Cecil Sharp - Criticisms and Debate

Criticisms and Debate

Dave Harker's criticisms of Sharp reflected a framework that tends to view any and all folk song collecting, scholarship, and attempts at revival as forms of appropriation and exploitation by the bourgeoisie of the working class, whose tastes Harker considers intrinsically at odds with what he terms the "official culture" of the schools. An expert on printed broadsides, Harker argues against the very existence of an oral tradition: "It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the English folk-song was invented by Cecil Sharp. Of course the songs were collected from singers who were supposed to have learned them through an organic and continuous tradition." Harker sustains that all of what is termed "folk song" in fact originated from broadsides and further maintained it was absurd to claim that late-nineteenth century England possessed a rural culture. In his view the small hamlets of less than 300 people from which Sharp collected were actually centers of the "urban proletariat", whom Sharp had misrepresented as (agrarian) "folk".

In 1972, when the editors of Folk Music Journal first accepted an article by Harker criticising Sharp and his methods, one member of the journal's board, Pat Shaw, expressed skepticism of Harker's statistics and only agreed to publish it on condition that someone would write an accompanying rebuttal. However, the rebuttal never appeared, and Pat Shaw himself died in 1977, so that Harker's allegations went unchallenged for fifteen years. Harker described Sharp's activities this way:

"folk song" as mediated by Cecil Sharp, to be used as "raw material" or "instrument", being extracted from a tiny fraction of the rural proletariat and . . . imposed upon town and country alike for the people’s own good, not in its original form, but, suitably integrated into the Conservatoire curriculum, made the basis of nationalistic sentiments and bourgeois values. The working people of England rejected, and still have to reject, as children, "folk song" as official culture. In fact, of course, they’d rejected it in its original state before Sharp was born, by creating the first generation of music halls, but that story belongs to history, and not to the analysis of myth.

Harker expanded his allegations in a book, Fakesong (1984). The following year Vic Gammon commented that Fakesong was "the beginning of critical work’" on the first folk revival, and also that it had taken on "the status of an orthodoxy in some quarters of the British left." ("Two for the Show. Dave Harker, Politics and Popular Song" in History Workshop Journal: 21 : 147). In the 1990 Folk Music Journal, Michael Pickering concluded that Fakesong was "the best example of this kind of work to date... Harker has provided a firm foundation for future work." Harker’s work had, indeed, become an orthodoxy and was being quoted by a number of prominent left-wing historians. In 1993 Georgina Boyes produced her book The Imagined Village - Culture, ideology and the English Folk Revival, which, following Harker, was also highly critical of Sharp. The writings of Harker, however, and by extension of Harker's followers in the US (such as David E. Whisnant, Benjamin Filene, and Robert Christgau, who have backgrounds in political science, American Studies, and journalism, not ethnography) have now themselves in turn come under scrutiny as overly harsh, exaggerated, distorted, and unjust. In his defense of Sharp, C. J. Bearman took scholars to task for their speedy and uncritical acceptance of Harker's views:

To his credit, Harker has never concealed his political allegiances – he is or was a Trotskyite adherent of the Socialist Workers' Party (Harker 1985, 256-8) – but at the same time, it must be maintained that his is an extreme political position. To accept without question the opinion of a Trotskyite about Sharp and his work is rather like taking one's view of the Communist Manifesto from a member of the British National Party.

In the meantime, Mike Yates, the Folk Music Journal editor who had originally accepted Harker's article for publication in 1972, began to investigate the ethnography of Cecil Sharp for himself, travelling to America in his footsteps to do so.

I realised that, for the sake of accuracy, I had to do more research into Sharp’s Appalachian trips, if I was to fully understand just who Sharp was and exactly what it was that he had done in the mountains. In the end I wrote an article, "Cecil Sharp in America", which remained unpublished for some fifteen years, until it appeared in Musical Traditions in 1999. By the time I had written the article I had come to see Cecil Sharp as something of a giant - a man who, with unbelievable dedication, had almost single-handedly preserved a whole tradition that would otherwise have vanished under the indifference of a rapidly changing world. And yet, strange as it may now seem, I still held to some of Dave Harker’s views concerning Sharp’s English collecting and prose writing. One man, however, was not so trusting and, unlike Pat Shaw, he was prepared to put his thoughts and findings onto paper.

This man was C. J. Bearman, who in 2001 completed his Ph.D. thesis, "The English Folk Music Movement 1898-1914". Bearman's two papers, "Who Were the Folk? The Demography of Cecil Sharp’s Somerset Folk Singers" in Historical Journal: 43 (2000):3: 751-75, and "Cecil Sharp in Somerset: Some Reflections on the Work of David Harker" in Folklore 113 (2002): 11 -34), were a devastating deconstruction of Dave Harker’s "orthodoxy", charging Harker with having misrepresenting the data and distorted statistics for ideological reasons.

Yates writes:

True, Sharp was lax in asking singers where they learned their songs, but we do know that out of the 311 singers that he met during the period 1904-1909, sixty singers provided provenance for 77 of their songs. Only one of these songs was learned directly from a broadside, while 73 songs came directly from an oral source - parents, grandparents, friends, etc. It could, I suppose, be argued that very few English broadsides were being printed in the first decade of the twentieth century, but most of these singers would have been around at the end of the nineteenth century when broadsides were still being printed.

Does all this nit-picking really matter? Well, yes it does. Because if our foundations are based on false assumptions, then the whole subsequent body of folk song and folklore studies is liable to come tumbling down around us. In the last thirty-odd years writers such as Raymond Williams (who wrote The Country and the City, 1973), Eric Hobsbawn (the editor of The Invention of Tradition, 1983), Ronald Hutton (author of The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 1996) and Georgina Boyes (The Imagined Village . . .) have all attacked Sharp, taking Dave Harker as their starting point. And much of what they say is wrong. My own beliefs have always been to the left, and it gives me no great pleasure to see respected left-wing writers coming in for such criticism. But, this criticism does appear to be justified and cannot be pushed under the carpet. There are already others seeking to question Harker and his followers. In a recent review in the Folk Music Journal, Mike Heaney has criticised Georgina Boyes for a recent work (Step Change: New Views on Traditional Dance, 2001), where he says that "Factual errors and misrepresentations abound" (Folk Music Journal 2003 page 369).

C. J. Bearman has made a number of extremely serious allegations against Dave Harker’s methodology. "Factual errors and misrepresentations (also) abound" in Dave Harker’s published works, is what he is clearly saying. Perhaps it is time to follow up Dave Harker’s own comment, given above, about Sharp, but now seemingly more applicable to himself -- it’s the one made in 1972 about the story belonging to history, "and not to the analysis of myth". According to Bearman, it was, after all, Harker, and not Sharp, who was creating the myth, and, in the process, jumping to the wrong conclusions.

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