Cecil Sharp

Cecil Sharp

Cecil James Sharp (22 November 1859 – 23 June 1924) was the founding father of the folklore revival in England in the early twentieth century, and many of England's traditional dances and music owe their continuing existence to his work in recording and publishing them.

Early life

Sharp was born at Denmark Hill, London, his father was a slate merchant, much interested in archaeology, architecture, old furniture, and music. His mother, Jane Bloyd, was also a music-lover. Sharp was educated at Uppingham, but left at 15 and was privately coached for the University of Cambridge, where he rowed in the Clare College boat and graduated B.A. in 1882.

In Australia

It was necessary for him to find work and Sharp decided to try Australia. He arrived in Adelaide in November 1882 and early in 1883 obtained a position as a clerk in the Commercial Bank of South Australia. He read some law, and in April 1884 became associate to the chief justice, Sir Samuel James Way. He held this position until 1889 when he resigned and gave his whole time to music. He had become assistant organist at St Peter's cathedral soon after he arrived, and had been conductor of the government house choral society and the cathedral choral society. Later on he became conductor of the Adelaide Philharmonic, and in 1889 entered into partnership with I. G. Reimann as joint director of the Adelaide school of music. He was very successful as a lecturer but about the middle of 1891 the partnership was dissolved. The school was continued under Reimann, and in 1898 developed into the Elder conservatorium of music in connexion with the university. Sharp had made many friends and an address with over 300 signatures asked him to continue his work at Adelaide, but he decided to return to England and arrived there in January 1892. During his stay in Adelaide he composed the music for two light operas, "Sylvia", which was produced at the Theatre Royal Adelaide, on 4 December 1890, and "The Jonquil". The libretto in each case was written by Guy Boothby. He also wrote the music for some nursery rhymes which were sung by the cathedral choral society.

Return to England

Sharp taught and composed music. Because music pedagogy of his time originated from Germany and was entirely based on tunes from German folk music, Sharp, as a music teacher, became interested in the vocal and instrumental (dance) folk music of the British Isles, especially the tunes. He felt that speakers of English (and the other languages spoken in Britain and Ireland) ought to become acquainted with the patrimony of melodic expression that had grown up in the various regions there. Sharp became interested in traditional English dance when he saw a group of Morris dancers at the village of Headington Quarry, just outside Oxford, at Christmas 1899. At this time, Morris dancing was almost extinct, and the interest generated by Sharp's notations kept the tradition alive.

The revival of the Morris dances started when Mary Neal, the organiser of the Esperance Girls' Club in London, used Sharp's (then unpublished) notations to teach the traditional dances to the club's members in 1905. Their enthusiasm for the dances persuaded Sharp to publish his notations in the form of his "Morris Books", starting in 1907.

Between 1911 and 1913 Sharp published a three-volume work, "The Sword Dances of Northern England", which described the obscure and near-extinct Rapper sword dance of Northumbria and Long Sword dance of Yorkshire. This led to the revival of both traditions in their home areas, and later elsewhere.

At a time when state-sponsored mass public schooling was in its infancy, Sharp published song books intended for use by teachers and children in the then-being-formulated music curriculum. These song books often included arrangements of songs he had collected with piano accompaniment composed by Sharp himself, arrangements intended for choral singing. Although, it has been alleged that had they heard them, traditional singers (who in England virtually always sang a cappella) might well have found Sharp's piano parts distracting, the arrangements with piano accompaniment did help Sharp in his goal disseminating the sound of English folk melodies to children in schools, thus acquainting them with their national musical heritage.

The schools project also explains Sharp's bowdlerization of some of the song texts, which, at least among English folk songs, were often full of erotic double entendres, when not outright bawdy and or violent. However, he did accurately note such lyrics, which given the prudery of the Victorian era could never have been openly published, in his field notebooks, thus preserving them for posterity. An example of the transformation of a formerly erotic song into one suitable for all audiences is the well-known "The Keeper." In the later twentieth century, some folk song scholars, such as Dave Harker, Vic Gammon, and Georgina Boyes, have accused Sharp of dishonest distortion in doing this. These "revisionist," scholars, were doubtless in part motivated by an understandable reaction to the haigiographical treatment of Sharp in the first half of the twentieth century. Dave Harker's harsh criticisms of Sharp (and those of his "revisionsist" followers), however, reflect an idiosyncratic Trotskyist Marxist framework that views any and all folk song collecting, scholarship, and attempts at revival as malign forms of appropriation and exploitation by the bourgeoisie of the working class. The writings of these British writers (and by extension their adherents in the U.S., such as David Whisnant, Benjamin Filene, and Robert Christgau) are now themselves in turn coming under scrutiny as overly harsh, exaggerated, distorted, and unjust (see [http://www.mustrad.org.uk/enthuse.htm Mike Yates' "Jumping to Conclusions" ("Enthusiasms" No. 36 (2003) "Musical Traditions)"] and [http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2386/is_1_113/ai_86063326/pg_1?tag=artBody;col1 C. J. Bearman' "Cecil Sharp in Somerset, Some Reflections on the Work of Dave Harker," "Folklore" April, 2002).]

Sharp's work coincided with a period of nationalism in classical music, the idea being to reinvigorate and give distinctiveness to English classical composition by grounding it in the characteristic melodic patterns and recognizable tone intervals and ornaments of its national folk music. Among the composers who took up this goal was Ralph Vaughan Williams, who carried out his own field work in folk song in Norfolk. The use of folk songs and dance melodies and motifs in classical music to inject vitality and excitement, is of course as old as "La Folia" and Marin Marais' "Bells of St. Genevieve" ("Sonnerie de Ste-Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris"), but the attempt to give music a sense of place was novel to nineteenth-century Romanticism and its concommitant invention of Historicism.

In 1911 Sharp founded the English Folk Dance Society which promoted the traditional dances through workshops held nationwide, and which later merged with the Folk Song Society in 1932 to form the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). The current London headquarters of the EFDSS is named Cecil Sharp House in his honour.

In America

During the years of the First World War, Sharp found it difficult to support himself through his customary efforts at lecturing and writing, and decided to make an extended visit to the United States. The visit, made with his collaborator Maud Karpeles during the years 1916–1918, was a great success. Large audiences came to hear Sharp lecture about folk music, and Sharp also took the opportunity to do field work on English folk songs that had survived in the more remote regions of the southern Appalachian Mountains, pursuing a line of research pioneered by Olive Dame Campbell. Traveling through the mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, Sharp and Karpeles recorded a treasure trove of folk songs, many using the pentatonic scale and many in versions quite different from those Sharp had collected in rural England. Generally, Sharp recorded the tunes, while Karpeles was responsible for the words.

Sharp was greatly struck by the dignity, courtesy, and natural grace of the people who welcomed him and Karpeles in the Appalachians, and he defended their values and their way of life in print.

Sharp's work in promoting English folk song dance traditions in the USA is carried on by the Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS).


Maud Karpeles lived on for many decades after Sharp, and gradually succeeded in converting the collected Sharp manuscript materials into massive, well-organized volumes. These books are now out of print, but can be found in some libraries.

*"Cecil Sharp's Collection of English Folk Songs", Oxford University Press, 1974; ISBN 0-19-313125-0.

*"English folk songs from the southern Appalachians, collected by Cecil J. Sharp; comprising two hundred and seventy-four songs and ballads with nine hundred and sixty-eight tunes, including thirty-nine tunes contributed by Olive Dame Campbell", edited by Maud Karpeles. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932.

For a sampling of English folk songs as they emerged from Sharp's editorial pen along with his piano accompaniments, see:

*"English folk songs, collected and arranged with pianoforte accompaniment by Cecil J. Sharp", London: Novello (1916). This volume has been reprinted by Dover Publications under ISBN 0-486-23192-5 and is in print.

Sharp also wrote up his opinions and theories about folk song in an influential volume:

*"English Folk Song: Some Conclusions" (originally published 1907. London: Simpkin; Novello). This work has been reprinted a number of times. For the most recent (Charles River Books), see ISBN 0-85409-929-8.

The following is a biography of Cecil Sharp:

*"Cecil Sharp", by A. H. Fox Strangways in collaboration with Maud Karpeles. London, Oxford University Press, 1933. Reprinted 1980, Da Capo Press; ISBN 0-306-76019-3.


*Dictionary of Australian Biography|First=Cecil James|Last=Sharp|Link=http://gutenberg.net.au/dictbiog/0-dict-biogSa-Sp.html#sharp1
*Sue Tronser, ' [http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A110593b.htm Sharp, Cecil James (1859 - 1924)] ', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, MUP, 1988, pp 579-580.

External links

* [http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/sharp.htm Yates, Mike. Cecil Sharp in America: Collecting in the Appalachians. Musical Traditions, December, 1999]
* [http://www.mustrad.org.uk/enth36.htm Yates, Mike. Jumping to Conclusions. Enthusiasms No. 36 (Musical Traditions, August, 2003).]
* [http://www.talkingelephant.co.uk/titles/title.php?Title_Ref=2254&Genre_id=all&Artist_Ref=2220 'AS I CYCLED OUT ONE MAY MORNING' from [Talking Elephant]
* [http://www.efdss.org/ English Folk Dance and Song Society]
* [http://www.cdss.org/ Country Dance and Song Society]

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