Letters to the Editor

Re: Larks & Robins, Winter Issue 2021

By Dick Lewis

Allison McKenny’s “Larks & Robins” article in the Winter 2021 CDSS News brought to mind a country dance leader in Oregon in the 1980s who first awakened me to the worth of gender-free calling. In the summer of 1976, I attended my first camp at Pinewoods. Pat Talbot was on the staff that year, and I joined the country dance group she was leading in Chicago, where I lived at the time. I moved to Portland the next year and took with me all the English country dance calls I could write down and some cassettes of the music. Total fledgling that I was, I began teaching a weekly dance group that caught on quickly. Lots of people got involved, and Carl Wester and Craig Shinn got contra dance going. With a lot of help from CDSS, country dance was soon alive and well and living in Portland.

Then I met Carl Wittman. This is where Allison’s story comes into the picture. Carl lived in a commune in forested southern Oregon and taught country dance at the local community college in Grants Pass. A dance friend suggested I meet Carl to get ideas for building up English country dancing in Portland. Before long, several of us in the Portland ECD group went to Wolf Creek for a weekend Carl hosted with friends. Of all the creative people I’ve known, Carl remains near the top of the list.

I say all of this because when I got to Wolf Creek, I learned that Carl, who was gay, taught all dances with gender-free calling. There was no “first man, second woman;” there was “first couple,” “second corners,” “ones and twos,” etc. The words “man” and “woman” never came up. When it was time to dance, people just got into whatever line or place was available. It was a revelation, because it felt all wrong—at first. Not what I was used to. Not what I’d experienced at Pinewoods or at Ida Noyes Hall in Chicago. At the time, I think, registration for Pinewoods attempted to assure, as closely as possible, an equal number of men and women.

Plaque with a quote from Carl WittmanNot long into the weekend at Wolf Creek, I found I was enjoying the dancing more than ever. I felt I was experiencing the entire dance. I hadn’t felt that before. This was all more than 35 years ago. Time our thinking is catching up.

Sadly for so many of us, Carl died in 1986. Not long afterwards, we in Portland held a memorial dance weekend in his honor. A close friend of his attended, bringing with him a poster inscribed with these words from Carl’s Master’s degree thesis:

“The country dance form can be thought of as an exquisite vessel, in itself beautiful in shape, yet highly abstract. We can choose to fill this vessel with whatever meaning we like. If we like, we can pursue a particular friendship; we can rejoice in a sense of community; we can see in the music and the dance the highest of spiritual values, we can see it as good fun. The dance is all of these and greater than all of them.”

I keep a copy of the poster on the wall at my desk.

Re: Cecil Sharp: A View from England, Fall Issue 2021

By Elizabeth DiSavino

Editor’s note: This article contains quotations from historical documents that include racial slurs. Because these words are central to a reader’s understanding of Liza’s argument, we have chosen to not obscure these words as much as we would normally.

I read with interest Brian Peters’ dutiful defense of Cecil Sharp (“Cecil Sharp: A View from England,” CDSS News, Fall 2021) written in part as a response to an earlier article by Ezra Fischer (CDSS News, Fall 2020 and Winter 2020). Unfortunately, Mr. Peters’ piece contains a number of factual errors, as well as gauzy interpretations and euphemisms that attempt to obscure the uglier side of Cecil Sharp’s story. I am not surprised, as I have had first-hand brush-ups with British reviewers and ballad enthusiasts (including Mr. Peters, full disclosure) who seem almost religiously driven to give glowing testimony about Sharp, and who protest or even pillory those who point out awkward details that sully St. Cecil’s honor. Still, factual inaccuracies should be noted.

Let’s start with his misquotation of my work. In my biography, Katherine Jackson French: Kentucky’s Forgotten Ballad Collector, Katherine Jackson did use the phrase “strikingly homogenous,” but this quote was taken out of context by Mr. Peters and given as justification for Sharp’s own racist views, and was presented as though Jackson’s comment was based on race. I object to this misrepresentation of my work and of Jackson’s words. The full quote is that women at a particular gathering (a quilting bee) were “strikingly homogenous; breathing one unlettered atmosphere, one habit of thought and life, one measure of support and sympathy.” It is a quote of commonality of experience and hardship, not of race, as Mr. Peters suggests, and pertains to a particular group of women, not the Appalachian people entirely. Jackson was not stating that the women’s homogeneity was genetic, but rather born of common suffering and communal support built over a lifetime of shared experience within a closed and isolated community.

Mr. Peters further tries to make the point that Sharp’s motivation for collecting ballads in Appalachia was purely musical, not racial. This is wishful thinking, and is contradicted by Sharp’s own words. From the 24-page introduction to Sharp’s magnum opus, the 1917 English Folksongs from the Southern Appalachians: “Moreover, remembering that the primary purpose of education is to place the children of the present generation in possession of the cultural achievements of the past so that they may as quickly as possible enter into their racial inheritance, 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?” (Italics mine.)

Further, Mr. Peters commendably admits and even discusses the fact that Sharp identified every aspect of Appalachian ballad singing and dance as being Anglo-Saxon in origin, and that this was at times a mistaken assumption. But he fails to take the final step and explore the reasoning behind that assumption—that Sharp could not entertain the idea that other “lesser” cultures might have interacted with the settlers to produce distinct and different art forms. The definition of this is bias. One might even call it racist.

Mr. Peters bravely knocks down a straw dog by boldly claiming that he will go on singing Cecil Sharp’s ballads. (No one ever asked him not to.) His other straw dog: his claim that Ezra Fischer’s article “made Sharp the sole scapegoat.” (It did not. It claimed that Sharp was “an important figure” in a movement that rooted its identity in race.) He further blanketly labels Fischer’s sources “unreliable” (but does not identify which sources or why).

Mr. Peters admits that Sharp “did entertain racist opinions,” and then blithely tries to dismiss this by saying that Sharp’s correspondence “rarely mentions politics.” That is only true if “politics” does not include racist attitudes and remarks. Let us look at what Mr. Sharp actually did say in his correspondences:

“We smelt Winston Salem about 8 miles away - tobacco and molasses ... I had an attack of asthma on getting off the train ... The place is stuffed full with negroes - I presume they work in the factories whether they are attracted to the tobacco industry by their similarity in colour or not I do not know! ... this is a noisy place and the air impregnated with tobacco, molasses and n------!”

“Can’t imagine what has made me ill except that I have swallowed enough filth and grease in the last six weeks to have upset 500 stomachs. They are really little better than Barbarians in this part of the world. The fact is they are hopeless slackers - possibly a legacy from the old slave days.”

“When we reached the cove we found it peopled by n------ ... All our troubles and spent energy for nought.”

(His companion, Maud Karpeles, by the way, was of one accord with Sharp:

“Sylva. Do not like town. Too many negroes.”

[Quotes from “Cecil Sharp in America,” Bluegrass Messenger.])

Mr. Peters tries to dismiss Sharp’s rather apparent racist attitudes by pointing out that others at that time were racist and that this was in fact the dominant ethos among white people. It is an argument with which every parent is familiar: “Well, they did it too.” Yes, of course other white people of Sharp’s time espoused racist views, in America and in Europe. Of course it was the norm. Of course Sharp was not alone. No one denies that.

But Sharp was and continues to be regarded as the god of Appalachian balladry, and his views cast a long shadow. That’s why his views are particularly unfortunate and worthy of condemnation. By pretending that Sharp’s bigotry is excusable because he was a product of his time is to excuse the evils of his time. This, we cannot do, for they are with us still. Mr. Peters, an Englishman, does not seem to understand the weight of the n-word in America and its historical implicit hate-filled assumption of racial superiority, nor to fully understand the context in which that word resonates today. He cannot, for he does not live in the country that this word and its attendant attitudes and actions helped to create. Americans, however, cannot ignore the psychological pain that this word and its wielders have caused to generations of African-Americans and the pain that it causes still, not while the echoes of kidnapping and assault and murder and Jim Crow and humiliation and lynching and rape and summary execution and fear still ring in the air.

I wish Mr. Peters could dialogue with my Appalachian Music class at the small Kentucky college where I teach. He would be looking into the faces of African-American students who live the legacy of that word daily, and I suspect they might have some things they would like to share with him. For that matter, I suspect the Appalachian students in that class might have a thing or two to say about outsiders like Sharp presuming to define Appalachian people and their music. I think Mr. Peters might find such a discussion enlightening, and quite a different conversation than the ones to which he appears accustomed. The “view from England” is most decidedly not the same as the view from America.

Mr. Peters seems to fear that if we agree that Sharp was racist, his collection will no longer be regarded as a wonder. Have no fear. Cecil Sharp’s collection is indeed a wonder. But it is a wonder rooted in, guided by, and inspired by bias and racist views. That makes it no less important. A thing can be important without being perfect or wholly good. Sharp needs no apologists. His collection is important because of its imperfections. This magnificent musical memorial of a time and region was indeed motivated by faulty, racist assumptions: that ballads were proof of the longevity and invincibility of English culture; that all other kinds of music were not just less worthy, but entirely unworthy of study; and that “lesser” people could not possibly have influenced and been in any way responsible for the musical makeup of Appalachian balladry and dance. Those lamentable views and Sharp’s imperfections in embracing them are every bit much a part of our glimpse into a bygone place and time as the ballads themselves. It is disingenuous and in fact counterproductive to try to pretend otherwise. Most of all, it is simply untrue. A great work was produced by an imperfect man, a man who deserves neither defense nor deification. Let’s all wrap our heads around that as we continue to ponder our difficult and thorny cultural and racial legacy.

In that spirit, I’ll continue to sing Sharp’s songs just as Mr. Peters will, but you won’t find me at the Church of St. Cecil anytime soon.


Elizabeth DiSavino is an associate professor at Berea College and the author of Katherine Jackson French, Kentucky’s Forgotten Ballad Collector. She was the recipient of the 2020 Kentucky History Award.

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