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,