Cecil Sharp was not the first folk song collector – other song collectors like Sabine Baring-Gould and Lucy Broadwood were already active in the field when Sharp began his work, but it was Sharp who first collected such a mass of songs and dances – something like 1600 – and, more importantly, Sharp was an activist who believed the music should be out there for all to listen and play.
He first became interested in the English folk tradition when he saw a group of morris dancers with their concertina player, William Kimber at the village of Headington Quarry, near Oxford, at Christmas 1899. The dancers didn’t usually dance at Christmas time but they needed the money and so decided to go and dance to raise a few shillings. This chance meeting set Sharp off on a lifetime journey that would result in the founding of The English Folk Dance Society, the publishing of several books of folk songs and collecting tours all over the South of England and in the Southern Applachians of America.
The first song he collected was from a gardener called John England in Hambridge, Somerset in 1913 and once again that happened by chance.
Maud Karpeles tell us..
“…… The Seeds of Love was Sharp’s introduction to the live folk song. He was sitting in the garden talking to Mattie Kay, and John England was singing quietly to himself as he mowed the lawn. Sharp whipped out his note-book, took down the tune, and afterwards persuaded John to give him the words. He went off and harmonised the song, and that same evening it was sung at a choir supper by Mattie Kay, Sharp accompanying. The audience was delighted; as one said, it was the first time that the song had been put into evening-dress. John was proud, but doubtful about the ‘evening-dress’; “there had been no piano to his song” (Karpeles, 1933, p.33).
With Karpeles as his assistant, Sharp went to Madison County in 1916 to collect English folk songs that had been carried there by immigrants. The movie Songcatcher is loosely based on that endeavour. Sharp described some communities in the Blue Ridge as places where “singing is as common and almost as universal a practice as speaking.”
His contribution was massive; the songs he collected formed the basis of many a young folk singer’s repertoire and his work inspired later collectors like Peter Kennedy and Fred Hamer. The headquarters of the EFDSS, Cecil Sharp House in London, is named after him and is still to this day a great folk centre. He was the prime mover of what has been described as “The First Wave” of the folk revival.
Like any late Victorian he had ideas we would think odd or regressive. He didn’t collect bawdy songs and he ignored the industrial cities, so who knows what great songs have been lost? People in the cities had brought their music with them from the countryside and from Ireland and Scotland. However we’re here to celebrate what the man did – not what he didn’t do.