'Play with songs' examines legacy of folk tune collector Cecil Sharp

Cecil Sharp

Cecil Sharp who collected folk songs from rural villages and brought them back to Hampstead - Credit: English Folk Dance and Song Society Archive

The story of how Cecil Sharp gathered folk tunes from rural Somerset then brought them back to Hampstead is told in a new 'play with songs'.

Folk at Hampstead Theatre foregrounds the working class people who were Sharp's source, and explores how he both saved - and stole - their music traditions.

Although the Primrose Hill headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society is named after Sharp, he's a controversial figure who berated his Suffragette sister, refused to collect songs from people of colour, and undermined the work of female song collectors.

Cecil Sharpe House

Cecil Sharp House in Regent's Park Road, Primrose Hill is the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society - Credit: Archant

"He was a misogynist and a racist," says West Country playwright Nell Leyshon. "He was a very difficult man, strident in his views, and it would be easy for me, a strong woman in 2021 to take him down. But the people who always interest me are the unheard voices, the untold story."

It was an exhibition of photographs about the singers Sharp collected from - including sisters Louie and Lucy Hooper - that piqued Leyshon's interest.

"My imagination is based in Somerset and seeing a stonebreaker from my village was a lightbulb moment. I realised Cecil Sharp was collecting songs which had died by the time I got there - as he predicted they would, at the end of the industrial revolution. Without him they would be lost."

Cecil Sharp

Cecil Sharp collects songs during one of his field trips - Credit: English Folk Dance and Song Society Archive

Leyshon has woven that into her drama. "I was transfixed by a man who was so judgmental yet contradictory. He could go to Somerset and befriend an incredibly low class Gypsy woman and persuade her to sing. He respected the singers because of a shared love of music. I thought it was more interesting to look at the mechanics of how he collected those songs. The real paradox is if he hadn't been so driven, he wouldn't have saved over 3,000 of them."

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Sharp, who lived in Maresfield Gardens and was Principal of the Hampstead Conservatoire - now the site of the Central School of Speech and Drama in Eton Avenue - set the songs to piano and altered the saucier lyrics.

Cecil Sharp plaque

The plaque on Cecil Sharp's former home at 4, Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead - Credit: Archant

"He took them, changed them, turned them into drawing room songs, and copyrighted them. Elsewhere in the folk song revival, pagan, Chaucerian songs full of sex were turned into pious hymns. The play is about cultural appropriation and the fascinating crux; is Sharp a force for good or bad?"

And Leyshon tells it from the viewpoint of an illiterate woman who had 200 songs in her head .

"Everything I believe in is in the character of Louie. She was this extraordinary Somerset singer who was disabled and had to stay at home sewing gloves. What electrified me was discovering the BBC made a programme about her in 1942. She said when she was walking down the lanes she made music in her head from the birdsong. She was gifted and would have been a composer if she had been born into a different world, like all those incredible people throughout history who never got the opportunity but were better than mediocre people with connections.

"The play is a love letter to music. Louie and Sharp act out this love of music – he brings his classical world, she brings her world of folk music. There's a clash between working and middle class, the self taught versus the over educated. Afterwards Sharp shot up to London, got in his dinner jacket, put on this amazing evening, and wrote the reviews under a false name. He was a self promoter, and people like Louie just accepted that anything exciting they had could be taken away from them."

First heard during lockdown on Radio 3, Folk weaves in dance and 10 songs including The Seeds of Love - collected by Sharp in 1903 while staying with the vicar of Hambridge in Somerset. He heard gardener John England singing it as he mowed the lawn, whipped out his notebook and took it down.

Leyshon says the oral tradition meant there were multiple versions of each song with themes ranging from broken love tokens to dark tales of murder.

"The history of one song like The Leaves They Do Grow High will give you the history of a whole country."

And the play touches on how Sharp and fellow collectors were concerned with "searching for a pure Englishness".

"There was a surge of nationalism, all the music was European and they were asking where is the next great English composer? There's a political debate about how we don't love our country enough, so this might be my Brexit play! I thought I had written something simple but it's so complex."

Growing up in Somerset with a stint working in London, Leyshon has personally felt "that rural urban divide".

Somerset-based playwright Nell Leyshon whose play Folk foregrounds the singers whose songs were collected by Cecil Sharp

Somerset-based playwright Nell Leyshon whose play Folk foregrounds the singers whose songs were collected by Cecil Sharp - Credit: Supplied

"Like the town mouse and the country mouse, there's a wide separation of understanding. I had a really strong Somerset accent at one point, then I realised there's a bigger world out there. But I've discovered you've got to find out your passion, write with your voice not against it."

And she's delighted Folk is on at Hampstead, where previous plays Glass Eels and Comfort Me With Apples were staged.

"It's amazing watching this come to life. Coming back to Hampstead is a joy, I feel really comfortable with my voice there."

Folk runs at Hampstead Theatre from December 18 until February 5.