SoundCloud is a great place for people to upload their own recordings, and musicians in Cornwall and beyond have, over the years, uploaded tunes to share with the world. We’ve picked up on some of them and created a Cornish playlist. It’s a mixture of studio, home, and live recordings, which when brought together, reflect the wonderful variety of Cornish tunes.
We’ve gradually been adding Cornish trad music to a playlist on Spotify. There’s not a huge amount of material out there, as Cornish traditional music is still relatively unknown, but we have uncovered some great recordings of both old and new tunes, and some songs. There’s 46 tracks in the playlist so far.
If you have a Spotify account (there’s a free ad-supported version, or paid for no adverts) then you can subscribe the playlist, listen to the music, and get alerts when we add new tunes.
If there are any tunes that you think should be included just let us know in the comments below or contact us and we’ll have a listen.
When Money to the Moon played at the Degol Stul 2020 nos lowen we were lucky to have our set recorded by Brendan McGreal of Cornish Underground. We have posted four of the seven tracks to the Money to the Moon SoundCloud so that you can hear them. Scroll down to have a listen.
The tunes played in these four tracks are:
‘Fab Furries‘: King Harry Ferry Furry (Neil Davey), Tregajorran Furry (Neil Davey), Karol Korev (trad), Bodmin Riding (trad), Helston Furry (trad), Fer Lyskerris (trad), Polperro Furry (Mike Jelly), Nine Brave Boys (trad).
Kan Jack (Jack’s Song, by Robert Morton Nance c.1905) followed by Pencarrow (possibly 17th/18th century, known in Devon also).
Royal Wedding (a processional tune from the 18th century found in the music notebook of Morval House, dated 1770).
Falmouth Gig (old spelling of “jig”), followed by Bishop’s Jig then Porthlystry.
Money to the Moon personnel: Pete London (bouzouki), John Gallagher (melodeon), Tehmina Goskar (fiddle), Andy Law (fiddle), and Tom Goskar (mandolin).
We’ve just heard that the track An Diberdhyans / Dons Bewnans (Trad / Mike O’Connor) from the Andy Law & Friends album The Long and the Short of It has made it to 4th place in the Irish and Celtic Music podcast Celtic Top 20. We played fiddle and mandolin on this track.
The podcast host, Marc Gunn, announced that An Diberdhyans / Dons Bewnans was one of the most popular tracks of 2019. All of us who played on it are humbled and amazed. Thanks for playing us, Marc!
For those unfamiliar with Kernewek, the Cornish language, An Diberdhyans / Dons Bewnans is pronounced An Diberth-yans / Donns B-you-nanns which means The Parting / Dance of Life.
The Irish and Celtic Music Podcast is the world’s most popular for Celtic music with a global listenership running into the hundreds of thousands. It’s great for so many to hear some trad music from Cornwall, which is so often underrepresented in the wider Celtic music world.
It wasn’t just us from Cornwall in the top 20 either. Another Cornish band, The Grenaways, made it to number 16, with their track Rowan.
If you’re looking forward to more from Andy Law & Friends, keep your eye on Money to the Moon, our new band.
Over the last few years we have been researching guise dancing, a form of mumming that takes place during the twelve days of Christmas (and in recent times, a few days before). There is a wealth of information about the tradition in historic newspapers, and we have begun to transcribe the many wonderful articles on guise dancing so that they are searchable and freely available online.
One of the reasons for doing this is that in reading the well-known books that mention guise dancing, there seemed to be a fair bit of repetition, and not much life to something that, in our experience, is a pretty lively custom. We have used both the British Newspaper Archive and microfilms at Kresen Kernow in Redruth, Cornwall.
This is the kind of liveliness that we mean, found in an 1863 edition of the Cornish Telegraph:
Serving Him Out: An Incident of the Guise Dancing at St Ives
On Friday evening the 9th inst. a party of guise-dancers entered a beer shop at St Ives and obtained an interview with the landlord, whom they well plied with drink until his eyes blinked like two revolving lights and his dizzy head manifested unmistakable signs of a desire to change places with his lower extremities. In this unenviable state (which by the bye is better described than felt, we should think) four of the strongest of the party took the somnolent landlord by the arms and legs and ere could he say ‘What doest thou?’ spirited him into the open street, where a goodly number (as if by magic) started into the middle of the road and formed a procession singing the Old Hundredth with a more than mournful twang, and away they marched towards the beach (the house is situated near the sea side) landlord and all.
Some one at intervals gave short sentences from the Burial Service. As may be expected, the sudden and by no means welcome termination of a good day’s business roused into fury all the drink be-clouded and drink-debased energies of the poor fellow, but all his imprecations were met with the remark ‘Prepare, Evil! prepare; thy time is short indeed.’ His struggles and cries were all in vain and in a short time the edge of the water was reached. And now as the sobered man heard the rippling of the waves, he seem to fear the result, and made a superhuman effort to free himself, but alas! the hands that held him were too strong and whilst he was cursing his tormentors and invoking vengeance on their devoted heads he was borne out into the tide, whilst one, with a fine nasal accent, pronounced aloud, ‘We now commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ ; if no one else will have him, the d—l must,’ and down they threw their burthen (wretches that they were) and scampered off, leaving their victim to scramble ashore as best he might.
Fortunately the only effect produced in the landlord is a determination to hate guise dancers in general with a perfect hatred. Who the delinquents are is a mystery.Cornish Telegraph – Wednesday 28 January 1863, page 3, column 6
So, dig in, and explore the heady adventures of the folk of West Cornwall in their pursuit of fun and entertainment, bringing fun and life into the darkest time of the year. Visit our guise dancing sources: newspaper archives page.
We decided, on a whim, to make a recording of the two beautiful tunes Can Jack and Pencarrow. It was raining steadily outside, and we had been lamenting the lack of Cornish traditional music on YouTube. A little bit of direct action, if you like.
Here’s our description:
These two beautiful tunes are from Cornwall’s rich Celtic music tradition. The first, Can Jack (meaning “Jack’s Song” in Kernewek, the Cornish language) was written around 1905 by Robert Morton Nance, a key figure in the Cornish Celtic revival of the early 20th century and Cornish language pioneer. It features in his ‘Cledry Plays’ published much later in 1956.
The second, Pencarrow, is traditional in that we do not know who it was written by. This tune is used for a ballad called ‘The Arscott of Tetcott’, and relates to the family that lived at Pencarrow House in North Cornwall. It was collected in Cornwall by Sabine Baring Gould in the late 19th century and published in Songs of the West.
Played by Tehmina Goskar (violin, cello) and Tom Goskar (mandolins) in September 2019. Photos are of the far west and mid Cornwall, taken by the musicians.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rj4Ei6g_ZYI
As we move rapidly towards autumn and winter our minds are drawn towards one of west Cornwall’s wonderful traditions – guise dancing.
Guise dancing is an ancient tradition from west Cornwall performed during the twelve days of Christmas. It is a form of mumming, whereby participants disguise themselves (hence the term ‘guise’) and entertain people through music, dance, drama and games. Guise dancers go from house to house, pub to pub, or process through streets and lanes bringing merriment and mischief during the darkest time of the year.
Last year, in 2018, we gave a paper at the Lowender Peran (Cornwall’s largest festival of Celtic music and dance) Cornish Music Symposium entitled “Historical Guise Dancing and its Music“. The article contains research which took several years to complete, seeing us visit libraries, archives and museums, as well as talking to people who remembered traditional guise dancing in the towns and villages of west Cornwall.
We had been meaning to publish it in a journal, but have decided to post it here, as it will have the widest possible audience. Our new guise dancing section will grow as we begin to publish the sources and transcriptions of our work, and we hope that it will encourage others to produce new works and research into this wide and wondrous topic. It might even encourage some to take up guise dancing in their part of west Cornwall, and explore Cornish traditional music while they do it.
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.Royal Cornwall Gazette – Thursday 15 November 1906 p.8
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’re looking for YouTube videos of Cornish music and dance it can be hard to find. Luckily, Carmen Hunt’s Scoots Kernow channel has loads of videos of wonderful music and dance-filled events.
Find out more about Carmen and Scoots Kernow, and her Cornish dancing workshops.