The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #157878 Message #4028292
Posted By: Brian Peters
14-Jan-20 - 11:45 AM
Thread Name: Dave Harker, Fakesong
Subject: RE: Dave Harker, Fakesong
A polite discussion on Child and his sources is certainly worth having, but back to the actual book for a moment...
‘Fakesong’ is certainly essential reading to anyone interested in our subject, but it should be approached with a sceptical eye, a familiarity with alternative accounts, and the foreknowledge that this is a polemic, not an impartial work of scholarship. Personally I found it useful in summarizing the work of certain collectors pre-Child, and of Alfred Williams, but even at first reading certain logical non sequiturs leapt off the page. Harker’s confidence in his own notion that the mother of Sharp’s singers Louie Hooper and Lucy White was a broadside seller, increases from ‘may have been...’ to ‘was almost certainly...’, within the space of ten pages, for example, without any evidence being presented for the proposition beyond the fact that she knew a lot of good songs.
Lighter’s excellent post of 10 Aug 2015 alludes to “alleged fudging and factual errors” but, having examined the evidence, I’d put it stronger than ‘alleged’. C. J. Bearman’s right-wing politics and irascible personality were off-putting to many, but I’ve checked some of the critique of Harker in his Ph.D. thesis (available online here) and, on the specific issues of the demographics of Sharp’s Somerset singers, and his editorial practice, he makes a compelling case. The point about demographics was that Harker offered a statistical analysis of the singers and their places of residence to show that Sharp’s categorization of them as rural agricultural workers was inaccurate; Bearman, however, found many questionable assumptions and arithmetical errors in the Harker’s figures. Harker has since conceded that he got some of his figures ‘jumbled’ but, as Bearman remarked, “it is a very interesting variety of mistake which so consistently produces errors in favour of the argument being presented.”
On the matter of text reworking and bowdlerization, Bearman was able to show that at least some of the examples cited by Harker were false, and provided his own analysis of 25 published songs to show the degree of textual editing was minimal in many cases, and simple augmentation from other singers’ versions in others.
Bearman died in 2013, and in 2017 (17 years after CJB’s first publication) Dave Harker finally responded to his analysis with an extraordinary 4 page letter published in the Folk Music Journal, including 39 bullet points of rebuttal – which did not, to my mind, address Bearman’s most serious points. There then followed a lengthy series of claims based on Cecil Sharp’s American diaries, with quotes apparently selected to show him in an unfavourable light. I carried out my own analysis of these (see my paper on Sharp’s Appalachian collection published in the FMJ in 2018), and found, for instance, that Harker had over-estimated Sharp’s US earnings by a factor of more than three in one instance, and that even the expensive pair of pyjamas Sharp purchased in the US (a fact of doubtful relevance in the first place) had somehow doubled in price. Those pesky mistakes again.
The reason some previous contributors to this thread have told us that reading ‘Fakesong’ wasn’t a pleasant experience is, I’m sure, because of the relentless negativity in tone, particularly about the character of the collectors. It includes plenty of quotes from their manuscripts, letters and publications – Harker had clearly done his research – but they are selectively edited to portray them as grasping cynics who had no regard for the singers they met, while anything that might give a favourable impression is rigorously excluded. On p. 159 we find a quote from Baring-Gould beginning “I had in old Hard...” Just those five words are sufficient to convince Harker that Baring-Gould regarded Robert Hard the ex-stone-breaker (who died shortly afterwards) as “rather like a dumb animal”, from whom the Reverend could “extract all that was left of Hard's cultural property, and then let the forces of nature do their worst.” You have to turn to Martin Graebe’s excellent biography of Baring-Gould to learn that the clergyman collector presented Hard with takings from a concert exceeding Hard’s annual income, and then took pains to ensure that the gift didn’t result in the man’s dole being stopped.
Likewise in ‘Fakesong’s chapter on Cecil Sharp you’ll find several references to Louie Hooper, but none to her own testimony of a friendship with the collector that extended to shared excursions and gifts including a concertina. You will, however, find plenty about Sharp’s greed, in statements like “He was still trying to pump Rockefeller and Yale University for cash in 1917” – which, when the cited reference is followed up, turns out to refer to what most people would call a ‘grant application’ for funds to continue the research (which was, incidentally, unsuccessful). In the field of Sharp’s politics, his reference to ‘the Arian race’ is (of course) quoted, but without the context that clarifies the Sharp’s meaning as ‘Indo-European culture’, and nothing resembling Hitler’s fantasy. When Harker quotes Sharp in 1917 as admitting to “taking the taking 'the conservative view in politics'", a check of the actual passage in his diary reveals that Sharp took “the conservative line” in a particular argument on a social occasion - probably for the sake of Devil’s advocacy; it does pay to check the original quote!
There are many, many more instances like this. My attitude is that, while I can of course forgive the occasional error, as soon as I see one piece of dodgy scholarship, or a blatant agenda, I begin to distrust everything. There may indeed be much useful and accurate information in ‘Fakesong’, but I can take little of it at face value. One of the things I’ve learned in my work on Cecil Sharp (and this is by no means confined to Dave Harker’s writings) is that the very people who shout the loudest about ‘bias’ and ‘selectivity’ are very often carrying a mountain-sized burden of both around with them.