A Jurassic Park of Folksong:  Brian Peters and Jeff Davis feast on Sharp’s Appalachian Harvest

Thu, 05/29/2014 - 02:15
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A Jurassic Park of Folksong:  Brian Peters and Jeff Davis feast on Sharp’s Appalachian Harvest

In the first few years of the 20th century, Cecil Sharp thought that he was collecting the last remnants of a song tradition in England.  A few years later, during a working visit to America, an opportunistic meeting with an American collector, Olive Campbell, was to lead to the creation of one of the most significant folk songs collections in the world.

Taking the opportunity to meet Cecil Sharp, Olive Campbell told him that the inhabitants of the Southern Appalachians were still singing the traditional songs and ballads which their English and Scottish ancestors had brought out with them at the time of their emigration.  Recognising the linkage, Sharp thought that he could discover ‘the pure drop’ of English folk song in some kind of primordial state and soon set about organising a trip to the Appalachians.  The subsequent visits, made with his collaborator Maud Karpeles during the years 1916–1918, were a great success.
Pursuing the line of research pioneered by Olive Campbell, Sharp and Karpeles travelled through the mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, recording a treasure trove of folk songs, many in versions quite different from those Sharp had collected in rural England.
Although the idea of folk songs being frozen in time might sound far fetched, there is an element of truth in it.  But if Sharp thought that he had discovered ‘the pure drop’, his collecting was only the first step in a process which could yet lead to a reinvigoration of the source.  Now, close to a century later, England’s Brian Peters and his long-time American collaborator Jeff Davis are revisiting the work of Sharp and Karpeles, with a CD of their favourite songs from the collection, and a live presentation in which the songs are set against a backdrop of the songcatchers’ extraordinary story.  Their title is Sharp’s Appalachian Harvest.

Jeff Davis explains why they felt they needed to do it:  “It’s a shame when old folk music collections sit on shelves, ignored and languishing.  Of course, there are those few singers who have scoured every song on every page but, generally, those great collections of songs, gathered over years and despite innumerable difficulties, are scarcely attended to.  The material that Cecil Sharp garnered - with the help of Olive Dame Campbell and Maud Karpeles - is one of the greatest of folk song collections.  We’ve tried to bring a small portion of that music to life.  A small portion?  A tiny portion!  But it has been rewarding and a pleasure to work with Brian on the project.”

During the years of the First World War, just a few short years after making his first collections of English folksongs, Sharp found it difficult to support himself through his customary efforts at lecturing and writing and decided to make an extended visit to the United States working as dance advisor for a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.  At that time, Sharp was almost certainly the most experienced folksong collector then working in England.  But that was not all.  As well as collecting folksongs, he had spent much of his time researching the history of the songs and dances that he was discovering.  By 1915, he was recognised as one of the foremost experts on the subject and although the reason for his visit to America was not folksong related, it did provide opportunities to fit in two lectures on that subject.

Whilst in Boston he addressed an invited audience on The Value of the Folk-song and the Folk-dance to the Community and a month later in Pittsburgh, under the auspices of the Art Society, he gave a public lecture on English Folk-song in the Carnegie Music Hall.  It was there that Sharp met Olive Campbell, of Asheville, North Carolina.  It was to prove to be an encounter of great significance.

Olive Campbell was the wife of John Campbell, who was engaged in a social project upgrading the Appalachian school system.  It was a job which necessitated long trips into the mountains and Olive often accompanied her husband on his journeys.  It was during such trips that she first began to hear mountain ballads and songs.  In December, 1907, the Campbells visited Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky and it was there that she heard a student, Ada Smith, sing a version of the ballad Barbara Allen.  Olive Campbell subsequently noted down over 200 songs from local people.
After Sharp’s lecture, Olive Campbell described to him her findings and showed him her manuscripts.  Highly impressed by the interesting versions of familiar English folk songs and of ballads thought extinct, Sharp found a benefactor and planned his first trip into the mountains.   

In July, 1916, Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles began their quest in Madison County, North Carolina, in the heart of the Southern Appalachians. Their approach to collecting was to find a suitable local host – often a missionary - who could advise them on likely singers in the neighbourhood.  They struck gold almost immediately, Sharp’s diary reporting that he’d heard ballads like Earl Brand and The Wife Of Usher’s Well within the first couple of days, but it wasn’t always so easy.  Tracking down the singers in their remote mountain cabins often required miles of trudging over rough paths, often in extreme heat and with Sharp in poor health from fevers and headaches.  When they reached their target, it wasn’t uncommon to find that a former singer had given up performing the 'Love Songs' - as mountain settlers called the old ballads – because of pressure from preachers who considered them ungodly.  It was probably only Maud Karpeles’ youthful energy and total dedication to her mentor and his cause that made the difference between success and failure.  Nonetheless, they found many fine singers with good repertoires and far from treating the people they met with the kind of indifference displayed by some collectors, they were respectful and affectionate to many of them, sending money, gifts and photographs and sometimes keeping up lengthy correspondences.

Today we scarcely think of the difficulties that faced some of the early collectors, but working with Sharp’s archive has given Brian a deeper understanding and respect of them.  “It must have been a huge culture shock to these two middle-class English people out there in the back of beyond, yet they managed to win the trust of people with a completely different way of life.  The conditions were often terrible, and Sharp really was quite seriously ill for long periods, but somehow they kept going.  Their dedication to their chosen cause is very impressive.”

“The repertoire that Sharp and Karpeles found was pretty remarkable,” Brian continues.  “All those old ballads that Sharp knew from F J Child, but thought extinct - like The Demon Lover and Little Musgrave - were still being sung by Appalachian people, young and old.  Admittedly Sharp did get over-excited about the mountain folk being some kind of throwback to the yeoman farmers of Old England.  The ridges were remote in those days and, like any isolated immigrant community, the people had kept many of the old ways intact – Sharp commented on their anachronistic speech as well.  But we know that there were other ethnic groups there – African-Americans, Cherokee, French, Germans – and they did mingle.  Even those archaic ballads were being sung in a style that had clearly changed from the way they would have been sung in England or Scotland.” 

The early immigrants to the Southern Appalachians, arriving throughout the eighteenth century, were a group usually referred to in America as ‘Scotch-Irish’ and it’s important to understand what that means.  They arrived from Ulster, where their ancestors had been settled from the British mainland; they were religious dissenters (mainly Presbyterian) and although many had Scottish ancestry, many others had their roots in Northern England.  Irish Catholics arrived later during the famine years, but stayed mostly separate.  

Sharp’s own ideas about the mountain people’s ethnicity were odd, as Brian explains:  “He’d formed the idea that Lowland Scotland and England were pretty much the same in terms of culture, or at least folk song.  Anyone who’s compared the stuff the English collectors were finding in the 1900s, with what Gavin Greig was turning up in Scotland, would find that pretty far-fetched.  There was some overlap, but also a lot of distinctly different repertoire.  It was a pretty eccentric decision to call the published collection English Folk Songs From The Southern Appalachians, when it was full of ballads like Young Hunting, never found in England but formerly popular in Scotland.  There are some typically English songs, but in general the mix of old ballads is exactly what you’d expect from a part-Scottish and part-English population.  And it wasn’t just old British ballads, anyway.  Sharp found home-grown American ballads like Omie Wise, Civil War songs and pieces he must have known were African-American.   Not only did he note them all down, but a lot of them ended up in the book – so you have to take the ‘English’ in his title with a pinch of salt.”  

And he didn’t just note down songs, as Jeff explains:  “Sharp has been criticised for not collecting tunes, but he did hear several fiddlers and noted down some of their music.  We play three on the CD:  one quite common one (Johnson Boys), one quite unusual version of another and one never before recorded.  It would be a fine thing to know exactly how those tunes would have been played, but we don't know, so we imagined…”

Jeff and Brian have known one another and made music together for the best part of 20 years and it’s their mutual respect and knowledge and interest in each other’s traditions that brought this collaboration about.  Jeff has long enjoyed English folksong, going back to an early exposure to Louis Killen and to the Copper Family, while Brian has a complimentary interest in American old time traditions, having worked with Sara Grey and moonlighted with various old-timey bands.  Both of them, though, are known mainly for a deep commitment to their own countries’ traditional songs and music.  Brian particularly notes Jeff’s singing:  “He’s spent time with some of the great old singers like Frank Proffitt, and has assimilated an authentic singing style which allows him to really get inside a song.”  Critically, they also share an interest in what lies behind a song.  “Both of us believe that a song isn’t simply a set of words and a tune,” says Brian.  “There is the history of the song itself, there’s the story of the singer and of the collector.”

Although the story of Sharp and Karpeles’ travels was touched on in a recent songwriting project, to date nobody has set out to perform the songs they found in any real depth.  A few are familiar to modern audiences: Black Is The Colour has been given such prominence by Christie Moore that many people think it an Irish song.  Much of the collection, though, remains unexplored and Brian and Jeff are trying to remedy that.  Traditions are often reinvented or reinvigorated but it is still quite a big step for songs to move from a printed archive.  If the songs - the key traces of DNA that can fulfil Sharp’s dream - are to live again, they need to be reinterpreted in ways which result in them again becoming living entities.  Brian and Jeff’s musical approach is sensitive to the age and history of the songs, yet open to more modern trends and reflects their own nationalities and musical personalities in arranging material which mixes the old-world and the new.  Brian concentrates on the older ballads and performs them in his own English style, while Jeff brings his experience with American traditional singers and his mastery of the banjo, to bear.
“It only takes a bit of imagination to bring those old singers from the collection to life,” Jeff explains.  “Our purpose was not to recreate the exact sound and style of the singers, but to encourage listeners to imagine what that sound was.  Sharp collected, apparently, only one song that was accompanied by an instrument, but we've accompanied almost all of them, quite a few on banjo.  There were old-timers who added banjo to ballads - I’m thinking of Clarence Ashley and Buell Kazee, though I don't think my efforts are what either of those two would have come up with - in fact, my banjo tuning for Earl Brand may have never been used before.  But banjo was used in just about every kind of song imaginable.  Doc Boggs sang all kinds of stuff with banjo, including shape note hymns and gospel music, so I tried that very distinctive Boggs style on the gospel piece Hold On and it seemed to work.”

Brian and Jeff have been working on the project for some time and recorded their CD in Yorkshire earlier this year.  It was always the plan, though, to present a live show that went beyond the music itself.  Cecil Sharp kept diaries of the three Appalachian trips (available online at the EFDSS website), which contain vivid accounts of the difficulties encountered, fascinating details of the singers themselves and occasional flashes of rather curmudgeonly humour.  In the live performance, Brian and Jeff enhance their own narrative with diary readings and also have a strong visual element thanks to Cecil Sharp’s skills as a photographer.  In a report on the lectures that Sharp gave in America, one commentator said:  “The photographs which Mr Sharp threw on the screen also increased the interest of the occasion.”  Sharp was a keen photographer and his powerful portraits of some of his Appalachian singers and also of various scenes of mountain life, are themselves a valuable record of a vanished way of existence.   They feature prominently, as a slide show, in Sharp’s Appalachian Harvest.  The collector would no doubt have been thrilled had he known that his images would be used in this way in the future.

The show has already been performed at Cheltenham Folk Festival and at the American Old-Time Festival at Gainsborough, where it received enthusiastic reviews.  This year it has its US premiere in Boston, MA, before the duo return to the UK for performances at Cecil Sharp House and folk festivals in Lewes and Derby.  There are also plans to perform it at other US venues; Brian has already taught several courses on English folk songs and ballads at Appalachian Summer schools such as Augusta Heritage Center and the Swannanoa Gathering – which is very close to Cecil Sharp’s old stamping ground in North Carolina.  There may also be interest from some of the institutions that Sharp visited, such as Berea College in Kentucky, which retains a folklore department.

Meanwhile at American grass-roots level, songs that Sharp collected are still being sung in an unbroken line of tradition.  During one of his stints at Swannanoa, Brian swapped songs with Sheila Kay Adams, a fine North Carolina ballad singer who counts herself in the seventh generation of tradition bearers in her own family.  “Sheila Kay is related to Doug and Cas Wallin, who were well-known to the traditional song world thanks to visits by song collectors over the 1960s – 1980s.  Going back further, she’s descended from Mary Sands, who Sharp met and got many songs from and also from Mitchell Wallin, a fiddle player who drove Sharp around the area.  We play one of Mitchell’s tunes and were really happy to get permission to use his photograph for the front cover of the Appalachian Harvest CD.  Sheila Kay learned her songs through her family, but she knows all about Sharp’s work and is very proud of her family’s part in the song heritage.  Her cousin, Joe Penland, is another singer who’s recorded many of Mary Sands’ songs.”

To date, their project has been entirely driven by Brian and Jeff; there are no project partners as such, although they express appreciation for the cooperation of the Vaughan Williams Library in accessing material and using photos.  The CD is out now and they hope this may prove to be a key link back to the printed collection.  Although song books play a part in the learning of songs, most singers tend to hear songs first in performance before discovering them in book form - although some traditions have been described as ‘bookish’, it is still oral performance that is the key to most transmissions.

With hindsight we can now pose the question - was Sharp and Karpeles’ work finished?  Sharp probably thought so as they were no longer turning up much exciting new stuff in their later travels and he believed that industrialisation had made neighbouring states like West Virginia poor hunting grounds.  They were mistaken on that count and of course there was much other music, like that of the African-American community, that was outside their frame of reference.  Nonetheless, you have to call a halt somewhere and 1600 songs wasn’t such a bad haul!  

Where the work wasn’t finished though goes back to the concept of a Jurassic Park and the idea that collections can have an impact on current or future living traditions.  Would Sharp have succeeded in his task without Maud Karpeles?  Probably not.  Might Brian Peters and Jeff Davis have come along at the right time and might their efforts to turn Sharp’s vision into some sort of reality yet prove to have a significant impact on folk song in England and in the USA?  Time will tell.

by Pete Heywood

An example from Sharp’s diaries:

August 27, 1916

Last week I went to Hot Springs, where I got thirty beautiful songs from a single woman.  The collecting goes on apace, and I have now noted 160 songs and ballads.  Indeed, this field is a far more fertile one upon which to collect English folk songs than England itself.  The cult of singing traditional songs is far more alive than it is in England or has been for fifty years or more.  I do not know how I shall tear myself away from the mountains and leave so much work undone when, at the end of next month, I have to make tracks for Chicago.  If I could only have stayed here and collected until Christmas, I could have done a tremendous lot, collected probably over a thousand tunes.  I must try and get up here by hook or crook next year again. 

It is work that for the sake of posterity must be done, and that without delay.  This last week I took down three ballads given in Child which I have never before heard sung and to which there are no published tunes Edward, Johnny Scott, and Fair Annie.  The first of these is one of the oldest ballads known, and is the prototype of Lord Rendal, a very rare and valuable find.  I am simply amazed at what I have done in a month compared with what I have ever been able to do in England in that time.

Articles by Mike Yates, published on the Musical Traditions website, were of great help in researching this feature - mustrad.org.uk 

Contact Brian at:  brian@brian-peters.co.uk
For information about Jeff Davis: jeffdavisoldmusic.com