Cecil Sharp

Cecil Sharp circa 1900

Cecil James Sharp (22 November 1859 – 23 June 1924) was the founding father of the folk-song revival in England in the early 20th century.

Sharp felt that English music had become over-dominated by German influences, and wanted to revive melodies with native roots. He listened to hundreds of village folk-singers, and arranged their songs for piano and choir. He promoted Morris dancing, which had almost died out, though he often had to tone-down the lyrics for public performance and instruction in schools. In 1911 he founded the English Folk Dance Society.

The new celebration of folk-music attracted political controversy, with some commentators claiming that it artificially romanticised village life, while others pointed out that the working class had actively embraced Music Hall as the expression of popular song.

Early life

Sharp was born in Camberwell, Surrey, the eldest son of James Sharp[1] (a slate merchant who was interested in archaeology, architecture, old furniture and music) and his wife, Jane née Bloyd, who 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.[2]

In Australia

Sharp decided to emigrate to Australia on his father's suggestion.[1] 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 College 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

In 1892 Sharp returned to England and on 22 August 1893 at East Clevedon, Somerset, he married Constance Dorothea Birch, also a music lover.[1] They had three daughters and a son.[3] Also in 1893 he was taken on as a music teacher by Ludgrove School, a preparatory school then in North London. During his seventeen years in the post, he took on a number of other musical jobs.[4]

From 1896 Sharp was Principal of the Hampstead Conservatoire of Music, a half-time post which provided a house. In July 1905 he resigned from this post after a prolonged dispute about payment and his right to take on students for extra tuition. He had to leave the Principal's house, and apart from his position at Ludgrove his income was henceforth derived largely from lecturing and publishing on folk music.[3]

Folk music of 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. He began collecting folk songs in 1903 when visiting his friend (and lyrics editor) Charles Marson in Hambridge, South Somerset.[5] Over 1,600 tunes or texts were collected from 350 singers, and Sharp used these songs in his lectures and press campaign to urge the rescue of English folk song. Although Sharp collected songs from 15 other counties after 1907, the Somerset songs were the core of his experience and theories.

Sharp became interested in traditional English dance when he saw a group of morris dancers with their concertina player William Kimber 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.

Song books for teachers and pupils

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 unaccompanied) might well have found Sharp's piano parts distracting, the arrangements with piano accompaniment did help Sharp in his goal of 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 bowdlerisation of some of the song texts, which, at least among English folk songs, often contained erotic double entendres, when not outright bawdy or violent. However, Sharp did accurately note such lyrics in his field notebooks, which, given the prudery of the Victorian era could never have been openly published (especially in a school textbook context), 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." The immediate goal of Sharp's project – disseminating the distinctive, and hitherto little known melodies of these songs through music education – also explains why he considered the song texts relatively less important.

English Folk Dance Society, afterwards English Folk Dance and Song Society

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.

Influence on English classical music

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 recognisable 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, Sussex and Surrey. 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 the Historical particularism of late nineteenth century Romanticism.

In America

A sign in Hot Springs, North Carolina marks where Cecil Sharp collected ballads in 1916.

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 southern Appalachia, pursuing a line of research pioneered by Olive Dame Campbell. Travelling 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.[6]

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

Political views

While at Cambridge, Sharp heard the lectures of William Morris and became a Fabian Socialist and lifelong vegetarian. He was cautious in his public statements, however, feeling that he had much to lose, since, unlike Morris, he was not independently wealthy but dependent on outside funding for his researches. Respectability was important to him, increasingly so as he got older. According to his biographer, Maud Karpeles: "Any display of singularity was displeasing to him; and he followed the convention in behaviour as well as in appearance unless there was a very good reason for departing from them. 'It saves so much trouble,' he would say."[7] During the post World War II "second" British folk revival of the 1950s and 60s, Sharp was occasionally chided for this by leftist critics such as Bert Lloyd. C. J. Bearman writes that "Lloyd was effectively the first to offer public criticism of Sharp and of the first revival generally. This critique was from a Marxist perspective: Lloyd (1908-82) had associated himself with the Communist Party since the 1930s. ... However, he was always more pragmatic than doctrinaire, and he combined criticism of Sharp's philosophy and methods with high and unreserved praise for his motivation and the epic scale of his achievement. Until the early 1970s, the prevailing view of Sharp was one of reverence or respect tinged with moderate criticism.[8] This changed in the 1970s, when David Harker, a Cambridge post-graduate specializing in English literature, initiated a sustained attack on the motivations and methods of the first folk revival, singling out Cecil Sharp and accusing him of having manipulated his research for ideological reasons.[9] These criticisms were quickly taken up by others who were doubtless in part motivated by an understandable reaction to the previous hagiographical treatment of Sharp.

In an attempt to discover some of the facts about Cecil Sharp and his career, British folklorist Mike Yates, who had himself originally shared some of these negative views, retraced Sharp's steps in Appalachia, in the process becoming aware of the scope of Sharp's accomplishment. In the introduction the article, "Cecil Sharp in America" (1999) that resulted from his investigations, he wrote:

When I had completed my first draft of the article I found that I had totally revised my ideas about Sharp, and I hope that readers will also come to share in these ideas and opinions. Cecil Sharp is, I believe, the most important English folk song collector of the century. His achievements are truly monumental. [The noted American ballad scholar] Bertrand Bronson once said that Sharp's Appalachian collection was the best regional song collection ever made in America. I hope that by reading this article, people will at long last come to realise just how much Sharp gave of himself in the assembly of his collection.[10]

Criticisms and debate

Dave Harker's criticisms of Sharp reflected a framework that tends to view any and all folk song collecting, scholarship, and attempts at revival as forms of appropriation and exploitation by the bourgeoisie of the working class, whose tastes Harker considers intrinsically at odds with what he terms the "official culture" of the schools.[11] An expert on printed broadsides, Harker argues against the very existence of an oral tradition: "It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the English folk-song was invented by Cecil Sharp. Of course the songs were collected from singers who were supposed to have learned them through an organic and continuous tradition."[12] Harker sustains that all of what is termed "folk song" in fact originated from broadsides and further maintained it was absurd to claim that late-nineteenth century England possessed a rural culture. In his view the small hamlets of less than 300 people from which Sharp collected were actually centers of the "urban proletariat", whom Sharp had misrepresented as (agrarian) "folk".

In 1972, when the editors of Folk Music Journal first accepted an article by Harker criticising Sharp and his methods, one member of the journal's board, Pat Shaw, expressed skepticism of Harker's statistics and only agreed to publish it on condition that someone would write an accompanying rebuttal. However, the rebuttal never appeared, and Pat Shaw himself died in 1977, so that Harker's allegations went unchallenged for fifteen years.[13] Harker described Sharp's activities this way:

"[F]olk song" as mediated by Cecil Sharp, [is] to be used as "raw material" or "instrument", being extracted from a tiny fraction of the rural proletariat and . . . imposed upon town and country alike for the people’s own good, not in its original form, but, suitably integrated into the Conservatoire curriculum, made the basis of nationalistic sentiments and bourgeois values. The working people of England rejected, and still have to reject, as children, "folk song" as official culture. In fact, of course, they’d rejected it in its original state before Sharp was born, by creating the first generation of music halls, but that story belongs to history, and not to the analysis of myth.[14]

Harker expanded his allegations in a book, Fakesong (1984). The following year Vic Gammon commented that Fakesong was "the beginning of critical work’" on the first folk revival, and also that it had taken on "the status of an orthodoxy in some quarters of the British left." ("Two for the Show. Dave Harker, Politics and Popular Song" in History Workshop Journal: 21 [1986]: 147). In the 1990 Folk Music Journal, Michael Pickering concluded that Fakesong was "the best example of this kind of work to date... Harker has provided a firm foundation for future work." Harker’s work had, indeed, become an orthodoxy and was being quoted by a number of prominent left-wing historians. In 1993 Georgina Boyes produced her book The Imagined Village - Culture, ideology and the English Folk Revival,[15] which, following Harker, was also highly critical of Sharp. The writings of Harker, however, and by extension of Harker's followers in the US (such as David E. Whisnant, Benjamin Filene, and Robert Christgau, who have backgrounds in political science, American Studies, and journalism, not ethnography) have now themselves in turn come under scrutiny as overly harsh, exaggerated, distorted, and unjust. In his defense of Sharp, C. J. Bearman took scholars to task for their speedy and uncritical acceptance of Harker's views:

To his credit, Harker has never concealed his political allegiances – he is or was a Trotskyist adherent of the Socialist Workers' Party (Harker 1985, 256-8) – but at the same time, it must be maintained that his is an extreme political position. To accept without question the opinion of a Trotskyist about Sharp and his work is rather like taking one's view of the Communist Manifesto from a member of the British National Party.[9]

In the meantime, Mike Yates, the Folk Music Journal editor who had originally accepted Harker's article for publication in 1972, began to investigate the ethnography of Cecil Sharp for himself, travelling to America in his footsteps to do so:

I realised that, for the sake of accuracy, I had to do more research into Sharp’s Appalachian trips, if I was to fully understand just who Sharp was and exactly what it was that he had done in the mountains. In the end I wrote an article, "Cecil Sharp in America", which remained unpublished for some fifteen years, until it appeared in Musical Traditions in 1999. By the time I had written the article I had come to see Cecil Sharp as something of a giant - a man who, with unbelievable dedication, had almost single-handedly preserved a whole tradition that would otherwise have vanished under the indifference of a rapidly changing world. And yet, strange as it may now seem, I still held to some of Dave Harker’s views concerning Sharp’s English collecting and prose writing. One man, however, was not so trusting and, unlike Pat Shaw, he was prepared to put his thoughts and findings onto paper.[16]

This man was C. J. Bearman, who in 2001 completed his Ph.D. thesis, "The English Folk Music Movement 1898-1914". Bearman's two papers, "Who Were the Folk? The Demography of Cecil Sharp’s Somerset Folk Singers" in Historical Journal: 43 (2000):3: 751-75, and "Cecil Sharp in Somerset: Some Reflections on the Work of David Harker" in Folklore 113 (2002): 11 -34), were a devastating deconstruction of Dave Harker’s "orthodoxy", charging Harker with having misrepresenting the data and distorted statistics for ideological reasons.

Yates writes:

True, Sharp was lax in asking singers where they learned their songs, but we do know that out of the 311 singers that he met during the period 1904-1909, sixty singers provided provenance for 77 of their songs. Only one of these songs was learned directly from a broadside, while 73 songs came directly from an oral source - parents, grandparents, friends, etc. It could, I suppose, be argued that very few English broadsides were being printed in the first decade of the twentieth century, but most of these singers would have been around at the end of the nineteenth century when broadsides were still being printed.

As well as:

Does all this nit-picking really matter? Well, yes it does. Because if our foundations are based on false assumptions, then the whole subsequent body of folk song and folklore studies is liable to come tumbling down around us. In the last thirty-odd years writers such as Raymond Williams (who wrote The Country and the City, 1973), Eric Hobsbawn (the editor of The Invention of Tradition, 1983), Ronald Hutton (author of The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 1996) and Georgina Boyes (The Imagined Village . . .) have all attacked Sharp, taking Dave Harker as their starting point. And much of what they say is wrong. My own beliefs have always been to the left, and it gives me no great pleasure to see respected left-wing writers coming in for such criticism. But, this criticism does appear to be justified and cannot be pushed under the carpet. There are already others seeking to question Harker and his followers. In a recent review in the Folk Music Journal, Mike Heaney has criticised Georgina Boyes for a recent work (Step Change: New Views on Traditional Dance, 2001), where he says that "Factual errors and misrepresentations abound".[17]


C. J. Bearman has made a number of extremely serious allegations against Dave Harker’s methodology. "Factual errors and misrepresentations (also) abound" in Dave Harker’s published works, is what he is clearly saying. Perhaps it is time to follow up Dave Harker’s own comment, given above, about Sharp, but now seemingly more applicable to himself -- it’s the one made in 1972 about the story belonging to history, "and not to the analysis of myth". According to Bearman, it was, after all, Harker, and not Sharp, who was creating the myth, and, in the process, jumping to the wrong conclusions.


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

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

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

The following is a biography of Cecil Sharp:

For Sharp's description of Morris Dancing see:



  1. 1 2 3 Sue Tronser, 'Sharp, Cecil James (1859 - 1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 11, MUP, 1988, pp 579–580. Retrieved 17 January 2010.
  2. "Sharp, Cecil James (SHRP879CJ)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  3. 1 2 Heaney, Michael (2004). "Sharp, Cecil James". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
  4. Encyclopædia Britannica (1924-06-23). "Britannica online". Britannica.com. Retrieved 2010-01-31.
  5. Sharp,C and Marson,C Folk Songs from Somerset vols 1-3 1904-1906 Simpkin
  6. Preface to English folk songs from the southern Appalachians, cited below
  7. Maud Karpeles, Cecil Sharp: His Life and Work (Chicago, 1967) pp. 6768. See also Dillon Bustin, Folklore Forum, "The Morrow's Uprising: William Morris and the English Folk Revival" Folklore Forum 15 (1982) 17–38.
  8. C. J. Bearman, "Cecil Sharp in Somerset: some reflections on the work of David Harker", Folklore 113: 1 (Apr., 2002): 1134.
  9. 1 2 Bearman (2002).
  10. "Cecil Sharp in America, 1999". Mustrad.org.uk. Retrieved 2010-01-31.
  11. Harker declared himself a Trotskyist in his 1985 book attacking folk music, Fakesong: The Manufacture of British Folk Song, 1700 to the Present Day (Milton Keynes [Buckinghamshire], UK and Philadelphia, US): Open University Press, 1985), pp. 256-57.
  12. Quoted in Bearman (2002).
  13. ""Enthusiasm's" No. 36, "Jumping to Conclusions, Mike Yates examines a row that is bubbling away beneath the surface of British folk song scholarship"". Mustrad.org.uk. Retrieved 2010-01-31.
  14. Dave Harker, "Cecil Sharp in Somerset - Some Conclusions",Folk Music Journal , 1972, quoted in Mike Yates, "Enthusiasms" 36.
  15. Boyes, Georgina (2010). The Imagined Village: Culture, ideology and the English Folk Revival. London: No Masters Cooperative Limited. ISBN 978-0-9566227-0-9.
  16. "Enthusiasms" 36, cit
  17. Folk Music Journal 2003 page 369
  18. archive.org


External links

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Cecil James Sharp
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