16 November 2023
Cecil Sharp and the Quest for Folk Song and Dance a new biography by David Sutcliffe
I have been asked to review this recently published book by "one of our own". David is a freelance researcher with a particular interest in Somerset folksongs. He is a morris dancer with Taunton Deane and is an occasional singer. His biography of Rev Charles Marson was published in 2010 (The Keys of Heaven Cockasnook Books).
First, a caveat before I launch into a review of this overdue life history of C#. My rather long Morris career has been spent as a member of a Ring side and latterly as its Web Editor. I've therefore attended many feasts and ales where Sharp has been lauded and reverentially toasted, only latterly making reference to other important collectors of Morris dances. My views may well have been coloured - one way or another.
So firstly, the last pages! David's biography is crammed full of several years of incredible research, all assiduously footnoted, referenced and indexed. I also rather liked the photographs of family and many of the characters he befriended. This in itself is a massive resource for all who have an interest in the origins and personalities of the emerging English folk movement of that era, of Sharp's role, his findings and not least, his life. I found only about a dozen of the 462 pages without reference footnotes - and most of them were chapter summaries!
The book itself is divided into 5 parts: Early Life, Folk Song, Folk Dance, America and The Final Years. Each section is dealt with chronologically which makes for a very coherent narrative, although it does introduce feelings of déjà vu on occasion.
The early life section covers his first 40 odd years - it was that long before he embarked on what became his life's work. We begin to learn something of the man himself, his considerable musical talent, determination and health frailties which were an all too regular feature throughout his years. We are certainly immersed in his well described and detailed family life, teaching career and social world. Even though a morris man, David wisely resisted the temptation to end the section on the legendary Boxing Day Headington display. Although important, David goes on to put morris into context as just one part of Sharp's many achievements. By this time Sharp had joined the nascent Folk Song Society and was focused on song collections and collecting and had published his first song book.
Chapters on folk song cover the period from 1903, and his first introduction to a living folk singer in the person of John England, up to the beginning of the First World War. It was early in this period that we learn of his first encounters with Herbert MacIlwaine and Mary Neal of the Espérance Working Girls Club, all of whom would feature large in the coming chapters. The author draws us in to Sharp’s dedication to collecting in person from West Country sources to whom he had become so entranced. I didn't know he had collected over 1600 songs in Somerset alone in this period, spending a total of over 70 weeks away from home, and had published 5 books of the county’s songs. David takes us on Sharp's journeys of discovery and we learn of the characters, their songs and much of the social history of the time and how he and they enjoyed these interactions. We also learn something of the geography of the region from the long distance cycle trips and railway excursions that Sharp exhaustingly undertook. He was certainly driven - but not by car!
The Folk Dance account reminds us, briefly, of his Boxing Day encounter with the Headington Quarry Morris Men before diving into the worlds of Mary Neal, the Espérance club and morris dance. Again, the author's narrative is meticulously detailed and the descriptions not only provide a record of activities, but give us a sense of the times they lived in and the personalities of Sharp's kith, kin, colleagues and acquaintances. Many of these were important shapers of English music evolving in this period. And not only morris dance: we also learn of Sharp's attention given to country dance and the publication of his Country Dance books.
This section also deals head on with the rift with Mary Neal. David uses documentary evidence to chart the course of their relationship, or ultimately, lack of it. His best summing up: '... they just did not get on'. David also confronts Sharp's theories of primitive ritual origins of folk dances, the omission of some forms of dance and the criticism of class and gender biases in his work. David also confronts the opinions of some previous commentators on Sharp’s political and “nostalgic” standpoint. His arguments, backed by evidence, are somewhat compelling.
And so to America: for me this was the most revealing section of the biography, not just the scale of his achievements but hardships he endured, often bedevilled by bad health … and the miles he covered by train (over 11,000 miles on the 4 trips over the years), on foot, horse and carriage and car. For once bicycles were not involved, given the inter-state journeys or the 3000 foot high Appalachian mountains and the trans-Atlantic crossings running the gauntlet of German U-Boats. David's account and his documentary support really brings home Sharp's trials and tribulations, both in England and America. He, and Maud Karpeles, were rewarded with a collection on the trips of over 1600 songs and tunes from 315 singers. Again, the author does not avoid the criticisms levelled at Sharp regarding his motivations and the methodology for the selection of materials from America, nor is he afraid to rebut them. However he does not try to explain how his long suffering wife put up with all this - times were different!
The final section covers his post-war years, revitalising and expanding the EFDS educational branch network, travelling around the country to support this at the expense of much of his collecting activities. We discover more about his personal life, unfortunately too often details of both his and his wife's illnesses. More positively, the section closes with a summary of his considerable legacy, following his death in 1924.
David continues the reporting style of this biography into his short concluding couple of paragraphs, very much leaving up to the reader to draw their own conclusions from his evidence. And my own view? The colours have changed and warmed, having immersed myself in this very significant book, and the misconceptions I had been exposed to have now been corrected by compelling facts, convincingly recounted. The author’s professional researcher background does make the narrative a little dispassionate at times, but better that than turning the biography into an overly intimate, uncritical account of the life of a fascinating, complex, influential man.
And my conclusions? This tome should be on the bookshelf of anyone with a serious interest in our folk heritage. David is to be congratulated on unearthing and drawing so much information to our attention and creating a canon for those of us with a keen interest in our island’s musical heritage. For my part, I’m off to rewrite the section on Sharp in my own Foolish History of Kennet Morris - it may be less critical.
Published by The Ballad Partners: https://www.theballadpartners.co.uk/publications/CecilSharp
or go to David's web site: Cecil Sharp's People
Peter de Courcy