Saturday, 29 September 2012

Honouring Cecil Sharp



In this time of fast technology and data overload it is easy to forget or at least overlook the importance of oral tradition in music and magic.

Folk musicians on these Isles have a long tradition of learning songs and music from others on the road, in the club, pub and home. I suspect it is the same for folk music around the globe generally. Listening, learning and playing to explain and remember the past or customizing for a new era and changing needs.  

The Celts had a rich tradition of orally transmitting their insights and culture called in Gaelic “beul aithris.” Similarly the Jewish people had a long tradition of only verbally teaching key elements of their Kabalistic Tradition, particularly the practical or magical side of it. What many modern day practitioners and writers on Western magical traditions often seem to miss is the importance attached to the transmission of magical knowledge and wisdom through oral methods only, and, of course through song too.

Looking back over the past hundred and fifty years or so much of what had previously only been transmitted orally was steadily captured in writing and published to a wider audience. Alexander Carmichael, the Scottish writer and collected countless Scottish myths and folklore for posterity. In Ireland, W B Yeats, Ella Young and others collected many oral recollections and tales from the Irish traditions.  Across the narrow sea in England, the great composer Ralph Vaughan Williams collected a whole gamut of English folk songs and music which otherwise may have been lost to us. Y Evans-Wentz collected a host of Irish and Tibetan stories which many students still learn profound truths from exploring and contemplating.

However, for the English folk music tradition it was really Cecil Sharp, a member of the Socialist Fabian Society, who collected thousands of old folk songs on his travels in England and America. Some of these were pure English songs others had elements and influences from the Appalachians although I suspect these themselves were heavily influenced by other wider sources too. Without doubt the English, Scottish and Irish folk music traditions would not be as rich now had it not been for his valiant and determined efforts to collect and collate.  Without his sterling contributions there really would not be a fraction of the large stock of songs that there are to draw upon, relive and reinterpret. 



 All sorts of musicians from these magical isles of ours have drawn on this rich vein of history he recorded for us over the past 40 years – Dougie Maclean, Steeleye Span, Maddy Prior, June Tabor, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Runrig, The Dubliners, Mike Scott’s The Waterboys, R J Stewart, the Chieftains, Simon and Garfunkel, the Grateful Dead, Shirley Collins, Damh the Bard, Bellowhead (pictured below) and the darkly alternative Current 93. All of them and their listeners have the vision and persistence of Cecil Sharp to thank for their experiences.I'm not sure what Sharp would've made of Bellowhead pumping it out at Cheltenham Racecourse in 2012 though!


Sharp was a mysterious person for many people of his time. Vegetarian, he delved into theosophy, spiritualism and Christian Science. Not surprisingly he worked at times with Cheltenham composer Gustav Holst. In July 1911, alongside Holst’s Morris Dances, he lectured and put on demonstrations of folk dances and singing games at the Festival of Empire held at the Crystal Palace, London. Holst had previously arranged English folk music from Sharp’s work. In 1907 he had written the Somerset Rhapsody for orchestra based on folk tunes collected by  Sharp. It had been written at Sharp's request and was dedicated to him. Two years later, in 1909 Holst's pianoforte accompaniments to Folk-Songs from Hampshire collected by George Gardiner were published in the Folk Songs of England series edited by Cecil Sharp.

Two of my favourite magical songs captured and set down for us to enjoy for perpetuity by Cecil Sharp are The Wife of Usher’s Well and The Two Magicians. The former is a curious and captivating magical ballad of necromancy, carrying with it some very primitive lore and pre-Christian beliefs right through into our 21st Century. The latter was captured by Sharp in Minehead during 1904. The Two Magicians is often put to somewhat untraditional music but it carries some very ancient mythology in it, with hints of shape shifting and the Celtic mysteries of the transitions of the seasonal year.

If you haven’t already explored Cecil Sharp’s collection, I hope that the following words from The Two Magicians tempts you to start a personal journey of discovery:  

The lady stands in her bower door,
As straight as willow wand;
The blacksmith stood a little forebye,
Wi hammer in his hand.

"Weel may ye dress ye, lady fair,
Into your robes o red;
Before the morn at this same time,
I'll gain your maidenhead."

"Awa, awa, ye coal-black smith,
Woud ye do me the wrang
To think to gain my maidenhead,
That I hae kept sae lang!"

Then she has hadden up her hand,
And she sware by the mold,
"I wudna be a blacksmith's wife
For the full o a chest o gold."

"I'd rather I were dead and gone,
And my body laid in grave,
Ere a rusty stock o coal-black smith
My maidenhead shoud have."

But he has hadden up his hand,
And he sware by the mass,
"I'll cause ye be my light leman
For the hauf o that and less."

O bide, lady, bide,
And aye he bade her bide;
The rusty smith your leman shall be,
For a' your muckle pride.

Then she became a turtle dow,
To fly up in the air,
And he became another dow,
And they flew pair and pair.

O bide, lady, bide, etc.

She turnd hersell into an eel,
To swim into yon burn,
And he became a speckled trout,
To gie the eel a turn.

O bide, lady, bide, etc.

Then she became a duck, a duck,
To puddle in a peel,
And he became a rose-kaimd drake,
To gie the duck a dreel.

O bide, lady, bide, etc. 

She turnd hersell into a hare,
To rin upon yon hill,
And he became a gude grey-hound,
And boldly he did fill.

O bide, lady, bide, etc. 

Then she became a gay grey mare,
And stood in yonder slack,
And he became a gilt saddle,
And sat upon her back. 

Was she wae, he held her sae,
And still he bade her bide;
The rusty smith her leman was,
For a' her muckle pride.

Then she became a het girdle,
And he became a cake,
And a' the ways she turnd hersell,
The blacksmith was her make. 

Was she wae, etc.

She turnd hersell into a ship,
To sail out ower the flood;
He ca'ed a nail intill her tail,
And syne the ship she stood.

Was she wae, etc.

Then she became a silken plaid,
And stretchd upon a bed,
And he became a green covering,
And gaind her maidenhead.

Was she wae, etc

*              *              *

"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"

Gustav Holst

2 comments:

  1. Most of the songs in my repertoire have only come down to us thanks to the work of Cecil Sharp and a handful of other collectors of his generation, and I recognise the ones that tap into the deeper levels because I always get tears welling up when I sing them. As well as all the stuff about dark-eyed sailors and girls not recognising their sweethearts returning from the wars, there's a lot of magical lore wrapped up in folk song, like the Two Magicians you mention. Some of them are very subtle and don't give up their secrets lightly, but there's powerful connections to be made if you explore them patiently!

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  2. Thanks Rebsie. I'd love to delve more deeply into these themes on the blog but limited time means that's not going to happen for the foreseeable future. Another related area for future ploughing is that of Morris Dancing (which Cecil Sharp is very much linked with) and Mummers' Plays. The Morris Dancers seem to be breeding around the Malvern Hills. On the mumming point I'll try to get round to something on the blog for Alex Helm and Thomas Fairman Ordish in the not too distant future. In the meantime I'm sure there are a number of folk out there like me who are looking forward to your next collection of songs too!

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