I have found the tunes in Virginia extraordinarily beautiful; I think of greater musical value than those I have taken down anywhere else in America.
– Cecil Sharp
Many of the tunes have a primordial intensity of expression which strikes at the very roots of our being and the best of them can surely be accounted among the most lovely in the world.
– Maud Karpeles, (1967:169)
On a Mission
The mountains of Virginia have attracted a wide array of travelers and visionaries, but few have come with a mission as unusual as that of Cecil Sharp and his assistant, Maud Karpeles. On September 20, 1916, the two arrived in Charlottesville, VA. Their task: to locate and collect the remnants of the English folk song tradition among the descendants of British settlers who came to the mountains in the late 17th and 18th centuries.
In the course of their journey through Virginia’s hinterlands, they found a vibrant folk music tradition. They visited 13 Virginia counties, collected hundreds of songs and met a cavalcade of unforgettable people.
The year 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of Cecil Sharp’s folksong collecting trip in Virginia. In the course of the trip, Sharp photographed his informants and the places they lived and worked. These photos are available on the internet, but they lack context. This website annotates and curates these photographs. It provides information about who Sharp’s informants were, the songs he collected from them, where they lived and worked and their relationships to one another. It also integrates Sharp’s photos and diary entries with timelines, maps and web links to recreate Sharp’s journey.
Mapping the journey helps to clarify song distribution and geo-musical boundaries. It also provides a better appreciation of Sharp and Karpeles’ immense achievement.
The website deals only with Sharp and Karpeles collecting trips in Virginia because, under the auspices of the English Folk Dance & Song Society (EFDSS), folklorists in North Carolina have created the Cecil Sharp in Appalachia website that documents Sharp and Karpeles’ collecting in their state and throughout Appalachia. The websites are intended to commemorate the centennial of Cecil Sharp’s first collecting trip to Appalachia.
Virginia would have had a special attraction for Sharp. It was England’s first colony in North America and the cultural and historical ties between Virginia and England were stronger than in any other part of the United States.
Sharp also found a kindred spirit in Alphonso Smith, a college dean, professor of English, philologist, and folklorist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Smith founded the Virginia Folk-Lore Society in 1913 and encouraged his students to collect folk songs. He helped Sharp plan his itinerary through Virginia and introduced him to singers in the Charlottesville area.
The communities Sharp and Karpeles visited were on the cusp of modernization. The coming of radio and improved road systems to the area as the 20th century progressed ended the isolation of the mountain communities. The chestnut blight had begun to take its toll on one of the mountaineers’ major sources of income. Logging companies owned vast tracts of land in the mountains and in the early 20th century, they embarked on a massive program to harvest the chestnut trees before the blight destroyed their value. New railroad lines, roads and mills were built. Massie’s Mill, for example, had only had its rail connection for four years when Sharp and Karpeles stopped there in search of folk songs. They quickly discovered it had become “too modern” and were obliged to venture eight miles farther into the mountains, where they found the singing family of Philander H. Fitzgerald.
Sharp and Karpeles did fieldwork in communities that were bulldozed to make the Shenandoah National Park and they were among the last witnesses to describe how life was lived in these areas. Their descriptions of the people they met stand in direct contrast with the popular depiction of the mountaineers as “poor white trash” who needed to be evicted from their land “for their own good.”
Hear Jeff Davis and Brian Peters performing their Appalachian Harvest tribute to Cecil Sharp.