Cecil Sharp photos come to Madison County


The first U.S. exhibit of rare, century-old photos taken by British song collector Cecil Sharp is in Marshall at The Madison County Arts Center through May 31. The photos feature some of the singers he visited during his travels.

Britons Cecil Sharp and his assistant Maud Karpeles collected variants of English ballads between 1916-1918. Their collecting work began in Hot Springs with the help of Olive Campbell, founder of the John C. Campbell Folk School.

By the end of their 46-week travels through North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, the pair had collected more than 1,600 variants of English ballads collected from 281 singers.

While the songs have been published, photos of the singers taken by Sharp, have never been exhibited in the United States. The exhibit is part of a three-year centennial observance of Sharp’s and Karpeles’ work.

“Sharp would send photos back to the singers as a gift of remembrance,” project coordinator Donald Hughes of Rougemont, N.C., said. “The strong desire to document and the personal nature of his relationship with the Appalachian people resulted in a set of powerful and introspective images for history to hold.”

Unfortunately, no photos of singers in Madison County are known to have survived, but the singers provided the pair with numerous songs.

One of the first Madison County singers they visited was Jane Gentry in Hot Springs. She gave them 70 songs and ballads, more than anyone else in all their travels. After his first day’s visit with her, Sharp noted in his diary that “I told her not to die in the night or catch cold or do anything that would endanger my getting the song on the morrow.”

Another Madison County star was Mary Sands who was eight and a half months pregnant with her 10th child when Sharp visited with her. She gave him 25 songs. In his diary Sharp described her as a “prize folk singer who started off with six first raters.”

“It is no exaggeration,” Sharp wrote of his travels, “to say that some of the hours I passed sitting on the porch (i.e. verandah) of a log-cabin, talking and listening to songs were amongst the pleasantest I have ever spent.”

The show will be featured during Joe Penland’s annual concert at the Madison County Arts Council April 22.

The exhibit will be shown at the Mountain Heritage Center, Western Carolina University this summer and the Pine Mountain Settlement School in Harland, Kentucky this fall. Anyone interested in booking the exhibit may contact Donald Hughes (

For more about the work and travels of Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles, visit