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Caught My Ear: Dance Tunes in the National Jukebox from Collections by Cecil Sharp

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Portrait of a man facing left
Cecil Sharp in 1916. Photo by Arnold Genthe. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Many divisions of the Library of Congress have fascinating collections that are closely related to folklife and that complement collections in the American Folklife Center. The Recorded Sound Section is a part of the Library that works closely with the American Folklife Center in a variety of important ways. Among their holdings are recordings related to folklife. I was pleasantly surprised to find that among the recent additions to the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox are tunes collected by the great British folk music scholar Cecil Sharp (1859 – 1924) played by Prince’s Band in sessions supervised by Sharp in 1916. These recordings of traditional tunes directed by Cecil Sharp can be found at this link.

The Recorded Sound staff have been busy adding published recordings to the National Jukebox. While the Jukebox project began with early Victor recordings, more recent additions include many recordings on the Columbia record label as well. Both Columbia and Victor included many ethnic recordings in their catalogs, and Sharp made recordings on both labels. It is well worth exploring this valuable online source of published recordings.

Cecil Sharp lived at a time when the method of documenting tunes and songs was to write them down or to learn to play and sing them from those who knew them, but this was gradually giving way to the new medium of sound recording. Sharp himself mainly used the older method of transcribing directly from live performance, but it is worth noting here that James Madison Carpenter, an American ethnographer whose collections are held by the Library of Congress, began his collections about three years after Sharp died, and in many ways continued Sharp’s important work using cylinders as a standard method. Just as Sharp crossed the Atlantic to record British music in America, Carpenter crossed in the other direction to record in Great Britain.

Sharp’s Major works relating to these types of dances and dance tunes were the multivolume collection The Morris Book (1907-1914) and The Country Dance Book (1909). He also wrote about sword dances, English folksongs, and songs collected in America. He did not stop with academic efforts to study folk music and dance. He also wanted people to continue to perform the music, sing the songs, and dance the dances. He was a co-founder of the English Folk Dance Society, which later merged with the Folk Song Society to become the English Folk Dance and Song Society. His work and the work of others like him, along with the enthusiasm of people who simply wanted to learn the music and dances for their own pleasure, helped to keep these traditions vital.

In his ethnographic work, Sharp was documenting the way that British music and dance were being performed at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. But those singers, musicians, and dancers he documented were keeping traditions that were much older, and some can be traced through publications by earlier authors who wrote down dances and tunes for people to learn. Most important among these was John Playford, the compiler of the many editions of The Dancing Master in the 17th century. The earliest publication dates for some dances can be traced through his work.

Cecil Sharp found his work documenting the traditional music and dance of Great Britain disrupted by World War I. Then in his 50s, Sharp chose escape the war and continue his work. He traveled to the United States where he and scholar Maude Karpeles set out to find and notate the English and Scottish folksongs found in southern Appalachia. It was during this time that these commercial Columbia and Victor recordings were made.  To learn more about the American adventures of this British recording team see the video: Sharp’s Appalachian Harvest with Jeff Davis & Brian Peters, a lecture and musical tour of the adventures of Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles between 1916 and 1918.

Sharp and Karpeles sought to document the folk music of Great Britain as it was performed in community settings, as well as the instruments the people used, dances, and songs. The way that commercial recordings were made at the time required bringing performers into the studio, and so these recordings must have been a very different experience for Sharp. Prince’s Band is a brass band and brass was not the type of instrumentation traditionally used for the tunes they performed in most cases. Nevertheless, this gives us a group of recordings made with Sharp’s involvement and his selection of tunes gives us a glimpse into what he thought was most important to share with American audiences who would hear them. Here are some examples of the tunes that can now be found in the National Jukebox:

“Goddesses” is one of the earliest dance tunes that Sharp recorded. The dance was a line dance for four couples. It was included in the first edition of John Playford’s The Dancing Master in 1650. The music would have been performed on instruments used for dancing at the time, such as stringed instruments, flutes, and some light percussion such as tambourines and small drums.

“The Black Nag” or “The Galloping Nag” was a popular dance with many variations. Another line dance, it appeared in the 1657 edition of John Playford’s The Dancing Master, and again, it would have been played on instruments used for dance at the time.

“Sellenger’s Round,” also called “The Beginning of the World,” is a round dance, also found in Playford’s 1657 edition, that had nearly vanished from use when Sharp documented it. Thanks to the work of Sharp and others who promoted British dance, it is still being performed today.

The 17th century dances that survive from  John Playford’s The Dancing Master were discussed by Graham Christian on the occasion of the publication of his book, The Playford Assembly : 125 early English country dances, 1651-1820, and the centennial of the Country Dance and Song Society: “The Playford Assembly: 100 Years of Country Dance & Song.” In this video you can see examples of dances performed as well as described.

In addition to dances for social occasions, the Victor and Columbia recordings made by Sharp and Prince’s Band include some dances from festivals.

“The Helston Furry Dance,” or “Helston Furry Processional,” is a dance from Helston, Cornwall, and celebrates the coming of spring on May 8, celebrated as Flora Day. According to locals the origin of the Flora Day customs go back to the founding of Helston with a battle between St. Michael and the Devil. In any case, it is probably quite an old tradition. Unlike the other examples here, it is properly played on brass instruments by Prince’s Band as that is the way it is performed today. The men wear top hats and a lily of the valley while the women wear their best spring clothes as they dance through the streets of Helston. The melody of the Helston Furry Dance survived in America, in a rare Ozark Mountain version of one of the Helston May Day songs, which is in the American Folklife Center archive. It was sung by Lillian Short and recorded by Vance Randolph; Stephen Winick wrote about it and included the recording in a post at Folklife Today over at this link. Hear the Prince Band’s version below.

Morris is a dance style used for spring and summer festivals and celebrations, as it is usually performed outside. It likely dates from medieval times and Americans most often encounter it as a May Day dance. But rugged Morris dancers can be found dancing at any time of year when audiences may gather outside. “Rakes of Mallow” is an Irish song first printed in Burke Thumoth’s collection Twelve English and Twelve Irish Airs (1720). It is an example of how folksongs and tunes may change in how they are used as they travel. In England the tune is known as “Rigs o’ Marlow” and is used as a Morris dance tune. The title no doubt changed as the tune traveled far from its origins. Morris dance musicians play tunes on a variety of instruments that are easy to carry from place to place as the dancers may play wherever they can find an audience on a given day. So accordions, concertinas, violins, whistles, flutes, and yes, even horns might be played.

Further discussion of Morris dancing, with pictures and video clips can be found in a talk by the American Folklife Center’s Jennifer Cutting,  “Bringing in the May”. She also talks about collections of Morris dancing in the American Folkife Canter archive and shows examples of morris dancing costumes or “kits.” This is a good one to watch in the winter, as it brings the hope of spring.

I wonder what Sharp would think of his recordings of tunes by Prince’s Band playing traditional British tunes to an audience today, or if he could even imagine these recordings surviving for over 100 years. I think he would be pleased, since his goal was to keep these tunes and the dances that go with them in living performance.  He would be still more pleased to know that there are groups actively performing a wide variety of dances and songs from the British isles and Ireland today, some even reconstructing costumes and using period instruments, that the Helston Furry Dance is held for enthusiastic crowds, and that Morris dancers still dance in the spring on May Day. There are more recordings of Prince’s Band in the National Jukebox than I have presented here. I hope you will explore them all.


Winick, Stephen, “From Cornwall to the Ozarks: More May Celebrations,” Folklife Today, May 8, 2014 (includes more on the Helston Flora Day celebration).

Winick, Stephen, “’Hal An Tow’: Some Intriguing Evidence on a May Song,” Folklife Today, May 6, 2017 (includes even more on the Helston Flora Day celebration).

Vaughn Williams Memorial Library, a good source for searching for more information on English language folk songs and tunes.

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