cecil sharp in america: collecting in the appalacians

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This is an article by ethnographer and musicologist Mile Yates about Cecil Sharp, the English folksong collector who made a remarkable collection of songs in the Appalacian mountains of the US during the period 1916-1918.


  • Article MT047

    Cecil Sharp in Americacollecting in the Appalachians

    Foreword:I first visited the Appalachian Mountains in the summer of 1979. The following year I wrote ashort article about the singer/banjo-player Dan Tate, which was published in the Folk MusicJournal. In the article I made one or two mildly critical comments about Cecil Sharp, the Englishfolksong collector who had made a remarkable collection of songs in the mountains during theperiod 1916-1918. A number of people, including Douglas Kennedy who had known Sharp inthe early 1920s, were offended by my remarks and, realising that my knowledge of Sharp was,at best, secondhand, I decided to seek out Sharp's originaldiaries and extant correspondence, so that I could letSharp himself tell me what had happened during hisAppalachian forays. Sharp had been accompanied byMaud Karpeles, his secretary, and I found that her diarieswere also available for study. Clearly, in order to gain aless one-sided view, it would have been better to alsohave had access to other contemporary records, i.e. fromother people who knew Sharp or who had accompaniedhim during this period of his life. In a few instances Imanaged to trace people who remembered Sharp visitingtheir parents or other elderly relatives to collect songs. Ialso consulted contemporary newspaper accounts, suchas there were, which documented Sharp's lecture toursoutside the mountains.About 15 years ago I put all this material together in thefirst draft of Cecil Sharp in America, an article whicheventually disappeared, unpublished, into the depths ofmy filing cabinet. At one time it had seemed that thearticle would form the foreword to a book of Cecil Sharp'sAppalachian photographs, but this was not to be. Instead, some eighteen months ago, I decidedto submit the article to the Folk Music Journal for possible publication. It was accepted, but onlyon the understanding that it would be some years before space could be found in this annualpublication. For various reasons I was not willing to wait and so the article was submitted toMusical Traditions. In the meantime, the Editorial Board of the Folk Music Journal had made anumber of suggestions designed to improve - and update - the article. Most of these ideas wereaccepted with gratitude and incorporated into the article - usually in the form of extended notes. The article that appears below is, in effect, a second draft.I have also made one important alteration that would not have appeared in the Folk Music

  • Journal. Although mention is made of Sharp's encounters with American Negroes, I had omittedan instance which shows Sharp in a rather poor light (certainly by today's standards) and I havedecided that, in order to present as full a picture of Sharp as possible, I should now include thisreference. I hope that my intention in doing so will not be misunderstood. When I hadcompleted my first draft of the article I found that I had totally revised my ideas about Sharp, andI hope that readers will also come to share in these ideas and opinions. Cecil Sharp is, Ibelieve, the most important English folksong collector of the century. His achievements are trulymonumental. Bertrand Bronson once said that Sharp's Appalachian collection was the bestregional song collection ever made in America. I hope that by reading this article, people will atlong last come to realise just how much Sharp gave of himself in the assembly of his collection.

    Michael Yates. Berwick-upon-Tweed. 23.12.99

    Cecil Sharp in AmericaWhen A H Fox Strangways published his biography of Cecil Sharp in 1933 he headed theAppalachian section with a couplet from the 1808 - 1811 note book of William Blake:

    Great things are done when men and mountains meet,This is not done by jostling in the street. 1

    According to Sharp:Chance brought me to America in the early days of the war ... and while here MrsJohn C Campbell of Asheville, NC told me that the inhabitants of the SouthernAppalachians were still singing the traditional songs and ballads which their Englishand Scottish ancestors had brought out with them at the time of their emigration. 2

    When Cecil Sharp met Mrs Campbell in 1915 he was almost certainly the most experiencedfolksong collector then working in England. But that was not all. As well as collecting folksongs,Sharp had spent much of his time researching the history of the songs and dances that he wasdiscovering, so that by 1915 he was also one of the foremost experts on the subject.Sharp, prior to meeting Mrs Campbell, had been touring America as dance advisor for aproduction of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

    Cecil Sharp, who has been in New York some weeks in the interest of the dances inGranville Barker's Midsummer Night's Dream, is at last able to spend a day or two inBoston. On Wednesday afternoon he will address a limited invited audience on 'TheValue of the Folk-song and the Folk-dance to the Community.' On these subjects heis the greatest authority in the world. Among his hearers there will doubtless besome who have studied at his famous (English) summer school at Stratford-on-Avon. In its four years of existence its graduates have gone out to all parts of theworld, and the teaching of folk-dancing has become a science under his originalmethods. 3

    The following month he was in Pittsburgh.

  • A public lecture on 'English Folk-song' was given in Carnegie Music Hall last night,under the auspices of the Art Society, by Cecil J Sharp, one of the most eminentauthorities on the subject. His talk was desultory, but delightful, filled with sincereenthusiasm and expressed with such simplicity and directness that he made doublyenjoyable a topic which is in itself of very great interest. Folk Music - the communalproduct of an entire people, rather than of an individual possesses a peculiar vitalityand charm which Mr Sharp succeeded admirably in communicating to his audience... He laid especial stress last night upon their careful diction and upon theimpersonal simplicity of their performance, pointing out that (as we have ampleopportunity to observe for ourselves) if the performer attempts to intrude his ownpersonality or to add the graces of execution appropriate to more cultivated songs,the wild flavour evaporates. Miss Mattie Kay gave an excellent demonstration of theproper style of singing. Her voice is not very well trained, but it is of attractive quality,and her simple delivery of the six or eight songs used as illustrations to the lecturewas most enjoyable. The photographs which Mr Sharp threw on the screen alsoincreased the interest of the occasion. 4

    By the time he reached Chicago it was apparent that Sharp had already concluded that therewas no such thing as American folk music

    Mr Sharp told of rescuing English folk music; how he and his associates, seeking outpersons untouched by the on-rush of education, had entered the workhouses andjotted down the songs of old peasants now living on the parish. No one under 70, hesaid, had yielded a song worth the taking. Another twenty years and English musicwould assuredly have dissolved in sophistication ... By Mr Sharp's definition a newfolk music is impossible without a complete reversion to a feudal state. This is true,because folk music is the product of an unselfconscious peasantry; a peasantrywhich refuses to transmit the eccentricities of any individual; which simply omits andforgets what does not belong to the spirit of the people ... But this is a doleful theoryto propound to Americans who feel the urge of nationality. How can we have any folkmusic? We are in the clutches of compulsory education. The farest backwoodsfarmer has a phonograph with records of Rubinstein's melody of F and MischaElman's richly sentimental reading of Dvorak's humoresque ... Thus Mr Sharp leavesus to a barren fate, not possessing a folk music and not able to get one. 5

    Olive Dame Campbell of Asheville, North Carolina, was the wife of John Campbell, an employeeof the Russell Sage Foundation who was engaged in a social project upgrading the Appalachianschool system. It was a job which necessitated long trips into the mountains and Mrs Campbellhad often accompanied her husband on his journeys. It was during such trips that she firstbegan to hear mountain ballads and songs. In December, 1907, the Campbells visited HindmanSettlement School in Kentucky and it was there that Olive Dame Campbell heard a student, AdaSmith, sing a version of the ballad Barbara Allen.

    Shall I ever forget it. The blazing fire, the young girl on her low stool before it, thesoft strange strumming of the banjo - different from anything I had heard before - andthen the song. I had been used to singing Barbara Allen as a child, but how far fromthat gentle tune was this - so strange, so remote, so thrilling. I was lost almost fromthe first note, and the pleasant room faded from sight; the singer only a voice. I sawagain the long road over which we had come, the dark hills, the rocky streams

  • bordered by tall hemlocks and hollies, the lonely cabins distinguishable at night onlyby the firelight flaring from their chimneys. Then these, too, faded, and I seemed tobe borne along into a still more dim and distant past, of which I myself was a part. 6

    In 1897 a lady called Frances Louisa Goodrich came to Allenstand in the Laurel section ofMadison County, NC to establish a chain of schools, Sunday schools, craft programmes and acompany called 'Allenstand Cottages Industries'. Olive Dame Campbell first visited thiscompany in 1907 to help in her husband's survey of mountain life.

    In October 1913 the Campbells attended the Country Life Conference in Big Laurel,one of Frances Goodrich's missions in Madison County ... There Olive DameCampbell heard some ballad singing and had an opportunity to explain thesignificance of the