I’ve created a YouTube playlist called Cornish Trad. I’ve selected 45 videos over the last year or so, and the list will keep growing. They represent, to us at least, the best of Cornish trad music, mainly instrumental, on YouTube at the moment. If you have a video that we’re missing out on, drop us a line!
The playlist is pretty varied, from the brilliant Cornish Knight jigs by MacQuarrie and Toms — Bishop’s Jig (trad), Hernen Wyn (trad), An Marrak (Merv Davey)– to the full play of the first ever album of Celtic Cornish trad by Bucca, The Hole in the Harper’s Head or An Tol Yn Pen Yn Telynor released in 1982.
Enjoy the performance of historical Cornish tunes such as John Old’s Nameless by Mike O’Connor and Barbara Griggs, and the Egloshayle Ringers by Salt and Sky (Emma Packer and Lizzie Pridmore), learn about Cornish instruments such as the Cornish double bagpipes or find out more about the dances that some of the tunes are used for such as the Cornish five-step or kabm pemp.
You can save YouTube playlists but you can’t subscribe to them directly, unfortunately. There is still much out there on YouTube waiting for discovery. More and more historical archive footage is being uploaded too.
Because many of these videos are not titled or tagged specifically as Cornish music the best way to find your favourite tune is to search for its name or the many other names it might have in other traditions, for example, the Duke of Cornwall’s Reel is also known as the Opera Reel.
It’s been a phenomenal year for the Penzance’s Cornish Traditional Music Session every Thursday night, 8-10pm, at the Admiral Benbow pub. Time for some thank yous, foremost to John Gallagher, session leader and founder for introducing us to incredible music and creating wonderful set lists; to Chris Morgan, landlord of the Benbow, for your hospitality and support, to Russell, manager of the Benbow, for looking after us too; to fellow musicians for being dedicated to turn up even in the coldest, darkest evenings; to the dancers for adding a bit of magic to the music; to our audiences who have come from far and wide but especially our regulars from our community whose support is so valued; and thanks and admiration to Lee J Palmer for documenting the session from its wintery beginnings to its summer madness. Enjoy these timeless images as we reflect on the last 12 months.
Join the Penzance Cornish sessioners at their anniversary knees-up on Thursday 10th October, 8-10pm, at the Admiral Benbow pub, Chapel Street, Penzance. Free.
Already featured in Time Out magazine, Penzance’s weekly Cornish Trad Music Session at the Admiral Benbow pub in Chapel Street, has developed a bit of a cult following. Since starting up one year ago, the Thursday night Cornish Session has attracted hundreds of tourists and locals to the town’s most enigmatic Treasure Island themed boozer.
“I’d rather be here than at Glastonbury”
Over the last year, happening upon the session has surprised and delighted. “I’d rather be here than at Glastonbury” one punter visiting from Truro said. From modest beginnings huddled in the downstairs bar, the Cornish Session has grown in popularity with the busiest nights in the summer attracting upwards of 50-60 people with anywhere between 6 and 12 local musicians joyously playing the night away. Session organisers estimate nearly 1,500 people have enjoyed historical and contemporary Cornish tunes (and the odd song) in its first year.
“I never knew Cornwall had its own music”
It all started on 4th October 2018, when a group of friends who played melodeons, fiddles, mandolin, bouzouki, concertinas, whistle and recorder, autoharp, and occasional guitar gathered in the Admiral Benbow on Chapel Street in Penzance to play Cornish jigs, furries, reels, marches waltzes, polkas and airs. Many people are surprised to hear that Cornwall has a distinctive musical tradition that is part of the wider world of Celtic music. The repertoire of tunes is large and varied, some of them new tunes inspired by Cornish people, places and themes, others deeply historical.
“’I never knew Cornwall had its own music’ is a phrase we often hear. People express surprise that we have our own music and that we are part of a living tradition. They often think it must be Scottish or Irish. We might play one tune that is over 200 years old followed by one composed for the tradition only a few years ago.”
Tom Goskar, one of the session organisers.
The session was originally the idea of local musical legend Len Davies, who sadly died in 2015. His friend, melodeon player John Gallagher, approached fellow musicians Tehmina and Tom Goskar in the summer of 2018 to see if they were interested in supporting him in starting a new Cornish traditional music session.
“I’ve loved the Celtic music traditions of Ireland and Scotland all my life and when, more recently, I discovered that there is an equally rich Celtic music tradition right here in Cornwall, I was determined that it should be explored and celebrated where I now live in Penzance.”
Session leader John Gallagher.
“Cornish traditional music is normally heard at Cornish festivals such as Golowan, Montol, St Piran’s Day, feast days, and at small dance-led events in halls across the Duchy. We wanted a public and easy to reach venue. We didn’t hesitate to go for the Benbow, with its unique maritime décor and a destination for visitors to Penzance. We knew our ‘Cornish soundtrack’ could make the place come alive.”
Chris Morgan, landlord and owner of the Admiral Benbow, offered them a Thursday evening slot.
“It’s great to see the Benbow rocking again to some lively and fun Cornish music. People come here for the salty dog maritime vibes and the Cornish Sessions are a really good fit.”
Chris Morgan, Landlord of the Admiral Benbow.
“Better than the Fishermen’s Friends”
The often fast and foot-tapping music is regularly accompanied by spontaneous dancing, either freeform or in the style of traditional Cornish dancing led by local dancers, making the event into a lively evening reminiscent of the troyls and dances that took place across Cornwall in years gone by.
The musicians have evolved into a group with a distinctive ‘trad’ style whose sound has captured the imagination. “Better than the Fishermen’s Friends,” a merry party from Birmingham cheekily remarked to us after one particularly lively session. Many of the musicians also play for other Penzance groups such as the Raffidy Dumitz band, Golowan band and dance groups Tros an Treys and Penzance Guizers.
“Most of us are not formally trained in music, we have learned our instruments ourselves and play for the love of the tunes. I love our instinctive way of playing together. Sometimes we sound like a great big crashing marching band, and other times we sound almost orchestral. The fact we mostly play back to back tunes in sets of 2,3 and even 6, creates a soundscape that is truly unique.”
Tehmina Goskar, session co-organiser.
“I just followed the music”
The Penzance Cornish Session is voraciously photographed and filmed, particularly by visitors from abroad. Session organisers have estimated people from over a dozen nations have experienced their music, including France, Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, USA, Canada, Spain, Italy, Australia, New Zealand and China. Two film students from University College London visited in August especially to film the session in 360 degrees to share the experience with elderly people in care homes. It has even featured in a German radio broadcast made by visiting sailors on a round Britain tour.
“I’d heard about it but I didn’t know where to find it, and then I just followed the music,” a traveller said.
Local photographer Lee J Palmer has become a fan of the Cornish Traditional Music Session too. Since the cold early months of 2019 when the session was held next to the fire at the front of the pub, Lee has created a unique visual documentary. In stunning black and white photojournalistic style, his photos capture the joys and realities of this very Cornish event.
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.
“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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.