Monthly Archives: May 2021

DANCING IN THE CABBAGE PATCH Sheep Shearing and Cecil Sharp

Pine Mountain Settlement School
Series 11: FARM
Sheep Shearing and Cecil Sharp

0046a P. Roettinger Album.”Sheep Shearing, Uncle John Shell, Aunt Sis Shell, and Mrs. Joe Day.” c.1920s  [Woman standing next to a barn on left, watching man and woman sheer a sheep.]

TAGS: sheep shearing, Cecil Sharp, sheep, sheep flocks, dreaming of sheep, sheep in history, sheep in song, Uncle John Shell, Aunt Sis Shell, Mrs. Joe Day, George Pullen Jackson


It is not likely that Cecil Sharp (1859-1924), the British musicologist, ever sheared a sheep. But, he was, in any case, a close observer of the ruminants and probably an even closer critic of their bleets and baahs! Nontheless, what Cecil Sharp has left to the history of sheep is a unique auditory trail that helps to re-trace the prevalence of sheep within the rich agrarian history of Great Britain and in the American Appalachian mountains.

When musicologist Sharp sat on the porch of Old Far House at Pine Mountain Settlement School in Kentucky and watched the Kentucky Running Set as it was performed by students and staff, he was watching the well-trained legs that probably had chased a sheep or two up the Pine Mountain and down. Tending sheep is an active job and the energy of that Kentucky Running set was just a short measure of what it took to maintain a sheep flock in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.

What a celebration it was when lambs arrived and wool was sheared at the small hillside farms of the Appalachians. In far-off “lands across the sea,” as Uncle William Creech, a founder of Pine Mountain Settlement used to say, many Europeans were continuing similar agrarian practices. Their customs lingered on in many of their Borderland ancestors  who formed one of the largest immigrant groups living deep in the Appalachian mountains. Like so many customs, known to immigrants from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and also other European points of origin, the custom of raising sheep was built into the Appalachian pioneer household. In fact, sheep-raising, an international livelihood, is tied to the history of most agrarian cultures.

What Cecil Sharp added to sheep history was the discovery of an English folk song that no doubt flowed from the music and lives of early sheep farmers, probably in the Norfolk area of England. Elements of that song then found its way into the Appalachians. The song suggests the importance of sheep in the daily lives of the European immigrants and a certain logic  to its transfer to the New World. Just try saying “Cecil Sharp and sheep-shearing ,” and see what lyrical lapses leap from your tongue. Songs of shearing sheep are not at all uncommon, especially in families with weaving willfulness — a trait that abounds in the mountains of the Central Appalachians.


It is no small wonder that when we speak of dreaming, we also often speak of “counting sheep.” There is a very practical origin for that association. It was the duty of the herdsman to know the number of sheep in his herd. Counting sheep is probably deeply etched in the DNA of descendants of sheep-herders or at least deep in our historical agrarian psyche. We have been counting sheep for as long as we have joined our lives with the practice of raising sheep and herding them. Sheep have been a part of our history as a country from the beginning. At one time Kentucky led the nation in the number of sheep! That is a lot of counting and a lot of dreaming.

Cecil Sharp was a collector of songs, not wool, but he shows all the instincts of a weaver, dreamer and numerator. He began his collecting of folk ballads in the English countryside. There, it was inevitable that he would encounter a myriad of sheep and those who tended them. Some references to sheep were sure to appear, and they did. He recorded one such sheep ballad from his song-gathering encounters in a small book he edited called 100 English Folk Songs [ published by Oliver Ditson Co., Theo. Presser Co. Distributors, Philadelphia, 1916].

One of the songs in that collection found its way into another small book of collected folk songs, The Songs for All Time. The booklet issued by the Council of Southern Mountain Workers, was intended to be a resource for “recreation material in the Highland area.” It was a utilitarian collection of songs for social gatherings that is largely dependent on the rich oral tradition of the Appalachian region and that had many familiar tropes that would be recognized in Great Britain. The Foreword tells us that

The contents, folk songs for the most part, were compiled by a committee which has made practical use of them with singing groups. Where tunes and words depend on oral tradition, innumerable versions usually exist — some of them perhaps better than [the] variants included. There is no version which can be called the correct one, but the committee has chosen those which it has found satisfactory in the light of their lasting qualities and the ease with which they can be learned. Modal melodies are not always easy to introduce to those unfamiliar with such music, but practically all songs included have been put to the proof: given a little time and repetition they “sing well” and become dear to the heart of the singer.

Song For All Times, Copyright, 1946, by Cooperative Recreation Service, (Forward).

On the back of the booklet, Songs for All times, there appears a short essay by George Pullen Jackson, an American musicologist, and educator. Pullen was a pioneer in the field of Southern (U.S.) hymnody and popularized the spurious term “white spirituals” to describe “fasola“* singing. [*fasola= harp singing or shape-note singing] Pullen says

…Sing, preferably your own songs, brother. Live your own song life and be proud of it. Don’t let the I-dont’-know-a-thing-about-music complex trouble you. Don’t let the processed and canned music lower your musical morale. If you are a mature person, re-learn and re-sing the songs of your childhood and youth. (You’ll be surprised at the large admixture of genuine folk songs among your remembered ditties.)

George Pullen Jackson, comment from Songs for All Times 

What George Pullen Jackson sensed was the power of music to heal and make joyful the day when it is pulled from routine experiences and even more when it is derived from a shared experience. The shearing of sheep and other communal activities of pioneer families brings home the satisfaction of sharing with neighbors the sometimes daunting tasks that an agrarian life demanded. Further,  Jackson in his remarks, shares with Cecil Sharp the understanding of the healing power of song as it is remembered across all time and as it derives from the common stories of living.

While there is no direct knowledge of the following song appearing in the musical repertoire of the Central Appalachians, the sentiment would clearly have resonated with the mountaineers. The following song, The Sheep-Shearing, was collected by Cecil Sharp in his 100 English Folk Songs for a good reason. He described it as “very popular among English country folk” and “in existence before 1760.” His sensitive ear could also, no doubt, frame the picture evoked by the lyrics in this and in his other collected songs


How delightful to see,
In these evenings in Spring,
The sheep going home to the fold.

The master doth sing,
As he views everything,
And his dog goes before him where told,
And his dog goes before him where told.

The sixth month of the year,
In the month called June,
When the weather’s too hot to be borne,
The master doth say,
As he goeth on his way:
“Tomorrow my sheep shall be shorn,
“Tomorrow my sheep shall be shorn.”

Now as for those sheep,
They’re delightful to see,
They’re a blessing to a man on his farm.
For the flesh it is good,
It’s the best of all food,
And the wool it will clothe us up warm,
And the wool it will clothe us up warm.

Now the sheep they are all shorn,
And the wool carried home,
Here’s a health to our master and flock:
And if we should stay,
Until the last go away,
I’m afraid ’twill be past twelve o’clock,
I’m afraid t’will be past twelve o’clock.

Cecil Sharp, 100 English Folk Songs, …”In existence before 1760.”


CECIL SHARP AND MAUDE KARPELES Visit to Pine Mountain Settlement School




FARM GUIDE to Sheep, Goats, Weaving and Dyeing