Cecil Sharp had been collecting English folk songs in earnest since 1903. By 1909 his collecting activities in Somerset had resulted in the publication of five volumes of songs from that area, including 130 songs (a small fraction of his total yield). While he was by no means the first person to go around collecting English folk songs, he was certainly the catalyst for an incredibly fruitful period of collecting in the 1900s.
While thousands of songs from across England were collected during this period, for Cecil Sharp the job was far from over.
“The effort that has been made to collect and preserve in permanent form the folk-songs of England … has resulted in the salvage of many thousands of beautiful songs. It was pardonable, therefore, if those who, like myself, had assisted in the task had come to believe that the major part of the work had been completed. … [I]n arriving at this very consolatory conclusion, one important, albeit not very obvious consideration had been overlooked, namely, the possibility that one or other of those English communities that lie scattered in various parts of the world might yet provide as good a field for the collector as England itself, and yield as bountiful and rich a harvest.”
Cecil Sharp, 1917
The chain of events which led to Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles travelling through the Appalachian Mountains started with a visit from Mrs Olive Dame Campbell. He was staying at the time with Mrs Helen Storrow in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and currently suffering from a miserable case of lumbago. His interest was piqued however by Mrs Campbell’s tales of the singers she had come across in the Appalachians. She had noted down some of their songs, and was seeking to enlist Sharp’s help to collect more.
Cecil Sharp House Choir performing The False Knight on the Road, as collected by Cecil Sharp from Mrs T.G. Coates at Flag Pond, Tennessee in 1916. The Choir are performing at Cecil Sharp House on 14 July.
Being the man he was, Sharp couldn’t resist. The hope was to not to explore American folk song, but to recover English songs which may have crossed the Atlantic with English settlers many years earlier. Upon arriving in the mountain communities, he found himself surrounded by what appeared to be time-travellers from a distant English past.
“The present inhabitants of the Lauren County are the direct descendants of the original settlers who were emigrants from England and, I suspect, the lowlands of Scotland. … Their speech is English, not American, and, from the number of expressions they use which have long been obsolete elsewhere, and the old-fashioned way in which they pronounce many of their words, it is clear that they are talking the language of a past day, though exactly of what period I am not competent to decide.”
Cecil Sharp, 1917
The tales of the journeys Sharp took over the years that followed is too long to retell here. Brian Peters’ multimedia show Sharp’s Appalachian Harvest is a great way to learn more – see it at Cecil Sharp House on 15 July. Sharp’s diaries from that period are also available to read in full at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website.
A map of Sharp’s travels, taken from 'English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachians'.
Further discussion about Sharp’s findings will take place in our Appalachian Conference on 16 July, a day comprising of presentations, discussion and performances around Sharp’s Appalachian adventures.