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At the heart of English folk
English Folk Song: Some Conclusions

Cecil Sharp's English Folk Song: Some Conclusions

by Nick Wall, Assistant Librarian at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

Nick Wall

There are some books that are more talked about than read.  Typically these are weighty tomes such as Ulysses and Moby Dick (both of which are definitely worth reading, so I’m told).  In the domain of folk, a somewhat slimmer volume,  Cecil Sharp’s ‘English Folk Song, Some Conclusions’,  could be added to that list.

As anyone who has attended one of Steve Roud’s folk song courses knows, this book is the source of the basic definition of folk song, which can be summarised as continuity (in the oral tradition), variation (by singers) and popularity, or selection (by the community).  This definition has been enormously influential, providing the basis of the definition of folk song given by the International Folk Music Council in 1954 and still featuring in most attempts to define folk song in an academic way. 

However, boiling down Cecil Sharp’s book to this definition does it something of an injustice.  It ignores many of the arguments and views put forward in the book, and, it has to be said, some of its flaws.  Before The publication of the book in 1907 there had been some attempts to define folk song, either for the practical purpose of judging a folk song competition or for providing a flavour of folk song in the introduction to a collection of songs but this represents the first attempt to write a “scientific treatise”, as reviews at the time put it.  An anonymous H. Fleetwood Sheppard, in the Times Literary Supplement, called it a “professedly scientific treatise … the first published attempt to discuss the origins, characteristics, and value of the English folk music”. 

Cecil Sharp was not really part of the musical establishment and Fleetwood Sheppard’s review could be seen as an attack on him from that quarter.  In particular, there is an attack on Sharp’s views on modes.  Modes are difficult to explain, unfashionable and not ideal material for a blog but here goes.  Classically-trained folk song collectors found that many folk songs sounded weird and that they did not fit into the major or minor scales.  They found it convenient to analyse the songs in terms of the church modes (modes being a type of scale in this context), which had exotic names such as Mixolydian and Phrygian.

Sharp found it important to identify which mode a folk song was in, a feature which caught on – there is a clip of Joan Baez on TV in the early 1960s, introducing a song as being in the Mixolydian mode.  For Sharp, the modal nature of folk song tunes was proof of their age.  In ancient times, he believed, music was in a variety of modes and it was only as music became more complex in modern times that the major and minor scales became dominant, as they were easier to harmonise in.  Folk song, being reliant on a single melodic line, could continue to be modal, and this was proof that they predated modern music.

Fleetwood Sheppard attacked Sharp’s ideas on modes and also disagreed with him on a practical level over whether a particular song belonged in a particular mode.  Nowadays there are further objections - no traditional singer knew what a mode was, so it arguably makes no sense to interpret songs in those terms.  Furthermore, how closely can you interpret a tune which might vary a bit each time it is sung and which will also depend on the skills of the person noting it?  At the very least, it can be said that being modal is not proof that a folk song is old.

Fleetwood Sheppard also felt that Sharp’s claim of communal authorship of a folk song was something of a damp squib.  Development and variation of a song was still down to individuals and the community was limited to liking or disliking a performance.  In Sharp’s view, this was part of a song’s development in the oral tradition, moving from person A to person Z, picking up variations all along the way.  Modern critics would disagree with Sharp on further grounds: songs were widely available on broadsides and even books, so the written text would have played far more of a role.

The big expert on music publishing was Frank Kidson, who gave Sharp’s book a more sympathetic review, seeing it as an important work, even if he disagreed with some of the detail.  Sharp, too, knew a lot about published song but he regarded it as separate from folk song, and if a folk song had been published in a broadside or a songbook, he saw it as a corruption of something that had come out of the oral tradition.  In fact, Sharp focussed primarily on folk tunes in his book, because he felt that they were less susceptible to corruption than the words and therefore more true to their supposedly ancient origins.

It is certainly true that new words have often been set to old tunes, a technique used heavily by Woody Guthrie, who knew that a popular tune would help a new song gain acceptance.  However, historical research into folk songs has tended to demonstrate that folk songs are far more tangled up with popular music than Sharp thought.  Folk songs are not really ancient songs that have survived alongside a succession of popular songs but rather popular songs that have entered the oral tradition and been collected by folk song enthusiasts.

Furthermore, although collected mainly in rural areas, most folk songs originated in the cities.  Folk song enthusiasts liked to align folk songs with rural purity and contrast them with the music hall songs popular in the foul slums of London; the reality was far more messy (see Sir Hubert Parry’s Inaugural address to the Folk Song Society for a wonderfully florid contrast of the urban and the rural).

Towards the end of his review Fleetwood Sheppard taps into his darker side to come up with the following quote: “As a collector, Mr. Sharp deserves high praise and support but he might well leave to others the work of analysing the treasures he finds”.  It is certainly true that Cecil Sharp had an over-romantic view of folk song which led him to believe it to be more ancient and pure than it really was.  However, Sharp also saw his work as a first step which would be followed by others.  The others, though, never turned up, as the Edwardian folk song boom faded away.  The analysis and criticism that would have refined his views did not come until many decades later.

We certainly should not forget the first part of Fleetwood Sheppard’s summary.  As the collector of around 5,000 songs, Cecil Sharp deserves the very highest praise.  These songs survive as a living monument to him.  And we should also treasure his photographs of “the folk”, who tended to get ignored by the collectors, in favour of the songs.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of EFDSS.


#1 Hannah Scott 2015-10-13 18:04
Percy Grainger in his paper 'Collecting with the Phonograph' also noted that multiple modes were used within the folk songs he notated from his phonograph recordings. However, his challenge of the modal constraints of English folk-song was badly received by the EDFSS (as seen by the disclaimer placed by them within his article), as since the 1880's it was widely believed that folk songs were predominantly modal. Bearman (2003) details that by 1908 there was a substantial body of research material to draw on supportive of this notion, and argues that Grainger's observations, although thorough in their notation and analysis, formed a relatively small base of research in context of the wider folk song movement.

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