSS. At Ms. Storrow’s home, he was visited by Olive Dame Campbell, bringing a sheaf of British-origin ballads that she’d collected in the mountains, which excited Sharp so much that he decided to visit the area himself. But he was by no means the first folklorist to study mountain balladry: Campbell herself, Josiah Combs, Katherine Pettit, Katherine Jackson French, and others had beaten him to it by a decade. These collectors visited white singers, venerated old British ballads, and defined the people of the mountains as “English” long before Sharp arrived. Combs wrote that the mountains were “more truly English than England” and, although he acknowledged the existence of Black folk song, he claimed it could “hardly stand inspection alongside the songs of the whites.” Katherine Jackson French believed that the singers she’d met were “strikingly homogeneous” and “sturdy Saxons,” while Katherine Pettit, principal of Hindman Settlement School in rural Kentucky, was so convinced that mountain culture was that of Elizabethan England that her pupils were made to perform Shakespeare in the bizarre belief that they’d be at home with his language. The title of David Whisnant’s excellent book on such practices, All That is Native and Fine, is actually a quote from Olive Dame Campbell. “Anglo-Saxon Appalachia” was not the invention of Cecil Sharp.
Sharp was told by Olive Dame Campbell that he’d be meeting singers much like his informants in England and was escorted by her husband to remote areas where British descendants were concentrated and the African-American population was extremely small. Sharp happily went along with it, pronouncing the inhabitants “English” in their looks, speech, and manner. When he and Maud Karpeles eventually began to explore more independently, they followed the same policy, seeking out places where the population was known to possess “English” or “Scots-Irish” heritage. It’s not surprising that the collectors turned away from Watson’s Cove in North Carolina when it turned out to be a Black settlement, just as they abandoned the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia when they found a population of mostly German descent. They were British collectors primarily seeking British songs.
Contrary to popular perception, though, Sharp did not entirely ignore African-American singers. From Sinda Walker in Hyden, KY, he took down two ballads, and from Aunt Maria Tombs, a formerly enslaved person he met in Virginia, a verse of “Barbara Allen” with a superb and distinctive tune. Of the latter encounter, Sharp wrote:
“Aunt Maria is an old coloured woman, aged 85… we sang to her ‘The Sinner Man,’ which delighted her beyond anything... she sang very beautifully in a wonderfully musical way and with clear and perfect intonation… rather a nice old lady.”
It’s apparent from these remarks, and Sharp’s letter from Winston Salem enthusing that “the negroes are wonderful people” (and complimenting their dress sense), that his attitude, while ignorant and incurious, was not the outright dislike we sometimes read about. It’s also worth mentioning that Sharp thought it worthwhile writing down a number of songs, from white singers, that he recorded as having Black origins.
Sharp got a lot wrong in his theorising about the origins of folk songs and dances. In particular, his interpretation of the unfamiliar square dances he found in Kentucky as ancient English survivals was seriously mistaken. We now know that many aspects of those dances, and the fiddle style that accompanied them, had African-American roots just as surely as did the banjo. The collision of British, African, and other cultures was precisely what made American folk music a commercial success in the 1930s, and so influential thereafter. Cecil Sharp knew none of this, and no one he met was ever likely to put him right.
We’re all scrutinizing our musical assumptions these days. In your country, there’s a growing acceptance that old-time music is neither “English” nor “Celtic” (another pervasive white music trope) but a fusion, as demonstrated brilliantly by Rhiannon Giddens and others. In the UK, blackface morris dance teams are choosing new color schemes, and we’re coming to understand that the shanties we roar out have Afro-Caribbean roots. But did “our modern traditions begin in racism,” as Ezra Fischer claims? I don’t believe so, for all the nativism of those early Appalachian collectors and the nationalism that has at times attached itself not just to English, but also Irish, Scottish, and other European folk music. Sharp and his contemporaries preserved a wealth of songs and dances in both Britain and North America, to the enormous benefit of musicians like me. If I believed they were collected for racist purposes I wouldn’t perform them, but the evidence isn’t there. Making Sharp the sole scapegoat both ignores the larger systemic forces in play, and implies there was no value in his work. So I’ll continue to sing the songs that he and the rest collected, enjoying them for the stories they tell, and the beauty of their music.
Brian Peters is an English singer, musician, educator and researcher. He has been on staff several times at Pinewoods for TradMad and Folk Music Week, and also tutored at Appalachian summer schools including Swannanoa and Augusta. His CD with Jeff Davis, Sharp’s Appalachian Harvest, was released in 2013. Brian has also published a number of academic articles, including “Myths of ‘Merrie Olde England’? Cecil Sharp’s Collecting Practice in the Southern Appalachians” in The Folk Music Journal.