edited excerpt from “Cecil Sharp in America” (www.mustrad.org.uk):
by Mike Yates
Cecil Sharp, the English folksong collector, made a remarkable collection of songs in the Appalachian mountains during the period 1916-1918. I decided to seek out Sharp’s original diaries and extant correspondence, so that I could let Sharp himself tell me what had happened during his Appalachian forays.
Cecil Sharp: “The people are just English of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. They speak English, look English, and their manners are old-fashioned English. Heaps of words and expressions they use habitually in ordinary conversation are obsolete, and have been in England a long time.
Although the people are so English, they have their American quality that they are freer than the English peasant. They own their own land, and have done so for three or four generations, so that there is none of the servility which, unhappily, is one of the characteristics of the English peasant.
With that praise, I should say that they are just exactly what the English peasant was one hundred or more years ago. They have been so isolated and protected from outside influence that their own music and song have not only been uncorrupted, but also uninfluenced by art music in any way.
This is clear enough in the character of the tunes I have collected, nearly all of which are in gapped scales (i.e., scales lacking two or more notes; e.g., the fourth and seventh), which is a more archaic form than that in which they are now being sung in England.”
Sharp noted a number of songs from Dad Blackard, the local ‘banjer-man’, whose family later recorded two 78rpm records in 1927.
When I met Dad Blackard’s daughter, Clarice Shelor, in 1980 she told me how Sharp and Maud Karpeles had arrived at her father’s house during a rainstorm. They were both soaked through to the skin and so the family took the wet clothes off their guests and wrapped them in blankets while their clothes dried by the fire.
Clarice remembered her amazement at Sharp’s ability to harmonise her father’s tunes on the family piano almost as soon as he had noted them in his tune book. She also remembers the fact that Sharp had a very prominent nose. ‘I’ll never forget. I was a little girl then. I had a big nose and I’d always thought that with my big nose I’d never be famous, or anything, when I grew up. And do you know … Mr Sharp he had such a big nose. And him being famous. It just made me feel marvellous.’