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Paul Oppé Archive: Cecil Sharp

by Anthony Day

  • 6 September 2021

Reflections on the Paul Oppé Archive

Cecil Sharp: the Hunt for English Folk Culture

The Paul Oppé archive catalogue was recently completed and published online. Most of the collection focuses on Oppé’s work as an art historian and collector, but there is also a substantial amount of material relating to his personal life, and the life of his family. In this series of posts, Anthony Day, who catalogued the collection, shares some of the human stories he uncovered in the archive.  

Half length portrait of a man in a suit. Cecil Sharp (1859–1924) was a pioneering collector of traditional English folk songs and dances who was active in the early twentieth century, and co-founder of the English Folk Dance Society. He recorded his findings and disseminated them to audiences across the Britain through books, lectures and folk-dance events. One of his books, The Dance (published in 1924), was written in collaboration with Paul Oppé. It documented various depictions of folk dance found in European art. He and Oppé had been friends long before this project, however, and he corresponded frequently with both Paul and his wife, Valentine Oppé. These letters are now in the Paul Oppé archive. Dating between 1905 and 1924, they provide us with a first-hand commentary on Sharp’s work and evoke his experiences of both collecting folk songs and sharing them with a wider public.

Sharp travelled extensively around both the UK and America and engaged with many communities in order to uncover artefacts of English folk culture. His audiences were mostly the ‘educated people’, he explains in a letter to Paul Oppé, dated 10 November 1907. Later in the same letter, he tells Paul that ‘the “common” people’s music only needs to be heard … to win their appreciation’. Sharp frequently makes such distinctions between the people who participated in these folk traditions and the people who are consuming them from afar. He was certainly an enthusiast and worked tirelessly to promote the culture. However, the presentation of the material was not free from bias. The ‘common people’s’ music was rarely performed in the exact manner in which he found it, although his performances would often involve ‘genuine countryman, traditional dancers’ (Sharp uses these terms in a letter to Oppé to describe a performance at Mansion House, dated 18 April 1909). He transcribed and edited much of the material in service to his greater aim of creating a sense of English tradition among the ‘educated people’. 

A man in a hat playing a piano.

Cecil Sharp performing, from E.F.D.S. News, No. 8, November 1924, Paul Oppé Archive, Ref: APO/2/3/2

This process of recontextualisation is perhaps even more apparent in Sharp’s trips to America. He wrote several letters to the Oppés during his tour of America, where he was lecturing and teaching between 1916 and 1918. His intentions were to disseminate knowledge and, in the process, appoint new teachers to continue the work. The money he made from this tour, which he remarks to Paul Oppé was more than could be made in Britain, gave him the resources he needed to go and collect songs in America’s rural communities. He writes several long letters to Valentine from the mountain regions of North Carolina and Virginia where he would spend two to three months at a time, accompanied by the British collector of folk songs, Maud Karpeles, and the American folklorist, Olive Dame Campbell, looking for examples of English folk music that had been brought over to America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These letters are a fascinating resource, in which Sharp describes the various communities he visits. In a letter dated 14 August 1916, he describes the musicians he encountered as being like ‘English peasants in appearance, manner and speech’ – as though they had been frozen in time. He sees barely any American influence on their demeanour or their music. Certainly, he was blind to any African influence. Rather, he comments that, despite their ‘archaic’ styling, the songs were well preserved examples of English folk music. When he did encounter a more overt divergence from the original English style, as he describes in a letter written from Kentucky, dated 22 July 1917, he was much less enthusiastic about the material. Sharp complains about the crude style, and how they changed the words significantly across their performances. He attributes this to the singers being ‘backward in intellectual development’, suggesting that they were illiterate and didn’t understand the words to begin with. A more modern view of folk song and dance would regard it as an ever-evolving cross-pollination of styles and cultures, with a healthy dose of improvisation. This leaves Sharp’s search for examples of perfectly preserved English tradition feeling a little antiquated.

Four figures, two sat down and two in a doorway, on a front porch.

Cecil Sharp song-collecting, from a flyer for a lecture at Clare College, Cambridge, dated circa 1918, Paul Oppé Archive, Ref: APO/2/3/1

If you are interested to learn more about the Paul Oppé Archive, the catalogue is available online. If you have any queries or would like to make an appointment to view the material in person, please contact us.

About the author

  • Anthony Day is Archives Project Cataloguer at the Paul Mellon Centre