Cecil Sharp
by Dr. John M. Ramsay

[On November 13, 2009, the St. Louis English Country Dancers hosted a tribute to Cecil Sharp, marking the 150th anniversary of his birth. For the occasion, we asked Dr. John Ramsay, longtime dance leader at Berea College, who had learned his dancing from Sharp's associates, to talk briefly about Sharp and his work. With his permission, we've reprinted his remarks. Enjoy! - PJS]

Cecil Sharp is the reason we are here! He saved English songs, tunes, and dances from extinction. In the late nineteenth century, Germany was considered to be the center of the world of music. New attention was being paid to German folk music as worthy of investigation, use, and promotion. Sharp wondered if there weren’t also worthwhile English folk songs and began collecting them. As a music teacher and publisher, he sanitized the lyrics of the songs for use in public schools which were starting to provide education for common people in this Victorian era. However, his field notes give the original, often bawdy, lyrics.

On Boxing Day in 1899, Sharp saw his first morris dance. It was by the Headington Quarry morris team, out to earn some money during those difficult years, even though morris dancing was traditionally on tour only at Whitsuntide. This event set Sharp in search of other forms of English dance, both social and ritual. Those of us who followed were likely to be interested in morris, sword, and Playford, as well as traditional English folk dances which can also be termed contra dances.

With the outbreak of World War I, Sharp found it difficult to support himself in Britain and came to America as dance advisor for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After the production he spent some time in Boston at the home of Mrs. J. J. Storrow. There he met Olive Dame Campbell with her collection of ballads set down from the oral traditions in Appalachia.  He eventually toured Appalachia to mine a mother lode of early British culture. While at the Pine Mountain Settlement School in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, he was treated to a set of dances. One of my friends and associates, May Ritchie Deschamps, was one of the student dancers. Here is her description of the event (from a letter she wrote to Peter Rogers, son of a Director of the School):

"...Mr Sharp stayed at Farm House with Mr Zande. As I remember going to that house to sing for him my version of Pretty Polly, Sourwood Mountain, John Riley, Jackarow, etc.

Their evenings were spent on the porch where he discussed ballads & dances of the Old English kind and he was a very interesting person & so full (of) enthusiasm about publishing his ballad books.  When Jean, my sister [May was the oldest of 14 children and Jean was the youngest], was making a study in England she found my name mentioned in one of his books.

One evening, Miss de Long invited our best set running people to come by Farm House to run sets for Mr Sharp. He was quite surprised and very delighted. We did them on the front porch as I can remember Mr Sharp sitting in the door to the living room looking out on us as we ran the set for him. ...we had only someone clapping hands & no music. It was a beautiful moon light night and only dim oil lamps burning in the living room -- that was before we got electricity.  He raved & raved over the dances and thanked all many times for a wonderful delightful evening.

In those days we never spoke of them as dances -- always the running of sets. I wish I could name all the people who ran the sets that night. Emily Hill Creech, Bertha Sizemore, Maude and Maggie Baker from Wooten Creek. Burchel & Chester Wooten to name a few."

This gives you some idea of how Sharp saved many songs, music and dances from being forgotten.

You can find Sharp's notation of Kentucky Set Running in Country Dance Book V from your library. Or you can purchase his dance books from the Country Dance & Song Society (http://www.cdss.org/). CDSS also will have Pat Napier's booklet describing the figures and calls for the dance.

Four of my English Country Dance teachers learned their dancing directly from Cecil Sharp: Frank (Francis Hartley) Smith, Berea, KY; May Gadd, on Sharp’s English team and first Director of CDSS; Marguerite Butler Bidstrup, co-founder with Olive Dame Campbell of the John C. Campbell Folk School; and Bicky (Beatrice) Kane McLain, grandmother of the McLain Family Band.

Cecil Sharp was brought to St Louis in March/April 1916 at the urging of the Ethical Society to prepare a pre-show extravaganza of dances for a production of As You Like It. Sharp trained hundreds of locals to do morris and sword dances, a processional, and a series of country dances including Gathering Peascods, Sellengers Round, Rufty Tufty, and the Black Nag. Following the grand success of the 1904 World Fair in Forest Park, the St Louis Pageant Drama Association had formed to sponsor summer shows in the Park. Most were held at Art Hill, but this year the leaders decided to find a more suitable location in the Park. They chose a natural amphitheater with a stage set between two large trees. Although the production was rained out the first night, it was a rousing success and by the following summer a permanent stage had been built and became The Muny, the nation’s oldest and largest outdoor theater.

For more information about Sharp, start with this website:


                                                                                - John M. Ramsay, 16 November, 2009

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© 2009 by John M. Ramsay. Used by permission.