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Cecil J. Sharp (1859-1924)

Cecil James Sharp (22 November 1859 – 23 June 1924) was the founding father of the folklore revival in England in the early 20th century, and many of England's traditional dances and music owe their continuing existence to his work in recording and publishing them. He also collected folk songs from the Appalachians in America. The English Folk Dance and Song Society is today based at Cecil Sharp House in London.

Most extracts below are from 'Cecil Sharp - his life and work' by Maud Karpeles (his former assistant), 1967 - with notes about the original 1933 edition by A.H. Fox-Strangways and Maud Karpeles. Some details are from other sources:

Sharp was at Clare College, Cambridge, 1879-1882, one of his past friends there wrote to Fox-Strangways, including:

"He was almost as enthusiastic about his mathematics as about Wagner, the new and enormous star on the heavens of music. Much did he discourse on these subjects."

Wagner - promoted vegetarianism

In October 1880 Wagner (image right) devoted an entire issue of his Bayreuth Blatter to his promotion of vegetarianism, and an extraordinary number of people became vegetarian simply because he said they should. It seems likely that the Wagner fans at Cambridge would have been aware of this, though we have no evidence that Sharp acted on it at that time.

Shortly after Sharp returned to London in 1882 Karpeles tells us:

Another friend at this period was Dr. James Kingston Barton; Cecil, together with George Bernard Shaw, Charles Hayden Coffin and others, was a constant visitor at musical 'At Homes' in South Kensington.

George Bernard Shaw - vegetarian

GB Shaw (photo right) had become vegetarian in January 1881, and was never reticent in talking about it. He later said it was from reading Shelley in the British Museum reading room, but he too was a staunch Wagnerite, and must also have been aware of Wagner's pro-vegetarian publication. We still have no indication of whether Sharp had adopted vegetarianism at this time, but he clearly must have been very aware of it.

For ten years, from later in 1882 until 1892, Sharp was living mostly in Adelaide, Australia, with a couple of trips back to England. In his biography of the Australian composer Percy Grainger, John Bird says:

He [John Grainger, Percy's father] had started the first string quartet in Adelaide. By a strange coincidence, in 1883 the same string quartet, which by then had formed itself into a club, took on as its honorary director a twenty-four-year-old English immigrant by the name of Cecil Sharp - who on his return to England was to have such a profound and stimulating influence on the English folk-sing revival in which Percy Grainger was to play an important part.

However, by 1883, the Graingers were living in Melbourne, Percy was born there in 1882. Percy's mother's family remained in Adelaide so they probably visited, but we have no indication of whether Sharp actually met the Graingers at this time. (Karpeles/Strangway make no mention of Grainger's father).

G B Shaw noted in his diary, March 12, 1892: "Sunday. After dinner I went to FE. Met Cecil Sharp on the way there. I had not seen him since he used to be at Barton's on Saturday evenings years ago."

Around that time, 1892, Sharp took rooms in Langham Street, London, where Karpeles says: "His large room was the scene of many lectures on music which he gave at that time. As with most young musicians of his day, Wagner was his god. He preached him in and out of season and his voluble enthusiasm brought him many willing listeners." Wagner's promotion of vegetarianism was well known by this time and must have come up in discussions.

Karpeles again: "He found his greatest satisfaction in musical composition. He struggled to get his works known and received some encouragement. He confides in his friend Mrs. Howard:

The musical went off very well on Saturday. Bispham sang my song beautifully and Shakespeare accompanied it . . . before a critical audience [including Fanny Davies and Leonard Borwick]

The brackets seem to have been added by Karpeles without reference. Leonard Borwick was a vegetarian concert pianist who was given good reviews by GB Shaw in his music column for a London evening paper.

In August 1893 Sharp married Constance Birch in Somerset. Karpeles continues: "Their first child Dorothea Margaret Iseult - was born in September 1894 at Clevedon. Two years later came a son - Charles Tristan; and having paid his homage to Wagner, [ie: Tristan and Isold/Iseult] he called two more daughters Joan Audrey and Susannah Angel Birch respectively." Yet more total devotion to Wagner.

Karpeles again: "For a short time he delved into Christian Science, theosophy and spiritualism. He was a vegetarian for his health's sake, [this is the only mention of Sharp's vegetarianism in the entire book, emphasis added] and although in words he chaffed others with being 'carnivorous' as opposed to his own 'pure living', in deeds he was careful not to give trouble by his demands or discomfort or any implied criticism. Any display of singularity was displeasing to him; and he followed the conventions in behaviour as well as in appearance unless there was a very good reason for departing from them. 'It saves so much trouble,' he would say."

Here we begin to have problems with Ms. Karpeles' revised account from 1967. In the original 1933 edition Fox-Strangways, who was a friend for 22 years, clearly stated that Sharp was 'vegetarian by conviction' (p.202), which makes far more sense from everything else he was involved with. Theosophists were also vegetarian at that time. It appears that Ms. Karpeles was trying to dismiss his vegetarianism as a mere inconvenience for the sake of his health. Neither Fox-Strangways or Karpeles actually knew Sharp at this time and they give us no indication of when he became vegetarian. They imply the mid 1890s, but it may well have been at least on and off for a lot longer.

In 1900 Sharp joined the Fabian Society, also about 50% vegetarian, including their most famous member by this time, GB Shaw. Annie Besant had been an earlier member of the Fabians, before she left to take over leading the theosophists. Sharp's social world seems to have been totally immersed in vegetarianism and it was clearly an important part of his life - not that anyone would guess that from Ms. Karpeles' biography.

Karpeles goes on to give clear indications of Sharp's compassionate, anti-violence views: "a strong opponent of capital punishment" (unusual at that time), "He became immersed in Schopenhauer" etc. Schopenhauer was hugely influential on Wagner and his philosophy included strong compassion for animals. Biographies of almost all vegetarians at that time mention them reading Schopenhauer.

It seems to have been around 1900 that Fox-Strangways first met Sharp. Strangways says he was "working at Indian music, and I went to India the following year". He later produced some books on Indian music but we seem to have no indication of whether he was also interested in Indian vegetarianism, and whether this influenced his life-long friendship with Sharp. The combination seems likely and might also account for some of the unsympathetic revisions by Ms. Karpeles who seems to have clashed with Fox-Strangways.

Percy Grainger - vegetarian

By the early years of the 20th century Sharp had begun collecting folk songs from English villages, starting in Somerset where his wife's family lived. Ms. Karpeles notes that amongst others joining in the collecting was the composer Percy Grainger (photo right), now moved to England from Australia. Grainger later also became vegetarian and remained associated with Sharp, particularly through his 'Country Gardens' (1918) which was based on a folk tune Sharp had collected.

GB Shaw also kept in contact, Ms. Karpeles quotes part of a letter to Sharp around this time in which he asked "if the idea of a topical Beggar's Opera would interest him". In 1906 Shaw also got involved in a dispute about the difference between 'composed popular songs' and genuine 'folk songs' - the Board of Education had issued a book of the former, he responded in Punch magazine:

Why should the Board of Education go out of its way to affront that large and constantly increasing section of the community which has foresworn meat food by including that disgustingly carnivorous paean 'The Roast Beef of Old England'? (signed) G.B.S.

Gustav Holst - vegetarian

Over the next few years Cecil Sharp became actively involved in collecting folk dances, as well as songs. Ms Karpeles informs us about Sharp's connection with Gustav Holst (later composer of the Planet Suite - photo right), yet another Wagnerian Vegetarian friend of GB Shaw, not that she mentions any of that of course:

In July 1911, at the Festival of Empire held at the Crystal Palace, London, he [Sharp] gave a series of lectures and organised demonstrations of dances and singing games, the latter being performed by children from the Brompton Oratory School brought by Father Kerr. A suite of Morris Dances for military band was arranged especially for the occasion by Gustav Holst. This was by no means Holst's first arrangement of English folk music. Already in 1907 he had written the Somerset Rhapsody for orchestra based on tunes collected by Cecil Sharp, which had been written at Sharp's request and was dedicated to him; and in 1909 Holst's pianoforte accompaniments to Folk-Songs from Hampshire collected by George B. Gardiner were published in the Folk Songs of England series edited by Cecil Sharp .

Ms Karpeles tells us of Sharp's theories about the origins of folk song and dance: "... the theory he propounded was that the dances had grown out of primitive religious ceremonies which were associated in some occult way with the fertilization of all living things, animal and vegetable. .... Cecil Sharp suggested that in this custom can be seen the vestiges of a fertility rite in which the animal victim has been replaced by the products of the vegetable world in the sacramental feast."

In 1914 the outbreak of war left Sharp too old to enlist, but unable to earn a living. He moved to New York, initially to work on a Broadway show involving folk songs, but also took on teaching and lecture tours to improve his limited income: "besides new York, he visited Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Pittsfield. 'I worked terribly hard at Pittsburgh,' he writes, ' taking five or six hours' classes each of the four days I was there and lecturing three times'; but this was surpassed at Chicago, where on his last day he taught for eight and a half hours and finished with a lecture of one and a half hours."

Soon after this Sharp was joined by Maud Karpeles, and they set off to collect folk songs from various parts of the Appalachians, many of which had been brought across from England centuries earlier, and better preserved than at home. It is clear from the above that Sharp was capable of a considerable workload.

The English Folk Dance and Song Society has this typically ignorant, and rather offensive, question on its website ( : "How on earth did this asthmatic, 56 year-old vegetarian survive in the heat and altitudes of North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee and West Virginia, ...?" - with the usual implication that meat-eating is necessary to survive in such conditions (his asthma was serious, but not diet-related).

But even Ms. Karpeles has to admit that meat was not necessary, describing the local inhabitants they met: "The only meat they ever eat - and it is very little - is pig, or hog-meat as they call it. For the rest they subsist (sic) on vegetables, fruit, and corn-bread, i.e. maize-bread. ... However, the mountain people seem to thrive on their diet, for physically they are strong, well-grown, and loose-limbed, though spare almost to gauntness." - in those days many saw being fat, or at least chubby, as a sign of well-fed health and wealth - how times change...

Sharp did complain about most of the food being cooked in 'hog grease', and the generally low standards of hygiene presented problems for the visitors. Ms. Karpeles: "Many was the time we thanked Providence for having placed eggs inside shells. As far as possible we supplemented the diet with our own provisions, chocolates and raisins being a great standby."

right: A sign in Hot Springs, North Carolina marks where Cecil Sharp collected ballads in 1916.

The webpage Cecil Sharp in America - collecting in the Appalachians quote this extract from a letter written by Sharp :

"The hotel we stayed at in Manchester, Clay Co.  Ky, for 10 days was one of the worst I have yet struck.  . . . it was just indescribable - the smells and the flies and the greasy, ill-cooked, ill-served food.  The last day or so I practically gave up eating for I suspected anything put before me.  Even the stewed apples had hog's grease mixed up in them, and the bread was made with lard.  People in these parts will eat anything so long as it is greasy enough."

In 1918 Sharp returned to England and continued to promote folk song and dance across the country. Percy Grainger kept in touch, as Ms. Karpeles tells us: "Percy Grainger ... had for many years been trying in vain to persuade Cecil to accept a share of the royalties in his arrangement of the Morris Dance tune, 'Country Gardens'. He made a final attempt in April 1924, and Cecil, ... accepted." Grainger made the full transition to vegetarianism that same year, having dabbled for many years. In 1946 he wrote an article titled: 'How I became a meat-shunner'.

Cecil Sharp died later in 1924 and Gustav Holst wrote: "When the time comes for the history of English music of the twentieth century to be written, Cecil Sharp's name will stand out above all others."

Cecil Sharp often signed himself: C#

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