Cecil Sharp & The Folk Songs of Somerset

On a visit to Taunton Museum a couple of months ago I noticed a small exhibit tucked away in a corner which described Cecil Sharp’s visit to Somerset in 1903 and the song-collecting trip that followed. His story fascinated me and although my own interest in it had more than a little to do with the fact that I am from Somerset myself and am thus drawn to its local history, I hope that you will also find the story interesting.

 Cecil Sharp was born in Camberwell, London on 22 November 1859 and was educated at Uppingham and Cambridge before emigrating to Australia after graduating in 1882 and taking a job as a bank clerk. After a few years he decided to give up this work and devote his life to music. He was an assistant organist for a time, as well as a conductor and lecturer. He returned to England in 1892 and took up a job teaching music, later becoming Principal at the Hampstead Conservatoire of Music in 1896.

 During his time in Australia, he had met a man named Charles Marson and they later became friends. In 1903, after both men had returned to England, Sharp visited Marson, who was vicar at the village of Hambridge in Somerset. Whilst they were sat out in the garden, they heard the gardener, whose name was John England, singing The Seeds of Love while he mowed the lawn. Sharp was immediately struck by the song and recognised its value. He wanted to hear more of these “folk songs” and on making his desire known, someone suggested that he apply to two sisters, Louie Hooper and Lucy White, and also a dairyman named Tom Sprackler, all three of whom knew many songs.

 Within ten days he had collected over 40 songs from these three and a couple of others. Another week gave him another 45 songs, these just from Hambridge alone. Unfortunately after this Sharp had to return to the Hampstead Conservatoire for the start of term but he returned to Somerset soon after this as it was clear that the supply of songs was, as Charles Marson said, “nothing like exhausted”.

Marson himself confessed he had been entirely ignorant of the “wealth of art” in the village. This is not surprising when you remember the class divide that existed even between the vicar and his parishioners. This division was something that Sharp had to contend with when he started his five-year song-collecting trip in Somerset with the help of Marson. He visited all sorts of different people of varying professions, although almost all of them were over 60 and some were very much older. Folk songs at this time seemed to be dying out with the spread of railways and other modern contrivances and Sharp and other fellow song-collectors considered themselves almost as conservationists, trying to capture and record a type of musical expression that was rapidly nearing extinction.

 In order to find singers, he asked friends and acquaintances for help identifying people who might be of use to him. He also said that “it is difficult to exaggerate the value to the folksong collector of an introduction to the parson or squire”, as this meant less time was “wasted with preliminaries and disarming suspicion”. Sometimes he would find singers in more unusual circumstances – once he collected a song from a man running a coconut shy at Cheddar Cliffs when business was slack and on another occasion he met a man called William Ashton who was cracking stones on Polesden Hill. Sharp said of this encounter: “I sat down and thoroughly enjoyed the performance, joining in at the chorus”.

 One of the best bits of singing Sharp heard was from a gypsy woman called Betsy Holland. He described the experience as follows:

We attacked her about the songs she had learnt from her grandmother. A little persuasion and she sat down on a stone, gave her baby the breast and then began a murder song that was just fascinating. Talk of folk singing! It was the finest and most characteristic bit of singing I had ever heard.”

The song was known as the Execution Song. Later, Sharp actually managed to meet her grandmother, Rebecca Holland.

Despite the difficulty of overcoming the class barrier, Sharp seems to have been met with enthusiasm and good humour from most of the people who sang for him, who all seemed very willing to share their songs with him. Having said this, he may simply have neglected to mention any issues he might have encountered during his song-collecting. Many of the people he met, however, must have thought him at least mildly eccentric, and there is one account noted down by Sharp in which his odd passion is met with almost exactly that kind of reaction:

One singer in Langport could only sing when she was ironing, while another woman in the court sang best on washing day. I was once in her wash-house on wash-day sitting on an inverted tub, notebook in hand, while my host officiated at the copper, singing the while. In one of the intervals between songs, a woman remarked: “You’ll be going to make a deal of money out of this sir?” My embarrassment was relieved by the woman at washtub who said “Oh it’s only his hobby”. “Ah well”, replied the first. “We do all have our failings.”

 Sharp’ s approach probably seems incredibly direct and straight-forward compared to the endless rounds of form-filling and permission-seeking that today’s collectors and researchers have to engage in before setting off on their trips. He quite literally just went up to strangers’ houses, knocked on the door and asked people to sing for him. I can’t even imagine the reaction he would have got if he tried that today. The idea of being sat at home quietly working on emails or whatever, hearing a knock and opening the door to some bloke who then asks you to sing a song for him sounds like something you’d see in a comedy sketch. But in those days going out and meeting people was by far the best method of collecting the material that Sharp wanted. One particularly memorable incident occurred in Langport.

As he approached the public house, Sharp saw a group of women standing outside and chatting. “Is Mrs Overd here?” he asked. “That’s my name,” an elderly woman replied. “And what do you want of me?” Sharp explained that he was hunting for songs and hoped she would sing him some. She promptly flung her arms around his waist and danced him round and round, shouting “Lor girls, here’s my beau come at last!”

 Far from finding him intrusive and irritating, most of his singers seemed to like him and he in turn spoke of them with respect and affection. It is known that he gave some of them gifts in gratitude for their services: a few of the men received tobacco and he also presented Louie Hooper with a concertina, as she was particularly fond of instrumental music.

When he had collected a considerable number of songs – around 500 in total from Somerset and North Devon – he and Marson put some of them into a book entitled Folk Songs from Somerset. This was distributed to schools across the country for the children to sing in music classes, thus ensuring that these traditional songs were both heard and learnt by a new generation across the whole of England.

 Unfortunately, after their initial collaboration, Marson and Sharp quarrelled and never spoke to each other again, although Sharp attended Marson’s funeral in 1914.

Sharp was not the only person collecting folksongs at this time, nor was he the first to do so. Other collectors included Percy Grainger and Harry E. Piggott – and even some now-famous composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth, who both also arranged many traditional tunes.

 Sharp chose to note down the songs he heard with pencil and paper and this was thought by traditional song-collectors to be much the best way of doing it. However, some, such as Percy Grainger preferred to use a phonograph to record the songs they collected. This had the advantage of capturing the tone of the song and the way it was sung, but was unfortunately not a very portable device, although, as Sharp notes in his letter to Grainger in 1908 it was possible to transport it on a bicycle.

My dear Grainger. I have been tremendously interested in the transcriptions of your phonograms. You have won the thanks of all good folksongers. I recognise and this volume proves it, that the phonograph is a collecting device of very great value, although I am unable to endorse all that you say in its praise. For example, in my own somewhat limited experience, I have found singers, although willing to sing into the phongraph, yet quite incapable of singing into it in their usual unselfconscious manner. Again, some of the songs I have collected were sung by singers far too frail to sing into a phongraph. Also songs collected at chance times, in harvest fields or by the wayside, when it would have been quite impossible to use the phonograph. Of course you can carry a instrument with you on the bicycle, but it is a great encumbrance. Yours sincerely, Cecil J. Sharp.”

Grainger clearly had different views, as shown by his entry in the Journal of the Folk Song Society for that same year:

When I first started collecting songs with phonograph in 1906 in North Lincolnshire, I was surprised to find how readily the old singers took to singing into the machine. They were all agog to have their own singing recorded. An old singer listening to a long song of his the phonograph had just recorded, said: “Ee’s learnt that quicker n’or I!” Another commented: “It do follow up we wonderful”. One Lincolnshire singer, Mr Joseph Taylor, said “It’s like singing with a muzzle on” but he sang his best all the same. Even having their heads guided nearer to or farther from the recording trumpet never seems to break the old folks’ memory or freedom of delivery.”

Around the same time that Sharp started collecting folksongs, he also developed an interest in morris-dancing. He and other collectors travelled round collecting and noting down the dances, which sparked a revival of English folkdancing alongside that of folksongs.

 During the First World War Sharp was struggling to make money from his lecturing and writing so he decided to try his luck in America. Whilst travelling through the mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky & Tennessee, he came into contact with Appalachian folksongs and began to put them together into another collection, this time with a woman called Maud Karpeles. Sharp was popular in America and people flocked to hear his lectures on folk music. He was greatly impressed with the “dignity, courtesy and natural grace” of the people he met in the mountains and spoke highly of them in his writings.

 Sharp died on 23 June 1924, at almost exactly the same time as the last performance of a group of visiting morris dancers who were touring the villages where the dances had originally been collected by Sharp and others. This rather neatly illustrates how Sharp’s own influence helped to re-ignite the traditions of English folksong and folkdance, which had hitherto been sadly neglected. When the new headquarters of the English Folkdance and Song Society (founded by Sharp some years earlier) opened in 1930, they named the building Cecil Sharp House in his honour.

In 1931 Sharp’s biographer placed adverts in the newspapers asking to hear from anyone who had known him. He received this letter from Louie Hooper of Hambridge, one of the first singers Sharp ever collected from:

 “Sir, I was looking down the paper when I seen Cecil Sharp’s name. You wanted to know if anyone knew him. Now I must say I, Louie Hooper and my sister Lucy White, both of this place, knew him quite well and spent many a happy hour singing to him at the vicarage Hambridge, with Father Marson, his friend. He took our photos and put them in his first book of Somerset Folk Songs. He gave me a nice concertina – he used to like to hear me play it. And Mrs Sharp gave me and my sister a new blouse each. The last time I seen him was when Father Marson was buried. That was in March the same year war broke out. I am 72 years of age. He came to my house one Christmas time and took a photo of my dinner Christmas Day. When I went to Langport, to a lantern lecture that he gave, I seen my Christmas dinner come through on the slide! He gave me a book of songs after he had mine and he said exchange was no robbery and he wrote it in the book. I liked him very much. He was a very kind gentleman. He also gave the old men tobacco that used to sing for him. I often think of the days. It was a happy time. Now I hope you will be able to understand this letter that I have sent. From yours faithfully, Louisa Hooper.”

Right from the start I was fascinated by the story of this man who went round the countryside asking people to sing for him. Even though the people he met hadn’t actually written the songs they sang, he was still asking them to share a part of themselves, of their memories and childhoods. The fact that they were willing to do this, even though he was a complete stranger to them, shows that they had a natural pride in their folksongs and also that they were warm-hearted and open-minded enough to want to share them.

 I personally feel proud to come from an area which contributed so much to England’s musical heritage and was even more delighted to find out that where I now live in London is very close to where Cecil Sharp was born!

I had planned to visit Cecil Sharp House in London, but I didn’t quite get round to it and then I bought a CD on amazon which not only had recordings of some of the songs that Sharp and others collected (not original recordings sadly!) but also extracts from the Journal of the Folk Song Society, written by various people including Sharp, Butterworth and Grainger. Most of the direct quotes in this post come from that CD. I felt that, having amassed material from that, plus my visit to Taunton Museum, I probably didn’t need to visit the Folk Song Society.

However, last weekend I did go and visit the village of Hambridge, which is about half an hour away from Taunton. To my delight I discovered that, although the vicarage where Sharp and Marson first heard John England singing The Seeds of Love is now a nursing home, there is a plaque on the wall outside marking the event. I also saw Marson’s gravestone in the churchyard further down the street. Pictures of the plaque and the gravestone can be seen below, along with photos of some of the singers that Sharp collected from, including Louie Hooper, Lucy White, John England and Emma Overd.

Before visiting Hambridge, I put the songs from the CD on my phone, so when I visited the vicarage I was able to sit outside and play The Seeds of Love and imagine what it must have been like for Sharp to hear it for the first time, right there in that garden.

I thought perhaps you might also like to hear what the songs sounded like, so I have uploaded two of the songs to youtube. The first is The Seeds of Love and the second is Lord Randel, which was first sung to Sharp by Louie Hooper. I think Lord Randel might be my favourite, the tune is so haunting and melancholy.

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 Somerset Folk Map picked up at the Cecil Sharp exhibit in Taunton Museum, Somerset

The Seeds of Love – Opus Anglicanum (CD)

Wikipedia entry for Cecil Sharp

The photos of Somerset folk singers and the sign in America are courtesy of Google Images, all other pictures are my own

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23 Responses to Cecil Sharp & The Folk Songs of Somerset

  1. Amanda says:

    You might like to visit my website. I too have a great interest in Sharp’s work.
    All the best,

    • zanyzigzag says:

      Hi Amanda, I have just looked at your website and was fascinated by the story of ‘Mrs Price’s Parlour’ and Sharp’s essay on Mendip singers. I shall look out for one of your shows sometime, it would be wonderful to hear the songs at a live performance!

      • Amanda says:

        Sorry to have taken so long to reply… I have only just seen your comments.
        The next show will be at the Octagon Theatre in April. A combination of archive film and local folk songs selected with Yeovil in mind.
        Hi Jeff!

  2. Jeff Blake says:

    A delightful essay. Cecil Sharp was undoubtedly a remarkable man but I was especially pleased to hear something of some of his contributors, and to find that his first hearing of a folksong (one of the loveliest in the canon) is commemorated by a plaque.

    You might like to know that the Bristol folk choir The Hotwells Howlers has just released a double CD of songs collected by Sharp from the Quantocks called “Love and Liberty”. It has nearly 30 tracks and costs just £10, and is available from Dave Byrne on 01761 – 419224. A set of four CDs called “The Short Sharp Shanties” has recently been released by Tom and Barbara Brown and friends. This has all the shanties which Sharp collected from master mariner John “Yankee Jack” Short of Watchet. I don’t have a contact number for the Browns but the CDs will be available on the internet.

  3. Peter Mander says:

    Fascinating post. I’ve just been listening to Gustav Holst’s Somerset Rhapsody (1906-7), which according to sleeve notes was written at the suggestion of Cecil Sharp and makes use of tunes noted down on the latter’s visit to the county.

    • zanyzigzag says:

      Thanks for your comment Peter! I’d never heard of that piece by Holst, but have now made a mental note to listen to it at the earliest opportunity!

  4. Jacob Garside says:

    Hello, I’m really interested in the folk songs of somerset as I’m a musician embarking on creating a group that tours local music around local primary schools here, I’m in search of good local folk songs that I can teach the kids, just tried to listen to those videos but it appears the links are private, could you share them with me so I can watch them please? Jacob

    • zanyzigzag says:

      HI Jacob, thank you very much for pointing this out! I’ve just changed the setting to public, so hopefully you’ll be able to listen to them now. Please let me know if it still doesn’t work. Best of luck with your musical tour, it sounds awesome!

  5. Donna says:

    Emma Overd is my great grandmother. My mother’s father’s mother. Now I know where the music comes from. Thank you.

    • zanyzigzag says:

      Donna, thank you so much for commenting! I’m delighted that you found my post useful and informative. It’s wonderful to hear from a direct descendant of one of the folk singers!

  6. Becky Ellalaine Holland Stanyer says:

    Hi there. Just discovered this post whilst doing some more family history research. I was born Rebecca Holland! Cecil Sharp’s Rebecca Holland is my 3x Great Grandmother. Have been researching my family history for many years and am delighted to find a photo of her at last by Cecil Sharp and also that she loved to sing. Me too. Just need to get hold of some of the folk songs that she may have sung now. Many thanks for your blog.

    • zanyzigzag says:

      Hi Becky! Thank you so much for commenting – it’s amazing to hear from one of Rebecca Holland’s descendants! I wish you the best of luck with your hunt for her folk songs 🙂 Ellie

  7. Jenny Tucker says:

    Hi Zanyzigzag, my Grandfather George Bunston met up with Cecil Sharp when he came to Hambridge, where my grandfather lived. One of the songs grandfather sang for Cecil was Richard Of Taunton Deane and I believe that because of the contact he had made with Cecil Sharpe the BBC recorded my grandfather singing it, early 1950’s I think!
    I did get a taped copy from the BBC many years ago but unfortunately it has been mislaid.
    Cecil Sharpe, I believe also visited my grandmother Mary Bunston In1903 and collected three songs from her also, but don’t know what they were.
    It’s great that so many people are still interested in the folk songs Of yester Year!

  8. Pingback: Overcoming Barriers to Creativity | Zanyzigzag's Blog

  9. Tim Donaldson says:

    You may like to know that the Vicarage House Nursing Home in Hambridge has now closed, leaving the way open to sale and possible redevelopment. The site is not currently listed, so anything can happen. I applied to Historic England to list it, but they have rejected the application. However, if more people make similar approaches they might sit up and listen. It would be a shame if this place – in effect the cradle of folk song collecting – we irreparably damaged.

    • zanyzigzag says:

      Hi Tim, I only just realised that I never replied to your comment – my apologies! It would indeed be a shame if that important historical connection was lost due to the building being developed. I did a quick google, but the latest info I could see was that there was a potential planning application put in for a special ed school sometime last year, so I’m not sure whether that actually went through or not.

      • Tim Donaldson says:

        Hi.. That’s my understanding too – that the Old Vicarage is to become a special school. Work is currently under way. We were concerned that the carved stone plaque at the entrance was removed as they did works to widen it, but were relieved to find that they had realised its importance and put it to one side. I’m happy to say it has since been reinstalled, so the importance of the place is still recognised, even if not in an official listing.

      • zanyzigzag says:

        That’s great to hear, Tim! Thank you for taking the time to reply.

  10. Brian Langford says:

    Thankyou for a most interesting read.
    My name is Brian Langford and I grew up in Langport Somerset. My maternal Grandmother was Amy Ford of Low Ham who was visited by Cecil Sharpe and sang for him contributing many local folk songs. Charlie Showers of Drayton who also contributed worked in Bradfords yard next to the house I grew up in and was a naturally funny man who sang constantly. Good to know the local folk songs are preserved and also led to the making of wonderful music.

    • zanyzigzag says:

      Hi Brian, thanks for your comment! It’s wonderful to hear about your family connection to Cecil Sharpe through your grandmother! Do you have any idea what songs she contributed to Sharpe’s collection? Charlie Showers sounds like quite a character!

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