British musicologist Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) made an invaluable contribution to the history of folk music in his travels through Appalachia during World War I. On these expeditions, Sharp extensively documented the folk ballads of the region, which had been brought over as far back as the 1770s from the British Isles by the ancestors of the Appalachian Mountain residents. In their original form, some of these songs dated back to the late medieval period of English, Scottish, and Irish folk music.
Sharp was born in London on November 22, 1859, and grew up in the Denmark Hill area of South London. His father was a slate merchant, and Sharp's love of music was apparently inherited from his mother, Jane Bloyd Sharp. He spent several years at the Uppingham School in Rutland, England, but left at age 15 in order to begin private tutoring in preparation for college. He was a member of the rowing team at Clare College of Cambridge University, where he earned his degree in 1882.
Studied Law in Australia
Later that year Sharp set sail for Australia, where he settled in Adelaide and found work as a clerk with the Commercial Bank of South Australia. He planned to pursue a career in law, and began private study for it—a common practice in the era before law schools came into existence— and served as an associate to Samuel Way, chief justice of the Supreme Court of South Australia. During these years, however, Sharp was also an assistant organist at St. Peter's Cathedral in Adelaide, and the conductor for two choral societies. He finally abandoned his plans for a law career in 1889 when he became joint director of the Adelaide School of Music. He lectured at the school and also served as conductor of the Adelaide Philharmonic, but a falling-out with I.G. Reimann, the co-director of the Adelaide School, led in part to Sharp's decision to return to England.
Back in England by the end of 1892, Sharp intended to move forward with his career as a composer. In Adelaide he had written the music for two light operas, but few of his works found a publisher or performance venue, and he fared better as a lecturer and instructor. He held positions at a conservatory in the London neighborhood of Hampstead, at Metropolitan College in Holloway, and at Ludgrove, a private school for boys. Periodically felled by asthma and other health issues, he was recuperating from gout over the Christmas holidays in 1899 when he spied a group of Morris dancers from the window. Morris dancers performed in unusually exotic costumes, and their repertoire involved a form of martial dancing whose origins are somewhat mysterious. The term is though to be a derivative of “Moorish” or “Moroccan,” and dates back to the 1490s, when dances known as the moresca were performed in Spain in celebration of King Ferdinand (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella (1451-1504)'s move to eject the Moors from the Iberian peninsula. In fifteenth-century England, Morris dancers would blacken their faces in what was apparently an imitation of the darker North African Moors, but by Sharp's era they had retained only the bells attached to their boots and their somewhat fanciful North African-inspired garb. By the time that Sharp saw the dancers on the street, the Morris groups were a dying breed, with just a handful of active groups in England left.
Spurred Revival of Morris Dancing
Sharp became fascinated by the Morris dancing phenomenon, and began researching it intensely. The effort led to his 1907 title, The Morris Book, Part 1: A History of Morris Dancing, With a Description of Eleven Dances as Performed by the Morris-Men of England. In it, he noted that “the Morris Dance is … in spirit, the organized, traditional expression of virility, sound health and animal spirits. It smacks of cudgel-play, of quarter-staff, of wrestling, of honest fisticuffs,” he wrote. “It is the dance of folk who are slow to anger, but of great obstinacy—forthright of act and speech: to watch it in its thumping sturdiness is to hold such things as poinards and stilettos, the swordsman with the domino, the man who stabs in the back—as unimaginable things. The Morris dance, in short, is a perfect expression in rhythm and movement of the English character.”
Sharp's book helped spur a revival of interest in Morris dancing, and the notations he made to accompany the dances served to instruct a new generation of practitioners. A related work was The Sword Dances of Northern England, published in three volumes between 1911 and 1913. This joined Sharp's first published title, Folk Songs from Somerset, which had appeared in 1904. With this he began the most significant period of his career as an archivist of folk music of the British Isles. He began traveling through the countryside on his bike during the warmer months to collect these songs, some of which were so old that their actual origins were unknown, and documented the existence of 3,300 such tunes in England alone. Earlier folk music scholars had made similar efforts before him, but Sharp's work was notable in that he made musical notations as well as transcriptions of the lyrics.
Sharp believed that such folk ballads were an important part of the English national heritage, particularly because they served as the artistic expression of simple farmers or tradespeople who were unable to read or write, and had no other formal avenue of artistic expression. The songs told of romantic travails or injustices committed at the hands of aristocratic landowners, and some of them were downright violent or sexually graphic in nature. Sharp began devising a piano accompaniment to some that were more traditionally sung a cappella so that they could be taught in schools as part of a new English folk music curriculum.
Made First Foray into Appalachia
In 1911 Sharp founded the English Folk Dance Society, which worked to preserve and promote traditional dances. Just a few months following the onset of World War I, Sharp managed to travel to America to give a lecture tour and contribute to a New York City production of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Granville Barker (1877-1946), a wellknown actor, director, and expert in Elizabethan-era drama.
Once again waylaid by poor health, Sharp was resting in Lincoln, Massachusetts, from an attack of lumbago when a visitor from North Carolina came calling. Olive Campbell (1882-1954) had been documenting folk songs in the Appalachian Mountain region of the American South, and had heard of Sharp's work in England. She convinced him that the standard scholarly assumption that the English folk songs that came to America in the 1700s with immigrants had not survived was utterly wrong. Campbell asserted that in some of the remoter regions of Appalachia, still untouched by railroads or even formal roads, these songs were still relatively intact in the form in which they migrated across the Atlantic.
Sharp decided to make a journey and investigate for himself. He took with him Maud Karpeles (1885-1976), an English folk-dance aficionado who had been serving as his assistant, and the pair made their first trip into Appalachia over nine weeks in 1916. The trip was conducted by horsedrawn wagon, on horseback, and on foot, into regions of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina that had been largely forgotten by the rest of Americans except for a few missionaries and teachers who occasionally ventured there. Appalachia was both rural and wild, and its people lived in appallingly primitive conditions. “Cut off from all that counted itself as civilization outside their boundaries, these people have grown up in a sort of self-contained isolation, needing little or nothing from the outside, raising on their hillsides most of the food they eat and making the clothes they wear,” wrote Richard Aldrich in the New York Times in 1924. Noting that the archaic dialects had survived that showed strong links back to speech patterns in parts of England and Scotland, Aldrich noted that the people “mostly do not read and write. Their songs are traditional, handed down from generation to generation by ear.”
When Sharp set out on his first trip, he was advised to take a gun with him, and later admitted, “I have never been so frightened in my life!,” according to Tony Scherman in an article that appeared in the Smithsonian. Initially the sight of two rather formally attired Britons was alarming to more than a few local residents, who rarely encountered “city folk” who were not there to extract a profit of some sort; there were even rumors that he was there to trick them into signing over their land or water rights. But Sharp's years of experience in coaxing melodies out of equally taciturn English farmers proved to have been excellent practice, and his patience and persistence paid off. On that first trip, he and Karpeles collected some 387 songs.
Returned in 1917
Some of the songs that Sharp found were so old that even English experts like himself were unsure of their dates, placing their origins sometime in the late medieval era. One example is “The Riddle Song,” with its opening line, “I gave my love a cherry that had no stone.” Another was “The Wife of Usher's Well,” which Scherman noted had been documented in the early 1800s, but “was a poor, halfremembered tatter in Scotland. In 1916 in America, mountain singers gave Sharp 18 fine versions of the terrifying ghost ballad in which a woman's three babes haunt her.”
As he did in England, Sharp made musical notations of the songs. “To many a mountain singer, most of whom couldn't read music, Sharp's notating was a feat of magic— especially when, sight-reading, he'd actually sing their tunes back to them,” wrote Scherman. The Smithsonian article also noted that Sharp's initial impressions of the Appalachian “hill people,” as they were known in the era, as being transplanted English peasants like those he had encountered—and whose company he much enjoyed— proved to be a false assumption. Instead, he found in the Appalachian residents an absence of “servility which unhappily is one of the characteristics of the English peasant,” Scherman quoted him as saying.
Sharp came to love the beauty of the Appalachians as well as the noble character of its people. He returned in the spring of 1917 and spent another 37 weeks with Karpeles collecting songs, fascinated by a culture that seemed to have a limitless supply of leisure time. “Very often, we would call upon some of our friends early in the morning and remain till dusk, sharing the midday meal with the family, and I would go away with the feeling that I had never before been in a more musical atmosphere nor benefited more greatly by the exchange of musical confidences,” he wrote in 1917's English Folk songs of the Southern Appalachians, as quoted in Aldrich's article.
Left Behind a Trove of Scholarship
Back in England after the end of World War I, Sharp became an inspector of training colleges that taught folk music and dancing, and continued to give well-attended lectures. Long plagued by asthma, he died on June 23, 1924, at the age of 64. Survivors included his wife, Constance Dorothea Birch, whom he had marred in 1893, and their four children. Karpeles did much to ensure that his scholarship survived after his death, readying several more volumes for publication that became standard reference works for those interested in the origins and development of English and American folk music. Morris dancing groups remain active and firmly entrenched in England and Australia, and the English Folk Dance Society he founded back in 1911 merged several years after his death to become the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), whose headquarters in London are known as the Cecil Sharp House.
Sharp, Cecil J., with Herbert C. Macilwaine, The Morris Book, Part 1: A History of Morris Dancing, With a Description of Eleven Dances as Performed by the Morris-Men of England, Novello and Company, 1907.
New York Times, December 2, 1917; July 20, 1924.
Smithsonian, April 1985.
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Sharp, Cecil (James)
"Sharp, Cecil (James)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/sharp-cecil-james
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Sharp, Cecil James
Cecil James Sharp, 1859–1924, English musician, best known for his researches in English folk music. In 1911 he founded the English Folk Dance Society. In the United States he collected (1914–18) folk songs in the Appalachian Mts., where he found many songs of English origin. His numerous anthologies include English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachian Mountains (with O.D. Campbell, 1917; 3d ed. by Maud Karpeles, 1960) and American-English Folk Songs (1918). He wrote English Folk Song: Some Conclusions (1907, 4th ed. 1965) and, with A. P. Oppé, The Dance: An Historical Survey of Dancing in Europe (1924).
See biography by A. H. Fox Strangways and M. Karpeles (rev. ed. 1967).
"Sharp, Cecil James." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sharp-cecil-james
"Sharp, Cecil James." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved February 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sharp-cecil-james