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. [Read more…]