Berea College Appalachian Music Fellowship
Day 17, June 23, 2009
“I would leave them as they are and not meddle.”
Maybe the reason I keep coming back to Cecil Sharp’s musical journeys into the Southern Appalachian mountains is because he tended to be the most open-minded ballad collector about his subjects who gave so freely of their song repertoires. This afternoon I’ve been re-reading Maud Karpeles’ 1967 biography of Sharp (a hard-bound, first edition copy lovingly preserved in the archives here).
Karpeles (1885-1976) was Sharp’s assistant, travelling companion, and fellow musicologist/scholar. She became his literary executor on his death and published what is still considered the definitive biography on Sharp, Cecil Sharp: His Life and Work.
A couple of excerpts:
“During the years 1916-18 Cecil Sharp and I spent twelve months in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, forty-six weeks being given to actual collecting—nine weeks in 1916, and about twice as long in each of the following years. We travelled over a big area, spending about three and a half months in each of the states of North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky, a month in Tennessee, and a few days in West Virginia. We visited altogether between seventy and eighty different small towns and settlements.”
“In other parts of the United States little was known of the mountain people, who were at that time usually referred to as ‘mountain white’ or ‘poor white trash’. We were told by our New York and Boston friends that we should find ourselves among a wild and dangerous community and we were advised to arm ourselves with revolvers. Cecil Sharp paid no heed to the warning; indeed, he said that the handling of a revolver would cause him far greater fear than encountering the wildest savage; and, as a matter of fact, it would have been hard to find any other place where a stranger—and particularly a woman—would be as safe as in the mountains.”
Of the people who sang for Sharp and Karpeles, Sharp especially enjoyed their social instincts and charm. He wrote: “They have an easy, unaffected bearing and the unselfconscious manners of the well-bred. I have received salutations upon introduction or on bidding farewell, such as a courtier might make to his sovereign. . . .”
Maud Karpeles and Cecil Sharp often relied on the mission schools in the mountains for resting places. Karpeles writes: “Cecil Sharp acknowledged the hospitality and friendliness of the missionaries towards himself, but he thought that much of their work amongst the mountain people was misguided and harmful particularly their educational methods. Here is a letter he wrote to one of the missionaries, a Mrs. Storrow, on Setpember 13, 1916. The location of the mission is not indicated:
“To Mrs. Storrow.
Some of the women [missionaries] I have met are very nice and broadminded. But I don’t think any of them realize that the people they are here to improve are in many respects far more cultivated than their would-be instructors, even if they cannot read or write. Take music, for example. Their own is pure and lovely. The hymns that these missionaries teach them are musical and literary garbage. . . . For my part, I would leave them [the mountain people] as they are and not meddle. They are happy, contented, and live simply and healthily, and I am not at all sure that any of us can introduce them to anything better than this. Something might be done in teaching them better methods of farming, so as to lighten the burden of earning a living from their holdings; and they should certainly be taught to read and write—at any rate, those who want to, ought to be able to. Beyond that I should not go.”