The incredible story of Cecil Sharp House

Shirley Collins

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.”

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Billy Bragg shares his memories of the late singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl

Kirsty MacColl

This year, singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl would have turned 60. Her good friend, political singer and activist Billy Bragg, joined us to share his memories of her.

If you’ve heard the 1987 single Fairytale of New York by the Pogues, then you know Kirsty MacColl’s voice. This year the late singer-songwriter would have turned 60. Political singer and activist Billy Bragg was MacColl’s good friend. He joined us to share his memories of MacColl and why he thinks she never truly received the recognition she deserved during her life

Listen to the Billy Bragg – Kirsty MacColl interview at: Billy Bragg shares his memories of the late singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl | CBC Radio

It’s a Billy Bragg Takeover! – BBC Sounds

Billy Bragg is live in the studio, guitar in hand, taking your requests.

A special edition of Now Playing as Billy Bragg helps Tom and the team curate a listener-led…. Billy Bragg playlist. He’ll be playing requests live on the show as well. Expect classics from the Bragg back catalogue as well as songs from artists that have influenced and been influenced by the man himself.

Listen at: Now Playing @6Music – It’s a Billy Bragg Takeover! – BBC Sounds

The Saturday Boy: bullying, love and Billy Bragg

Every bullied teenager thinks they’re alone. But then they hear a song that tells them about their lives. Billy Bragg talks about the writing of The Saturday Boy, and the boy he was when he was sitting in double history twice a week. By Michael Hann.

“But I never made the first team
I just made the first team laugh
And she never came to the phone
She was always in the bath.”

I don’t recall whose was the first boot in my mouth, or who kicked me afterwards, or how many times. All I remember — all I’ve ever been able to remember, since the day it happened — was being followed around the playground by a group of boys who, like me, were in their first term at grammar school in autumn 1980. Then I was on the ground. Then I was being kicked in the face, over and over again. Then I was making my way back to my classroom — the nearest classroom, thankfully — for afternoon registration, my mouth bleeding, my teeth chipped, my eyes swollen from the kicking and the tears that followed. Mick Whelan — the only person I can be sure was among the group that attacked me, and only because we later became an uneasy sort of friends — said everyone took their shoes off before they started on my face. That sounded both unusually considerate, and extremely unlikely. Continue reading