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The American Morris Newsletter

April, 2007 -- Volume 27, Number 1


Cecil Sharp in St. Louis

Lyndon Blaylock

In the spring of 1916, Cecil Sharp was in America looking for work. During his previous year's travel in the Appalachian mountains, he had discovered a rich trove of folk song, and was anxious to return to them, but lacking the means to finance another expedition, he spent several months teaching at various colleges and finishing the compilation of 100 English Folk Songs, published that year by the Oliver Ditson Company. Then, at the request of the prominent theatrical producer and author, Percy MacKaye, he devised a series of English music interludes for a spectacular new outdoor festival play, The Masque of Caliban, which was produced in New York.

At the same time, civic leaders in St. Louis were looking for a play that could be presented on a grand scale in a new 10,000 seat amphitheatre that was being proposed in Forest Park. They had some experience with large outdoor spectacles. Two years earlier, these same civic leaders had brought Percy MacKaye to St. Louis to direct the Masque of St. Louis, presented in an immense natural amphitheatre on Art Hill. But now, they planned what was hoped would become an annual season of classic plays. And by a happy coincidence, 1916 was widely celebrated as the Tercentenary of the death of William Shakespeare. "As You Like It", with its Arden Forest setting, seemed the perfect choice.

A company of famous Shakespearean actors was assembled, including Margaret Anglin (who would also direct the play) and Robert Mantell. The necessary crowds of extras were to be supplied by local amateurs, and incidental music would be by an orchestra of fifty musicians led by Frederick Fischer, the associate conductor of the St. Louis Symphony. Since wide community support was an integral part of the scheme, some sort of additional musical entertainment was imagined. So, probably through contacts with Percy MacKaye, Cecil Sharp was asked to choreograph a folk-ballet that would serve as a prologue to the play.

Sometime in early April, Sharp sent to the St. Louis Pageant Drama Association, a detailed scenario, printed here in its entirety.


(To occupy 30 minutes)


Enter from right, a procession of villagers, dancing, comprising 50 couples (i.e. partners), headed by 4 pipers and 4 taborers - may dance the Tideswell Processional Morris, The dancers include men and women of all classes, all dressed in their holiday clothes, plentifully bedecked with flowers and ribbons. Each carries two handkerchiefs, one in each hand, or, if preferred, boughs of May blossom. They dance around the arena in a spiral until the musicians reach the center, whereupon all raise their arms and shout on the last chord of the tune. They then disperse, running off merrily to the right and left, the lads chasing the girls in catch-who-can fashion, and group themselves in background, watching the procession.


Enter immediately from left, rather slowly, in regular order in groups, the following procession:

1) Two Jack O' Greens.
2) Plough boys with plough.
3) Sowers.
4) Reapers.
5) Wagon, drawn by several yoke of oxen (or failing these, by men) carrying the tree.
6) Milkmaids, (singing)
7) Blacksmiths, (singing) 
8) Wheelwrights, (singing) 
9) Carpenters, (singing)
10) Butchers
11) Shoemakers
12) Master-sweeps, each with his boy.

There should be about 10 in each group, except those that sing songs, which should be larger. The singing groups will be arranged at intervals so as to allow time for the singing of their songs.

As they come in four of the groups of guildsmen sing their guild songs- the Blacksmiths, the Shoemakers, Milkmaids, and Shepherds. When the wagon reaches the May- pit, the procession halts. The tree is ceremoniously removed; ivy, laurels and other greenery wound around it spirally, a large garland is placed at the top; and then, in dead silence, it is solemnly raised to position. Directly this is accomplished the spectators raise a great shout and repeat three times- "The Pole is Up."

In this business, keep the front center of the stage free enough for the audience to see what is going on. Then the men congregate, and after a brief consultation, run forward to the May- Queen (whom they have already selected; a buxom woman); present her with a wreath of May blossoms, with ribbon streamers and rosettes for her dress; and escort her to a raised mound of grass where everyone may see her. She is kissed "under the green" by the men, amid much laughter and merriment, and defends herself by boxing their ears. The woman chosen is a regular "man's girl", jolly, and of a romping kind, quite different from Ruskin's conventional May Queen. A large group is quickly formed round the May pole in a ring, alternating men and women, and all take hands. The May-pole dance is performed- "Sellenger's Round" and "Gathering Peascods". Two other groups perform these dances around the Jack O' Greens, -making one large center circle and two smaller ones, right and left.


Strains of the May Song are heard, the crowd listens and falls back, the hobby horse enters from the left (or right) escorted by six or eight couples of men, gaily dressed and decorated with flowers, singing the May song, in which the assembled spectators join. As they make their appearance, the crowd runs out, meets them and gathers round them in a ring, in the middle of which the horse and its attendant dance, the former every now and again dashing out and trying to catch one of the maidens, who with much laughter and occasional shrieks usually succeeds in avoiding his clumsy embraces. (Again, keep the front open so that the audience may see) When the tune has been sung a few times, a slight pause is made; the horse sinks down with his head on the ground, the club-man drops on one knee and places his club on the horse's nose, while the crowd sings very solemnly the dirge- like strain, "O Where is George?". At the conclusion of this, a slight pause is made, and then the riotous May -song is suddenly taken up again and the dance resumed. This may be repeated once or twice, when the proceedings are interrupted by the entrance of the:


The dancers, all of them men, are 16 in number and are accompanied by a King and Queen, Witch and Fool, and Hobby Horses. The Witch and Fool head the procession, the former with his broom, and the latter with his stick, fox's tail and bladder, clearing the way. The King and Queen march at the head of the Morris dancers, the King beating time with his sword. The Hobby horses prance round and aid the Witch and Fool in clearing a passage. The dancers move from side to center then forward, dancing the "Winster Processional Dance". When the procession has reached a good position in the center of the ground, the tune changes and without pause the dancers perform the "Winster Morris Reel".


When the Morris dance is finished the company disperses and amuses itself for awhile until the pipe and taborers and fiddlers strike up a dance tune. This is the signal for everyone to find a partner for a country dance. Groups are formed all over the ground and "Black Nag" is danced, followed by a longways dance, eg., "Row well, ye Mariners". On the conclusion of the latter, the dancers, who are already in processional formation, dance off the ground to the "Helston Furry dance", disappearing in different groups through the several exits.


1) Dressed in green, with leaves and twigs in their hands and fastened on their heads and clothes.
2) White smocks, patched with pictures in red and black cloth, representing farm animals. Hats covered with flowers, the plough smothered with ribbons and flowers
3) Carrying baskets of grain, pretending to sow
4) With reaping hooks or sickles
5) Wagon and oxen decorated with greenery and ribbons; the horns of the oxen with flowers. The carters, who walk on either side of the wagon, wear broad brimmed hats, short smocks, breeches, all covered with ribbons and flowers, and carry whips or goads, similarly decorated with which they urge on the oxen. The tree to be a freshly cut one of light weight.
6) Carrying pails and dishes; wearing short dresses and sun hats or bonnets all covered with flowers and ribbons
7) With bare heads, leathern aprons, carrying implements of their trade- hammers, anvils, tongs. 8) Carrying or rolling wheels
9) With saws, planes, tools, etc.
10) Wearing blue blouses, carrying marrow bones and cleavers, and clashing them as they march.
11) In leathern jerkins, carrying leather, hammers, and lasts
12) In black, boys with blackened faces carrying chimney brooms.


The Hobby Horse is made in the following way;- a wooden hoop about 3 ft. in diameter is covered with black canvas with a hole in the center about the size of a man's head. The canvas is edged with red ribbon round the circumference, and depends from the edges about 4 ft. like a curtain. The hoop is then placed on a man's shoulders, his head hidden by a tall conical mask of many colors, passing through the hole in the canvas, the curtain hiding his body and legs. In the front of the hoop is a long, slender horse's head, made of wood, and at the back of the hoop is attached a curly horse's tail about 18 inches long. The horse is accompanied by the "Club-man" who is dressed in black, covered with rosettes and bows of colored ribbon and wears a conical mask similar to that of the hobby horse. Throughout the proceedings, he faces the Horse and dances backward, holding in his right hand a nobbed stick about 18 to 24 inches in length, colored like the mask.


For the dresses of the dancers see photographs in the Morris Book (parts II and III ). The Witch is a man dressed in bedraggled woman's clothes, with face blackened, and carries a short besom, The Fool has a pork-pie hat covered with flowers and feathers, tunic to the hips, of bright colored stuff edged with silver fringes, buckskin breeches, stockings of odd colors, and bells around the ankles. He carries a stick with a fox's tail at one end and a bladder at the other. Sometimes he has a dinner bell attached to the middle of his back. The King and Queen are serious characters, the latter being represented by a man. The King carries a sword and should be dressed in the military dress of the period. The hobby horses - say half a dozen in number - are of the "tournament" variety, and carry sticks and bladders.


May pole Processional:

  • Blacksmiths sing ........ Twankydillo
  • Milkmaids ........... Dabbling in the Dew
  • Reapers ........... One Man shall mow my Meadow
  • Sewers ............ Oats and Beans and Barley grow
  • Plough boys .......... The Plainful Plough

Processional dance:

  • Tideswell Processional Morris ( tune in unison by 4 pipe & taborers)


By April 13, when copies of the music specified were ordered from New York, preparations began in earnest. Several of the largest dancing schools in St. Louis began training their students in the country dances, with the understanding that Sharp would conduct the final rehearsals when he arrived in town. The songs were prepared by members of the St. Louis Choral Society, under Frederick Fischer. And the Morris dancers were recruited from Yeatman High School. They were drilled on three Thursday evenings in late May by Florence Grant, a director of Physical Education at Washington University.

The first salvos of publicity featured Sharp prominently. The following interview, done while Sharp was still in New York, was syndicated in newspapers all over the Midwest:


Londoner who taught them to St. Louisans calls them evolutionary - Survival of the fittest

Some of them will be staged in Forest Park, St. Louis, June 5 to 11, as part of Municipal Shakespearean Celebration.

The folk dances that will be produced each night June 5 to 11, inclusive, and the afternoon on Saturday June10, on the dancing green of the new Municipal outdoor auditorium in Forest Park, St. Louis, as a feature of the community production of "As You Like It", in honor of the Shakespeare tercentenary, are the products of evolution, according to Cecil J. Sharp of London, authority on folk dances and songs, who personally instructed groups of dancers for the St. Louis celebration.

Mr. Sharp was called to St. Louis by the St. Louis Pageant Drama Association, host of the Shakespearean celebration, in order that the folk dancing at that celebration might be of the genuine sort prevelant throughout England and in fact, throughout Europe in Shakespeare's time.

"Folk dances and songs are distinguishable from other dances and songs by the absence of marks of period", explained Mr. Sharp. "They are undated because they were not created in any one generation or, in fact, in any one century, and hence no one of them is the work of any one person. They are the results of the combined effort of many persons of many generations. They are a survival of the fittest and their real value is as racial expression. They are beautiful because the people who made them did not know that they were making art. Beauty is never made by intention."

The European war has canceled professional engagements which would have required Mr. Sharp's presence in Europe at this time, and he cannot serve in the trenches because outside the age limit. "Virtually all my folk dancers are at the front," said Mr. Sharp. "My chief set of six Morris dancers, Oxford and Cambridge men, all have commissions, Most of them entered the army as privates. One of the six has been wounded in battle."

Mr. Sharp showed his interviewer a copy of the English Folk Dance Society's Journal which lists 124 folk dancers at the front, together with the home or university of each, the regiment to which he is attached and his rank. They include many commissioned officers, two of them majors. Although he had arrived from England but a month previously, after his fifth trip through the submarine zone, Mr. Sharp referred to the war merely incidentally. The major portion of the interview related to folk dancing and particularly those aspects in which it differs from other forms of dancing.

"In folk dancing the legs are not ornaments but supports," said Mr. Sharp. "if I want to go forward and throw a leg forward, I defeat my object. The throwing forward of a leg throws me backward. The main movement in folk dancing is very much like that of the runner. Sprinting and folk dancing have much in common.

"The movement in all real dancing is a question of body balance, and this is why dances such as these must of necessity be performed on a non-slippery floor. Otherwise the body would always have to be erect. You might just as well ask a skater to do elaborate figures with a blunt pair of skates as ask a folk dancer to dance on a polished floor."

As an additional precaution against slipping, Mr. Sharp dances in shoes having all- rubber soles. He went to his trunk at this point of the interview and produced his dancing slippers. He calls them "sneakers". They are similar to the shoes worn by tennis players.

Mr. Sharp said that of the three principal types of folk dancing - morris, sword. and country - the morris is by far the hardest to master, owing to the difficulty of using hands independently of feet.

"Technically the morris presents as difficult problems as any dance known to civilization," continued Mr. Sharp. "It is an offshoot of the sword dance, which is the most ancient dance in the world. The sword dance, which is believed to have originated with the Aryans, was a rite by which a sacred animal was killed once a year. It is known throughout Europe, but especially in England. The morris dance, in which handkerchiefs or sticks are used, has almost disappeared. The sword dance is still danced, mostly by miners, in three northern counties of England. Sword and morris dances are usually danced by men, although sometimes by women. Country dances are usually danced by men and women jointly. Morris dances are usually danced by six persons. Sword dances require some of five, some six, and some eight. Country dances may be danced by two couples or any greater number of couples."

But when Sharp arrived in St. Louis, trouble started. The St. Louis Republic reported:

Forty girls ranging from 16 to 24 years of age learned the meaning of real dancing yesterday afternoon at the Central Public Library in preparation for the production of "As You Like It", at Forest Park in June, under the auspices of the St. Louis Pageant Drama Assoc.

The girls were told to get out of the "ho-hum club" and learn the meaning of the word "pep". Of course, that isn't the language Cecil Sharp of London, authority on English Folk Dancing, used. He's very English, but figuratively speaking, he told the girls to "get a move on themselves", "put some punch into their work","a little more speed", and to "get some action". And he got his meaning over all right. Before the afternoon was over, the energetic, nimble footed Englishman had the girls as light on their feet as bits of thistledown before a stiff breeze. They bounded, flew, they floated until their cheeks grew red and their hair almost tumbled about their shoulders.

"Dancing has been corrupted by the social dances of today", said Mr. Sharp. "It has taught people to slouch through dancing instead of putting rhythm, grace and life into it."  

And from the St. Louis Times:

Cecil Sharp, English Dancing Master, who has charge of the "As You Like It" dancing, arrived in St. Louis Monday night and read the "riot act" to dozens of dancing groups when he toured the studios of well-known St. Louis dancing teacher, Mrs. C.C. Hardcastle.

Sharp entered, hurried through an introduction to Mrs. Hardcastle, strode up to the pianist, clutched his arm, shook his shoulder, and in a loud voice shouted, "Play those notes right". Then, Sharp mounted the stage. The dancers went through their numbers. Sharp pointed a forefinger at first one dancer and then others. He exclaimed "he has to get out", or "what's the matter with that booby?".  

A few days later the St. Louis Star reported:

Sharp is a man of middle age, of slight stature, exceedingly active, and a rapid talker. Several talks given in St. Louis, he illustrated with folk songs at the piano. His method of handling dancers amounts almost to genius.  


Clearly, Sharp had made a mixed first impression, quite different from that of Margaret Anglin and the other actors from New York. They endeared themselves to the locals as they effusively praised the city and declared that the new Forest Park amphitheatre was the most perfect they had ever seen. While the press coverage of the actors became more and more positive, and the prologue itself was always described enthusiastically, the references to Sharp himself became fewer, and usually in connection to the growing problems.

During the weeks leading up to the opening night, Sharp continued his process of weeding out dancers who he felt were not up to standard. But on May 28, just over a week before the opening, the dancers at the largest of the dancing schools, that of Mrs. Hardcastle, decided that they would protest what they saw as Sharp's ill treatment. They declared that they would go on as a complete group, or not at all. It's not hard to understand which side the general public would take in a dispute between local high school girls and a slightly caustic visiting Englishman.

But worse was to come. On May 31 (five days before opening), the stage was finally ready, and Sharp was able to take a look at the dancing green where the prologue was to take place. It was the area in front of the stage, on the same ground level as the seats; no part of the audience behind the first row would see anything below the shoulders of the dancers. The space was barely 30 feet deep, and far from being able to accommodate the planned 150 dancers and 100 singers. Sharp estimated that it might hold 50 people at the most. Worse still, it had no drainage at all, and the grass was soggy. Sharp immediately went to the chairman of the prologue dance committee, Mrs. Lawence T. Post, informing her of the problem. His best suggestion was to move the dance up onto the stage, which although still too small a space for the program planned, would at least be visible to the audience. Mrs. Post passed this suggestion on to Margaret Anglin, who declared it impossible.

As she explained it the next day in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat:

Yesterday morning when I was unexpectantly met with - to put it mildly - the fairly imperative demands to give up the entire stage arrangements and settings, devised at great expense by Livingston Pratt, for As you Like It, I tried my utmost to explain that if a change to the original plans submitted to me was contemplated now, it would involve us in amazing difficulties and the public would be compelled to wait something more than half an hour while awkward and disillusioning reconstruction took place. I consented, however, to make the effort to meet them until it was beyond my power. I cannot speak too warmly of the splendid help that has been given me on every side by the ladies and gentlemen who are participating, and it is a great grief to me that I should be put in so false a light or that the slightest friction should have arisen. But happily it cannot be laid at the doors of St. Louis!  


Thus, Miss Anglin happily absolved the architects of their incompetence, and implied that Sharp was to blame for the dilemma.

So, Mrs. Post announced that the entire prologue was cancelled. But late in the day, a compromise was reached. The prologue was moved to the end of the play, as an epilogue. The expensive settings could be struck from the stage at the end of the play to clear enough room for the program, and then reassembled the next morning. Then, still later that same day, the dancers at the Hardcastle school were persuaded to accept Sharp's judgments and end their strike. But the acrimony was strong enough that Mrs. Post felt compelled to issue a formal statement in the Globe-Democrat:

While I realize that the inclusion of Folk dancing in the Shakespearean celebration has been made possible by the kindness of the dancing teachers who have given so freely of their time, I feel that I should make this statement in justice to Mr. Sharp and the Pageant Association.

When the classes were formed, announcement was made that all dancers whose folk dancing was of the particular type required by Mr. Sharp would have priority over all other applicants for parts in the cast. This, we believe, was thoroughly understood by both teachers and pupils, and we trusted that all people interested would be sufficiently large minded to eliminate personalities when the final weeding out came.

On Monday evening, Mr. Sharp, Miss Karpeles, and I visited two classes. At Miss Lambkin's class, everyone was satisfied witht he decision of Mr. Sharp, rejecting certain members of it. We are carrying out our original plan with absolute fairness. There is no room for criticism. A report in another newspaper might tend to convey the entirely erroneous impression that Mr. Sharp had been discourteous. The truth of the matter is that Mr. Sharp, within my hearing, obtained permission to smoke before doing so. Mr. Sharp did not address individually any member of that class from the platform or otherwise, in any of the words attributed to him, or in any other words which could be construed to have any such meaning. 


Mrs. Post's careful words vividly convey the tense atmosphere of that week. She was stung by the criticism and harried by the frantic reorganization. Her remarks of Sharp's manners can be read either as tepid endorsement or ironic reproach.

At last, on June 1, Sharp managed a bit of diplomacy in another interview for the Globe-Democrat:

"I have accepted for the Forest Park performances next week 300 folk dancers", he said.

[casts of 150 dancers performed on alternating nights]

"I am very proud of those 300 dancers. I wish that I could take them to New York and have them appear in the great amphitheatre there." Sharp says he is amazed at the accuracy and spirit of the folk dancing in St. Louis. "The work of one or two of the classes is simply marvelous. The advantage of the St. Louis dancers over those in New York is that they have been taught in comparatively small groups, and their individual work is far ahead of that of the New Yorkers."  


Then, on June 3, the Globe-Democrat described final preparations for the Morris dance:

At this morning's rehearsal, Sharp will select one of the boys to be King, another to be Queen, another to be Witch, another to be Fool, and four to be Hobby Horses. Sixteen dancers will be chosen to do the actual morris dancing. The selection of a boy to be Queen does not mean that the girl chosen queen a few days ago will be dethroned. She will be Queen of the May. The boy will merely be Queen of the Morris dancers, and will not be kissed. In Shakespeare's time virtually all morris dancing was done by men. Sharp is striving to have the epilogue true to the life of the Shakespearean period.

The Morris dancers wear short, white trousers reaching to the knees, white jackets, high- peaked hats, red sashes, sprinkled with tiny bells, and rough grey woolen stockings.  

Opening night, though delayed twice because of rain, still won front page coverage in most of the city's papers. Reviews were uniformly excellent, both of the play and the epilogue, and an article on June 11, in the Globe-Democrat, provided a few glimpse of the Morris dance:

Not all of the group of sixteen Yeatman High School "boy dancers" Friday night were boys, appearances to the contrary. Two of the boys failed to appear, and Mrs. Lawrence Post, chairman of the Dance Committee, and Miss Florence Grant, Vice Chairman of the same committee, and Physical Education directress at Washington University, took their places. Of all those that witnessed the dance, among whom were many of their intimate friends, not one recognized Mrs. Post and Miss Grant. Only a few of the boys in whose company they danced, it is said, knew they were other than masculine substitutes.

"I liked it so well," Mrs. Post is said to have remarked to friends, "that I would gladly do it again if given the chance."  

The Yeatman High School boys probably never danced the Morris again. At least some of them presumably went off to the Great War, but happily, none of their names appear on casualty lists. 90 Years later, Forest Park's 10,000 seat amphitheatre is still flourishing, though not quite as its founders intended. The seasons of Shakespeare and Verdi have gradually been displaced by musical comedies. And if any such program as Sharp's May day revels were contemplated, modern union rules would make it nearly impossible.

Though Maud Karpeles was with Sharp all during this trip, she barely mentions St. Louis in her 1967 biography of Sharp. Judging from the surviving news accounts, there is little reason to think he enjoyed his time here. Despite the claims for Elizabethan authenticity, the 1916 Revels offer no insight into real English tradition. A pastiche of this sort, combining music and dances from different regions and eras, would likely be viewed today as unscholarly and perhaps misleading. And the instructions written by Sharp read almost like a parody of folk traditions, rather than a historian's description of actual customs. Nevertheless, they give a snapshot of the attitudes and practices of the people who took part in the first wave of the Folk Dance Revival just as it crested before the Great War. And the event still towers in the annals of Folk Music in St. Louis - not just as a single episode of something old and exotic, or even as the beginnings of local interest in English customs, - but as our only personal encounter with the celebrated Mr. Sharp.

Morris dance continued to be revived sporadically in St. Louis, and became firmly established finally with the creation of the Capering Roisters, in the early 1980s. It identifies itself as a "cotswold" team. But a group of folk dancers working far from the English countryside, though they may strive to remain faithful to tradition, inevitably forge their own way - precisely in the process that Sharp described in his preface to 100 English Folk Songs, the book he finished in that Shakespearean spring of 1916:

"The most typical qualities of the folk song have been laboriously acquired during its journey down the ages, in the course of which its individual angles and irregularities have been smoothed away, just as the pebble on the seashore has been rounded by the action of the waves; that the suggestions unconsciously made by individual singers, have at every stage of the evolution of folksong been weighed and tested by the community, and accepted or rejected by their verdict; and that the life history of the folksong has been one of continuous growth and development, always tending to approximate to a form which should be at once congenial to the taste of the community and expressive of its feelings, aspirations, and ideals."


Lyndon Blaylock
St. Louis, Missouri

The Yeatman High School Boys Morris Dancers :

  • Fred Albrecht
  • Henry Macinliniss
  • Charles Barret
  • Oliver Martin
  • Boyle
  • Richard Miller
  • Brinkmeeyer
  • Clarence Heinkunhla
  • William Burch
  • Edgar Nichols
  • Carstairs
  • Almar Oakly
  • Cranghlin
  • Edward Rudolph
  • A.F. Depke
  • Francis Rudoph
  • Herbert Dunkman
  • Carl Setzler
  • Elmer Engel
  • Richard Sing
  • Charles Fecker
  • Sinzroods
  • Harry Hart
  • Melvin Staehle
  • Howdeshe
  • Weston Taylor
  • Robert Khalten
  • Edward Weginer
  • Charles Knollman
  • A. Wetfer
  • Alex Krug
  • James Wolbe