Troyls – Cornish celebrations

From time to time around Cornwall, you might see posters advertising something called a troyl. Today, more often than not, the Cornish dialect word troyl is used instead of the Gaelic word ceilidh or the English barn dance if the music and dancing on the night is to be Cornish.

Equally, from time to time, I hear people saying that the idea of a troyl was made up, and dismissed as ‘nationalistic nonsense’. So what is the evidence for the use of the word troyl and what kind of event were they? Let’s dig in.

Dances in fish cellars and sail lofts

The first stopping point is the book Scoot Dances, Troyls, Furrys and Tea Treats – The Cornish Dance Tradition, by Merv, Alison and Jowdy Davey (Francis Boutle: 1998). The book begins with a quote from the diary of Edward Veale, Merv Davey’s grandfather who lived in Newquay during the late 19th and into the 20th centuries. In his notebook he described a memory of attending an event he described as a ‘troyl’ in the Unity Fish Cellars in Newquay as a young boy in 1885. His mother, Philippa, and uncle Ed Murrish played the concertina that night, and “a man from Truro played the fiddle”. He remembered the event involving dancing, music, and feasting on roasted herring, with the fun going on “until the early hours of the morning”. He described one of the dances, the ‘Lattapouch’, as it was a challenge dance that invariably ended up with people falling on their backs – the kind of memory that sticks in minds of children. Edward Veale summarised a troyl as “dancing held in fish cellars at the end of the season” (p.19).

The authors go on to describe other events called ‘troyls’ in the Newquay area, usually in sail lofts with a fiddler for the dancing. They present examples from other books that refer to troyls (or troils/troyles) as a “feast or tinner’s feast” (Jago’s The Ancient Language and the Dialect of Cornwall, 1882, and Margaret Courtenay’s Cornish Feasts and Feasten Customs, 1886). On following up the referent to Margaret Courtenay’s work, she says “Troil is Old-Cornish for a feast” (Cornish Feasts and Folk-Lore, Penzance, 1890, p.42).

Dictionaries and Cornish language

Cornish language expert Robert Morton Nance in his 1938 A New Cornish-English Dictionary defined the word troyl as meaning “a circuit, whirl, spiral, or a spin”. By the time we get to Ken George’s Gerlyver Kernewek Kemmyn – Cornish Dictionary (2000), the word ‘troyll’ is defined as “spin, ceilidh, fest-noz” (p.138). The authors suggest that the root of the word “ceili” is very different from “troyl” in that “the original meaning of ceili is an informal social gathering” (p.20) first used in relation to an Irish dance in London in 1897, and not used for set dance events until the 1930s. They suggest that troyl may be one of the oldest terms in the Celtic nations for community dancing (ibid).

19th century newspapers

So what other sources do we have to understand what a troyl was in the past? For that, we can turn to the newspapers of 19th century Cornwall.

Margaret Courtenay’s definition is generic. It is a term for a feast, which can encompass many types of event. Eating large quantities of food certainly seems to be one of them. The Royal Cornwall Gazette of 11 May 1838 contains a short story about two miners, having done rather well for themselves, “met in the best room of an Inn to have a “troil” on pork” (p.3). The event, if real, was newsworthy as the two were cheated out of their celebratory meal.

In the Royal Cornwall Gazette from 9th November 1849 (p.5) is a story covering the good fortunes of South Basset mine, south of Camborne. A feast was held for 280 workmen including “large joints of prime beef and mutton” alongside plenty of beer and rum. It was an especially good day for one of the workers:

One of the workmen being determined to give full swing to his enjoyment, was early in the morning wedded to the lass of his choice, thus ensuring himself a good “troil” for his wedding dinner. Whether his comrades out of compliment, further supplied him with their share of the grog, or not, he became so elated by 8p.m., – that strutting into town, fancying himself a Goliath he proclaimed himself ready to “thrash any ten-score man, that would meet him,” which consequently supplied him with some deserving thumps, and nearly separated him for the night from his lady love;

Royal Cornwall Gazette – Friday 09 November 1849 p.5

So in these contexts, “troil” is used to describe a feast or celebration, with no dancing or music reported in the article.

The Western Morning News of Thursday 3rd January 1867 (p.4) contains an article about the robbery of a ship at Newquay. A suspect’s alibi was that he could not be guilty, as he was at a “fish troyl” when the alleged crime took place.

The case, he said, hung entirely on the question of identity, and as the prisoner was at a fish troyl on the night of the robbery he contended that Trethewey must have mistaken Somerville for another man. – Mr. George Burt, a resident of Newquay, said he remembered the fish troyl – a jollification after a good catch of fish – on the night of the 20th Dec., and he saw Somerville there up to half past eleven o’clock.

Western Morning News – Thursday 03 January 1867 p.4

Here, a troyl seems very much the kind of event described by Edward Veale in 1885.

In the Cornishman of 21 December 1893 is a Cornish dialect piece called “Aunt Keziah chats about Christmas” (p.6) written by W. Herbert Thomas (writer of the song “Pasties and Cream” later recorded by Brenda Wooton). “I wud ruther go hungry an work like a trigger fur a fortnight aforehand than go without a bit ave troil an jollification pon Christmas time” (ibid).

Herbert Thomas uses the term again a few months later in the dialect piece “Aunt Keziah’s Shiners” (Cornishman – Thursday 15 March 1894, p.6). “He spawk all sa semple-like that I nearly bust out laffen in es face, but ee waddun a bad looken chap, so we took es gooseberries an had some troil, an addun fur a shiner that ebenin”.

Here, “troil” is used in the context of having a joke about, to have a laugh and some fun (in this tale, at someone else’s expense).

The Royal Cornwall Gazette of 15th November 1906 has a short piece entitled The “Troil” or Feast (p.8).

“Troil,” a “tinner’s feast,” says an old commentator on old Cornish words and their meanings. Profitable mining in the old days was always associated with holiday fare; thus at the account days at the mines a good dinner for the officials and adventurers was always provided and enjoyed, followed by the “St. Aubyn” day, when the mine officials welcomed their private acquaintances, while for the mine pay-day a good dinner was also expected and provided for all the officials.

Separate from this, on pay-days the working miners had their “troil,” when dividing their money at the various refreshment houses, which were known to make large provision in steaks tripe and “mutton pie broth,” etc. It is pleasing to find that the old custom has not quite gone out.

Royal Cornwall Gazette – Thursday 15 November 1906 p.8

Is there a pattern between the spelling of troil to mean feast versus the spelling of troyl to mean a dance? The newspaper examples shown so far seem to suggest a difference. However, the Cornishman of Thursday 3rd July 1879 (p.7) has a wonderful piece on the midsummer festivities at St Just. One of the activities that people looked forward to when the entire town decamped to Priest’s Cove and Cape Cornwall were boat trips.

No more are young maidens carried into the boats, by the penny-a-trollers, or carried from the boat to the shore, or ducked by those who undertook to carry them, when the troll, or troyl as it was called, was ended. And no more are those grassy slopes along the Cape animated by the movements and mirth, the music and laughter, of the living throng.

Cornishman – Thursday 03 July 1879 p.7

So here is the term and spelling of troyl in the context of fun and celebration. Boat trips, mischief, music and laughter as part of a festival at midsummer.

Troyls today

I had my first experience of a troyl earlier in September this year (2019). I was playing as a guest musician with the Penzance Guizers for the Gorsedh Esedhvos troyl held at the Town Hall in St Just. The music had to be played much more slowly than I am used to, as the troyl has a ‘caller’ who instructs people how to do the dances before the music, then continues to instruct whilst the music is played. It was a strange and unnatural experience for me, to have someone talking constantly through a microphone throughout. I gather that this is perfectly normal, but I could see a fair few people having less than fun, and a few comments like “you need a PhD to do this” were thrown at the caller. But there wasn’t any opportunity to be free and ‘let your hair down’ like the jollifications of old. I’m sure that plenty had a great time, but it wasn’t for me.

So typically today, a troyl is as the Daveys suggest in Scoot Dances, Troyls, Furrys and Tea Treats:

“Troyl is currently used interchangeably with barn dance, ceili, or ceilidh, to describe a social dance typically with a caller to explain or lead the dances. Nos Lowen is an expression coined more recently to describe less structured events where very simple arrangements of dances are used without a caller.”

Scoot Dances, Troyls, Furrys and Tea Treats. 2009. p.19

I have been to a few Nos Lowen events, where the dances tend to be ‘serpent’ or ‘circle’ dances with simple steps. They are very simple to copy, and after a pint or two, fun to join in with. Nos Lowens are a modern creation, apparently to be the opposite of troyls, and they’re great fun, and I will doubtless go to many more. But there is no room for those that do know some of the traditional Cornish dances to dance them to traditional tunes. I do wonder if there is room for a ‘middle way’? A new kind of troyl that allows spontaneous fun, yet serving the music and dance traditions at the same time.

I can’t help but think whether the Penzance Cornish session is a good representation of a troyl as indicated by the newspaper extracts above. It isn’t to celebrate anything specific, but people come along spontaneously, there is often Cornish dancing by people who know the steps, such as furries, there is drinking, laughter, chat, even people eating dinner, all to near-continuous Cornish music. Concertinas and fiddles included! It’s completely informal and everyone leaves happy.

I think Aunt Keziah would approve.

Historical instruments in traditional Cornish music

This is the start of a series of posts on the kind of instruments on which people played traditional music in the 18th to early 20th centuries, based on sources from the newspaper archives and elsewhere. By traditional music I mean the kind of music that is played spontaneously or performed in informal settings like pubs, taverns, chapel, church and village halls and during seasonal folk festivities such as the west Cornish tradition of guise dancing.

Processing bands

“concertinas, tin pans, flutina and bones”

St Ives, 1898.

There are several references to instrumental music being played alongside singing during the Christmas-time guise dancing season in west Cornwall (between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night).

In January 1887, The Cornish Telegraph reported “Bands of young people, in fantastic costumes, have paraded for hours, the processions sometimes being headed by a musical instrument, and followed by crowds of boys and girls yelling and hooting in a disgraceful manner.”

St Just 1891. “There was a very good market on Wednesday. The following day (25th ) there was the usual rendering of instrumental and vocal music by the two volunteer bands, and the choirs of the various chapels… On Monday evening the town was paraded by several parties of ‘guise-dancers’ and the bands could be heard discoursing sweet music.” [The Cornishman, Thursday 1 January 1891]

St Ives 1908. “Quite a new feature this year (or shall we say an old feature revived) was a band of over twenty performers. The “music” was not of the highest order, but it was certainly very popular and attracted a large crowd of interested spectators. [The Cornish Telegraph – Thursday 16 January 1908].

In St Ives, 1898, we get specific mention of actual instruments “being concertinas, tin pans, flutina and bones, “May horns.” [The Cornish Telegraph – Thursday 06 January 1898]. We should note that the writer refers to these as “musical instruments” in quotes, suggesting questionable musicality.

Tin pans, we imagine, were literally those, easy to get hold of and used percussively. A flutina is a kind of early melodeon or button accordion. Our friend has one dating from the mid-19th century tuned to the keys of F and C. Bones were literally a pair of bones, usually flat-ish (think ribs) or sometimes wood was substituted, and played between the fingers of one hand, beating out rhythms with the other hand or on body, arms and legs. Interestingly, no fiddles or whistles (too wet and cold this time of year? Not noisome enough?). May horns were tin plated copper horns like a hunting horn or vuvuzela.

Concertinas accompanying dancing in the pub for St Just Feast are mentioned by Willy Warren and Billy Waters in a fabulous conversation recorded by Ted Gundry in the mid-1970s, probably recalling times in the 1930s to 1940s. They mention, “I haven’t seen a concertina played for 30 years.” And then comments that they don’t know if anyone in the district could still play the concertina.

Listen from 1.19.

Man playing a flutina in the Admiral Benbow pub.
Playing a mid-19th century flutina at Penzance Cornish Session.

Singers and players

In Richard McGrady’s book Music and Musicians in Early Nineteenth Century Cornwall. The World of Joseph Emidy (1991) we get a glimpse of instrumental playing in the early 1800s. Before organs became the sine qua non of music in church, singing and instrumental playing went hand-in-hand, not just for religious purposes. McGrady cites the West Briton for 13 October 1826 describing 8000 people attending the laying of the foundation stone of the new church at St Day, “and the musical celebrations were provided by an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists ‘playing and singing appropriate pieces'” (p. 99). We don’t learn what the pieces were or what the instrumentalists were playing. Similarly a description in the Royal Cornwall Gazette of 26 October 1806 spoke of “sixty vocal and instrumental performers” at the cathedral church of St Germans.

While arguments continued over the cost of organs in this period (parishioners had to raise money not just for the expensive instrument but also an organist who could play it), we hear from William Tuck in his Reminiscences of Cornwall remembering his life in Camborne during the early 19th century, and containing memories well before that (p. 101). This excerpt deserves fuller citation as the visual image it generates is wonderful:

I am well informed that during the latter part of the seventeenth century the musical part of the Church Service was sung by men who used to wear breeches and buff gloves, standing in front of the orchestra, and each beating time by giving a slap on his pantaloons thus emphasizing the tonic in the scale. The instruments used on this occasion were Bassoons, Bass Viols, Flutes, Fiddles, Clarionets, etc.

William Tuck, Reminiscences of Cornwall, cited in McGrady, p. 101.
Women holding a bassoon between her knees at the Admiral Benbow pub.
Bassoon player arrives at Penzance Cornish Trad session, August 2019.

Bassoons and horse’s legs

Maister Berryman playin the bass viol an Maister Polmennor blawin es “horse’s leg” (thaz the baazoon).

The Cornishman, 21 December 1893.

It may surprise (or not) that bassoons loom large in much of our research into the historical instrumental tradition. This is not a sound we’re used to in modern Cornish Trad sessions except we were delighted last week that a bassoon player joined us at Penzance Cornish Session and we can’t wait for her to return. The sound added a really interesting bass to melodies that contrasted the higher register instruments such as fiddles and boxes. I hope she doesn’t mind us sharing this photo here, as part of the record of the Penzance session.

In a Cornish dialect story about Christmas time fun in The Cornishman of 21 December 1893, the description of Christmas Day singing and playing includes, “Maister Berryman playin the bass viol an Maister Polmennor blawin es “horse’s leg” (thaz the baazoon) and Uncle Jan Buzza playin the “sarpint” [serpent – as the name suggests, a winding bass woodwind instrument related to the cornet]. Bass viols, that we hear about as far back as the 17th and 18th century in Cornwall are a kind of ‘cello with five to seven rather than four strings, played between the legs. The same story goes on to describe carol or “curl” singers accompanied by the flute and “ufonium” (euphonium).

Cover of Ralph Dunstan's Cornish Dialect and Folk Songs book, 1932 showing an illustration of a bassoon player, fiddler and a man in long boots leaning against the wall, in front of a roaring open fire.
Cover of the first edition of Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Dialect and Folk Songs, 1932. Courtesy of the Morrab Library, Penzance.

The persistence of bassoons and woodwind in Cornish music into the 20th century continues to be evidenced by the world of Dr Ralph Dunstan, musician, musicologist and a significant proponent of the Cornish cultural revival of the 1920s. The cover of his second book of Cornish songs and tunes, published in 1932, shows an image of a bassoon player and fiddler probably in a chapel hall setting [might easily have also been a familiar scene in the local tavern]. Dunstan grew up in Carnon Downs and what is interesting about his collecting of Cornish music is that he had first had experience of hearing and playing music at community gatherings such as chapel tea treats. He was no mere pundit from outside.

John Dunstan, a descendant and relative, wrote a biographical article about Ralph Dunstan citing his instrumental playing (John Dunstan, ‘Cornishman of music’, Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, 2016, pp. 31-52). In similar vein to churches and chapels earlier in the 19th century, until 1896 Carnon Downs Weslyan Chapel had an orchestra [more an ensemble or band than anything that would resemble a modern orchestra] before the organ supplanted instrumental players. Carnon Downs had “one or two flutes, a euphonium, and an occasional clarinet or bassoon.” (p. 34). As a boy, Ralph used to go and watch the Saturday night practices with his cousin William who played flute and clarinet.

In later recollections, Ralph Dunstan recalls the occasions when music was played.

Our great festal occasions were Whitsuntide and Christmas. How eagerly I looked forward to Christmas Day… The chapel was decorated with holly, ivy and other evergreens, and lit up by means of candles. Some of the players made nothing of walking five or six miles in order to be present. I particularly recollect dear old ‘Ebbie’ Webber, who lived several miles away [at Baldhu–JD], but was always present on Christmas morning with his bassoon — polished to the highest degree of brilliancy — and who played as if he were inspired. Certainly his playing was an inspiration to me.

Ralph Dunstan, ‘Recollections of Dr. Dunstan’, The Westministerian, 22 (1912), p. 3.

Dunstan was already experimenting with music and instruments from the age of three. He made up his own musical notation and played tunes on his fife (a small flute like a piccolo) or tin whistle. From about the age of 12, with support from his musical cousin William, Ralph Dunstan learned to play the piccolo, flute, euphonium (like a tuba but in a higher tenor register) and bassoon – apparently his favourite instrument (John Dunstan, p. 34). As a teenager he attended the Weslyan Day School in Union Place, Truro where he bought his first violin for 5 shillings (p. 35). There, he formed a band with violins, two flageolets (a kind of recorder with keys like a clarinet), a piccolo and sometimes a guitar. When he was a little older he started to play the harmonium (keyboard powered by bellows), bought for Dunstan by his mother.

The mention of a guitar is quite early and precocious for it was not the ubiquitous folk instrument it is today.

Photograph of Ralph Dunstan in his study at Perrancoombe with an array of instruments handing on the wall, including guitars, Banos, mandolins and a clarinet or flageolet.
Image from John Dunstan’s article, 2016, from his family archive. Note the various guitar, banjo and mandolin type instruments hanging on his library wall.

Violins, the tone of “old fiddle”

We are still adventuring through the British Newspaper Archive to find references to violins and fiddles in Cornwall — there are many. The violin was the instrument de rigueur of the 18th century dancing master and this is evidenced brilliantly in all of the collections of dance and other music in Cornwall discovered and published by Mike O’Connor, including the collections of William Allen of St Ives, John Giddy of Kea and John Old of Par. O’Connor comments in the introduction to Dancing Above Par (2006) that, “some of the tunes are by known violinists and are all within the compass of the violin. Occasionally ‘double stopping’ appears, so the music was not played on a wind instrument” (p. 4). The tunes in these collections are for dancing and musical interludes: reels, jigs, strathspeys and schottisches, waltzes and hornpipes.

Detail of a violin showing double purfling or edge decoration and a star or flower symbol in one of the corner bouts.
Decorative purfling on an early 20th century violin made in Germany.

Meanwhile we also have some beautiful stories of fiddle makers. The Cornishman of 29 November 1934 mentions the story of Albert Coad, a Penzance violin maker, originally from Redruth Highway. He was visited by famous violinist Albert Sammons who performed on the live radio broadcast from St John’s Hall featuring the Penzance Orchestra (there were a number of radio broadcasts from Cornwall in the 1930 and 40s and many involved music of some sort). Describing the high quality of Coad’s work, Sammons was reported to have said, “this combination of qualities produced instruments whose tone was of “old fiddle” richness.” By 1934, Coad was reported to be the only fine violin maker known in Cornwall. Coad’s day job was as a signalman for the railways.

List of historical instruments in Cornwall

Here is a list of 18 instruments associated with playing Cornish traditional music we have (so far) recorded from our sources c.1700-c.1940.

  • bassoon
  • bass viol
  • bones
  • concertina
  • clarinet
  • euphonium
  • fiddle or violin
  • fife
  • flageolet
  • flute
  • flutina
  • guitar
  • harmonium
  • May horn
  • piccolo
  • tin pan
  • tin whistle
  • serpent

What does Cornish music sound like?

At the Thursday evening Penzance Cornish Session at the Admiral Benbow we often hear from people listening, “it sounds Irish. I didn’t realise Cornwall had its own music” or “it sounds really similar to Scottish music, I can hear a lot of similarities.”

It’s easy to see why many people may walk into a Cornish session and think it Irish. Many of the instruments we regularly play are the same: fiddles, concertinas, melodeons, accordions, whistles and recorders, sometimes clarinets, occasional flutes, (open back) banjos, mandolins and bouzoukis. Although drums make an occasional appearance percussion such as bodhráns are not common at Cornish sessions. Harps are rare compared with, say Wales. Guitars tend to be in the minority and usually provide rhythm and accompaniment. Although brass bands are a significant part of Cornish musical culture brass instruments are not often heard playing Cornish traditional tunes, you might hear the odd saxophone or tuba as part of a dance or processing band.

The general sound of that combination of acoustic instruments playing jigs, reels (more likely to be furries in Cornwall), hornpipes (few strathspeys although these were popular for a time for Cornish dancing in the 18th and 19th centuries), polkas, marches, waltzes, slow airs will strike a similar chord (if you’ll pardon the pun) to the uninitiated. Together with the common keys of the music, the most popular being G and D major, A, E, D and G minor, plus a few in modal keys that ‘trad sound’ will be familiar.

Some musicians reply that the similarities are because Cornish music is all part of the wider modern Celtic musical tradition (which it is) and thus the similarities. Some of the tunes we play have variations in Ireland, Scotland, America, Canada and even England but we think there are more subtle aspects to our repertoire that distinguish it from those traditions.

The Cornish Trad repertoire is a happy combination of contemporary and historical, varied in style and playability. Cornish music has not fossilised. Modern tunes are composed with the tradition in mind, many connected to the memory and feeling of a feature, person or place of import, and those that have become accepted and widely played fit in pretty indistinguishably from some older tunes. A popular pair of tunes at the Penzance Cornish Session is Newlyn Fair and Bernard’s Polka, composed by Marc Cragg. They are also performed for processing and dancing too.

Playing style

The Cornish Trad sound is less reliant on a fixed set of ornaments and tricks than, say Irish or Scottish trad. Rolls and fast triplets that characterise Celtic jigs and reels are used but are much less common and employed perhaps more sparingly. The characteristic ‘scotch snap’ that makes strathspeys so attractive to play and listen to is something particular to the traditions which have a much greater repertoire that needs them. What you will hear from Cornish fiddlers, box and string players is double-stopping, drones and occasionally harmonies and counter melodies, sometimes learned, sometimes improvised. Most session players will play a tune ‘straight’ with occasional ornamnentation. Fiddlers, for example, will employ grace notes, trills or mordents to emphasise and decorate. We also tend to play with more dynamic range, with softs and louds and contrast to suit the mood of a tune or set.

Contrasting speeds

Speed really depends on the context in which a tune is played by an instrumentalist. We may play jigs slower when dancers are dancing to them, but go full pelt during a session or band performance. We may speed up tunes that others play as a march (for example processing bands) and turn them into fast reels. We’ll usually play polkas fast with good emphasis on the off-beats. In contrast our waltzes may be played quite slowly, almost like slow airs, or some 3/4 sets may be played more quickly to create the kind of whirl that people enjoy hearing waltzes. Much depends on mood and who’s playing. What you will certainly find in any Cornish session is a lot of contrast in speeds which show off the wide range of tune types we play.

Some tunes we play will accelerate each time through, for example Newlyn Reel and King of Sweden, both tunes that are usually danced to with each time getting a bit faster. I wish these had a name – getting faster tunes sounds a bit clumsy – if you know what they are called or even the dances let us know.

Contrasting rhythms

Cornish tunes don’t all easily fit set categories and below I have used a pragmatic approach to categorising tune types for the sake of this exercise. Really it is just to demonstrate the wide range of rhythms we play. The tunes I class as reels are 4/4 tunes that we play fast with few or no pauses or long notes or big changes of rhythm. The tunes I class as furries are 4/4 tunes particular to Cornish dances (sometimes also called jowster tunes at nos lowen events), will be no more than 16 bars, usually (not always) with one A part and one B part of equal measure. Then we also have 4/4 marches, played more gently with more changes in pace even within tunes, sometimes played with swing, and 4/4 hornpipes with dotted or swung rhythm throughout, fast enough to dance to but not so fast as to make people fall over.

Song melodies

Many of our instrumental tunes derive from songs, such as Ryb an Avon, Warleggan Ox Driver and Nine Brave Boys. We’ve even taken the tune from the recently discovered song Can Palores for just this purpose. This came about because of the major influence Dr. Ralph Dunstan’s two song books has had since he published them in 1929 (Cornish Song Book Lyver Canow Kernewek) and 1932 (Cornish Dialect and Folk Songs). Before Dunstan, Sabine Baring-Gould’s Songs of the West, 1890, also providing a rich hunting ground for tunes which also had words associated with them. Following these publications and their circulation at Cornish gatherings Dr. Merv Davey’s song and tune research in the 1970s to 1990s produced further tunes that had songs associated with them, many of the published in Hengan.

Dance music

The other major influence on the sound of Cornish Trad are tunes intended for dancing. This has also dictated (or been derived from) the length of tunes e.g. 16 bar furries. Five-steps or kabm pemp are relatively new creations that have nonetheless had a serious impact on Cornish traditional music. These are tunes to be played briskly in 5/4 time to accompany nos lowen dancing, similar to Breton dancing. The tune describes the rhythm with emphasis usually (not always) on beats 1 and 4 to match the footwork. You won’t find five-steps like these in other British musical traditions.

Let’s take a look at the Penzance Cornish Session set list to analyse what we are playing and therefore what it might sound like.

Repertoire and sets

Currently we have 86 tunes in Penzance Cornish Session’s repertoire and most of them are played in sets of 2, 3, 4 and even 6 (the fab furries). Tune sets might include a change of key, a change of rhythm and/or a change of speed. Sets of tunes help create excitement and anticipation in the listener and this is a method we can really go to town on to put our own stamp on our musical tradition. Change of pace examples are a slow An Dyfunyans (The Awakening) followed by pacy polka Ewon an Mor (meaning sea foam) and slow jig An Diberdhyans (The Parting) followed by Dons Bewnans (meaning Dance of Life) played as a reel. Our jig sets use key changes to create interest, e.g. Falmouth Gig set goes from D to G to D, and Hernen Wyn set goes from Em to D to Em.

Our repertoire is divided into 11 tune types according to my rudimentary classification (i.e. the descriptions that work best for us as musicians). We also have a small handful of tunes that don’t fall into easy categorisation so we don’t bother. By number, most of our tunes are 6/8 jigs, followed by furries and waltzes. Hornpipes, reels and polkas are more or less equal. We like our slow airs, sometimes sung along with being played, e.g. Warleggan Ox Driver and O What is That Upon Thy Head. The one strathspey is Cock in Britches which some play as a hornpipe but I prefer to keep its snap, that’s how it’s danced to as a broom dance. The mazurka is Turkey Rhubarb which has many variants under different names all over the world but ours has become peculiar to west Cornwall.

Keys

Analysing the keys of our current repertoire was a fascinating exercise. Two-thirds of our repertoire is played in a major key, with G and D dominating and a couple in F and C. I think this has a lot to do with the influence box players have had on Cornish Trad music. When you look at the historical instrumental repertoire the story is very different with Bb, F and C accounting for far more tunes, probably reflect the dominance of the fiddle and fifes, and of course, those keys being common for sung tunes. Just under one-third of our tunes are in a minor key, here we have more variation with Em being the most popular. We also play a few modal tunes, and arguably some of the minor key tunes are/were modal judging by accidentals and have used concert pitch keys to standardise them for communal playing.

Era

If the above isn’t enough to convince you that the sound of Cornish Trad is both varied and full of musical interest, let’s take a look at the eras that our traditional tunes come from. Some people really think that Cornish music is a modern invention but the evidence from the tune collection of Penzance Cornish Session, and indeed the wider wealth of Cornish Trad tunes, would suggest otherwise. Let me explain the terms I use to divide tunes into different periods. These categories are not set in stone, they just help us (me) better understand what we’re playing.

  • Historical. Recorded or known by the 18th century
  • Old. Recorded or known by the 19th century
  • Classic. Recorded or known by the 20th century
  • Modern. Composed for the tradition after 1990
  • Unknown. Unclear origins.

About one-third of our repertoire comprises modern tunes. These are tunes composed by identifiable people after 1990 specifically for the tradition (I call this the Racca period, the major project to bring together music specifically for the purpose of Cornish bands, sessions and events). Nearly 50% of our tunes are Classic (20th c.) or Old (19th c.). Some of those may even have been in circulation much earlier, it’s just the era in which they were notable enough to be recorded in collections of songs or tunes or otherwise recorded from living memory.

12% of our repertoire, probably uniquely among Cornish sessions, are from the historical period, that of the 18th century and before. We are great fans of Mike O’Connor’s work on Cornish musical manuscripts and want to bring these tunes that were enjoyed at Cornish country houses and special events, into the repertoire. A small percentage of tunes we just don’t know how they got into our books, but I guess that’s folk music for you!

Cornwall is not an island

To conclude this post on what Cornish music sounds like, I’d like to remind readers that Cornwall is not, and certainly has never been, an island. Until the 1940s Cornwall was at the centre of global maritime commerce and transport. Traditional music will not obey modern political and administrative boundaries and so the search for pure Cornish tunes is probably futile (although in some cases we really cannot find any variations, relatives or similar tunes elsewhere) and equally futile is denying that a distinctly Cornish tradition of music exists, being either just a modern invention, or just part of an English tradition. No one has ever told us our session sounds like English music!

I would expect our repertoire to be magpie-ish. We are not far from Ireland and the other regions of the Atlantic highway. People come and go in maritime communities, some of them stay and become part of more static agricultural communities of the interior. Newlyn Reel, a tune and dance popularised by Newlyn fisher folk, sounds awfully like a polonaise from Eastern Europe, and why not? For me that kind of thing is typically Cornish, being open to outside influences and making them our own.

The Duke of Cornwall’s Reel, Penzance Cornish Session’s end of evening tune.

An invented tradition? Cornish traditional music in a modern context

Cornish music is a big part of my life. I bought my first mandolin in May 2015, and began to learn to play it by ear. Since then I have experienced an exciting voyage of discovery, getting to know the music, learning to play it, and becoming curious about the history of Cornish tunes. Through playing in a community band, a dance band, at Cornish events, and from meeting other musicians who play the Cornish repertoire, I have found myself part of a passionate community who love and care for the music of our Duchy.

In just four years I have seen interest in Cornish music grow. I know many people who, upon learning that there is a large repertoire of Cornish tunes, not just the small pool that are played at festival events, have embraced and learned them. Many of us travel around Cornwall to meet with others to play. It’s exciting and fun. We don’t pretend to be part of an unbroken chain whose musical roots stretch back, unbroken, into the depths of a manufactured Celtic past. We play as a living tradition, playing tunes from the 18th century up to new compositions influenced by older ones. We feel part of something special, a scene with incredible passion and energy, that even has its own divisions and differing opinions.

Each week we play at a pub session in Penzance that plays Cornish traditional music. We helped to start this session in October 2018 as part of a dual purpose; to get together with friends to play the music we enjoy, and to give other people – locals and tourists alike – a chance to hear the Cornish repertoire. Sometimes we have as many as 15 musicians, and an audience of 60+ people. Sometimes, in the winter, it’s just us.

The criteria for what we class as “Cornish” is also up to us. There is no rule book. Broadly speaking, we’re happy to play it if the tune is:

  • included in one of the tune books kept by the larger Cornish houses (based on the findings of Mike O’Connor)
  • noted by dancing masters such as John Old of Par
  • has been collected in Cornwall by one of the well-known tune collectors of the 19th / early 20th century
  • recorded by the Old Cornwall Societies
  • discovered in an archive
  • written by a well-known Cornish composer in the past
  • newly composed with the direct intention of being a Cornish tune (which may draw influence from older ones, although this isn’t always the case)
  • associated with Cornwall (e.g. Duke of Cornwall’s Reel)

Music has been an important part of people’s lives in the past, in the days before mass media. A trawl through the British Newspaper Archive will reveal articles that mention music being played on the streets, on the beaches, in pubs, fish cellars, at funerals, feast days, and indeed any occasion with an excuse to play it. And people still do.

The concept of a Cornish session, that plays only Cornish tunes, is of course a recent one. In the past people would have played whatever tunes were popular at the time, wherever they came from. Cornwall’s geographic position, jutting out into the Atlantic, along with its many ports, mean that, along with mineral exports, it was a convenient place for ships of all sizes to stop and restock supplies and water. Port towns and villages would have temporarily accommodated people from England, Ireland, Wales, France, Spain, and others. Where there are people, there is music. I can imagine that local tunes mixed with imported ones. Some tunes stayed, and perhaps some were exported. Taverns and inns were natural places to play and hear music the world over. But there were probably always local favourites too.

There was less of the music in pubs after the arrival of the jukebox, but it was still played at traditional events, village fêtes, and processions. In recent years there has been a movement to bring Cornish music back into places where it can be enjoyed by more people, and encourage more to take it up.

Some of the books of Cornish tunes. The earliest here is Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Dialect and Folk Songs from 1932, reprinted in 1972. The most recent is the updated Golowan Band Tunes from 2019. Mike O’Connors books pick out tunes from 18th and 19th century manuscripts from Cornwall.

A few rare recordings of traditional music from the regions were made by the BBC in the 1940s, notably at Boscastle in Cornwall where William Hocken and the Tintagel and Boscastle Players, along with Mr Dangar’s Trio performed a number of tunes that were either Cornish, or had become adopted as such. Pinning down exactly where an old tune came from originally is often a rabbit hole that you’ll never emerge from.

I regard the tunes on this recording as both ‘traditional’ and ‘Cornish’. The musicians from Boscastle and Tintagel in the 1940s were playing the tunes they always had done. In the 1960s new tunes were being written for dancing, such as Heva (composed by Mr H Whipps of St Mawgan). In the early 1970s you could still hear Cornish tunes at traditional events such as St Ives Feast, Padstow May Day, Helston Flora Day and many others around the Duchy.

By the late 1970s, through the work of the Davey brothers Merv, Neil, Andy and Kyt, amongst others, a new-found energy emerged to track down and play lesser-known Cornish tunes. The establishment of the annual Lowender Peran festival in 1978 has helped to grow awareness of Cornish music, and foster a living tradition where new ones can be written and old ones rediscovered.

The Cornish traditional music scene has been the subject of academic study, and healthy academic critique (more on that soon). To me, there is no doubt that Cornish traditional music is very much a living tradition.

Is Cornish music Celtic music?

In 1904 the Celtic Congress declared Cornwall a Celtic Nation. If you go by that definition alone, then yes, it is. I am under no illusion that Cornish music can be traced back into a misty Celtic past with Iron Age roots. It can’t. But I’m not sure where else can. Much of the fast ‘trad’ sound you hear today in Scotland and Ireland evolved in the 20th century.

Visitors to our Cornish session in Penzance often ask if the music we’re playing is Irish or Scottish – to some of them it might sound similar, and our instruments are certainly similar (fiddles, whistles, mandolin, bouzouki, melodeon etc). We’ve never had someone say that it sounds English, for example. We don’t knowingly play our music in any other style than our own, and we don’t try to force any particular ‘sound’. We all play in a style that comes naturally and suits the music.

As a musician playing Cornish music I have four centuries of tunes available to me. I can hear recordings of tunes that I play today made before I was born. It’s not an invented tradition, but one that has evolved. Also, the music allows me to express my Cornish identity. Traditions should be defined by the people that take part in them, and thus to me, I play Cornish traditional music.

Can Palores – Song of the Chough

We are very happy to share news of a rare manuscript of Cornish music found in Penzance’s Morrab Library. It is of a song called Can Palores or Song of the Chough.

In March 2019, Cornish Trad editors Tom and Tehmina Goskar, were rootling in the pamphlets section of the Jenner Room when they found two documents slipped into the cover of a copy of Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Dialect and Folk Songs, 1932.

The song was composed by Dr. Ralph Dunstan, a Cornishman and musicologist to whom we owe much of our knowledge of traditional Cornish music and song. The musical manuscript is fleeting, providing barely 12 bars of a lilting tune, somewhat of a slow air, in D major, set for harmony singing. It is beautifully penned in Dunstan’s own hand with one of its verses in Kernewek, the Cornish language. Until the discovery of this manuscript no one in modern times knew the song’s tune.

Can Palores manuscript (Morrab Library)

1932 is a key year in the story of this find. Tehmina takes up the story.

The Western Morning News of 17 September 1932 contains an article by a correspondent called Cornishwoman. It describes a Celtic song, dance and theatrical concert performed at the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro under Dunstan’s direction.

Excerpt from Western Morning News, 17 September 1932 describing the Celtic concert at the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro

The newspaper article refers to the performance of An Balores, a “Cornish interlude” in which Phoebe Nance took part. Phoebe Nance, later Procter, from Carbis Bay was made a bard of the Gorsedh the week before and took the name Morwennol—Sea Swallow. Could it have been Phoebe that performed Can Palores during her interlude? We know Phoebe was musical and also a fluent Cornish speaker.

It became clear that the four verses at the end of the play belonged to Can Palores that we found in the Morrab Library.

Having found the newspaper description of the Truro performance, it remained a mystery what the “interlude” called An Balores was referring to. Correspondence with Cornish bard, scholar and poet Pol Hodge mentioned that also in 1932 Robert Morton Nance had published a short play called An Balores. Luckily we were able to locate a copy from the public library quite quickly and it became clear that the four verses at the end of the play belonged to Can Palores that we found in the Morrab Library.

An Balores by Mordon (Robert Morton Nance), published in St Ives, 1932

King Arthur is not dead!

The short and little-known play–published locally in St Ives and not widely circulated–involves four men and two women who debate the death of a chough on a bier in front of them. One of them is the justice. He questions the others about the reason for the bird’s demise. The play and song’s purpose is to link the symbolism of the (Cornish) icon of King Arthur, Cornish identity and the Cornish language, which, through its revival, will ensure that the chough and King Arthur – and Cornwall – will live on. The refrain of the song, which appears at the end of the play, is “Nyns-yu marrow Myghtern Arthur!” or “King Arthur is not dead!”

Morton Nance, who became Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorsedh a couple of years after writing An Balores, was also the founder of the Old Cornwall Society movement and a chief proponent of the Cornish language and culture revival.

“I have many other Cornish Songs of various kinds – several from Jim Thomas — I see no hope of ever publishing them in complete form with accompaniments.” 

Letter from Ralph Dunstan to Henry Jenner, 18 July 1932 (Morrab Library)

The letter that was found with Can Palores was written on 18 July 1932, just months before Ralph Dunstan’s death on 2 April 1933. Dunstan writes to Henry Jenner, another leader of the Cornish language and culture revival and founder of the Gorsedh in 1928. In the letter Dunstan spoke of many unpublished manuscripts of songs he had collected from Cornish communities that he had hoped to publish so they may be enjoyed again. Tragically this did not come to pass and his musical archive is believed to have been destroyed either by going damp in a garden shed or possibly burned by his daughter.

“As Cornish speakers, our little choir makes a point of singing only in the Cornish language.”

Steve Penhaligon, Keur Heb Hanow choir

Modern day debut and talk

The song will enjoy its first public performance in 87 years at a concert at Morrab Library on Tuesday 2 July at 5.30pm. Cornish-language choir Keur Heb Hanow will perform Can Palores together with a selection of other Cornish folk songs. Tehmina Goskar will present a short talk on the historical context of the discovery.

Steve Penhaligon, leader of the choir said, “Keur Heb Hanow are really excited and grateful to be involved in the rediscovery and relaunch of this song.

As Cornish speakers, our little choir makes a point of singing only in the Cornish language. However, ninety-five percent of what we sing was written originally in English and then translated especially for us. So, it’s a rare and thrilling experience to be given something to perform that was written in the Cornish language.

The piece has added meaning for us as it was written by one the key language revivalists and second Grand Bard, Robert Morton Nance.”

An balores, du hy lyu,
Ruth ha’y gelvyn cam ha’y garrow,
War als Kernow whath a-vew,
Kyn leverer hy bos marrow.

Ebon hued, with leg and bill
Coral crimson, brightly planished,
On the cliffs of Cornwall still
Lives the chough they said had vanished.

Yn palores, ny a-wor,
Spyrys Arthur, mo ha myttyn,
Whath a-dryk, ha ryp an mor
A-wra gwytha Enys Breten.

In a chough, as all men know,
Arthur’s spirit, too, unsleeping
Round our isle while tides shall flow,
Over us his watch is keeping.

Myghtern Arthur, dre dha voth,
Pan us gansa dha balores,
Re-bo gans tus Kernow Goth
Bys vynytha bew dha spyrys.

O, King Arthur, grant that all
Who shall take thy chough as token,
May upon thy spirit call
To keep Cornwall’s faith unbroken.

Yeth Kernow, re-be hyrneth
A’y growth yn enewores,
Ena a-dhassergh ynweth
Maga few avel palores.

So again our Cornish tongue,
That has lain so long a-dying,
Shall rise up as strong and young
As is e’er a chough that’s flying.

Nyns-yu marrow Myghtern Arthur!

King Arthur is not dead!

Spread the tune and the words

Roz Peskett of Keur Heb Hanow, said that the revival of this Cornish song should be an opportunity for discovery, celebration and performance.

Free to download and distribute. Play Can Palores at your session or in your band or music group.

As proponents of Cornish music as a living tradition we agree. Update: We have pulled out the melody so that instrumentalists can play it at sessions or arrange it for band set lists.

We would love to see people use Can Palores as a source of inspiration for introducing the song into their choirs and bands or even adapting the tune for a session or contemporary piece. Kernow bys vyken!

Booking for the performance and talk is essential and a suggested donation of £4 will be requested on the night. For more information and to secure a reservation, please ring Morrab Library on 01736 364474.

Ryb An Avon – the Cornish roots of Maid in Bedlam and Gustav Holst’s I Love My Love

The beautiful tune Ryb an Avon is often played in Cornish traditional music circles. It sounds very similar to the song Maid in Bedlam which was recorded by many folk artists in the 1970s. It is also rather similar to Gustav Holst’s choral work I Love My Love. Is Ryb An Avon just a version of that tune, or is there more to it?

Merv Davey has already been on the case, and in his paper Folk Song, Dance and Identity in Cornwall, he says:

“In 1905 the Rev Quintrell sent George Gardiner, an academic folk song collector, the music score for a nameless tune he had collected from a Mrs Boaden of Cury near Helston. Gardiner in turn sent this to a fellow collector, Lucy Broadwood for her comments. She decided that the melody was a very good match to the lyrics of a song called “I love my love” and drew the conclusion that this must be its original and correct title. Anyone listening to the lyrics of “Clementine” sung to the tune of the hymn “Bread of Heaven” will appreciate that such a deduction is not well supported! But Gardiner and Broadwood did succeed in making a very beautiful tune widely accessible by associating it with the words of “I Love My Love” and it reached a wide audience through Holst’s military band arrangement. It was subsequently reclaimed for Cornwall by Tony Snell who wrote lyrics in Cornish for it and renamed it “Ryb An Avon” (By The River). It can be seen that neither name has precedence of authenticity over the other. The title “Ryb An Avon” is nevertheless viewed as inauthentic and contrived by the English Folk Revivalist whilst not questioning the title “I Love My Love”.

Folk Song, Dance and Identity in Cornwall, Merv Davey 2017

I followed up some of the references that Merv Davey gave in his paper, to pages 93 and 94 of the Journal of the Folk Song Society Vol 2 1905-1906, No. 7. The pages are presented here:

Folk song collector George Gardiner’s colleague E Quintrell noted down a nameless, wordless tune from a Mr Boaden at Cury near Helston in Cornwall. According to Inglis Gundry in Canow Kernow – Songs and Dances from Cornwall, Boaden learned it from a Mr Curry of Helston. The tune was unknown elsewhere. It was sent to Lucy Broadwood, editor of the Journal of the Folk-Song Journal. She decided that it fitted the words to The Maid in Bedlam, and published them as such. The tune and words are now inseparable, having been recorded and performed by many of the folk greats of the 1970s.

Gustav Holst, the composer famous for composing the Planets Suite, heard the song and created the now-famous choral work I Love My Love (which he does attribute to a Cornish folk tune).

The Cornish origins of the “tune to the Maid in Bedlam” are often forgotten. Musician Tony Snell, on learning this, decided to ‘take back’ the tune. He composed a song in the Cornish language using the tune remembered by Boaden, and gave it the new Cornish name, Ryb an Avon. In Kernewek, the Cornish language, this means “by the water”.

The simple tune remembered by J Boaden Esq from the hamlet of Cross Lanes in Cury, near Helston in Cornwall, grew into a folk song classic and a great choral work, now reclaimed as the Cornish tune that it is, with a Cornish name.

Was it originally a Cornish tune? Like most traditional tunes whose composer is unknown, we will never know for sure. But it lived on down here in Cornwall, and it was captured from the mind of Mr Boaden before he died, saving the tune from the tenuous thread of oblivion. And now, what a life it has.

Now that’s the “folk process” in action, and a great example of the living tradition of Cornish music alive and kicking today.

Origins of Karol Korev

Followers and players of Cornish trad music will be familiar with a festive tune called Karol Korev. It has been made popular by Davey and Dyer, the phenomenally talented high-octane duo who released their version of the tune on Dynamite Quay in 2018.

Karol Korev means something like ‘beer song’ or ‘ale carol’. You’ll have to ask Neil Davey where or why! We have just introduced the tune to the Penzance Cornish Session where we play it in a set of 16-bar furries. This led me to wonder what its origins might be as anyone who hears it will agree that it definitely has the air of a very old tune.

Now Carol We

Thanks to the knowledge of Frances Bennett who heads up Cornwall’s ever expanding fiddle-driven band Bagas Crowd, she directed me to a lesser-known collection of Cornish tunes, mainly carols or songs related to liturgical times of the year such as Passiontide, Christmas and Candlemas, by Inglis Gundry called Now Carol We, published in 1966. It is an arrangement of tunes taken from a c.1825 musical manuscript that belonged to a certain John Hutchens. Originally the manuscript was sent to Davies Gilbert for publication with his Some Ancient Christmas Carols but arrived too late for his 1823 second edition. Gundry had been given access to the manuscript by Davies Gilbert’s descendent Minnie Davies Gilbert.

Gundry tells us in his introduction that John Hutchens, who came come from the St Erth area, provided the melodies of 27 tunes in this manuscript, “written in a clear hand.” The tunes were already considered ancient when Hutchens penned them so we may even be hearing a tune familiar to 17th and 18th century Cornish audiences.

Unfortunately I was persuaded, rather against my will to add 4 part harmony, which slows down the melodies and prevents them from speaking for themselves.


Inglis Gundry, The Last Boy of the Family, chapter 20.

It is with caution we note that Gundry applied his own musical sensibilities to arrange the original melody (something he came to regret according to his autobiography). Gundry is better known for his publication of Canow Kernow, a generational successor to Ralph Dunstan’s Lyver Canow Kernow Cornish Song Book (1929).

When God at first created man

You will find the tune of Karol Korev in Carol no. 2 ‘When God at first created man’. It is annotated as being of relevance at various times of the year, not specific to Christmas. Gundry arranges it for soprano, alto, tenor and bass. It is scored in G major (session version tends to be in D major) and is complete with 13 verses and a chorus. Rhythmically the version we play today is pretty true to Gundry’s arrangement of the melody. Gundry notes that the words to the song are similar to those given in the carol collections of Davies Gilbert and William Sandys but this tune is quite different.

The lyrics are pretty heavy and Biblical, each verse taking you on a journey from Adam and Eve falling from grace to the immaculate conception of Mary to the birth and death of Jesus Christ.

As an instrumental tune it is very addictive and resonates beautifully when different melody instruments take it on in unison. I always hear bells. The major sixth interval in the first phrase sets off the whole tune, without which it would sound quite ordinary and unremarkable. As it is, it is great to have this tune back in circulation in contexts new.

Courtesy of Inglis Gundry, Now Carol We, Oxford University Press, 1966. Reproduction copy from Banks Music Publications (nd).
Excerpt of When God at first created man, the original name of Karol Korev.

Penzance Cornish Session new sets

Now that the Cornish session at the Admiral Benbow pub every Thursday, 8-10pm, has reached 6 months old some sets of tunes have really bedded in. We are creating fantastically energetic or contrasting lyrical sounds by experimenting with tune combinations using tempo or key changes.

Check out the current set list.

Most, although not all, tunes are played as they feature on the Cornish Music Resource website Kesson. There are some notable exceptions, for example, we play Pencarrow as a waltz not a jig as it appears on the tunery. You can find our version in Neil Davey’s Fooch! (no. 53). We play it after Can Jack.

Some things have become a tradition already. You can expect that we will always start with our furry set which is readily growing and has now reached 5 tunes in alternating keys and rhythms:

Super furry set

Duke of Cornwall finale

We always end with the Duke of Cornwall’s Reel (G) played pretty briskly. We don’t have many fast reels in the repertoire so this is a great way to end and always a crowd pleaser.

Highlights

The dance tune sets remain crowd and musician favourites, for example the D dance set: Cornish Quickstep, Bolingey Furry (AAB), Giddy’s King Harry and Begone from My Window.

The classic pair of slow waltzes Breannick and Now the Summer is Over (Andy Davey) are also firm favourites, well known across Cornwall and played by several bands and dance groups.

We are also partial to a wide range of modal and minor key sets. A recent addition which is set to stay is a slow jig called An Diberdhyans (The Parting) paired with Mike O’ Connor’s Dons Bewnans both in E minor (this tune became so rapidly popular thanks to the Penzance session that it has also been adopted by dance group Tros an Treys and the Golowan Band). An A minor set with similar tempo change is An Dufunyans (The Awakening) followed by the snappy and speedier polka by Neil Davey, Ewon An Mor – both in A minor.

Other crowd pleasers include: St Just Cock Dance (G), an Old Cornish polka that we play slightly differently nowadays, and Raffidy Dumitz with Gelasma (Dm), both modern tunes written by Len Davies and Robin Holmes respectively.

Jigs

Jigs are trickier to introduce to a completely new session as they are more demanding both in terms of learning tunes by heart and playing them fast. Cornish jigs tend to be played straight and even rather than with a lot of emphasis on the first and fourth beats of a 6/8 bar, or dotted triplets (although these do play a role in some Cornish jigs). It can be difficult to get a good bouncy and even sound. However when we do manage it, it is electric!

Two of our common jig sets are: Falmouth Gig (D), Bishop’s Jig (G) and Porthlystry (D), and the Petticoats set. These are two very old tunes found in the archives of Morval House near Looe. Thanks to their publication by Mike O’Connor we first introduced them to our dance group Tros an Treys last year, and then to the session. Petticoats Tight (D) is followed by Petticoats Loose (G minor). Neither are on Kesson yet.

Listen out for some new jig sets, with particular favourites such as Ker Syllan by Merv Davey and The Mallard (An Culyek Hos) as well as Forbidden Fruit (which was adapted from an early 19th century carol). All can be found on our current set list.

Hornpipes

We play a couple of hornpipe sets that can vary. Currently you can always expect to play We Be (G), Tinner’s Fancy (D) and Causewayhead (G/D). Occasionally we will rest We Be and return to Cock in Britches (G).

Boscastle Breakdown always appears as the start of a three-tune set with Quay Fair (D) and Duncan Hunkin (G).

Coming up

We’d like to introduce some 5-steps (Kabm Pemp) into our regular sessions. So far we have tried Tansys Golowan (D) paired with Coer Elath (G) as well as Oll an Gerriow (Am) with Neidges Awarra (Em). You might also expect the return of some tunes that are being rested as well as the reworking of some sets. It can be difficult to balance the introduction of new tunes to a session while retaining a critical mass of tunes most people can have a go at. Two sets that I predict will become new favourites is a pair of hornpipes called Travelling with Strangers/Waiting for a Bus (D/G) and Polperro Furry which goes very nicely after the haunting Descent (D minor) by Steph Doble.

If you have any suggestions for new tunes and sets please do leave a comment.

Join us every Thursday, 8-10pm at the Admiral Benbow Pub, Chapel Street, Penzance.

For music is good everywhere and always

I wanted to share this most inspiring speech given by Phoebe Nance, later Procter, when she was a young woman and a significant protagonist in the Cornish-Celtic revival movement of the 1920s and 30s. Her father Robert Morton Nance became much more famous but Phoebe’s work as a poet and violinist intrigues me so I want to share what I find out as I go along.

Morwennol–Sea Swallow

I first came across Nance when she was mentioned in the newspapers as a performer in a Celtic Concert that took place at the Royal Institution of Cornwall in September 1932. Not long before this, she was barded and took the name Morwennol or Sea Swallow. There are a series of articles in Cornish newspapers of this period penned by a certain “Cornishwoman.” I can’t help but wonder if that was Phoebe Nance’s nom de plume?

The speech was reproduced in its native Cornish language (Nance was a fluent and articulate Cornish speaker who was brought up speaking Kernewek) and in English. It was published on 8 September 1934 in the Western Morning News and Daily Gazette (p.6). I have transcribed the text of the speech which speaks for itself. It has also inspired us to taken on a motto for this blog which we hope you like.

We must not sit sluggishly without doing anything at all.

Grand Bard, members of the Gorsedd. It is a great honour to me to have permission to speak here. This is a wonderfully good year for everyone who loves the Cornish Language. In years past we said one to another, “The Cornish Language is a good enough language, but I can’t speak it for want of a dictionary.” But now we have this lack made up completely. And we must not sit sluggishly without doing anything at all. There is here in Cornwall the best place in all the world for bards, with the wind of the sea and the heather on the downs. Therefore, we must write fine songs. And we must sing these songs, too, for music is good everywhere and always. And for winter time with long evenings, it would be good if some clever person could write a short play. Then it will be made plain to everyone that Cornish is a wonderfully beautiful language. And instead of people saying that we are crazy folk, full of folly, we shall see everyone overcome with wonder.

Speech by Morwennol (Phoebe Nance) delivered in Cornish, 1934.