Anti-Racism and the Folk Revival

George Floyd’s murder and the protests it sparked have forced people to ask themselves important and uncomfortable questions about race and racism. Communities big and small have issued statements of solidarity including some traditional dance teams. My team, Still River Sword, met to discuss the issue. We quickly agreed that we wanted to donate money to organizations working for racial justice, issue a statement expressing our beliefs as a group, and invite other teams to match our donation. That was the easy part. The hard part was agreeing on a statement. In particular, we had a range of beliefs about the history of our tradition. To what extent was it racist or white supremacist? How important is it to explicitly recognize any past racism in our statement? Would making provocative claims about our community’s past harm our ability to raise money in the present? Is it more important to raise money or to invite other groups to have the same tough conversation that we were having? 

We wanted to be an anti-racist team, but we had differing opinions about the best way to do that. Anti-racism is a concept that fights against the idea that simply not being racist is enough. The National Museum of African American History And Culture explains anti-racism like this:

No one is born racist or antiracist; these result from the choices we make. Being antiracist results from a conscious decision to make frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily. These choices require ongoing self-awareness and self-reflection as we move through life. In the absence of making antiracist choices, we (un)consciously uphold aspects of white supremacy, white-dominant culture, and unequal institutions and society. Being racist or antiracist is not about who you are; it is about what you do. (National Museum of African American History And Culture website)

In the days after we first met, I was motivated to do some reading about these topics and decided to write about what I learned. As members of the wider folk music and dance world, I encourage you to work within your own teams and communities to start similar conversations. My hope is that this can be a helpful companion piece to those discussions. My conclusion is that being members of our particular folk tradition means we do need to be explicit about our past and the ways in which that past continues to affect our present in order to begin to be anti-racist in the future. Here’s why.

Modern longsword, morris, rapper, and English Country dance traditions stem from a single cultural movement. The most important figure in that movement was Cecil Sharp. Sharp is fairly well known, and I won’t try to recap his entire biography here. He went into English towns and collected songs and dances that he felt had been passed down through an oral tradition over generations and that were at risk of being forgotten. He also came to the United States and traveled through Appalachia, where he again collected songs. His analysis was that these songs were of English origin and had, in the wild mountains of America, been preserved in an earlier form even than those he collected in England.

The context of Sharp’s collecting is important. He collected at a time of rapid change in both England and the United States. Both societies were rapidly industrializing and urbanizing. England was involved in the start of the imperial competition between European countries that would eventually lead to World War I. The United States was at the tail end of the largest wave of immigration in its history. This wave “between 1880 and 1914, brought over 20 million European immigrants to the United States, an average of 650,000 a year at a time when the United States had 75 million residents. Most southern and eastern European immigrants arriving via New York’s Ellis Island found factory jobs in Northeastern and Midwestern cities.” (Trends in Migration to the U.S. from the Population Reference Bureau website)

Sharp and the first folk revival were not music and dance enthusiasts unaffected by their political context. Quite the opposite. The folk revival was a political act. Sharp was a Fabian – a political group in English politics that promoted social reform for the purposes of imperialism. Although this may seem like a strange combination of beliefs, it’s not dissimilar from Progressive era beliefs in the United States. We remember the Progressive era for social reform in the areas of education, medicine, and government but it had a dark side as well – and I’m not just talking about temperance. Historian James S. Pula describes the darker side like this:

While the Progressive Era is generally viewed as a period of social, political, and economic reform, the alliance between restrictionists, Progressives, and organized labor brought different results for southern and Eastern European immigrants. For them, it resulted in a restriction of further immigration and institutionalization of demeaning ethnic stereotypes propagated by authors such as Madison Grant who, in his 1916 work The Passing of the Great Race, argued that the pure superior American racial stock was being diluted by the influx of “new” immigrants from the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and the Polish ghettos.

(“The Progressives, the Immigrant, and the Workplace: Defining Public Perceptions, 1900-1914” by James S. Pula, Polish American Studies Vol. 52, No. 2 (Autumn, 1995) Page 69)

Race was never far from the surface in Fabian or Progressive politics. Note how race is invoked by the Fabians in the English political context as a necessary hedge against competition within Europe and by Progressives in the American context as a bludgeon against immigration.

The basic attitude of the Fabians toward the problems of empire and social reform was, for practical purposes, indistinguishable from that of the… government. The Fabians, too, were concerned about the rearing of an ‘imperial race’ to help meet the German challenge.

(Imperialism and Social Reform: English Social-Imperial Thought 1895-1914 by Bernard Semmel P. 130)

In his A History of the American People, Progressive politician (and President of the United States when Sharp came to America,) Woodrow Wilson, wrote:

Throughout the century men of the sturdy stocks of the north of Europe had made up the main strain of foreign blood which was every year added to the vital working foce of the country… but now there came multitudes of men of the lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence; and they came in numbers which increased from year to year, as if the countries of the south of Europe were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population…

(A History of the American People: Vol. V by Woodrow Wilson, 1901 Page 212-213) 

It is no surprise that Progressives in the United States and Fabians in England alike were believers in eugenics.

The effort of Sharp and his peers to collect and popularize music and dance had their core motivation in the politics of their time. In fact, the more I read about this, the more I see politics as the primary driver of their actions and music as the vessel. In his history of music in the context of the British military during World War I, Nicholas Hiley explains this:

According to Sharp, the peasant had not been touched by the development of urban culture, with its international influences, and thus remained a repository of racial characteristics and a possible source of inspiration for a truly English musical style. 

As an opponent of urbanization and industrialization, Sharp was eager to make a distinction between what he called the ‘town song’ and the ‘country song’. He dismissed the town song as ‘the debased street music of the vulgar’, and condemned as corrupt all those people who ‘vulgarise themselves and others by singing coarse music-hall songs’. 

The question of literacy was very important to the folk-song collectors, for they wanted to return to a time when society had been stable and deferential, and they associated that stability with oral rather than with written culture.

(Ploughboys and Soldiers: the folk song and the gramophone in the British Expeditionary Force 1914-1918 by Nicholas Hiley, Page 63)

Note how closely aligned Sharp’s musical motivations are with the ideology of the Fabians. Music-hall was a particular antipathy of Sharp’s because of its connection to the modern, urban identity which he saw as being not worthy of the “English race.” Gavin James Campbell, in Music and the Making of the New South makes the slightly subtle racism of the phrase, “debased street music of the vulgar” clear as a bell:

[Sharp] asserted that the “national type is always to be found in its purest, as well as in its most stable and permanent form, in the folk-arts of a nation,” but if there were no folk arts, there could be no “national type.” Sharp blamed immigration and modernization for destroying Anglo-Saxon folk traditions, and he recommended that public schools teach “the folksongs and folk-ballads of the race” so that children could “as quickly as possible enter into their racial inheritance. The songs would, he explained, “arouse that love of country and pride of race, the absence of which we now deplore.” In Sharp’s mind, racial identity and folk music were inseparable, and his commitment to the ballads was both personal and patriotic.

(Music and the Making of a New South by Gavin James Campbell, Page 110)

Sharp saw folk music as a way to solidify the white English Anglo-Saxon people and to stave off the threatening influence of the other. To be clear, this analysis is not the product of modern attitudes being imposed on historical events and people. Sharp’s motivations were no secret at the time. The New York Times covered a memorial for Sharp shortly after his death in 1924 and summarized his career like this:

Cecil Sharp’s work of rescuing the folk songs and folk dances was practically completed before his much regretted death last year… they came into it just in time to save what there was, for the conditions of modern life were steadily obliterating the love and knowledge of the old songs and the practice of them.

He found in these regions many hundred survivals of old English folk songs where none were supposed to exist and in a country where it was supposed that no folk songs could exist. He forged a connecting link in folk song between England and the United States.

In the Appalachians, as in the English countryside, Sharp was fortunate in the hour of his approach. The end is coming in the Southern mountains as it is in the English counties… the irresistible oncoming of the coal miners and the timber hewers and other industrial evangelists, tend to kill the singing of the old songs and the dancing of the old dances. Music hall ditties, “coon songs” as manufactured on Broadway, fox trots and jazz generally take the places of them. 

(An English Folk Song and Folk Dance Memorial to the Late Cecil Sharp New York Times, June 14, 1925, by Richard Aldrich)

However real Sharp’s interest in music was, and I believe it was real and significant, his political motivations drove his action and converted them into active racism. Here, narrated by Michael Yates, is an illustrative example from Sharp’s travels in the United States. It contains excerpts from Sharp’s diary and the diary of his colleague, Maud Karpeles, in italics:

On 1st August Sharp felt that the time had come for another move, this time back to Kentucky.

It now seems clear that this piece of country had ‘advanced’ too far on the down grade towards sophistication and that we are wasting our time and money in staying here.

There may, however, have been other factors which influenced Sharp in his decision:

We tramped – mainly uphill. When we reached the cove we found it peopled by niggers … All our troubles and spent energy for nought.

Maud Karpeles described the same encounter in slightly greater detail:

We arrived at a cove and got sight of log cabins that seemed just what we wanted. Called at one. A musical ‘Good Morning’, turned round and behold he was a negro. We had struck a negro settlement. Nothing for it but to toil back again.

(“Cecil Sharp in America: collecting in the Appalachians” by Michael Yates. Berwick-upon-Tweed. 23.12.99)

What is important here is not the use of the ‘N’ word but rather that Sharp and Karpeles were actively ignoring the music of Black people. Again, context is important. Cultural genocide was an active part of chattel slavery in the United States. Enslaved people were intentionally separated from members of their own groups when they arrived and were restricted from singing or playing music except in churches that they were forced to attend. Ignoring Black musicians and claiming that the music they heard from white people was some kind of pure version of English music is a continuation of what slavery began.

The idea that songs collected from white Appalachians in the 1910s were not influenced by Black people is also fantastical at best. Black dancers and musicians have a wide influence on our tradition. Here are just a few tidbits from “Square Dance Calling: The African-American Connection” by Philip A. Jamison who comments specifically on Sharp and Karpeles:

As early as 1690, slave fiddlers played for dances on plantations in Virginia (Virginia Writers’ Project 1940), and by the mid-eighteenth century, slave musicians were common at white social functions, both urban and rural, throughout the American colonies.

As early as the eighteenth century, in addition to playing for white dances, slaves began to dance the European dances themselves… One account from a South Carolina newspaper in 1772, mentions a “cabel” of about sixty slaves gathered near Charleston to dance “Country Dances.”

Although there have been African-Americans in the Appalachians since the 1700s, Karpeles remarked that when she and Sharp visited in 1917 there were “practically no Negroes in the mountains” (Karpeles 1967, 146). Even if she herself did not see blacks on her travels in western North Carolina and eastern Kentucky (which is hard to believe), they had been there for generations, and their influence in the region’s music and dance is undeniable. According to US Census figures compiled by William H. Turner, African-Americans made up twenty-one percent of the population of the Appalachian counties in Kentucky in 1830 (Turner 1985). By the time Sharp and Karpeles visited eastern Kentucky in the early twentieth century, the percentage of blacks in the population was lower, but the African-American practice of calling had become an established part of the mountain dance tradition, giving the southern Appalachian square dances a looser structure than the highly formal quadrilles that had been taught by the dancing masters. In looking for connections to English country dance, they failed to recognize the numerous African-American elements present in the dances they witnessed. In addition to dance calling, these include the presence of the banjo, hand clapping on the up beat, patting juba, and dance calls such as “yaller girls.”

(“Square Dance Calling: The African-American Connection” by Philip A. Jamison, Journal of Appalachian Studies Vol 9, Number 2 Pages 388, 390, 395)

Nor was influence even within our folk dance traditions a one way path from England to the United States. The English songs and dances that Sharp claimed were part of a pure English heritage had been influenced themselves by American slavery and racism. Rhett Krause relays a few intriguing examples of this in his article, “Morris Dance and America Prior to 1913”:

Long before the “traditional” English morris dances had been recorded, they had been influenced to some extent by popular American culture. At least three English morris tunes have American origins… Next is the Headington tune “Getting Upstairs.” The original version (“Such a Getting Upstairs”) was written and composed sometime in the early 1830’s by Joe Blackburn for blackface performers. The song travelled to England with American minstrel shows, and versions were soon published in London. Five decades later, Percy Manning would record a variant of the chorus as one of the songs of the Headington men:

Such a getting upstairs and playing on the fiddle,
Such a getting upstairs I never did see. 

In contrast to their Cotswold morris contemporaries, the great majority of border morris dancers blacked up. This often included blacking of the hands, which would seem unnecessary if disguise were the exclusive intent… Musical instruments frequently included the tambourine and bones, the traditional instruments of the minstrel show “endmen.”

It is most commonly thought that the origin and function of black-face in morris dancing lies in primitive disguise rather than an imitation of black men. However, this is not definitely the case. Accounts of the morris of Shakespeare’s time make no mention of blackface, while the border teams contemporary with minstrel shows typically blacked up. American minstrel shows, if not the actual origin of black face among morris dancers, at least contributed to its popularity.

(“Morris Dance and America Prior to 1913” by Rhett Krause pages 2-3)

Krause’s contention about the origin of blackface in morris dancing is debatable. After she read this essay, Jan Elliott shared a quotation from Thoinot Arbeau’s 1589 “Orchesography” which describes a young morris dancer of that time, “his face daubed with black” as he danced. Regardless, I think it is safe to say that American racism interacted with and perhaps renewed morris dancing’s tradition of blackface. The two traditions were certainly interacting in this country. Krause even found a “New York City poster [that] advertises a morris dance as part of a minstrel show given at the American Concert Hall at 444 Broadway.” from February or March 1861.

Although the first folk revival was a hundred years ago, many of its core elements are still alive today. Our community rejects urbanism and modernity as fiercely today as Sharp and his cohort did in their time (despite many of us living in cities and being tech workers of some sort — again, just like Sharp and his cohort). 

Much of our song repertoire still celebrates and mourns along the same nostalgic lines of the first folk revival. We sing “hoorah for the life of a country boy” and mourn that “the horse’s day is gone.” Our communal sings honor people who have memorized their songs. A piece of paper may be allowed but looking at a phone is frowned upon. This has barely changed in over 100 years. Nicholas Hiley, Head of Information, British Universities Film & Video Council, writes of Sharp’s time:

The myth of the illiterate folk singer grew in strength. As might be expected, contemporary folk singers possessed not only manuscript notes of songs, but also collections of printed ballad sheets and newspaper clippings containing the words to songs in their repertoire. However, the collectors were so insistent upon folk memory that these resources were carefully concealed, as folk singers realized that it was better to appear to have a considerable memory than a large collection of ballads

(Ploughboys and Soldiers: the folk song and the gramophone in the British Expeditionary Force 1914-1918 by Nicholas Hiley, Page 64)

In “City Folk: A Narrative of Creating Community in America Through English Country Dance,” Stephanie Smith shares a fantastic and, to my experience, accurate encapsulation of our modern dance communities:

However, whether as performed at a regular community dance, a special event, or a camp such as Pinewoods, ECD can be seen as what Murrow describes as “a haven from the hurly burly and the high speed of American twenty-first century culture, where we all have our cell phones and emails and computers… a time to go back to an era of graciousness where people can relate to one another politely with elegance and grace.”

(“City Folk: A Narrative of Creating Community in America Through English Country Danceby Stephanie Smith, Page 189) 

There are many good reasons for rejecting modernity and urbanism but there are also a lot of racist reasons too. As a predominantly liberal community, many of us cringe when we hear President Trump refer to the “inner city” or describe cities like Atlanta and Chicago as “crime infested.” We know it for the poorly veiled racist language that it is. We have no patience for people who wrap themselves in the Confederate flag and claim to be celebrating only an amorphous tradition when we know that slavery was the bleeding core of the Confederacy and no amount of historical revision can change that. But we give ourselves a free pass for longing to put our cell phones away in our cabins at Pinewoods for a week. When we yearn for “an era of graciousness where people can relate to one another politely with elegance and grace?” Who are the people we are thinking of? How were people of color faring in those days?

These questions are of particular importance in the current political moment when our government is run by people whose primary slogan, “Make America Great Again,” calls for a similar return to an earlier time. When President Trump and his supporters call for this, we know they are talking about a time when racism, sexism, and hatred for LGBTQ+ people had free reign and when white men’s position of power was even more total. Meanwhile, just in the past few weeks in England, a white nationalist group has suggested a hostile takeover of Morris teams for race-based reasons almost identical to those of 100 years ago.

By no means am I suggesting an equivalence between our community of dancers and musicians and the red-hat wearing MAGA supporters (or whatever the hell the white nationalists in England are wearing). Our nostalgia-driven activities are not their nostalgia-driven activities and their dream of a backward looking social revolution have no parallel in our community. 

What I do believe is that, because of our tradition’s history of racism, because we continue to venerate many of the qualities from the first folk revival, because we have been joined in rejecting aspects of modernity and urbanism by a group of contemporary racists, it is even more important for us to take explicit steps to speak out against racism of all sorts, including the racism in our own tradition. We must examine our community’s feelings about modernity and urban living and either find ways to actively distinguish them from their historical and contemporary associations with racism or, frankly, drop them.

In When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, Robert Cantwell writes:

“Like blackface minstrelsy, folk revivalism is a form of social theater in which we develop the protocols for negotiating relations among groups and classes…”

(When We Were Good: The Folk Revival by Robert Cantwell, Page 54)

As active participants in an ongoing folk revival, we have the power to shape it. Our modern traditions began in racism but they don’t have to end there. Through words and action, we can use the strength of our community as an anti-racist force.

My sword team, Still River Sword, found our way to a consensus statement and I’m proud of our work. As a first step in this community process, we invite you to join us in making a statement and donating money. By no means are we or I any more authoritative or righteous on this topic than you, so we hope that you are having your own conversations and we look forward to reading what you come up with. As you can tell from this writing, I do hope that we are all able to acknowledge the past as an important part of our expressions of support for racial justice.

As for what comes next, your ideas are as good as ours! How can we make the “frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily” within our folk communities that being anti-racist requires? I look forward to working with you all on this.