Cecil James Sharp (November 22, 1859 –June 23, 1924) was the founding father of the folk-song revival in the early 20th century, who did scholarly field work on folk song, gathering thousands of tunes both from rural England and the Southern Appalachians region of the United States. Sharp was born on November 22, 1859, in Camberwell, Surrey, the eldest son of James Sharp, 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. Sharp decided to emigrate to Australia on his father’s suggestion. 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.
Sharp 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 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 continued under Reimann, and in 1898 developed into the Elder Conservatorium of Music in connection 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. During his stay in Adelaide he composed the music for an operetta Dimple’s Lovers performed by the Adelaide Garrick Club at the Albert Hall on September 9, 1890, and two light operas, Sylvia, which was produced at the Theatre Royal on December 4, 1890, and The Jonquil. The libretto in each case was written by Guy Boothby. Sharp also wrote the music for some nursery rhymes which were sung by the Cathedral Choral Society.
In January 1892, Sharp arrived in England, and on August 22, 1893, at East Clevedon in Somerset, he married Constance Dorothea Birch, also a music lover. They had three daughters and a son. 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. 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.
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 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. He began collecting folk songs in 1903 when visiting his friend and lyrics editor Charles Marson in Hambridge, South Somerset.
The revival of the morris dances started when Mary Neal, the organizer 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 when he wrote an influential volume, English Folk Song: Some Conclusions, about his findings. 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 also founded the English Folk Dance Society in 1911 which promoted the traditional dances through workshops held nationwide. 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.
At a time when state-sponsored mass public schooling was in its infancy, Sharp published song books, such as English folk songs, collected and arranged with pianoforte accompaniment in1916, intended for use by teachers and children in the then-being-formulated music curriculum. These song books often included arrangements of songs which he had collected with piano accompaniment composed by Sharp himself, arrangements intended for choral singing which helped Sharp in his goal of disseminating the sound of English folk melodies to children in schools, thus acquainting them with their national musical heritage. 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.
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 to 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.
One of the earliest versions of the traditional folk song of the United States “On Top of Old Smokey” to be recorded in fieldwork was written down by Sharp. Sharp and Karpeles found to their delight that the Appalachians, then geographically isolated, were a strong preserve of traditional music and that many of the people they met were naturally-gifted singers who knew a great number of songs. They were also intrigued to find that many of the songs the people sang to them were versions of songs Sharp had earlier collected from people in rural England, suggesting that the ancestors of the Appalachian residents had brought them over from the old country. The version of “On Top of Old Smokey” that Sharp and Karpeles collected was sung to them on July 29, 1916, by Miss Memory Shelton in Alleghany, Madison County, North Carolina. Miss Shelton was 23 years old, and was part of a family several of whose members sang for Sharp. Memory Shelton’s version differs in notes, rhythm, and wording from the version most people know today, but only modestly so. It is unclear when, where, and by whom the song was first sung. In historical times folksongs were the informal property of the communities that sang them, passed down through generations. They were published only when a curious person took the trouble to visit singers and document their songs, an activity that in America began only around the turn of the 20th century. For this reason it is unlikely that an originator of “On Top of Old Smokey” could ever be identified.
In 1918 Percy Grainger arranged Country Gardens, a Morris dance which Sharp collected; Grainger could never persuade Sharp to accept half the royalties. In 1919 Sharp became an occasional inspector, in folk-song and dancing, of training colleges, to spread his enthusiasm among teachers. In 1923 his old university made him an honorary master of music; in the House of Commons he was described as one ‘to whose work in this field British education owes an almost irredeemable debt’. The next year he completed The Dance, a historical survey of dancing in Europe, with Adolf Paul Oppé. On June 23, 1924, Sharp died of cancer at Hampstead. Survived by his wife, three daughters and a son, he was buried in Golders Green cemetery. The Times’s appreciative obituary recognized his commitment and prodigious output of eighty volumes. It noted that while the accompaniments he wrote were not those of a musical genius, they comprised ‘the stuff out of which music and literature are made’.
Cecil Sharp collected Appalachian folksong just before the time when this music came to be “discovered” by the outside world and sold as a commercial product by the nascent recording industry. This development would ultimately create the modern genre of country music. The first to make a commercial recording of “On Top of Old Smokey” was de:George Reneau, “The Blind Musician of the Smoky Mountains,” who worked as a busker in Knoxville, Tennessee, just west of the Appalachians. Reneau made the trip to New York City to record the song, and others, for Vocalion in 1925. In the 1940s through the mid 1960s, the United States experienced a folk music revival, in which Pete Seeger was a leading figure. His music—some of it drawn from scholarly sources like Sharp—was popular and was disseminated widely in commercial recordings. Seeger modified a version of “On Top of Old Smokey” that he had learned in the Appalachians,[ writing new words and banjo music. He said that he thought that “certain verses go back to Elizabethan times.” The sheet music for the song credited Seeger for “new words and music arrangement.” The Weavers, a folksong singing group that Seeger had co-founded, recorded a very popular version of the song using Seeger’s arrangement on February 21, 1951, that was released by Decca Records. It reached No. 2 on the Billboard chart and No. 1 on the Cash Box chart, and sold over a million copies. The song also became one of Burl Ives’ signature songs, with his recording reaching No. 10 on the Billboard chart in 1951. The enormous popularity of these recordings and others following in their wake led to the curious situation of the song re-attaining folk status; it is one of the few songs that most Americans know from childhood, and many are unaware of the mid-century recordings that promulgated it so widely.
The following work by Cecil Sharp is contained in my collection:
On Top of Old Smokey (collected)