Folk’s unsung heroines – the sisters who saved English music

My play began in a flash of inspiration, but it would take me 10 years to finish it. At one point I completely discarded it as a failed project, then Hampstead theatre’s Roxana Silbert inspired me to go back. Covid interfered and the production was delayed, making me fear it might never see the light of day; then BBC Radio 3 included my adaptation in their Drama on 3/Culture in Quarantine series. Now, finally, the play has a full production at Hampstead theatre. I have a history of burning manuscripts that don’t please me, but luckily this one had escaped the fire.

I grew up in Somerset, first in Glastonbury, then in a small village on the edge of the Somerset Levels. Back in Glastonbury in 2009 I went to see an exhibition at the Rural Life Museum about Cecil Sharp and folk music. Sharp collected songs from 1903 until 1924, and founded what is now the English Folk Song and Dance Society.

In the exhibition there was a photograph of John England, a gardener who had sung to Sharp what is purported to be the first song he ever collected, The Seeds of Love. There was another of a singer who had lived in my own village. Then I saw the images of two sisters from a village near mine, Louie Hooper and Lucy White, who between them sang over 100 songs to Sharp.

Folk-song collecting was a growing movement in the early years of the 20th century, driven by a desire to rescue these songs before they were lost to the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, when machines would work the land and the sewing would be moved into factories. Sharp published many of them, arranging them for piano and editing the lyrics so that they were suitable for a middle-class audience. He tidied rhymes and rhythms and then placed his name on them, copyrighting them. At the time this wasn’t seen as an egregious act. The two sisters gave Sharp over 100 songs, yet their names were nowhere, their stories untold.

The images of the sisters kept coming back to me. I did some research and learned that they were the daughters of a well-known singer who would have sung these songs to her children, songs that they knew by heart. I started to imagine what it might feel like if your body contained that many songs, enough to sing for days without repetition. I write both drama and prose, and ideas are born inside their form: this was definitely a play, about the human voice, about live song.

I found an incredible transcript of a 1940s interview with Louie Hooper, then in her 80s, where she talked about her love for music, how she listened to birds and rain, found musical patterns in their sounds, and how she sat by the older people in the village and “caught” their songs. She fascinated me. It is always the untold story, the silent voice that captures my imagination.

Meanwhile my research quickly revealed Sharp as opinionated and ferociously ambitious – Sharp by name, sharp by nature. He was virulently against women’s suffrage, and had refused to collect songs from black American singers. He published many of the songs that he collected in Somerset and beyond all under his name, and promoted himself as the expert on folk song, building a career on other people’s work. It would be easy to write a play that dismantled him, and yet there was a problem. Sharp had another side: he had great respect for the country people who sang, and managed to collect about 5,000 songs that, were it not for his writing them down in his notebooks, would otherwise have been lost. That dissonance would be at the heart of the play.

I now had the story, but as the themes started to become clear, the complexity of the subject matter became overwhelming. The songs were also being gathered at a time when it was felt that England lacked a great classical composer. Since Purcell (who died in 1695), all the new music had been European and we were considered “Das Land ohne Musik – the country without music. Sharp and his collecting peers hoped that these folk songs would stimulate composers to create a new classical music based on them, and place England at the centre of classical music once again.

Sharp furthermore saw these songs as having the potential to “refine and strengthen the national character” in the years before the first world war. This nationalism was the theme that caused me the most problems: it made me think about my feelings about my own country. The play is clearly about England, her songs and her landscape; I was writing it at a time when I felt a sense of nationalism rising as we headed into and out of the Brexit referendum, and, also, as the world around me was changing and questions were starting to be asked about the history of our country houses and artefacts in museums. History became more interesting and much more complex as it became more rigorous and more inclusive of others’ narratives.

Sharp found “his” England very near where I am from. My imagination was born in my village in Somerset, and I have a creative attachment to the land. I look back on my life there with an extraordinary sense of richness, but I don’t know what to do with these feelings. How do I express that love without being nationalistic? And how do I express that love, knowing that to romanticise the past is to ignore the fact that there was an intolerance to difference and a casual racism in my own village where in 1977 dogs were still named the N-word.

I have come to see that the play is my way of working through those questions. Every time I write it is to find out what I think. Sharp raided the villages for the songs on which he built his career, yet he also saved the songs. The play demanded that I find a way to show those two dissonant facts in the same story. I also needed to find a way of showing that I love the place where I was born, without ignoring the complexities of that place and my feelings about it.

As Louie Hooper says in my play: “Everyone loves their country. It’s just the bit of land where we was born, what we first see and smell. It’s the stories, the songs.”

The songs Sharp collected did lead to many types of new music, including the big folk revival in the 60s, which still feeds folk musicians today; it also led to new classical music from Holst, Vaughan Williams and Butterworth, which in turn inspired Benjamin Britten. We owe all of this to Sharp, but we also owe it all to a pair of little-known sisters who lived on the edge of the water, right in the heart of the Somerset Levels.

Folk by Nell Leyson is at Hampstead theatre until 5 February.