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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Give Us a Tune: “Master Kilby”

Cecil Sharp collected Master Kilby from Harry Richards of Curry Rivel in Somerset both on July 29, 1904 and on January 6, 1909. Nic Jones sang it on his album From the Devil to a Stranger. 

Traditional lyrics to “Master Kilby”

In the heat of the day when the sun shines so freely
I met Master Kilby so fine and so gay.

Well, I pulled off my hat and I bowed to the ground,
And I said, “Master Kilby, oh, where are you bound?”

“I’m bound for the west in hopes to find rest;
And in the arms of my dear Nancy I’ll build a new nest.

And if I was the master of ten thousand pounds
In bright gold and silver or in King William’s crowns,

I would part with it all with my own heart so freely:
It’s all for the sake of my charming Nancy.

She’s the fairest of girls, she’s the choice of my heart;
And her skin shines like silver in every part.

Oh, I gave her some kisses, it was down by the sea shore;
But still she lay asking, lay asking for more.