City Folk

English Country Dance and the Politics of the Folk in Modern America
by Daniel J Walkowitz

New York U P, New York & London, 2010, pp.335, 24.
ISBN-10: 0814794696 ISBN-13: 978-0814794692

Cecil Sharp, Politics, Dance and American Englishness

The following review essay was commissioned by a major historical journal.  The journal encourages reviews in which writers explore the wider issues raised by the book and develop their own arguments.  Upon the first submission of the essay the editor thought the piece 'thoughtful and interesting' but felt there should be more about the actual content of the book.  Cover pictureI produced a second version of the essay (which was better and fuller than the first) but although the editor thought that I 'raised some really interesting issues' felt that it was 'unnecessarily harsh in places' and that the criticisms 'could be abbreviated a bit and the tone softened somewhat'.  The editor felt that 'your discussion of Sharp is very valuable' but repeated 'the tone is too sharp for us in places, and ...  the criticisms could be trimmed'.  Mild mannered as I think I am, my writing is robust at times; I believe in engaged criticism and in communicating an honest assessment.  I hate the blandness of what passes for criticism in a lot of what is written today.  I therefore withdrew the piece and offered it, unaltered, to Musical Traditions.

(I also hate the blandness of what passes for criticism these days, and am pleased to publish Vic's review - Ed.)


The application of the skills of a professional historian to a subject which is often the realm of the enthusiast and the amateur (not in itself a bad thing but necessarily limited to a certain range of approaches) gives us hope that this work might be something quite special.  Furthermore, Walkowitz is a historian who uses class as a central concept in historical analysis, at a time when, in his own words 'Class has largely disappeared as a useful category of analysis in social history, most especially for the social history of the recent past.'1.  Daniel J Walkowitz, 'The Cultural Turn and A New Social History: Folk Dance and the Renovation of Class in Social History', Journal of Social History 39:3 2006) pp.781-802, p.781.1  Walkowitz aims to use folk dance 'as a prism through which to examine what I call the culture of liberalism' (p.5).  The book promises a lot.

The book attests to the ongoing interest in the work and legacy of Cecil Sharp, the English folk song and dance collector and educator (1859-1924).  The interest in Sharp (both from defenders, critics, and those who simply want to understand the man, his historical significance and legacy) is lively and shows no sign of abating.  A large part of Walkowitz's book deals with the outcomes of processes Sharp was largely responsible for putting into play.

A few years ago, I had a personal experience which really brought home to me how significant aspects of Sharp's legacy were.  I was fortunate enough to be invited to be a performer/tutor at Pinewoods Folk Music Week, near Plymouth in Massachusetts.  The official website gives a good flavour of the camp:

Pinewoods is a place of escape, and when the weather is fine and not too humid, a beautiful place to be.  The place is imbued with the ghost of Cecil Sharp.  Pinewoods was founded by Helen Storrow, one of Sharp's chief supporters and benefactors in the US and a woman of substantial means.  Buildings are named after him and after people and things associated with him.  The CDSS (Country Dance and Song Society, the US organisation that runs most of the programme at Pinewoods) has, as part of its mission statement, that through its work it 'celebrates and preserves traditional English and Anglo-American dance, music and song'.3. accessed 30.3.2011.3  Again, Sharp's legacy can be felt to be at work in such unreserved Anglophilia. 

As Walkowitz's shows, Sharp was the single most influential leader of the folk dance revival in both England and the USA.  During the last decade of his life Sharp visited the USA on a number of occasions.  In the course of his visits, Sharp achieved a number of things: he defeated his rivals (who included the feminist and socialist Mary Neal) as the leader of the English country dance movement in the USA (as he also did in England).  He established an organisational base to propagate his version of country dance in the USA.  He also made a very significant and influential collection of songs in the southern mountains. 

These are important aspects of the story that Walkowitz tells.  The first part of the book focuses on the early years of the twentieth century and looks at the folk revivals in England and the USA.  The second part is promisingly titled 'Liberalism and the Folk Reimaginings' and deals with the later stages of the revival(s) bringing the account up to date. 

It is not the case that Sharp brought revived folk dance to the USA.  As early as 1909 he was aware 'A similar movement is being prosecuted with a like enthusiasm in the United States of America, as well as in certain European countries.'4.  Cecil J Sharp, The Country Dance Book Part I.  Containing A Description Of Eighteen Traditional Dances Collected In Country Villages, London,1909.4

The strongest part of Walkowitz's book is the perceptive historical analysis of the place that folk dance could be seen to play in the improvement of social conditions in the USA in the Progressive Era around the turn of the twentieth century.  To do this he draws on years of immersion in the sources of the period.  To Luther Gulick, doctor, physical education reformer and representative figure in this story, it was evident that folk dancing was an 'excellent exercise', a 'bodily discipline' which could teach 'good body posture and grace of movement' and which could counter the ills of life in the modern city.  (p.41).  In addition, folk dance offered an alternative to increasingly influential commercial popular music and dance, perceived as urban, sexualised and corrupting.  It partook of the purity of the countryside, the legitimation of tradition and the racial inheritance of Anglo-Saxons.  Such views, Walkowitz argues, were not 'antimodern' but a response to the crisis of modernity, an attempt to counter 'the chaos of industrial protest and disorderly bodies' and a positive contribution to 'the development of physical culture for building the race' (p.55).  The consonance between such views, and the feeling that folk dance was a response to the crisis of modernity, is almost identical among revivalists in the USA and Britain.  Thus the ground for receptiveness to Sharp's ideas and approaches was well prepared before his arrival.  What he did do was ensure that his approach and his authority were stamped on the revivals in both countries.

Sharp's dance work had undergone a major change towards the end of the first decade of the twentieth century.  This is something Walkowitz mentions (pp.76-77) but perhaps it needs more detailed and critical elaboration, for it is highly instructive to understand something of the mythical and fabricated foundations on which the folk dance movement was built.  Sharp's first major publication on country dance had contained instructions (he called them 'descriptions') for 'eighteen traditional dances collected in country villages'.5.  Sharp, The Country Dance Book Part I, title page.5  He was applying to dance the approach he had so successfully taken to song since 1903 when he started serious and energetic work as a collector.  By the time he came to publish the second book in his folk dance series, dance had become his dominant interest and his approach to it had changed completely.  Instead of collecting dances from villagers, we find Sharp interpreting the work of the seventeenth century publisher John Playford.  In 1651 Playford issued the first of an extremely successful series of the dance manuals that were to set a pattern for the next two centuries.

Sharp had to explain and justify his change of direction.  In the first volume of his series we find him extolling the virtues of the traditional dance.  Social folk dance was not a spectacle like the morris dance, it was 'the ordinary, everyday dance of the country-folk' performed 'whenever opportunity offered and the spirit of merrymaking was abroad.' No special dress was needed, 'The steps and figures are simple and easily learned, so that anyone of ordinary intelligence and of average physique can without difficulty qualify as a competent performer.' The emphasis here is on accessibility and 'the spirit of merrymaking' and Sharp considered the dances were 'far too good to be lost'.  The country dance could be a good influence in contemporary society; it was a means by which 'many valuable lessons may be inculcated'.6.  Sharp, The Country Dance Book Part I, pp.10-12.6

It seems, however, as Sharp's interest in dance developed, the traditional dances in that first volume became for him too every-day, too easily learned, and the British Museum offered wider variety and richer pickings than did contemporary village merrymakings or the reconstructed dance memories of older people.7.  A H Fox Strangways, Cecil Sharp, Oxford, 1933, pp.104-106 gives a positive view on Sharp's decision making at that time.7  Sharp had prepared the ground for this change of direction in arguing that 'although the Country Dance originated with the unlettered classes it has not always been their exclusive possession ...  the Country Dances were once performed at Court and in fashionable ball-rooms, as well as on the village green.'8.  Sharp, The Country Dance Book Part I, p.12.8  We can see in this statement the implications of an imagined unified past that could have a unifying effect on the present.

In the second part of his series of dance instruction manuals we find Sharp publishing 'thirty country dances from The English Dancing Master (1650-1686)'.  Sharp has turned from fieldworker to interpreter of historical dance, but he uses his fieldwork experience to legitimise this new kind of activity as he attempted to 'reconstruct and revive the English Country Dance as it was danced in the days of its prime'.  How he knew the second half of the seventeenth century were the days of its prime, he did not tell us.  He was 'not without a full appreciation of the difficulties involved in the undertaking and of the responsibility attaching to it' but proceeds nevertheless.9.  Cecil J Sharp, Country Dance Book Part II.  Containing Thirty Country Dances From The English Dancing Master (1650-1686) (second edn.) London, 1913, pp.12-13.9  Thereafter he concentrated on publishing historical interpretations (with the exception of some dances found during his fieldwork in the Appalachians - which underpinned his idea that what he obtained there was transplanted English culture).

There is an insurmountable problem in trying accurately to interpret historical dances from brief written instructions.  No instructions are given concerning the nature of the steps to be used - a crucial element in the style of any dance.  Sharp arrives at the 'very speculative' solution of this 'difficult question' in two ways: '(1) by observing the steps used in the traditional Country Dance of the present day; and (2) by examining the evidence, bearing upon the subject, contained in the dance manuals of the last two centuries.' Fieldwork informs and justifies interpretation and his efforts have the practical aim of making available material for the folk dance revival.  But this task is impossible.  We are as ignorant of numerous aspects of the nature of historical dance as we are of many aspects of performance genres before sound recording and film.  What remains of the dance if the mannerisms, the body hexis, the habits, the disposition, in short the style are absent or misinterpreted?

What is happening in Sharp's dance interpretations is an act of creativity or invention based on historical material.  Sharp's expressions of difficulty are defence mechanisms and, given the problematic nature of his enterprise, are necessary.  What we know about his approach is that such misgivings soon hardened into a precise style, which was enforced through teaching and certification.  Sharp believed that his dance teaching was hugely beneficial to those who learnt from him, they were learning 'many useful lessons' that would make them into happier human beings, better citizens, better English men and women.  He had little tolerance and a surprisingly rich strain of invective for those who fell short of his standards.10.  Vic Gammon, ''Many Useful Lessons': Cecil Sharp, Education and the Folk Dance Revival, 1899-1924', Cultural and Social History 5:1, 2008, pp.75-98.10

The 'fake' vocabulary that has been used by some writers about products of the folk revival is unhelpful; it throws a blanket over processes which should be considered and analysed.11.  See for example, Dave Harker, Fakesong: The Manufacture of British 'Folksong' 1700 to the Present Day, Milton Keynes, 1985.  Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, London, 2007.11  This in not to deny that the act of revival might better be described as an act of re-invention, but in this case the revived dances can be claimed to have history, lineage and connection.  All acts of communication are, of their nature, acts of mediation, but there are differences of degrees of mediation and it is important that we try to understand these.  It is telling that the musician, Imogen Holst, could write, in a pro-Sharp piece, about his 'apparent inconsistency in including these sophisticated country dances among his collections of genuine traditional folk dances'.12.  Christopher Grogan (ed.), Imogen Holst: A Life in Music, Woodbridge, 2007, p.78.12  Sharp achieved, in Walkowitz's words, 'a remarkable class transmogrification' of the material (p.19).  To Sharp's American followers his interpretations were English country dance which they 'imagined with roots in a "pure" Anglo-Saxon white peasantry' (p.48).  It also addressed what Janice Ross admirably summed up as 'a pervasive primitivist yearning' of the time (quoted by Walkowitz, p.59).

A whole mythology was built up which saw the reinvented dances as 'expression of the pure folk traditions of a simpler past that peasant peoples had left behind' (p.50).  Sharp founded a dance movement which had great durability (both in terms of activity and buildings) both in England and the USA, notwithstanding its insular and perhaps escapist character.  Walkowitz is able to see the constructed nature of Sharp's version of Playford dances, as for example when he describes it as an 'invented tradition' (p.153) yet he is also keen to claim the legitimation of inheritance when he writes of country dances in backwoods areas of the USA having 'roots in seventeenth century English Country Dance' (p.46).

The other main theme of Walkowitz's book is the political inclinations of those who have been drawn into this movement.  Over a long period of time the US 'English Country Dance' (Walkowitz uses the capitals but abbreviates the term to ECD) has tended to draw its support from a range of people with left and liberal inclinations (albeit often socially conservative).  English country dance in the USA was practiced by 'a small and largely Anglophile community of well-heeled, white Anglo-Americans' (p.8).  These people found in English country dance an affirmation of their identity and a sort of cultural refuge.  Today they are an aging community, not anti-modern (they often work in scientific or technical jobs) but 'reluctantly modern'; they occupy a sort of suburban counter-cultural space and are generally well-heeled.

Such a view of the English country dance movement in the USA accords in some ways with what we know about the folk dance and folk song revivals in early twentieth century England, which can be generally seen as having had a liberal ethos.  Yet no simple description will cover the range of views of people who became actively involved in folk dance.  Some English examples will illustrate the complexity.  Sharp was a member of the Fabian Society, he described himself as a 'conservative socialist' and enjoyed shocking people with his radical outbursts, but he opposed the activities of suffragettes like his sister Evelyn Sharp and Mary Neal (both members of the Women's Social and Political Union, the WSPU).  Sharp defeated Neal in the struggle for the hegemony of the folk dance revival although it was Neal that first demonstrated to Sharp the potent possibility of such a movement through her development of folk dance (including morris dance) as an activity within her Espérance Club for London working class girls.  Neal had supported the socialist Kier Hardie, but later in her life she moved towards mysticism; she became a confidante of Rolf Gardiner who converted her to the idea that only men should do morris dances.  Gardiner himself was a pioneer revival morris dancer, founder member of the Soil Association, and early in life a guild socialist who became a Nazi sympathiser.  Even an apologist wrote that Gardiner 'unquestionably held some extreme views as a younger man'.13.  R J Moore-Colyer, 'Rolf Gardiner, English Patriot and the Council for the Church and Countryside', Agricultural History Review. 49:2, 2001, pp.187-209.13  There is a link between Gardiner and Douglas Kennedy, one of Sharp's inner circle, who was artistic Director of what became the English Folk Dance and Song Society before and after the Second World War.  Both were members of Kinship in Husbandry, a rightist group who believed in male bonding and organic gardening.  H A L Fisher was an academic and Liberal MP for Sheffield Hallam, educational reformer, Vaughan Williams' brother-in-law and great supporter of Sharp and the folk dance movement.  Lady Mary Trevelyan, folk dancer, teacher and Women's Institute activist was the daughter and wife of former Liberal MPs, and had a radical reputation in spite of occupying a large Northumberland estate.  At the other end of the social scale, my first encounter with folk dance was in the Woodcraft Folk in South London, a broadly socialist children's organisation that drew its leadership from Labour Party members, communists, co-operators and the non-committed.  In the organisation, folk dance was part of what we did, we felt at an intuitive level that there was a consonance between it and our other activities and values, although this was rarely openly articulated or discussed. 

It is hard to typify the political propensities of cultural movements.  Walkowitz, writing about the later stages of the revival admits 'Of course, much of the second revival did not fit so neatly into either radical or liberal camps, and many revival groups were more equivocal and expressed a contradictory hybrid of left-liberalism' (p.169).  Clearly, participants in cultural movements have some shared values and commonalities, but as in the cases of Neal and Gardiner, values can be pushed in directions that have very different political outcomes and different emphases over time.  Walkowitz is no doubt being honest when he writes, in relation to folk dance, that he 'grew up feeling the dances were integral to Left political culture' (preface p.x) but that does not mean that they were.  It might be better to say that some people who held left and liberal views found in folk dance an activity that they could reconcile with or accommodate within their political outlooks.  Walkowitz is on stronger ground when he writes of looking for the 'political and emotional possibilities of folk imaginings in the dance'; it is surely 'imaginings' that is crucial here.  The English folk dance movement in the USA provides a sort of 'haven from a heartless work' (p.210) (citing Christopher Lasche but echoing Marx's famous thoughts on the nature of religion).

The book is an odd mixture of insightful observations and much less satisfying material.  On an empirical level, in spite of the interesting things he has to say, Walkowitz makes too many mistakes to create confidence in his work overall. 

Early in the book, Walkowitz criticises 'Allan Howkins' (sic) for 'presuming traditions have a stable, essential meaning in some golden past' writing that 'Howkins merely invokes an element of the older essentialist paradigm of the folk' (p.4).  I think this is grossly unfair and shows a very shallow reading of Alun Howkins' work.  Howkins actually provides a useful commentary on those who, around the turn of the twentieth century, tried to ascribe to the countryside 'a purer and prior' set of values.  These perceived values accorded with their rejection of 'city life and the values of urban capitalism'.  Howkins writes about the effects of the influx of middle class families into a countryside where the ''old order' had always seemed clear' (note the 'seemed') and where these newcomers were 'going to a rural myth which they were recreating'.14.  Alun Howkins, Reshaping Rural England 1850-1925: A Social History, London, 1991, pp.230-231.14  Having reread the pages Walkowitz refers to, I find nothing about stable traditions, essential meanings or golden pasts.  If such things are anywhere they are in the minds of the people Howkins is writing about, not in his. 

There are, sadly, some real howlers in Walkowitz's work.  Surprisingly we read that 'Sabine Baring-Gould was the niece of John Baring-Gould' (p.34).  John England, from whom Sharp collected his first traditional song in 1903, is described as 'apocryphal' (p.72).  What does this mean?  In popular usage the word usually means something like, 'of questionable authenticity'.  Not so, he was a real man, his photographic image is well-known; he emigrated to Canada in 1911.  To add insult to injury in footnote 12 on p.282, his family name is given as 'English'.  On p.73 Walkowitz refers to the board of education (which as a singular entity ought to be the Board of Education) as having a 1906 curriculum 'that mixed music-hall and other popular songs'.  It did not; its list consisted of national songs and some traditional songs.  Sharp objected to the list because it did not consist entirely of songs taken from oral tradition; Sharp's important piece of theoretical writing, English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions (1907) originated in his controversy with the Board.  Two pages later that body is referred to as 'the school board', Walkowitz must be unaware of the resonances of this term in England.  On p.77 he writes of 'Sharp's transcriptions of the Playford manuscripts'; I am sure historians would be very keen to have a look at those manuscripts - if they existed.  They do not.  Playford published his dance instructions in books, no known manuscripts survive.  On p.125 there is reference to Sharp dismissing the cowboy songs collected by the 'folklorist' Alan Lomax; when Sharp died in 1924, Alan Lomax had not reached the age of 10; the remark was directed against his father, John Lomax.  On p.155 the 1935 International Folk Dance Festival in London is said to have taken place at Cecil Sharp House.  It was a much larger event than that building would accommodate and only minor portions of it were held there.  For sheer incompetence consider (p.186) the rendering of the name of the BBC archivist 'Maury Sloakum'; she was a significant figure in the BBC from the 1930s through to the 1970s, developing its sound archive, but her name was Marie Slocombe.  Some of the errors are minor but show a lack of familiarity with key areas.  He writes of 'zesty fiddle tunes from England' (p.45) and then names some famous Scottish tunes.  Woody Guthrie is described variously as a 'folklorist' and a 'collector' (pp.163, 167).  He was neither; he was a pretty good songwriter though.  It seems accuracy diminishes as Walkowitz moves out of areas he knows well.

Walkowitz's uses a number of terms quiet loosely, I will use the example of 'folklorist' as I have given examples of it above.  The word is scattered quite liberally through the text.  Folklore developed as a discipline in the second half of the nineteenth century though its ideas fell into intellectual decline with the advance of anthropology.  It remains, however, as an area of study and it has some quality journals in a number of countries.  Just as everyone who writes about the past is not necessarily a historian, so everyone who writes about folky things is not necessarily a folklorist.  Walkowitz describes Sharp as a folklorist, something disputed by one of his contemporaries, the musician R R Terry, who wrote 'He [Sharp] was neither a folklorist nor an anthropologist, but he had to keep up the pose of being both'.15.  Sir R R Terry to A H Fox Strangways, 2 November 1932, Box 3, Cecil Sharp Correspondence, Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.15

Walkowitz's book deals extensively with the folk dancing in the USA and attempts a complimentary account of developments in England.  The latter is largely based on secondary material (some of it of very questionable quality and generally used uncritically).  This is history as a web of unreliability.  Walkowitz is just not familiar enough with the situation or material to understand and explain differences and tensions within the culture of the folk dance movement in England.  It is both more complicated and more fragmented than the picture he paints.  It is harder to assess how well the US material is handled.  He is clearly more familiar with the US material, but that familiarity seems to cause him to give large amounts of detail that does not significantly further the analysis.  If his account of US movement is marred by being an insider and in a sense being too close to get perspective on the whole, his account of English movement is marred by insufficient understanding of the subtle details of differences between sub-factions; he mistakes the part for the whole and accepts unquestioningly categories which are deeply problematic.

Walkowitz seems to have tried to marry-up his professional interest in history and cultural analysis with his recreational interest as a folk dancer.  The result is a meshing together of different types of discourse that do not sit easily together.  The book is a mixture of social and cultural analysis and a sort of organisational history, a lot of which may not be of much interest except to insiders.  It is not that Walkowitz is always wrong or uninteresting.  There are passages that show real insight, and the book articulates some aspects of liberal dilemmas in interesting ways, but then one comes to the next bloomer, the reader is distracted and faith in the project is undermined.  There are just too many mistakes, misapprehensions, misreadings and misinterpretations to make the work convincing.  This is an interesting subject that deserves better treatment than it has received here.  The book does not fulfil its promise and joins a pile of other unsatisfying books on aspects of the folk revivals; it is a shame.

Vic Gammon - 14.6.11


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