18 October 2020

A crossroads? Part 4a: 'An English song'?

The BIB editor continues his comments on items in Tatiana Hargreaves's 'An introductory resource list for understanding race and racism in old-time music' (Old Time News, issue 103, autumn 2020):

Parts 3 and 4 of this series have focused on the online article by Kevin Kehrberg and Jeffrey A. Keith from which Tatiana Hargreaves highlighted the passage beginning:

Sharp claimed 'Swannanoa Town' (explicitly), 'Swannanoa Tunnel' (by extension), and 'John Henry' (for good measure) as English in origin. Such distorted conclusions resulted from Sharp's understanding of folk music that placed Europe in general and England in particular at its center. This warped logic led Sharp to claim English ownership of music that was 200 years and 5,000 miles removed from his homeland.

Taken as a whole, this is nonsense; but it's partly excusable. Sharp did not claim that all the songs he collected in Appalachia came from England, but this could have been stated much more clearly.

Both of the published compilations (1917, 1932) of songs collected in the mountains by Cecil Sharp, Maud Karpeles, and Olive Dame Campbell were indeed entitled English folk songs from the Southern Appalachians. All the texts in these compilations were in the English language. The ballads indisputably came from the English-speaking traditions of these islands. The songs had been collected from the same people - often the same individuals - who sang the ballads, and for most of the songs roots in Britain or Ireland could be identified. As can be seen from his notes on the songs, Sharp's use of the term 'English' did not exclude Scotland and Ireland. So though the title English folk songs might be misunderstood, choosing it was perhaps understandable.

Sharp did not mean, though, that all the songs were therefore from these islands. On p. ix of his 1917 introduction he drew the reader's attention to two that he knew were not: no. 87 ('John Hardy') and no. 99 ('Wild Bill Jones') - examples of modern texts that were assimilated into tradition. Moreover, he wrote (pp xiii-xiv): 'Some of the song-texts are quite new to me, and are not to be found, so far as I have been able to discover, in any of the standard English collections.' The dozen examples he gave included no. 91, 'Swannanoa [or 'Swananoah'] Town'. For all he knew, these songs might yet be found in England; they might have died out there; or they might have originated in America. Whatever origin 'Swannanoa Town' had, Sharp did not 'explicitly' claim it as English in origin. The allegation that he also claimed 'Swannanoa Tunnel' and 'John Henry' consequently collapses.

Kehrberg and Keith also assert that 'Sharp's version', as they call it, 'conceals a record of social injustice and tragedy' through 'poetic and sonic omission' - because it's in the wrong tempo for a work song, and the words don't mention railroading, a cave-in, or a tunnel. 'Sharp's version' is recorded as having been transcribed in September 1916 at Black Mountain, NC, from the singing of Mrs Sarah Buckner and Mrs Ford, and there is no reason to believe that this is not how they sang it. For all anyone knows, they may have originally learned it in that form; in 1916 the 'folk process' in North Carolina had had twenty-five years to make changes in whatever the tunnel labour gangs had left behind them.


(A personal note: the first version I ever heard of the song was Art Rosenbaum's 'Swannanoa Tunnel' on the 1962 compilation album Folk banjo styles (Elektra EKL-217), and - though not a work song - it's still my favourite. This recording, unfortunately, is not yet on YouTube. A similar sparse, intense treatment from Kentucky is 'Swanno Mountain' (sic) by Roscoe Holcomb.)


English folk songs from the southern Appalachians: comprising 122 songs and ballads, and 323 tunes. Collected by Olive Dame Campbell and Cecil J. Sharp. With an introduction and notes. G.P Putnam's Sons, New York and London: The Knickerbocker Press. 1917.
This can be read online here.

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.

© Richard Hawkins

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At 10:13 am, Blogger William D said...

Another quality analysis, Richard and a valuable counterpoint to some current trends. Essential reading for those who genuinely wish to understand the full history of our music. Thanks again !


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