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A black and white photo of the folk song collector, Cecil Sharp, setting off to collect traditional folk songs on his trusty bicycle.

Who was Cecil Sharp and why does everyone want to go to his house?

Cecil Sharp is often described as the father of English traditional folk song collecting. This article is a newbies' guide to his life, his work, and is namesake house in Camden.

If you’re starting out on your journey into the world of traditional music, you won’t have to go far before you bump into Cecil Sharp. A key figure in the first English folk revival, C-Sharp (as he’s affectionately known) is perhaps the best known of the Victorian and Edwardian folk song collectors, and certainly one of the most prolific in terms of the number of songs he noted down. A seemingly tireless self-publicist, despite often being in ill health he was not without his controversies. In this article, we attempt to answer some of the commonly asked questions surrounding his life and work.

In this article…

Cecil Sharp

Who was Cecil Sharp?

Once described as the man who rescued English folk song, Cecil James Sharp (1859-1924) was known mainly for his folk song and dance collecting. Early attempts at becoming a composer largely resulted in failure and frustration, but two chance meetings led to significant changes in his life purpose.

The first of these was on Boxing Day, 1899. Staying for Christmas at Sandfield Cottage, the home of his mother-in-law in Headington, Oxfordshire, Sharp overheard a style of music he had never encountered before. Watching from his window, he saw the Headington Quarry Morris Men dancing to the traditional tunes, ‘Laundnum Bunches’ and ‘Rigs O’Marlow’, which he quickly noted down. Stepping outside, he met with William Kimber, the side’s musician, who agreed to return the following day and play more tunes. This he did, and Sharp took down two further tunes, ‘Beansetting’ and ‘Constant Billy’.

His second significant meeting came with John England, a gardener from Hambridge, Somerset. Sharp was staying with his friend, the Reverend Charles Marson, who he had befriended during Sharp’s stint as co-Director of the Adelaide College of Music, Australia, two decades earlier. Sitting in the garden on an August day, he overheard England singing the traditional song, ‘The Seeds Of Love’. As Sharp’s confidante and biographer, Maud Karpeles, wrote in 1967:

Sharp was sitting in the vicarage garden talking to Charles Marson and to Mattie Kay, who was likewise staying at Hambridge, when he heard John England quietly singing to himself as he mowed the vicarage lawn. Sharp whipped out his notebook and took down the tune; and then persuaded John to give him the words. He immediately harmonised the song; and that same evening it was sung at a choir supper by Mattie Kay, Sharp accompanying. The audience was delighted; as one said, it was the first time that the song had been put into evening dress.

That was 1903. Sharp was 44 years old. Perhaps tired of struggling as a never-quite-there composer, he threw himself into his new passion with a zeal that altered the fate of English traditional music.

A plaque on a wall in Headington, Oxfordshire, commemorating the meeting place of William Kimber and Cecil Sharp in 1899.

How many songs did he collect?

Sharp began collecting folk songs in 1903, aged 44. He subsequently collected 4,977 tunes, including around 3,000 songs in his native England, and around 1,500 during his four collecting trips to the Appalachian Mountains in the USA.

In Somerset alone, Sharp collected over 1,600 tunes and songs, gathering them from 350 source singers. He went on to collect in 15 other counties, taking down folk dances, including sword dances and rapper dances from Yorkshire, Durham, and Northumberland.

His collection notebooks and related papers now reside at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, and Clare College, University of Cambridge.

Was Cecil Sharp the first folk song collector?

Clearly not. Plenty of people got the bug before him, including Francis James Child (curator of the Child Ballads), Lucy Broadwood, Anne Gilchrist, Kate Lee, Sabine Baring-Gould, and Frank Kidson. However, Sharp has often been criticized for the way in which he ran roughshod over some of his fellow-collectors and their work, not least by Lucy Broadwood. Recalling his mannerisms in a letter dated July 22, 1924, she wrote:

“[Cecil Sharp] unfortunately took up old songs and old dance collecting as a profession, and, not being a gentleman, he puffed and boomed and shoved and ousted and used the press to advertise himself; so that, although we pioneers were the people from whom he originally learnt all that he knew of the subjects, he came to believe himself to be King of the whole movement.”

Why is Cecil Sharp considered controversial?

As Lucy Broadwood noted, Sharp was a driven man who “puffed and boomed and shoved and ousted” until he got what he wanted, which, ultimately, seems to have been wider recognition of the traditional folk songs and dances that he so loved. It is very tempting to simply describe him as “a man of his time” and leave it at that, but few of his contemporaries managed to create quite such a difficult reputation for themselves.

In 1993, Georgina Boyes published The Imagined Village – Culture, ideology and the English Folk Revival, which argued (amongst many other things) that Sharp was deeply sexist and sought to undermine the female leaders of the first folk revivalist movement. He was known to be anti-suffrage, despite his sister, Helen Sharp, being a prominent member of the Suffragettes.

Sharp’s views on race are also the subject of frequent debate. Both his Appalachian Diaries and the writings of his assistant, Maud Karpeles, make use of derogatory terms for people of colour, and contain an oft-cited instance in which the pair arrived at a cove called Sylva, only to leave without collecting songs because the population was largely black. However, it has also been argued that Sharp was one of the only collectors to collect (on different occasions) from people of colour, and that the instance in Sylva may have been the result of ill-health and feeling out of place. His use of derogatory terminology might also be attributed to his being “a man of his time”. However, neither of these explanations account for an outburst on page 247 of his diary (Sunday 1 September 1918 – Winston Salem), in which he complains of the town smelling of, “tobacco, molasses and n****r”.

In an interview on this website, the playwright, Nell Leyshon, explained that a new biography of Sharp by David Sutcliffe will seek to bring clearer light to many of these issues. Until such a time, Cecil Sharp remains a complicated and controversial figure, and a troublesome one for many interested in traditional music who may find it difficult to reconcile his reported views with the fact that he did so much to save the songs and dances they love from extinction.

What is EFDSS, and did Cecil Sharp found it?

EFDSS stands for the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and it lives at Cecil Sharp House. No, Sharp didn’t found the society directly, but he did co-found the English Folk Dance Society in 1911. This merged with the Folk Song Society (of which he had previously been a member; so many societies, so little time) in 1932.

Where did Cecil Sharp live?

Born in Denmark Hill, South London, Sharp was educated at Uppingham School, Rutland, and Clare College, Cambridge. Despite studying as a mathematician at university, his love of music eventually overcame him and he moved to Australia in 1882 to take up the position of co-Director fo the Adelaide College of Music.

Cecil Sharp's house. Not Cecil Sharp House.
Cecil Sharp’s house. Not Cecil Sharp House

Returning to England in 1892, he took up the position of music teacher at Ludgrove School, which he continued to do for the following 17 years. In 1896 he was appointed Principal of the Hampstead Conservatoire of Music, a position that came with a house. It should be noted that this was not Cecil Sharp House. Indeed, Cecil Sharp’s house was at 4 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead (on the same street as Sigmund Freud’s house), some 35 minutes’ walk from his namesake landmark.

Sharp gave up teaching in July, 1905, to focus his attentions entirely on the collecting of folk songs, their publication, and subsequent lectures on the subject.

How did he die?

Cecil Sharp died in Hampstead, North London, on June 23th, 1924, after a short battle with cancer. He was 64 years old. He is buried at Golders Green Cemetery.

Have any films been made of his life?

While he has yet to become the subject of a movie, his relationship with two of his source singers, Louie Hooper and Lucy White, was the subject of Nell Leyshon’s play, Folk, first performed as a BBC radio play in 2021.

Cecil Sharp House

Cecil Sharp House sign, seen through the trees of the house garden
Cecil Sharp House sign with Obby Oss. Photo credit: EFDSS

Where is Cecil Sharp House?

Cecil Sharp House is located to the West of Camden Town Tube Station, North London, situated to the North East of Regent’s Park. The address is 2 Regent’s Park Rd, London, NW1 7AY.

The history of the building

Cecil Sharp House is a Grade II Listed Building, built in 1929 in Camden, North London, as home to the English Folk Dance Society (now EFDSS). It was designed by the architect, Henry Martineau Fletcher, and it houses the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, three halls for concerts and dancing, Sharp’s Bar, a cafe, teaching rooms, and the administrative rooms for the EFDSS.

Hit by four bombs in September, 1940, the building was rebuilt and extended following the war. Luckily, most of the library’s collection had been moved to Cheshire for safe-keeping, so was largely left undamaged.

The musicians’ gallery, damaged in the bombing, was replaced by the Ivon Hitchens Mural in 1954. A depiction of English folk dances, it took three years to complete and was, at one time, the largest mural in the country.

How to get to Cecil Sharp House

The easiest way to reach Cecil Sharp House is to take the London Underground to Camden Town (Northern Line), walk up Camden Parkway, and turn right onto Gloucester Avenue. The venue is a little further up Gloucester Avenue, just before it becomes Regent’s Park Road. From the tube station to Cecil Sharp House is approximately 10 minutes on foot.