This place feels very important, but I don’t know why yet,” said Billy Bragg, wandering into Cecil Sharp House in 1986. Many of us have felt something similar, slipping from busy north London, though
his place feels very important, but I don’t know why yet,” said Billy Bragg, wandering into Cecil Sharp House in 1986. Many of us have felt something similar, slipping from busy north London, though the English country garden, into the UK’s first dedicated folk arts centre.
First opened in 1930, the building holds all the tension of the 20th century’s battles over the definition of “folk music” and who it belongs to. Visitors will feel it in the architectural push-pull between blunt, right-angled utilitarianism (formal rectangular halls for dancing, rectangular windows for light) and mystical curves of wooden carvings of green men, dragons and bawdy Morris men. For at Cecil Sharp House (CHS), town meets country, academia jostles with vernacular tradition and all three classes collide.
On its 90th birthday, CSH’s chief executive, Katy Spicer, reminds me that we can trace those tensions right back to 1898, when the middle-class Folk-Song Society was founded to collect and preserve folk songs and tunes primarily from Britain and Ireland. They found and filed songs for the nation’s cabinet of curiosities just as other Victorians collected shells, ferns and fossils. Prominent members included Lucy Broadwood, Frank Kidson and Anglican priest Sabine Baring-Gould. Letters stored at CSH reveal the fierce rivalry between many of the collectors as they competed to discover the best, oldest or most obscure “peasant” tunesIn 1903, Cecil Sharp joined the fray, recording material from “the old singing men and women of the country villages”. Now widely acknowledged as the founding father of the folk revival, Sharp, the son of a slate merchant, became interested in folk tradition after observing a rare group of Morris dancers performing at the village of Headington Quarry near Oxford at Christmas 1899.
The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams began collecting songs the same year. “There is a feeling of recognition, as of meeting an old friend,” said Williams, “which comes to us all in the face of great artistic experiences. I had the same experience when I first heard an English folk song, when I first saw Michelangelo’s Day and Night, when I suddenly came upon Stonehenge or had my first sight of New York City – the intuition that I had been there already.”
In 1911, the English Folk Dance Society was founded to collect folk dance including Morris, sword and country dances, and to publish and teach them. Sharp died in 1924 and CSH was built to keep his legacy alive. It comprises a library for Sharp’s book collection, a large hall for social dancing and high-profile concerts and two smaller classrooms downstairs for teaching.
“But,” says Spicer, “in September 1940, Cecil Sharp House was hit by four bombs, destroying the front entrance, stairwell and a musicians’ gallery in the main hall. Fortunately, the library remained largely intact, and its rare books were already in Cheshire for safekeeping. The remaining collection was packed up and moved to Oxford.”
CSH was patched up after the bombing with blitz spirit classes continuing in the basement. And after the war the musicians’ gallery was replaced by a lively, abstract mural by English artist Ivon Hitchens, depicting the English folk dances and traditions (although some spot the presence of UFOs). Hitchens worked on the mural for three years before it was finally completed in 1954. At 69 x 20ft, the mural was the largest in the country at the time.
The 1950s saw a second folk revival, perhaps as part of a postwar search for national identity. In 1951, the young Princess Elizabeth was photographed swooshing her skirt during a Canadian square dance, making folk dancing an aspirational activity. Meanwhile, the collecting of folk songs (led by Alan Lomax in America and Ewan MacColl in the UK) became strongly associated with left-wing activism. Whereas Sharp and his rivals romanticised the rural life, this second wave of collectors gathered working-class songs from the working classes of both town and country.
Folk singer Shirley Collins remembers first attempting to visit CSH aged just 19 in 1955. “Outside the building I saw the stone that says, ‘In memory of Cecil Sharp, who restored to the English people the songs and dances of their country,’” she tells me. “But would they let me in? No. It was ever so posh back then and they did NOT want to let me in. The class system was so pronounced then. I was made to feel quite ashamed of my working-class background. But I persisted. I had been told how many songs were in that library. I was determined to get in and the snobs were almost equally determined to keep me out!”