05 October 2020

A crossroads? Part 3: A brief defence of Cecil Sharp

The BIB editor writes:

I had intended part 3 of this series to focus on one of the sources listed by Tatiana Hargreaves in Old Time News - the online article by Kevin Kehrberg and Jeffrey A. Keith, ‘Somebody died, babe: a musical cover-up of racism, violence, & greed’. It's a compelling account of the circumstances in which one song, 'Swannanoa tunnel', was created in Appalachia and has subsequently been presented; it raises questions about the picture, put forward by Rhiannon Giddens, of a repertoire 'shared' among black and white Southerners; and it makes a statement about the respect due to music and its makers, with which I fully agree. Unfortunately, Hargreaves has chosen to highlight one of the most misleading passages in the whole piece:

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. Travel diaries from his Appalachian collecting trips also reveal a categorical disdain and dismissal of Black people. Had he known the true source of 'Swannanoa Town', he may [sic] not have even bothered to preserve it. Despite such views, the influence of Sharp's work lingers on today in common cultural perceptions of American folk music.

'Sharp' is Cecil James Sharp (1859-1924), founder of the folk music and dance revival movement in England, whose song-collecting in Appalachia with Maud Karpeles during eleven or twelve months in 1916-18 produced a body of over 1,600 tunes. Over the years he and his work have been criticised from one angle or another. In recent years his work in Appalachia has come under attack from the USA, with the most detailed and careful attack, backed by expert knowledge in the field of dance, coming from Phil Jamison; other American critics seem to suffer from prejudice, an inflamed imagination, or a general lack of grip. In the paragraph quoted above, for instance, the last sentence and (with strong qualification) the sentence about 'disdain and dismissal' are all that hold water. Kehrberg and Keith do themselves no favours by writing about the version of 'Swannanoa Tunnel' which Sharp transcribed from the singing of Mrs Sarah Buckner and Mrs Ford in September 1916, as if he had personally changed the words and altered the time signature of the tune from the original work song.

An adequate answer to all Sharp's critics would take far more space than the BIB can spare. What seems to be at the core of American objections to him, though, is the charge of 'anglocentricity': someone who was not blinkered by nationalistic anglocentricity, they imply, would have gone through Appalachia attempting, at least, to do justice to all its rich musical traditions. Those who take this line might consider the following:
  • He was an Englishman, normally resident in England.
  • He had, through over ten years of full-time collecting, teaching, and writing in England, earned a reputation as an expert on English folk song and dance.
  • Having earned this reputation, he was able to lecture and give instruction in English folk song and dance in cities of the USA in 1914 and 1915.
  • Because of this reputation, Olive Dame Campbell showed him in 1915 songs she had collected in Appalachia, which he could see at a glance were 'apparently of Irish, Scottish or English origin'. She suggested that he should come to Appalachia on the chance of finding more; and because he was interested in such material, he went.
  • On arriving in Appalachia, he and Maud Karpeles found there was more of it than they could ever have expected.
Sharp had limited time and resources; he was in his mid-fifties; and he was not in the best of health for travel in the mountains. To me, it's not in the least surprising that he should have given first priority to places and people that had the music he was primarily interested in. He wasn't there to make a general survey of Appalachian music; and I consider it stands to his credit that he gave as much attention as he did to music that originated in America.

As a final tit-bit, here's an account he wrote of hearing the nephews of a Mrs Crawford, of Balsam, NC, play a fiddle-and-banjo duet in July 1917:

The thing was very skilfully played, plumb in tune, and its constant repetition had a very hypnotic effect on me and apparently on the players... the tunes look little enough when committed to paper, but the way they were played produced a very curious and not un-beautiful effect.

That should strike a chord with old-time enthusiasts.

Phil Jamison, Hoedowns, reels, and frolics: roots and branches of southern Appalachian dance. University of Illinois Press, 2015. (Music in American Life)
Mike Yates, 'Cecil Sharp in America: collecting in the Appalachians' at http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/sharp.htm. 1999.

© Richard Hawkins

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At 12:08 pm, Blogger William D said...

Thanks again for this evolving analysis Richard - with which I fully agree. The aggressive wording and tone which Ms Hargreaves deploys (not to mention the biased narrative) is unfortunately typical of a new "school" and it's good that such as yourself are willing to redress the balance ! (Apologies for taking a while to get to this - more to follow !)


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