Here in the autumn of 2021, we are having discussions about how we should address issues of inclusion and discrimination and, in particular, how we should present the image and heritage of Cecil J. Sharp. When I first heard of him, when at the age of twenty-one I attended the Berea College Christmas School run by May Gadd, Sharp’s disciple and Elsie J. Oxenham’s “Little Robin,” we were taught to revere Sharp: why, he single-handedly saved English folk song and dance! Since then more information about his collecting practices has come to light and the academy has found him wanting in many regards: he was domineering, autocratic and inflexible; he was highly selective about his sources, in particular ignoring any Black singers in his collecting trips in Appalachia; he bowdlerized the words of songs, standardized their tunes to his taste; he was mistaken about many of his assertions as the origins and development of various dance forms and ignored those (like clog morris or step-dancing in general) that he felt were “degenerate” or “modern,” and so on. Yet he was amazingly hard-working and incredibly influential and successful in getting English folk song and dance into the school curriculum and therefore more generally into English and, to a lesser extent, American middle-class culture. It’s complicated!
It’s complicated and also I’m burying the lead. You might wonder why the image at the top of the page is not of Sharp or of Lucas but of Gustav Klimt’s famous painting The Kiss. It will all make sense—at least I hope it will!—by the time you reach the end of this essay.
Elsie J. Oxenham was not the only of Cecil Sharp’s contemporaries to capture him in print. In 1912 the wildly prolific humorist, essayist, poet, and playwright Edward Verrall Lucas (1868-1938) published a book titled London Lavender that contains three episodes that describe the working methods of “The Director,” as he titled him. (Sharp’s and Herbert MacIlwaine’s work, The Morris Book a History of Morris Dancing, With a Description of Eleven Dances as Performed by the Morris-Men of England was published in 1907, and in September 1909 Sharp was appointed Director of the School of Morris Dancing based at the South West Polytechnic Institute at Chelsea. In light of this appointment, it is worth noting that Sharp’s contribution to the 1907 work was the notation of the tunes; it was MacIlwaine (associated with the Espérance Society) who had notated the dances. And yet here Sharp was two years later running a dance school! Sharp was a canny and rapid appropriator.)
The vignettes shed light on Sharp’s methods and activities but perhaps even more importantly they convey how eagerly the intelligentsia like Lucas—nine years Sharp’s junior—received his theories, writings and lectures, for we tend to forget that Sharp gave popular lectures on folk music and dance. Folk was Big News in those pre-war years.
The interest in folk song, dance, and customs so strong at the time because of the confluence of several inter-connected strains of thought. One was an increased sense of nationalism—what was the nature of Englishness and how was it different from that of other nations, particularly the Germans (remember that Queen Victoria’s beloved Albert was German, and because of this many of the songs that English schoolchildren sang in the nineteenth century were German). Another was the popularity of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which gathered together many folk customs from many cultures and time periods around the world and conveyed a sense that they were all inter-connected in a mystical way. A third was the Merrie England movement (really a combination of the first two) which captured the popular imagination with tales of Robin and Marian and Little John in a golden era of vaguely Elizabethan prosperity. A fourth was that the incursion of railways in rural England since the mid-nineteenth century had brought many changes to hitherto quiet villages and caused many upper-class individuals—who found the railways convenient for conveying them to and from long country-house visits—to simultaneously deplore the dwindling of the quaint customs of yore as more English rural workers moved to cities or were otherwise affected by the incursion of “foreigners” (defined as anyone from more than five miles away). And, finally, there must have been a profound sense, at the turning of that last century, of the enormous changes in life between 1800 and 1900: a middle-aged writer like Lucas in the early 1900s would have been well aware that his grand-parents could not possibly have imagined what his life presently looked like (aeroplanes! gramophones!). The net effect of all of these strains of thought was to create a romantic and mystical view of the rural English “peasant” dancing around the maypole on the village green bathed in the golden haze of Merrie Olde England.
This Merrie England ideal was captured in many writers’ and artists’ works: Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) for example. And in the excerpt from Lucas’ work below we are going to see a reference to England’s “coloured counties” which is a phrase that comes from A. E. Housman’s pastoral poems collected in A Shropshire Lad (1896), which was a sleeper at first but then became wildly popular. The phrase appears in the poem “Bredon Hill.”
In summertime on Bredon
The bells they sound so clear;
Round both the shires they ring them
In steeples far and near,
A happy noise to hear.
Here of a Sunday morning
My love and I would lie,
And see the coloured counties,
And hear the larks so high
About us in the sky.
Both Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth (one of Sharp’s morris dancers who died at the front) set “Bredon Hill” to music.
E.V. Lucas was a wildly prolific writer who, as one commentator observed in the nineteen-forties, left no discernable mark on the literary world. Despite his enormous output of plays, poetry, light vignettes, travel observations and more, “he seems to have left no finger prints. Eminently readable, he is read without being remembered; unusually quotable, he was never quoted much and seems never to be quoted any more.” This is perhaps the most damning epitaph a writer could have! (For those of you reading the Angela Thirkell posts, which—and I apologize—have been slow in appearing, recall that Lucas is thought to be the model for the amusingly long-winded talker and writer George Knox.)
Lucas served for a time as Sharp’s assistant in the newly-formed English Folk Dance Society and his younger brother Perceval (1879-1916) was on Sharp’s first morris side (all composed of young middle-class men) and who was one of the four who died on the front in World War I. Sharp founded the English Folk Dance Society in December 1911 and Perceval edited the first two issues of its journal.
While London Lavender was published in 1912, one internal reference suggests that Lucas encountered Sharp earlier: that is the reference to “The Director”—as he terms Sharp; his real name is not mentioned—lecturing while being accompanied by a “troop of London girls.” Sharp’s involvement with and rapid falling out with Mary Neal and the Espérance Society has been well documented elsewhere (among other sources see Georgina Boyes’ The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival (1993). Sharp gave lectures illustrated by the singing and dancing of the Espérance girls from about 1907 to 1909, when he completely separated himself from that group. E.V. Lucas clearly encountered Sharp prior to that break-up of 1909.
London Lavender is a series of episodes or vignettes, loosely held together by the fiction of being written by a young, newly-married man. He has been educated to be a lawyer but is rich enough not to have to work, although his wife urges him to find something meaningful to do. Each chapter has a sub-head, which sets the tone for the vignettes.
I should add that the title London Lavender is certainly meant to invoke a feeling of freshness and sweet scents (and scenes). At the end of the book the Falconers have a baby girl, named Lavender: the name is the wife’s choice; Kent’s was Placida, which tells you a bit about the twee level of Lucas’s writing. The Director sends them “from his stores of melody” a lavender-seller’s cry—unfortunately, the notation of the several tunes included in this book are too small to reproduce well.
Chapter IV (pp. 23-29)
In which I am forbidden to be idle and therefore find congenial employment
Chance, as so often happens, took the matter into its hands and settled [the question of Kent Falconer, our narrator, finding a job]; for an evening or so later we met at a party a gentleman who had given his life to the search for, and reproduction of, old English songs and dances, several of which were rendered by a troop of London girls that he brought with him, and these melodies were so simple and fresh and charming that, although no musician, I was completely captured. In conversation with him afterwards, we learned that he was in need of assistance in forming and managing a society for the systematic encouragement and performance of these things, and at [my wife’s] suggestion I offered my services. So I am now an honorary secretary, one of those bustling diplomatic persons whom reporters always descry as courteous and indefatigable.
The duties connected with the launching of this Society, together with such desultory private work as it amuses me to do, ought to satisfy anyone. They convince me at any rate that no one is in such danger of overwork as that man of more or less amiable disposition who gives it out that he has retired.
I don’t pretend to understand the full value of folk-music or to w able to distinguish between the mixolydian and the dorian mode, and so forth; but I do know this, that there are no sweeter songs for young voices, or merrier and more innocent measures for young feet, and that the more we can catch of the spirit of the early days when English music had these pure and happy characteristics the better for all of us.
A very little music is ordinarily enough for me; and though I do not say that an evening at the Opera, especially when the Russians are dancing [Sergei Diaghilev founded the Ballets Russes in 1909 in Paris; they must have toured in London at some point], or an afternoon at Queen’s Hall now and then, is not very welcome, I would not too often be found at either. Sophisticated self-conscious music makes me too old, and the world too old, and its enigmas too difficult, and all that is best too fugitive. But these ancient English songs of an unthinking peasantry do not trouble the waters; they make for joy.
It seems to me that essential melody never reached a more exquisite purity than in “Mowing the Barley,” and I often wonder what Society would say if, without any warning, when they were all securely in their seats at the Opera, in their best clothes, and had finished ascertaining who their immediate neighbours were, and who occupied the boxes, the curtain rose, not upon the voluptuous passion of La Bohème, or the civilized ache of Louise, or the barbaric excesses of Scheherazade, but upon a company of youths and children and maidens singing this lovely song. After the first shock of surprise, anxious searching of influential countenances and bewildered references to the programme, might they not settle down to the profoundest content? And as song gave way to dance, and dance to song—“Blow away the Morning Dew” to “Laudnum Bunches,” and “Dargason” to “The Keys of Heaven,” and “I’m Seventeen come Sunday” to “Lord Rendal”—might they not experience a feeling wholly new in that building and wholly pleasurable? For there is nothing like a plunge into the simple life now and then.
—Here I make an important interjection about the two operas and the ballet that Lucas references here: La Bohème (premiered in Italy in 1896) is about a girl with at least two lovers who dies of consumption in a garret); Louise by Gustave Charpentier is an opera about a seamstress in Paris who leaves her parents for her lover and the freedom of life in the bohemian city itself; these are young women Who Are No Better Than They Should Be. But the third reference takes us down an even more shocking path.
Scherazade had its premiere by the Ballets Russes in Paris in June 1910. With choreography and story by Michel Fokine and costumes and design by Leon Bakst, it was an exotic, orgiastic Arabian nights fantasy ballet. In it, the Shah’s brother convinces him that his chief wife is unfaithful; he proposes that the brothers pretend to go off hunting and see what happens. As soon as they depart, the wife and concubines open the door to the male slaves’ quarters and the wife dances with the Golden Slave, portrayed by Vaslav Nijinsky. In the midst of the orgy, the Shah and his soldiers burst back in and slay everyone except the wife, who kills herself. There is no footage of the Ballets Russes performing (Diaghilev was adamantly opposed to film), but you can see a lush interpretation of it here and I really urge you to watch it—while I was familiar with the music I had never seen the ballet and I actually found it a bit shocking, even now. It must have been really shocking then. If you add to this ballet The Rite of Spring (1913), with music by Stravinsky and choreography by Nijinsky you will be even more shocked. Please check these out—even if you slide your cursor along every few minutes. And for more exoticism, check out The Afternoon of a Faun, again with choreography by Nijinsky—danced here by Rudolf Nureyev. These are the kinds of ballets that conservative husbands and fathers would not have permitted their wives and daughters to see. These colorful, exotic, sexual, even barbaric (as the English would have put it) creations out of the East were competing against the romantic “colored counties” Englishness that Sharp was countering with—whether he did it knowingly or not. His youths and maidens singing Mowing the Barley in unison (actually a song that I find in questionable taste by today’s standards) were going toe to toe against Klimt’s The Kiss (1907), Poiret’s Orientalist fashion designs, Stravinsky’s music, the exoticism of the Ballets Russes and more.
So while Sharp certainly had an agenda in which he firmly believed—that of saving English song and dance—one can also view him in light of someone providing entertainment in the London scene, competing for ticket sales against the music halls with jokes about twins and bottles of beer, the revues with their beautiful chorus girls, Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, the regular opera and symphony, the avant-garde Russian ballet, the Christmas pantomimes for the kiddies, the standard theater, and so on. And he had competitors, not just Mary Neal, but others who reconstructed old dances, such as Nellie Chaplin and other members of what Sharp’s successor would later caustically call the “Airs and Graces” school of dance. All these factors help to explain his rules about the “gay simplicity” of the dance and song as well as his desire to dominate the scene. I find it helpful in thinking about him to realize the context of his environment and who and what he was competing against for intellectual and even monetary bandwidth.
Now, back to Mr. Lucas. —
And yet—I don’t know. It might be dangerous. These songs are too fascinating: Mayfair would be decimated. There is one of them so infectious in its melody, so irresistible in its appeal, that it should be rightly excluded from the programme. The Italian’s La Bohème, which sets so many of our stately dames in a quiver, is quite safe compared with this concise English treatment of the same theme. For “The Wraggle Taggle Gipsies” has the very seeds of revolt and escape in it. Here is the first verse:
Then she pulled off her silk finished gown
And put on hose of leather, O!
The ragged, ragged rags about our door—
She’s gone with the wraggle taggle gipsies, O.
It was late last night, when my lord came home,
Inquiring for his a-lady, O!
The servants said, on every hand:
“She’s gone with the wraggle taggle gipsies, O.”
There’s a new version of La Bohème for you, and no less provocative! I do not hear Caruso in it; but Caruso is not all.
His lordship at last overtakes the rebel:
“What makes you leave your house and land?
What makes you leave your money, O?
What makes you leave your new wedded lord,
To go with the wraggle taggle gipsies, O?”
And wat says she? She has heard the call of the road:
“What care I for my house and my land?
What care I for my money, O?
What care I for my new wedded lord?
I’m off with the wraggle taggle gipsies, O.”
—Here I have to say that I am perplexed: I don’t see the parallels between a woman leaving her husband for the “call of the road” in the song—in some versions it is clear that she is actually enamored of a gipsy man—with the plot of La Bohème, which is about unmarried lovers in Paris, where the heroine leaves her lover to become a richer man’s mistress until he rejects her because she has consumption. But Lucas seems to have been a writer who gushed and perhaps didn’t think everything through. Here he is pitting the English song against Puccini’s acclaimed Italian opera: it is a nationalistic thought, not necessarily a musical one.—
For the most part, however, these old English songs which we want to see popularized are less intoxicating. Their tunes are not those of the pied piper who would upset the family, but more serene and sweet, like the music of birds by a running stream. And the words are emotion remembered in tranquility This exquisite “Mowing the Barley,” for example is as artless a love-ballad was ever was written, in which the least romantic character in English life is transfigured into a hero. A lawyer, in short. I wonder that in the Temple they ever sing anything else, so proud should this ditty make them. It begins [Lucas had music here, but it doesn’t reproduce well]:
A lawyer he went out one day
A-fore to take his pleasure
And who should he spy but some fair pretty maid,
So handsome and so clever!
Where are you going to, my pretty maid?
Where are you going my honey?
Going over the hills, kind sir, she said,
To my father a-mowing the barley.
Rhymes, you see, don’t matter much in our kind of song. We hate pedantry; and we hate everything that sets up the slightest obstacle between the singer and the listener.—
—This is pure Sharp! As part of his distancing from Neal, whose Espérance dancers wore little milkmaid caps and gowns, and from other historical dance reconstructors whose performers wore Tudor or Jacobean gowns, pointed their toes, and adopted dainty “attitudes,” he insisted on no costumes, no variations in performance, and no frills of any sort.—
The lawyer said no more that day, but the next he rode forth again, and though at first she gave him the slip (for she thought him like all lawyers, true to type) he
Caught her round the middle so small,
And on his horse he placed her.
The legal courting then began
“Hold up your cheeks, my fair pretty maid,
Hold up your cheeks, my honey,
That I may give you a fair pretty kiss,
And a handful of golden money.”
The fair pretty maid at first refused, for she suspected the honesty of his intentions but after he had talked a little more, and more ardently,
She quite forgot the barley field,
And left her father a-mowing.
And now—the end is perfect—
And now she is the Lawyer’s wife,
And dearly the Lawyer loves her;
They live in a happy content of life,
And well in the station above her.
No one who has ever heard a company of fresh young voices lilting out this beautiful piece of rural idealism—for I take it that it is no small thing for a country girl to catch a lawyer, that terrible person who knows everyone’s business and arranges for distraints and evictions as well as the making of wills and the lending of money—has ever known music at its very spring.
Such is “Mowing the Barley,” which I always think our best song, but there is not one of the many hundreds which our indefatigable Director has collected and scored that has not a certain charm. And you can understand that I am proud to be able to help him in his organized effort to find still more, with new dances too, wherever they are still remembered, and to get enthusiasts to sing and dance them.
Chapter XVIII (pp. 139-150, passim)
In which Sussex voices are raised in melody, Uncle Jonah gives his memory play, and we meet a Napoleonic Quaker
We have just been down into Sussex to get some songs of which word had reached the Director, whose passion is the search for these ancient melodies. Were others hunt hares or foxes, he pursues the elusive ditty. Village after village he draws blank, without ever losing heart, and then is rewarded by hearing at last of some old gaffer to be met with at the Red Lion or Blue Boar or King’s Head, no matter how far away, who once sang a rare good song and can still quaver out the ghost of it. Then the Director rises to his greatest heights, for although deep potations and himself are at enmity, yet in the interests of England and music he has had (to allay suspicion) to consume much ale and stand ever so much more before the melodist was ready to begin.
Of course, not all his singers are in inns; he has found many in cottages, too; but the village public-house naturally remains the happiest hunting-ground.
On this occasion we were bound for a private house to which the singer had been bidden. The party consisted of the Director of course with his little musical notebook, [my wife] and I. My duty was to take down the words, a far more difficult task, as I have pointed out again and again, than to get he music, because all the words are different, whereas, the tune is the same all through. An added difficulty for the word-transcriber is the fact that old Sussex labourers have few or no teeth, and Heaven alone knows what sometimes they sing: certainly they themselves do not.
We were driven from the station in the dark to a rambling house under the hills, and having dined were led to another room in which three elderly brothers were seated and one brother’s wife. Two were shepherds, one of whom—Uncle Jonah—still retained the round, or smock, frock. This one, I am pleased to record, could not read, nor could his younger brother, the married one, but the elder brother and the younger brother’s wife were “scholards.” The elder brother was the chief singer, and while the others played a little at backwardness, he was always ready with whatever song he could remember: a tall man about sixty-seven, with a ruddy, rather mischievous face fringed with whiskers, and a gentle sly humour. He and the shepherd were the pick; the younger brother was slower and more stolid.
It wa a successful evening in that it yielded six or seven songs that the Director had not heard before, although the quality, he said, was not equal to that of the West Country. Why, when we all equally have the gift of speech, there is this capriciousness in the bestowal of the gift of song, is a problem and anomaly that have always perplexed and irritate me. Why should one human throat be melodious, ad another—my own, for example—emit nothing but dissonance? Again, why should one human creature with a voice be willing to use it, and another hid the gift under a bushel of self-consciousness? But the Director has a way with the shy that sooner or later prevails. He too begins to sing, and by-and-bye the shy enter in, and then gradually the Director drops out and the shy sing on alone and never falter again.
If the Director’s methods were bewildering to me, what must they have been to these simple folk? For he takes out pencil and his little notebook ruled with staves, and the instant the singer has done he can go to the piano and play the song word for word, with all its peculiarities of movement, its hurryings and pauses, its unexpected cadences, its curious melancholy. Magic, surely! I can just begin to understand shorthand, but not this mystery. During the first verse he sits intent, with his pencil poised over the paper, waiting to strike During the second verse he is recording all the time. During the third he makes little refining touches, and the tune is complete.
The words, taken separately, were my department. The words of folk-songs without music are always far enough removed from the melody, but the ditty which I copy here, which we may call “Winter’s Signs,” is, I think the farthest removed of all, although as a piece of bleak impressionism it is good: indeed, rather like an etching; and yet, as sung by the is old man, with his soft musical quavers, it was not only beautiful but hauntingly so. The words are exactly as he had them, all unconscious that they made contradictions and have neither scansion nor rhyme. Here they are:
The trees they’re all bare, not one leaf to be seen,
The meadows their beauty’s all gone.
And as for the leaves, they’re falling from the trees
And the streams they were—and the streams they were—fast bound by the frost.
In the yards where the oxen all foddered with straw .
Send forth their breath like a stream,
The sweet-looking milkmaid she finds she must go;
Flakes of ice finds she—flakes of ice finds she—on her cream.
The poor little small birds to the barn doors fly for food,
Silent they rest on the spray,
The poor innocent sheep from the Downs until the fold
With their fleeces all—with their fleeces all—covered with snow.
The poor little pigeon all shivering with cold,
So loud the north winds to blow;
The poor tiny hares search the woods all for their food
Unless their footsteps their—unless their footsteps their—innocence betray.
Now Christmas is gone my song is almost sung
Soon will come the springtime of the year,
Come unto me the glass and let your health go round
And we wish you a –and we wish you a—happy New Year.
That, as I have said, is poor stuff, although it successfully carries its wintry feeling; but now try it with the music. [You can hear a version here, but this is not the tune as Lucas’ recorded it from Sharp.]
I assure you that the old man’s gentle caressing voice when singing about the poor little pigeon, the poor innocent sheep, and the poor tiny hares, made the situation absolutely poignant.
One other of the songs I am tempted to reproduce: this also with an innocent hare. It is a hunting song. There is something rather pretty about the willingness of the poor to sing hunting-songs—to praise a sport which exists wholly for their masters and in which they cannot participate. At the most they see the horsemen and hounds go by and hear the horn and the shouts; even the hare falls to the pack. But the English peasant is not envious. He accepts his lot quite simply and naturally, and after a long day’s work in the fields and the rain, for insufficient shillings to add meat to the family table, is quite cheerfully ready to lift up his voice in praise of the sport which his roystering master has been enjoying. So let it be: I am merely recording the fact.
Here is the merriest and most tuneful of the hunting-songs.
Our horses go galloping over the ground,
Go breathing all after the torturing hound.
Such a game she has led us four hours or more,
Such a game she has led us four hours or more.
Follow, follow the musical horn,
Sing follow, hark follow, the innocent hare.
Our huntsman blows the joyful sound,
See how he scours over the ground.
Our hare’s a sinking, see how she creeps,
Our hare’s a sinking, see how she creeps.
Follow, follow the musical horn,
Sing follow, hark follow, the innocent hare.
All on the green turf she pants for breath,
Our huntsman shouts out for death.
Hullo, hullo we’ve tired our hare,
Hullo, hullo we’ve tired our hare.
Wine and beer we’ll drink without fear,
We’ll drink success to the innocent hare.
The last line has an irony which no one seemed to see.
I must confess that a whole evening of song is to me full measure, and I took all the opportunities I could of getting Uncle Jonah, the voiceless shepherd in the smock, to talk of old times; but always with the fear of the Director very lively in me. For anecdotage is nothing to him. His purpose in life is to fill blank bars with little magical dots; for this and this only does he scour the coloured counties. All conversation is therefore an interruption, if not a misdemeanor. But when the singers, having sung all that the Director did not know, began to respond with songs that he did, I openly drew Uncle Jonah aside and filled again his glass and made certain masonic signs to indicate that though no doubt the Director was a worthy and even gifted man, here was one who sympathized with those who had no music in them, but preferred character and comedy in the blessed spoken word.
. . . . We did not break up until after midnight. To me the evening harvest of song seemed to be rather notable; but the Director knew better. Sussex is not a distinguished singing country, he explained Somerset is the happiest hunting-ground. There they sing sweetest and have the best songs. By the time a good song reaches Sussex it is debased. Sussex has no style. But Somerset is full of style. This, surely, is very odd, and the Director offers no theories to explain it. He would like to, but he cannot; he is not a sociologist, he says, or an ethnologist, or a psychologist; he is merely a collector and preserver of the best old English songs that he has the fortune to hear. Well, I would rather be that than an “ist” of any caliber, I consider him to have done and to be doing one of the finest things any Englishman has ever done: a piece of the most exquisite patriotism; and I am proud to be of assistance in the cause.
Chapter XXVIII (pp. 220-224)
In which we lose a few centuries and find a living picture by Sir David Wilkie. [Wilkie was a Scottish painter of the early 19th century who specialized in genre scenes like this one titled The Penny Wedding.]
The Director in his search for primitive English music had tidings of two old Morris dancers in an Oxfordshire village, survivals from the past when the whole of that county fostered the art, and he took me to see them. Never have I spent a more curious evening.
We left the train at Bicester late on a golden afternoon, and were driven to a little hamlet a few miles distant where the old fellows lived. They were brothers: one a widower of seventy, still lissom, and the other a bachelor of sixty-seven, bent and stiff; and with them when we arrived was another elderly man, a little their junior, blowing and beating away at his pipe and tabor as though dear life depended upon it.
Unfamiliar music these ancient instruments give forth, and I defy anyone hearing it to keep his feet still. The are not the drum and fife by any means, although those are the nearest thing to them today, nor are they like the old magic drum and pipes of the “Punch and Judy” man (never to be heard again, alas, with a beating heart); but something between the two, with a suggestion of rollick or even madness added. I heard the sounds while we were still approaching the cottage and had no notion what they were; and the strangeness of their melody was increased by the player’s total disregard of our entry, although it was a tune that might have ended anywhere. The pipe and tabor have now passed into the limbo of musical archaism, but it was absurd to allow them to do so. There are certain effects on the stage that no other instruments could so well achieve, and their invitation to the dance is in a simpler way not less commanding than Weber’s.
The old fellow played both instruments simultaneously; his left hand at once fingering the three holes of the pipe and supporting the string to which the tabor was suspended, while his right held the little stick with which he unceasingly beat it. For the twain are never separated.
Upon his stopping at last—and I for one could have heard him, uninterfering, for hours—we had a little talk as to his repertory and so forth, until, having changed their boots, the venerable capering brethren were ready. The elder one, Eli, was bright of eye and still very light on his feet; but the younger, Jack, creaked a little. Eli had a gentle smile ever on his curved lips, and as he danced his eyes looked into the past; Jack kept a fixed unseeing gaze on the musician. Together, or alone, they went through several of the old favourites—“Shepherds, Hey,” “Maid of the Mill,” “Old Mother Oxford,” “Step back,” “Lumps of Plum-pudding,” “Green Garters”—and it was strange to sit in that little, flagged Oxfordshire kitchen, with its low ceiling and smoky walls, and watch these simple movements and hear those old tunes. More than strange; for as they continued, and the pipe and tabor continued, I became conscious of a new feeling. For the Morris dance is like nothing else. It is as different from the old English dance as that is different from the steps of the corps de ballet. It is the simplest thing there is, the most naïve. Or, if you are in that mood, it is the most stupid; jigging rather than dancing, and very monotonous. But after a little while it begins to cast its spell, in which monotony plays no small part, and one comes in time to hope that nothing will ever happen to interrupt it and force one back into real life again.
The feeling became positively uncanny when old Jack, the bent one, jigging alone, still with his eyes fixed on the musician, but seeing nothing nearer than 1870, began to touch his body here and there in the course of the movements of the dance, every touch having a profound mystical meaning, of which he knew nothing, that probably dated from remotest times, when these very steps were part of a religious or ecstatic celebration of fecundity. Odd sight for a party of twentieth century dilettanti in an Oxfordshire kitchen!
The occasion was not only curious but pathetic too; one saw after a while not these dancers, so old and past the joy of life, but the dancers as once they were, when, forty years ago, they would set out in a team every Whitsuntide, six in all, to dance the Morris in other villages, and sleep in a barn all so jolly, and drink the good ale provided by the farmers, and each strive to be the most agile and untiring for the sake of a pair of pretty Oxfordshire eyes.
Forty years ago!
Asked if there were any others who still remembered the steps, they said no. “We be the last, us be,” said Eli, in his soft, melancholy voice. “All the others be dead.”
The brothers described, each fortifying the other and helped by the promptings and leading questions of the Director, the ritual of the Morris as they remembered it. A lamb would be led about by a shepherd, and behind this lamb they danced. At night the lamb was killed and the joints distributed. Most was eaten, but portions were buried in the fields. Why, the old men had no notion; they had never heard. But the Director knew, although he did not explain.
For upwards of an hour these energetic enthusiasts continued to dance, sometimes without a hitch, and then again with hesitations and arguments as to the next step or movement. What thoughts were theirs, I wondered. Since he had last danced Eli had married, had had children, had seen his children grow up and his wife die. Yet I am certain that as he skipped and capered on those flagstones in the cottage where he was born, his personality was that rather of a young man than an old. And then the music stopped and he ceased to wave his handkerchief and spring from foot to foot, and he sank into a chair and the light left his face and wistful old age settled over it again.
I congratulated him on his sprightliness, and again asked his age, to make sure.
“Seventy,” he said. “I shall be seventy-one in July if I live. If I live,” he added after a while.
“Of course you’ll live,” I said. “You’re good for many years yet and many more dances.”
He shook his head.
That he thinks of his end a good deal, I am sure; but never morbidly, or with any affectation of sadness, but with the peasant’s quiet acceptance of the fact. All his life he has been a tiller of the soil: the same soil, year after year turning it afresh, sowing it afresh, gathering the harvest afresh, and then beginning all over again—the best school for patience and acceptivity.
And so, after some ale had been brought, we said good-night and drove away. For Oxford and London again, or, in other words, for the twentieth century.
And that episode concludes Lucas’ observations on Cecil Sharp.
It is difficult to over-estimate the romanticism of the early days of the folk movement. Lucas’ writing gives us some of it, but turning to Sharp’s own words we see it even more strongly. Here’s what Sharp and Herbert MacIlwaine wrote in their 1909 book on the Morris Dance—it is an example of the romantic and nationalistic interpretation so common to the period.
The Morris Dance is essentially a manifestation of vigour rather than of grace. This is probably true of all country dances: it is pre-eminently true of the Morris dance. It is, in spirit, the organized, traditional expression of virility, sound health and animal spirits. It smacks of cudgel-play, of quarter-staff, of wrestling, of honest fisticuffs. There is nothing sinuous in it, nothing dreamy; nothing whatever is left to the imagination. It is a formula based upon and arising out of the life of man, as it is lived by men who hold much speculation upon the mystery of our whence and whither to be unprofitable; by men of meagre fancy, but of great kindness to the weak; by men who fight their quarrels on the spot with naked hands, drink together when the fight is done, and forget it, or, if they remember, then the memory is a friendly one. It is the dance of folk who are slow to anger, but of great obstinancy—forthright of act and speech: to watch it in its thumping sturdiness is to hold such things as poinards [sic] and stilettos, the swordsman with the domino, the man who stabs in the back—as unimaginable things.
The Morris dance, in short, is a perfect expression in rhythm and movement of the English character.
You can hear a lot of Sharp’s ideas in Lucas’s words, reminding us that not only was Sharp apparently a mesmerizing speaker, but that he was conveying his romantic philosophy to middle-class intelligentsia who wanted to hear his reactionary principles. The tenets of his philosophy are:
- With the advent of modernization, industry, and compulsory education, the sweet old English rural life is vanishing as the old people die off. There is a sense of urgency.
- Old English peasants preserve, like flies in amber, old songs and dances that are quintessentially English—no other nation has them.
- These songs and, particularly, the morris dances and their attendant customs (and here Sharp was focused entirely on the morris of the Cotswold region) preserve strange, ancient relics of pagan practices—proper, English pagans, one assumes.
- These country peasants have no notion of what any of the words or dance movements mean; they are so simple and so uneducated that they sing and dance as unthinkingly as a bird does; only the Director knows and he won’t tell them as they wouldn’t understand it. Papa knows best.
- The rural poor peasant may be purer in nature from being close to the soil, but he needs to have a master who is an educated gentleman.
- There is a hierarchy of excellence to debasement (steep stairs!) in folk song and dance and only the Director can make the distinctions.
- It is patriotic to engage in folk dancing and singing.
As Boyes points out in The Imagined Village, Sharp and his peers and disciples had little interest in the “folks” that they collected songs and dances from, as opposed to the Folk that they represented: there is no sense of the nature or type of person who “owned” the song or dance and how he or she and it were connected to community life or to any material advantage (status, money) that the ownership gave them. In fact, as she convincingly observes, the prevailing view was that the Folk were actually unworthy of the pearls that they had unconsciously preserved for the sake of the nation.
Today we deplore these beliefs but remember that our eyes see through lenses colored by two world wars and enormous changes in society with regard to individuals and society, of agency, of ownership of culture, and even of the concept of nationalism. A few paragraphs back I wrote that Sharp must have been a mesmerizing speaker, and here I reiterate that his ideas were very attractive to others of his age, gender, and class, which contributed to his popularity. His were not revolutionary ideas—they were ones that reinforced the social model in which the white, English gentleman stood at the pinnacle of the pyramid. Rural is better than city. The poor, simple peasant is wise and slow, kind and quintessentially English—but he needs to have a master and accepts that master willingly. Time is running out! We must capture our Englishness and give it back to our children.
Well, that’s what Cecil Sharp thought and preached. And many listened and believed!