Cecil J. Sharp

Cecil J. Sharp books and biography

Cecil Sharp

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Cecil James Sharp (1859–1924) 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.

The Morris Book by Cecil J. Sharp and Herbert C. Macilwaine (Part 1) 2nd Edition, published by Novello and Company, London, 1912
The Morris Book by Cecil J. Sharp and Herbert C. Macilwaine (Part 1) 2nd Edition, published by Novello and Company, London, 1912

Cecil Sharp was a music teacher and composer interested in folk songs and music, who became interested in traditional English dance when he saw a group of Morris dancers at the village of Headington Quarry, just outside Oxford, in 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of the Morris dances started when Mary Neal, the organiser of the Esperance Girls' Club in London, used Sharp's (then unpublished) notations to teach the traditional dances to the club's members in 1905.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 he 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.

Sharp often published versions of the songs he collected, which included a part for piano that Sharp composed himself. It appears that the traditional singers (who always sang a cappella) found Sharp's piano parts to be just distracting noise. However, the piano versions did help Sharp in his goal of teaching English folk music to children in schools, thus "reacquainting" them, as he felt, with their national musical heritage.

The schools project perhaps also accounts for Sharp's practice of heavily bowdlerizing the lyrics, which, at least among the English songs, often emphasize sex and violence. Thus, there are often great differences between the songs as recorded in Sharp's field notes and what he published. An extreme case is the song The Keeper, whose original lyrics evidently celebrate rape. Sharp's revised lyrics turn it into a comic hunting song.

Sharp also helped instigate a period of nationalism in English classical music, the idea being to reinvigorate English composition by grounding it in its national folk music. Among the composers who took up this goal was Ralph Vaughan Williams, who carried out his own field work on folk song.

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.

Sharp 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.

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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