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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Beauty during pandemic: “The Lark Ascending”

Ralph Vaughan Williams (12 October 1872 – 26 August 1958) was an English composer. His works include operas, ballets, chamber music, secular and religious vocal pieces and orchestral compositions including nine symphonies, written over sixty years. Strongly influenced by Tudor music and English folk-song, his output marked a decisive break in British music from its German-dominated style of the 19th century.

Considered to be among the best-known British symphonists, Williams is noted for his very wide range of moods, from stormy and impassioned to tranquil, from mysterious to exuberant. Among the most familiar of his other concert works are Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) and The Lark Ascending (1914).