Jolly Rumble-O! Helston Flora Day and its music

On 8 May 2018 we made it to our first Helston Flora Day (also known as Furry Day). We gathered at 6.30am at Penzance Bus Station for the first bus to Helston. When we arrived we headed for breakfast at the Coinage Hall pub before wandering around town on the tail of the Hal-an-Tow, a performance which melds late medieval interest in Robin Hood, St George, Dragon, hobby horse, animal, sea creatures and even a St Piran character. I’m not sure you get more promenade theatre than this. The whole town is the stage and we’re in the round.

Large gathering, many with flowers in their hair, performers dressed up as sea creatures, St Piran in a monk's habit with a mill-wheel around his waist, a pig hobby horse, banners.
Hal-an-Tow arrives at its conclusion at the Guildhall, Flora Day 2018.

Doorways and windows decorated with May (sycamore), other greenery and copious flowers.

We then awaited the 10 o’clock children’s dance to hear the famed Helston Town Band play its signature tune. I can only associate Flora Day with the sound of the addictive bassline played by trombonists and tubas. As with other long musical processions the melody somehow winds its way through drums and bass. After enjoying the festivities we retired to the Blue Anchor (about 10.30am) and were permitted to play some tunes so long as we downed instruments when the parade came past. It had started to rain and the pub quickly filled up. So fuelled by Spingo we played all sorts (though not Helston Furry) to an attentive audience of smartphone photos and videos–and even a party who had come especially to Flora Day from the Faroe Islands. One memorable moment was being asked if we took requests. Asking what it was, he said, “Can you play St Just Cock Dance.” So we did, and he did too, with shouts of “Culyek! Culyek!”

The ancient-ness of Flora Day is never under-stated, with the Helston Furry Dance taking up the baton from the Hal-an-Tow and continuing through the day with dances at 7am (Early Morning), 10am (children’s dance always described as popular!), Midday and Evening (around 5pm). How an entire day’s soundtrack is constructed around two tunes is quite brilliant and points to the significance of specific music to specific places and occasions in the Cornish tradition (much like Padstow May Day).

In the week I received one of the regular Museum of Cornish Life newsletters. The description of Flora Day from the museum point of view is completely wonderful, authentic, a testimony to how something like Helston Flora Day is impossible to ignore when you are part of the town. I wanted to share it in full here (with permission).

Since the start of May we have been turning our thoughts to Flora Day. Every year it is a highlight in the museum calendar. We normally celebrate by mounting an exhibition focusing on our wonderful collection of Midday Dance dresses. The day before Flora Day a team of volunteers assemble to decorate the museum with bunting and flower archways. This provides a colourful welcome for the Town Band and Dancers of the Furry Dance.

On Flora Day itself the the museum may be closed but we are not empty instead hosting a morning tea party for our volunteers, supporters and Holifield Farm Project. Holifield Farm offers day support to adults with additional needs and the museum provides a quite space so they can attend Flora Day.

As 12 noon approaches the main role of the museum is to have the doors ready to be opened so the Helston Town Band and Midday Dance can pass through the museum on their route around the town. Having the Dance in the museum is a singularly magical experience and when the doors are closed, by the Stewards, the building seems to buzz with energy and we are all renewed.

Annette MacTavish, Director of Museum of Cornish Life, Helston, May 2020.


Much like the Padstow May Day Song, the tune and words of the Hal-an-Tow have been much commented on and studied, variously by folklorists, scholars of folk music and dance, and historians. There seems to be much more interest in the words than the tunes so if you are that way inclined, head to the archive and library catalogues. Fortuitously I was flicking through a newly-purchased working copy of Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Song Book. Lyver Canow Kernewek (1929) when a slip of paper (undated) with the lyrics of the Hal-an-Tow fell out. Dunstan comments at length on the lyrics and their ‘true’ form. At some point in the 1920s they undergo Morton-Nancisation (pp. 30-31). In Dunstan’s version we only get to “Rumble O” rather than the more familiar “Jolly rumble O.”

Inglis Gundry in Canow Kernow (1966) makes reference to a Nicholas Boson of Newlyn writing around 1660, describing the erection of a Maypole to strains of “Haile an Taw and Jolly Rumbleow!” (p.12) When you watch the video below you can hear it is still sung this way today. You hear the words chanted more than sung, with percussion such as side drums, and tambourines providing some sense of rhythm to the relentless May Horns and whistles.

Sheet of paper with printed song lyrics.
Lyrics of the Hal-an-Tow song.

Drums, fifes and fiddles

Reports from the newspaper archives contain some sense of the instruments that were played on Flora Day (drums, fifes, fiddles). A very early detailed description from 15 May 1802 (Royal Cornwall Gazette) gives us a sense of the occasion:

Our Flora-day seems to have lost none of its attractions. The first hour of the morning was ushered in with drums, fifes and fiddles. Various parties proceeded to the country, where they ravished the gardens and hedges of their sweets, decorated themselves in the spoils, passed a few hours in junketing, and then returned to the town, faddying it thro’ the streets. About ten o’clock, the Volunteers, commanded by Major Johns, proceeded through the Downs, where after going through various evolutions, they returned, and fired three vollies in the Coinage-hall-street. The town now began to fill with visitants in their holiday cloaths; who with the town’s people, faddied at intervals thro’ the streets, and regaled themselves with their friends till evening.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, Saturday 15 May 1802.

In the early 19th century descriptions, of which there are a fair few in the newspapers, distinction isn’t made between the Hal-an-Tow and Furry Dance being separate things, but rather part of the same set of festivities bringing in the countryside to the town, and invariably ending up with spectacles and balls in the taverns and theatre. Royal Cornwall Gazette from 10 May 1823 describes:

Dancing however commenced at a very early hour, and the pleasures of the morning were greatly enhanced by the staff of the Cornwall Yeomanry Cavalry on duty, who had a public breakfast at the Guildhall… Returning from the field they immediately threw off the laborious duty of the soldier, and lightly trip’d the flora dance thro’ every street to the music of their excellent band.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 10 May 1823.

From those early descriptions it is interesting that the military seemed to take over leading the music (and eventually the regimented brass bands). This wasn’t always so. Royal Cornwall Gazette, 4 May 1855, describes Helston Flora Day with an excerpt from Murray’s Handbook for Devon and Cornwall (later published in 1859 and possibly serialised in the papers before then).

About nine in the morning, the people assemble at the Grammar School, and demand a prescriptive holiday, after which they collect contributions to defray the expenses of the revels and then proceed into the fields, when they are said to fadé into the country… and about noon return, carrying flowers and branches through the streets, and in and out of different houses… preceded by a fiddle playing an ancient air, called the “furry tune.” They also occasionally chant in chorus a traditional song, involving the history of Robin Hood, the King of the May.”

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 4 May 1855.

Ralph Dunstan also speaks of “violins and other instruments” adding to the simple melody of the Helston Furry tune, “according to taste and fancy.” (Cornish Song Book (1929), p. 31). Tracing descriptions of Flora or Furry Day back into the 18th century, Mike O’Connor in Ilow Kernow 5, pt. 1. (in process, p. 94) cites Polwhele describing furry dancers in Helston dancing to the sound of a fiddle (History of Cornwall, vol. 1, ch. 3, 49pp., 1803). Fiddles certainly seemed to be the order of the day before then too, O’Connor shares a description in R.A. Warner’s A Tour Through Cornwall in the Autumn of 1808 (1809) 216pp.: “The unusual gaiety of the 1796 celebration is spoken of ‘with rapture’. He described the Hal an Tow as a chorus song sung by a large number of people. The main dance was then preceded by a fiddle playing an ancient traditional tune.”

Celtic music

The music of the Helston Furry tune we recognise today is synonymous with the repertoire of brass bands, in this case Helston Town Band. Davies Gilbert in the appendix of secular tunes published in 1823 (Some Ancient Christmas Carols, 2nd ed.) introduces the “Helston Forey,” forey or foray being one of the many variations of Furry, also Faddy, Flurry, Flora. He presents a treble and bass of the tune in Eb (p.79). It is immediately recognisable with some rhythmic variation from that which we hear the band play today. Davies Gilbert describes the Helston Furry tune as a “specimen of Celtic Musick” also heard in Ireland and Wales.

Davies Gilbert’s consciousness of a genre of music understood as Celtic is remarkable given the extensive modern-day critique of Cornish Celtic music having no real history. It also brings into question the appropriation of both Hal-an-Tow and the Furry Dance tune as part of a notional English tradition (claimed as the tunes were by Lucy Broadwood and the like (see also below). He continues:

In Cornwall it is almost peculiar to the town of Helston, where a Forey was annually celebrated up to recent times, with all the pantomime of a predatory excursion into the country, and a triumphant return of the inhabitants dancing to this air.

Davies Gilbert, 1823.

Gilbert also comments on the festivities of 8 May in his day as being “some shadow of the festival… but with its nature totally changed, and its name obscured, by a fanciful allusion to Greek or Roman Mythology.” (p.79).

Uncle Jan Trenoodle’s description

The antiquarian William Sandys produced a number of books in the mid-19th century of a musical nature, including collections of Christmas carols and histories of Cornish customs (amongst other subjects such as violins). His pen name was Uncle Jan Trenoodle and under this pseudonym he published Specimens of Cornish Provincial Dialect in 1846. Maybe his playful name is why he hasn’t been taken seriously by subsequent scholars. We think his work is much under-estimated. Sandys’ description of the music and lyrics of Flora Day as well as its supposed origins has nevertheless been analysed and used ever since he published it.

He includes the lyrics of the Hal-an-Tow as he knew them (pp. 60-61) and calls it the “Furry-Day Song.” His description of the events on 8 May echo much of what we have gleaned from antiquarians and reports from newspapers (pp. 5-6). What makes Sandys’ analysis interesting is his picking out the difference between the lyrics of the Hal-an-Tow and the tune of the Furry Dance with versions known to him being mixed up, trying to adapt the words of the former to the tune of the latter. For clarity (he thought) he provided his version at the back of the book (pp. 106-8). Later students of Cornish music have been puzzled by Sandys naming of the Hal-an-Tow tune as “The Furry Day Song-Tune.” Dunstan (1929) reproduces this version as the Hal-an-Tow (p. 30) although he was less than complimentary about Sandys’ grasp on music. Just to clarify, Sandys only provides the music for what we know as the Hal-an-Tow and not the Helston Furry tune which Davies Gilbert provided (see above).

Furry dancing

The Furry Dance tune, although most associated with Helston, was certainly not peculiar to it. The early 19th-century newspapers speak of the furry tune and furry dancing in Truro, for example. A beautifully detailed description of “Rejoicings in Truro” (looking at the date likely to be midsummer festivities) which included bands, music, dancing and feasting, and furry dancing:

As soon as the children had gone off, the Furry Dances commenced, (in which all classes joined without distinction,) and were kept up with unabated spirit to a late hour of the night, or rather an early hour in the following morning.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 2 July 1814.

Ralph Dunstan in Cornish Song Book-Lyver Canow Kernewek (p. 31) gives two simplified versions of Helston Furry, both in F, commenting:

Of all the variants of the melody of the Dance, that popular in the Truro district at any time during the past 100 years is the most simple and unadorned, and probably the most ancient.

Ralph Dunstan, Cornish Song Book. Lyver Canow Kernewek, 1929, p. 31.

Dunstan goes on to say that the tune was often used for the lyrics of other songs, e.g. Southey’s Well of St. Keyne. One of our relatives, a baritone singer, commented on the refrain of the Helston Furry tune being clearly heard in Tallis’s Spem in Alia c.1570 !

Origins, tradition and adaptation

The earliest record of the music of Helston Flora Day comes in the Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 60, Part One (1790), p. 520. It comes as a response to a Mr. Urban by a certain Durgan enquiring after the nature of the festivities of Flora Day. Writing from Cornwall on 8 June, Durgan says:

At Helstone, a genteel and populous borough town in Cornwall, it is customary to dedicate the 8th of May to revelry (festive mirth not jollity). It is called the Furry-Day, supposed Flora’s Day; not, I imagine, as many have thought, in remembrance of some festival instituted in honour of that goddess, but rather from the garlands commonly worn on that day.

Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 60, pt. 1, p. 520.

The letter continues with a description of the early morning Hal-an-Tow, though not called that, mentions “troublesome rogues” who go round the streets with drums and other noisy instruments, and wearing hawthorn blossoms in their hats. The demanding of a holiday, going from house to house collecting money, are features. Then the Furry Dance is described:

About the middle of the day they collect together to dance hand-in-hand round the streets, to the sound of the fiddle playing a particular tune, which they continue to do til it is dark. This is called a “Faddy.” In the afternoon, the gentility go to some farmhouse in the neighbourhood to drink tea, syllabub, etc. and return in a morice-dance where they form a Faddy, and dance through the streets till it is dark.

As above.

The correspondent then speaks of changes in custom and the gentry retiring to a ball, all dressed up, then faddying back to their homes at night. The rest of the community, the “mobility” as they are described, adjourn to pubs where they continue to dance until midnight. Read the full description.

Furry dancing and the tune of Helston Furry, while for a long time associated extremely closely with the town and Flora Day, definitely have histories outside the town too. The origins of the Furry, like origins of most traditional music and dance send one on a futile quest. What we can confidently say is that the furry is Cornwall’s most distinctive communal dance and the music that goes with it, old and new, provides a strong backbone to our repertoire. The Daveys, in Scoot Dances, Troyls, Furrys and Tea Treats (2009), p.15, describe the furry being a simple processional dance for mixed couples performed on fair and feast days (Cornish fer being origin of furry). Largely because of a perceived over-reliance on tunes such as Helston Furry and Bodmin Riding, several modern furry tunes have been composed or old tunes adapted for furry dancing, for example, Fer Lyskerris (Liskeard Fair), Tregajorran Furry by Neil Davey and Hilary Coleman, Bolingey Furry by Will Burbridge and Polperro Furry by Mike Jelly.

The Helston Furry tune itself has had a life well outside the Cornish tradition. Katie Moss (1881-1947) incorporated the tune into her piece, ‘The Floral Dance’ in 1911. Since then the Furry Dance also becomes known as the Floral Dance or Cornish Floral Dance or just Cornish Dance. It is probably her music that made this tune so internationally recognised in the very many versions that have been released (including Terry Wogan’s).

Mike O’Connor provides an intriguing description of how Katie Moss came across Helston Furry. She came from London and studied at the Royal Academy as a violinist, pianist and singer. She visited Helston on Flora Day 1911. She wanted to join in but ‘had no boy with her’. She saw the Welsh baritone David Brazel and pulled him into the dance. On the train back to London, Moss wrote her song telling the story of the day. Moss used the melody of the Furry Dance as the basis for its chorus (Ilow Kernow 5, Part One (in process), p. 167). No mention in this or any of the historical descriptions of the modern-day protocol that you have to have an association with Helston (born in or through family) and take part in a ballot to be permitted entry into one of the Furry Dances.


How nice to think that all this stuff we’re researching from the past really is still happening now. Enjoy the video and if you like it, please subscribe to the Cornish Trad YouTube channel.

Unite and unite: Padstow May Day and its music

The Padstow Hobby Hoss comes out of a building watched by a group, he is being led by a man in a very odd costume – something like a Morris Dancer. People are singing in the background. The man in the horse-like costume keeps backing into the crowd and moving them back – this appears to be part of the custom. Several of the women in the crowd are laughing.

Notes to British Pathé’s The Padstow “Hobby Hoss” film 1932.

I feel slightly fraudulent writing this post today as Padstow May Day is one of the celebrations that we haven’t yet had the opportunity to witness. Instead we revisited our favourite archive films on YouTube and spent a bit of time learning the Padstow May Song in its many variations, though all equally recognisable as almost a chant that accompanies the visually-addictive sight of the Obby Oss(es).

Of all old Cornish customs, probably the most has been written about Padstow May Day and Helston Flora Day which is coming up on 8 May (though only vicariously this year) but what about the music that this custom has continued?

Accordions, voices and trance-inducing drumming, the odd tambourine play in the Padstow May Day Song and the accompanying O, Where is St George? The anticipation, the Red and Blue Oss rivalry, the bringing in of the May (greenery), the drinking, the dancing and the singing. The film from 1932 and Alan Lomax and Peter Kennedy’s film 20 years later in 1953 show remarkable continuity in the musical landscape of Padstow May Day. The main difference is in the clothes of those taking part, very much work wear in the 1930s but more costumed in the 1950s.

Mike O’Connor in Ilow Kernow 5. Part One (p. 153) remarks on the tensions between the Padstow Oss organisers and the English Folk Dance Society on its various visits to London in the 1920s. In 1927 some disagreed with the Oss being taken out of Cornwall and also having to wear EFDS standard white slacks and shirts (Morris-style). It is interesting also that by reifying Padstow May Day music, song and dance, the English Folk Song and Dance Society (EFDSS) may have made some feel the event was being taken out of its annual spontaneous community rite.

Behind the band come the two main dancers-the strong and agile young man who bears the weighty hoop of the ‘Obby ‘Oss on his shoulders… Behind them and around the whole procession parties of young people join in the dance arm-in-arm, singing the tune and adding to the general excitement with their shouts of “Wee ‘Oss!” When the ‘Obby ‘Oss falls to the ground exhausted, the musicians take up the second tune – “Oh, where is St. George?”- which everybody intones with sentimental fervour.

Inglis Gundry, Canow Kernow, 1966, p. 15.

‘Unto day’ is completely mistaken

Inglis Gundry includes detailed field notes among the several versions of the Padstow May Day Song in Canow Kernow (1966, pp. 14-17). His first comment is on the words: “The expression “a-come unto day”, though generally accepted in print, has been altered to “acumen to-day” at the suggestion of Reg Hall and Mervyn Plunkett.” Gundry seemed to have a real issue about the difference between ‘a-come unto and icumen’. In the 1932 film above it sounds more like ‘a-comin’ (to me anyway). Hall and Plunkett were ethnographers and published a detailed study of the Padstow Song-Dance in Ethnik, vol. 1, no. 3, that Gundry refers to. Gundry himself was a composer of operas so his attention to articulation of words in music would have been as keen as a razor.

In his autobiography, Last Boy of the Family (1998) Gundry recalls meeting Peter Kennedy, whose pioneering recordings of pub singing and music in Cornwall have contributed much to our repertoire. Kennedy also provided much of the material collected by Gundry for Canow Kernow. Gundry recalls the “very happy May Day following the Blue Team up and down the streets of Padstow.” Of the music he noted, “There seemed to me to be variations of the tune during the day, and that was not surprising when I was told by one of the team that they never sang the song from one May Day until the next.” (p. 84)

An example of a living folk tune, still in process of evolution

Gundry provides no less than seven versions of the tune, and some variations even in those. The oldest version taken down is by B.H. Watts of Padstow in 1860 and in the personal manuscript collection of Sabine Baring-Gould. Baring-Gould is also the originator of the second version, “from the man who dances the Hobby Horse,” originally notated in B-flat–it makes me wonder again about the use of woodwind instruments like clarinets and bassoons prior to the popularity of accordions for outdoor folk music performance.

Padstow May Day Song as collected by Sabine Baring-Gould (SBG/1/2/412) (courtesy of Vaughan Williams Memorial Library)

The third was published in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, 1912-13 and the fourth, noted by Cecil Sharp of the English Folk Dance Society as “sung by the Villagers of Padstow” on May Day 1914. The fifth comes from Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Song Book or Lyver Canow Kernewek, apparently as sung on 1 May 1928 by Mr. Tonkin. Gundry’s own version compares the versions played by the Blue and Red (Old ‘Oss) Ribbon teams in 1962 and follows the same pattern and key of the others, a kind of G major/D modal in 2/4 time (though tempo stretches and contracts in other versions). A Children’s Team variation for “unto day” is up an octave. Gundry provides commentary on keys and phrases–very akin to the concerns of Dunstan, another professional musician and composer with ears for detail, harmony and structure. He comments that Peter Kennedy’s recording of 1958 is in the key of A-flat rather than the G (D modal) of his 1962 version.

Gundry felt that the tune had changed considerably over the century before his collecting and speculated that it would have been much different in medieval or ancient British times. But I’m not sure that is the case. To lesser ‘trained’ ears the continuity is remarkable, and also evident in the two videos featured here. When we played through these versions you could go from one to the next and not notice much difference. Folk tunes are never finished, anyway. While retaining their essence, they should change, merge, mould and indeed they do.

Cornish medieval music?

Purely instinctively, the Padstow May Day Song has much that feels familiar with medieval music known to us today. It suits simple drones and regular rhythmic accompaniment. No fluff or ornament. I’m not sure whether people still speculate about Pagan or pre-Christian origins for May-time celebrations in Cornwall or Britain, and I’m not sure it really matters, but this tune certainly feels at home in a medieval social setting, similar to Helston’s Hal-an-Tow.

Printed music and annotations.
An excerpt from Inglis Gundry’s Canow Kernow (1966) showing some of the variations of Padstow May Song.

It’s not easy to tease the actual words of the song out of Gundry’s analysis but he was really keen to make sure ‘a-come unto day’ was corrected to ‘icumen today’ much like the Cuckoo Song/Sumer is Icumen In. Whichever you prefer, the lyrics are fit for any form of seasonal chivalry: a ship gilded with gold, Queen’s lady in waiting, young men in England and France [probably fighting], swords by sides, steeds in the stable [Oss].

Morning Song

Unite and unite and let us all unite, 
For summer is a-come unto day
And whiter we are going we all will unite
In the merry morning of May.

Day Song

All out of your beds,
Your chamber shall be strewed with the white rose and the red.
Arise up Mr-I know you well afine,
You have a shilling in your purse and
I wish it was in mine.
Arise up Miss-all in your gown of green,
You are as fine a lady as wait upon the Queen.

O, where is St. George,
O, where is he, O?
He's out in his long boat all on the salt sea, O.
Up flies the kite, down falls the lark, O.
Aunt Ursula Birdhood she had an old yow [ewe]
And she died in her own park O.

The St George revival verse (teaser and musicians symbolically revive the Oss) contains phrases which may have changed over time. The ones above are those noted by Gundry in the 1960s. One imagines that Aunt Ursula Birdhood (unknown to Gundry) may have taken the place of another conceit in the song. Gundry remarks on the use of ‘parc’, the Cornish for field.

Where does it belong?

Like much folk studies I am sure these lyrics will be/have been analysed and read into much more than many of the Mayers of Padstow have cared for. Is it Cornish, is it English? No locals anymore, it will die out. Is it just another performance for tourists? I can hear it now. However the sense of ownership of Padstonians of May Day precedes it. On first starting to play Cornish traditional music in the Raffidy Dumitz Band I remember the debate over whether the band should play the Padstow May Song or not because of its belonging to Padstow and to May Day in particular. In the end it didn’t catch on because somehow it felt wrong to play it out in Penzance, or worse, contemplate playing it in Padstow as outsiders. We have experienced a similar thing with Helston Furry. A Helstonian friend hates it when we play it, outside of the context of Flora Day and outside Helston. When we went to Flora Day in 2018 we were invited impromptu to play in the Blue Anchor provided we downed our instruments when the procession past (and respectfully we didn’t play Helston Furry either).

A more considered reflection comes from Dr. Merv Davey in his thesis, ‘As is the manner and the custom. Folk tradition and identity in Cornwall’ (2011, pp. 469-470) following May Day singing in Padstow’s Golden Lion and London Inn pubs:

Observed Singing sessions in Golden Lion and in London Inn. London inn a small pub with strong local clientel. Songs various but mostly Cornish. There was a group of people from Wadebridge who were regular singers in Padstow pubs and also the Ring of Bells at St Issey etc. They were not in Padstow not in whites. They sang an identifiable
Cornish repertoire – Little Lize – Lamorna – Maggie May. Interrupted by
Mayer ―You should not be singing here this day is for Padstow people and May Day, you can sing any time of the year but not today, it is for locals. Singers upset – some have been coming to Padstow for May Day singing sessions all their adult lives. Stephanie Noorgard identified continuous ―tradition― of singing Cornish songs at Padstow since six- ties – especially the London Inn. Reassured to find singing elsewhere. There was some discussion of why the individual concerned was prompted to make this comment. Other Mayers thought that if he was concerned about the tradition then he should have been in the procession supporting the Oss and not in a pub.

Merv Davey, field notes for Padstow May Day, 2010.

Women and Cornish Trad workshop is online

Watch the webinar on YouTube and follow up the resources and links in the downloadable transcript below.

As part of the Hypatia Trust’s Women of Cornish Music project we had planned to deliver a workshop in Penzance on 4 April. In a little under a week I converted the workshop into a webinar and delivered it on 11 April. It was quite an experience, a slightly out of body experience, but I was thrilled at the numbers of people who attended live and those that signed up to watch the recording afterwards. People attended from far and wide – a much more diverse audience than had we done the in-person workshop. People tuned in from Nairobi, Jeddah, Littleton, Helsinki, Cardiff as well as those from Cornwall.

I enjoyed reading the chat that was ongoing throughout the webinar, participants remembering, providing interesting reactions and tit-bits of information. It was really gratifying to follow it.

Transcript, references, links and playlists

Play on Spotify

Play on YouTube

Feature interview with Hilary Coleman and Frances Bennett

Gwaryoryon (Playing People). L-R Hilary Coleman (Clarinet), Liz Davies (Accordion), Jo Tagney (Fiddle)
(courtesy of Hilary Coleman).

I interviewed Hilary Coleman and Frances Bennett over Zoom a few weeks ago about their journeys in Cornish traditional music. I asked them about their views of being performers, composers, teachers and leaders of a stellar list of groups and movements on the Cornish Trad scene.

This interview is already an important historical document. It is about so much more than their personal experiences that is relevant to anyone interested in Cornish traditional music and its history. It covers their early life in music, learning instruments, being part of seminal Cornish Trad bands such as Gwaryoryon, the Jack and Jenny Band and Sowena. How Dalla emerged from these groups, why the Nos Lowen (Happy Night) movement started, how Bagas Crowd, Cornwall’s mighty fiddle group started and continues to grow, how they go about composing new music for the tradition including the creation of kabm pemp (5-steps), and finally some fantastic insights into gender and challenging the archetype of the “young Cornish working class man.”

These two women are two of my great inspirations when exploring and playing Cornish music and it was a real privilege to have had this opportunity to capture their stories. Meur ras bras!

Discovering Mary Kelynack’s polka

It’s always exciting when you read a fleeting note with a piece of music saying it was reconstructed from a fragment found in the Royal Institution of Cornwall. I first came across Mary Kelynack’s (as it is more affectionately known) pouring over the hundreds of tunes in Racca 2the largest compendium of old and new Cornish traditional music published 1995-97. It is no. 21 (a useful guide for Racca users), notated in C major as a 16-bar 2/4 polka. Merv Davey in Hengan, 1983 (digital edition p. 51) described his discovery of this fragment, “a fragment of this tune can be found in a miscellaneous Box of Music MSS in the Courtney Library of the Royal Institution of Cornwall. It was evidently written by Harry Goodbone [sic] and probably had words to go with it but I have been unable to find any further information. The tune has been largely reconstructed by myself .”

Black and white music in treble clef of Mary Kelynack's polka in C major.
Mary Kelynack’s polka as it appears in Racca 2.

An aged dame of Cornish fame

I had already come across Mary Kelynack’s story while researching Cornish women’s stories for the Hypatia Trust’s History 51 project in 2013. Mary Kelynack or Callinack was from the Penzance, Paul or Newlyn fishing community. She achieved fame by walking from Lands End to London for the Great Exhibition of London in 1851–at the age of 75-86 depending on what you read. She was noted at the time for this incredible feat of determination to make sure that Cornish fishing folk were remembered and recognised as part of the exhibition or to exhibit her traditional fishwife’s costume as the Queen wanted to see it or to give the Queen a turbot. There are all sorts of variations of her story, as all good folk stories accrue over time: that she was noticed by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, had tea with the Lord Mayor. I was familiar with the portraits of her, distinctive in her fishing woman’s wear to be noticed and captured by illustrators and artists. Her story has been researched by Penwith Local History Group so head over to their website to read Mary Kelynack’s true story.

You can find portraits of her in Penlee House, Penzance, Morrab Library, Penzance and the National Portrait Gallery, London. One of the NPG’s copies (An Aged Dame by S. Nelson) also carries the music of the “Song of the Cornish Fish Wife.” At the time of this (very rudimentary) research I wasn’t playing music and had not made the connection between the story and the music I learned last year.

The original story/fable of Mary Kelynack was reported in the Illustrated London News and the portrait from the cover of the music by Henry W. Goodban, entitled The Mary Callinack Polka, carries the excerpt:

On Tuesday among the visitors at the Mansion House, was Mary Callinack, eighty-four years of age, who had travelled on foot from Penzance, carrying a basket on her head, with the object of visiting the Exhibition. She was born in the parish of Paul, near Penzance, on Christmas-day, 1766, so that she had nearly completed her 85th year. To visit the Exhibition she walked the entire distance from Penzance, nearly 300 miles; she having “registered a vow,” before she left home, that she would not accept assistance in any shape, except as regarded her finances. On Tuesday, the 14th, when the Queen visited the Exhibition, her Majesty, in taking her departure, with her usual kindness and condescension noticed the Old Cornish pedestrian fisherwoman, who had been placed in her way, who with hearty emphasis exclaimed “God bless your Majesty.”

Illustrated London News.

Eager to find the fragment of Mary Kelynack’s polka we headed to the Courtney Library of the Royal Institution of Cornwall back in July 2019 to find the mysterious fragment. The librarian insisted she could see no music on this item and there was only a copy of a portrait of Mary Kelynack, that there must have been a mistake. When she produced the item for us anyway to sate our curiosity we initially concurred that we could see no music, but on the reverse we noticed the indentations of printed music — the fragment visible to Merv Davey during his research many years ago.

Sheet of paper with a stamp saying Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro, showing faint markings of piano sheet music.
The faint indentations of printed music on the reverse of a portrait cover of Mary Callinack’s Polka by Henry Goodban. The obverse is the same as that illustrated above from the National Portrait Gallery (Courtney Library, Royal Institution of Cornwall).

From Truro to Australia

There seemed to be and indeed is more music than the reconstructed tune known today. It was at this moment we also looked into the different search results you get when searching for “Mary Kelynack” and “Mary Callinack.” The former more aligned to the modern spelling of the little hamlet outside St Just and a surname of West Penwith. A quick search for “Mary Callinack’s Polka” revealed a digitised version of the whole piece of music written by Henry Goodban in tribute to Mary’s story. It is in the digital collection of the National Library of Australia called Trove. The Australian edition was published in Sydney, suggesting Mary Kelynack’s fame spread to other parts of the globe, indeed where Cornish diaspora communities may have appreciated her story.

The polka is written for piano to a classic 19th century polka rhythm. It is an instrumental piece to be danced to and no song is associated with it, extending to some 85 bars with a four-bar introduction. As far as the original tune compares with the version we have now adopted into the Cornish tradition, they are pretty faithful to each other in style, key and tempo. We now have the oompah of the bass part to play around with and there are far more decorations and flourishes in Goodban’s version.

Incidentally, Henry Goodban was a well-known composer of ‘light’ dance music in the mid-19th century. He was known for composing the Fire-fly Polka and the Wood Nymphs Polka. Polkas were very popular to dance to at this time, apart from the bopping music, they were racy and permitted close contact as part of the dance. I can’t find out much about who Henry Goodban was, except a composer of popular music of the same period. A notice in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser of Saturday 22 November 1851 mentions the publication of the Mary Callinack Polka by Goodban, describing it as “beautifully illustrated in colours, with a drawing from the life of the now celebrated Old Cornish fisherwoman.”

The portrayal of Mary Kelynack on the cover of “An Aged Dame of Cornish Fame” points to another piece of music written for her, this time by S. Nelson. The Song of the Cornish Fish Wife was probably written by the composer Sidney Nelson, shortly after the Great Exhibition in 1851 (dating on popular publications at the time was patchy to say the least so we can only guess). He was a prolific composer and writer of songs. For another time to get hold of the music and song lyrics.

Free webinar coming up on women in Cornish traditional music

If you are interested in the stories of other women who have shaped Cornish traditional music, head on over to my free crowdcast webinar:

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Drive the cold winter away

To mask and to mum kind neighbours will come
    With wassails of nut-brown ale,
To drink and carouse to all in the house
    As merry as bucks in the dale;
Where cake, bread, and cheese is brought for your fees
    To make you the longer stay;
At the fire to warm ’twill do you no harm,
    To drive the cold winter away.

Early 17th century Broadside, also known as All Hail to the Days, c. 1625 (courtesy of The Hymns and Carols of Christmas)

It might feel a bit tardy to talk about wintertime tunes and songs but it certainly feels like we’re still dallying with winter here in West Cornwall. Back in the Autumn we discovered the song Drive the Cold Winter Away sung by Ian Giles with the Oxford Waits. We were captivated by the sentiment and language of the lyrics as well as the beguiling tune in D minor.

The tune is best known as part of the Playford Dancing Master Country Dances dating to the 17th century–not forgetting that when Playford himself was penning these tunes and the dances that went with them, they were already getting ‘old’. It’s written a a slow jig tempo 6/8, and you can take a lot of liberties with the tune (as we did) as it doesn’t tire of being played over and over again. Not strictly Cornish trad, but I think, like a few other Playford tunes, good credentials for being known here, like in other parts of Britain, given the popularity of Broadsides and the appetite for them.

Drive the cold winter away, also known as All Hail to the Days was written or accumulated anonymously. It is a song about merriment, reflection and revellery during the darkest time of the year. To us, it summed up what guise dancing is all about, sharing joy in music and friendship, having fun in disguise, letting bygones by bygones, letting go of bad times, and wishing it would warm up a bit.

‘Tis ill for a mind to anger inclined
    To think of small injuries now

Photograph of a Beringer Model D synthesiser, black with blue and red switches, silver topped black knobs and wires coming out.
Beringer Model D synthesiser

Using this tune we made an electronic experiment. Using a Casio MT-68 keyboard, Beringer Model D (Moog clone) plugged into an Arturia Keystep we recorded the melody and some effects (whooshing wind) alongside the Casio’s analogue 6/8 “slow rock” rhythm. We experimented with recording mandolin over it, and also fiddle. The fiddle melody didn’t do the production any favours so we removed it, but we kept, and seriously filtered a double-stopped accompaniment.

It was also an opportunity to try some mastering at home. This was a taster for a project we have just started working on in earnest, to record the ‘fairy music’ of Arthur Mata, the first horner of the Gorsedh and early proponent of the 1920s/30s Cornish revival.

Who were the women of Cornish music?

We’re thrilled that our friends at the Hypatia Trust, led by filmmaker, musician and researcher Florence Browne, have won funding to undertake the Women of Cornish Music Past and Present project.

Supported by a £33,600 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and further funding from the Cornwall Heritage Trust and Screen Cornwall, the project seeks to rebalance the awareness of women’s roles in Cornish music-making past and present.

Like other areas of Cornish heritage, mainstream ideas of the Duchy’s music are dominated by male figures and traditions such as male-voice choirs and brass bands, but women have always been active in leading and shaping Cornish music. Through my role as an historian and curator–and indeed more recently as a musician on the Cornish Trad scene, I have felt particularly strongly about this imbalance.

“The work of musical women in Cornwall past and present has been astonishing, for example, the founding of early operatic and orchestral societies was very often fronted by a woman. The composition of the earlier version of Trelawny—Cornwall’s unofficial anthem—was by a woman. The revival of Celtic-Cornish instrumental and sung traditional music and carols has also been significantly led by women, such as Hilary Coleman, Frances Bennett and Sally Burley. Without their skills in capturing, recording and sharing since the early 1990s we just wouldn’t have our rich traditional repertoire.”

Over the course of the 15-month project, which is the first of its kind, the Hypatia Trust will host a programme of events to explore and celebrate music of various genres in Cornwall through a female lens. A volunteer research group will be recruited to delve into archives around Cornwall and discover the stories and music of historical women. Composing and conducting workshops aimed at building girls’ confidence in these male-dominated areas will be delivered in partnership with the Cornwall Music Service Trust, a charity committed to supporting the aspirations of young people in Cornwall through music education.

Workshop on women in the history of Cornish Trad

One of these events will be a workshop led by me in association with and our efforts to share knowledge, history and information on Cornish traditional music with the world. It will take place at the Hypatia Trust, Chapel Street, Penzance on Saturday 4 April 10.30am-1pm. This half-day workshop will explore what we know about the history of women who composed, performed and shaped the identity of the Cornish traditional music we know today.

For more information about the project, contact Florence Browne: or visit

Vote for Cornish music in the Celtic Top 20

We’ve been listeners of Marc Gunn’s Irish & Celtic Music Podcast for some time now so we were completely thrilled when he played a few tracks of Cornish Trad on the recent editions of the podcast, from the charity album The Long and the Short of It by Andy Law and Friends. If you don’t know about this fantastic album, please take a moment to head to Andy Law’s Bandcamp where you can also buy it on digital download or order a CD.

In episode #438 at 15.25 you can hear An Diberdhyans (Trad. The Parting) / Dons Bewnans (Mike O’Connor. Dance of Life). If you are reading this Marc, we can help you pronounce the Cornish but we’re just delighted you are playing our music and including Cornish music in the rich mix of modern and traditional Celtic music that you showcase to your many thousands of followers.

In episodes #434 and #435 Marc Gunn plays more of our tracks, first the 18th century processional, Royal Wedding, from a musical manuscript found by Mike O’Connor at Morval House in Looe (with counter melody composed by John Law) paired with early country tune Sun Assembly, then another one of our high-energy favourites, a set of Cornish jigs called Falmouth Gig, Bishop’s Jig and Porthlystry.

Celtic Top 20

So now for the request. Marc Gunn has opened a vote for your favourite Celtic band played on the Irish and Celtic Music podcast and Andy Law & Friends are in the running. Please vote for Andy and us. It’s easy, we’ll show you how:

  1. Head to the voting page (ignore it says 2018)
  2. Enter your preferred episode number: 434, 435 or 438
  3. Enter name of band, Andy Law & Friends
  4. Enter your name and email address
  5. You can vote for multiple tunes or bands but only vote once. Comma separate multiple favourites
  6. Like and subscribe to the Irish & Celtic Music podcast!

Meur ras / thank you! Please share and don’t delay! The vote closes on 18 December 2019.

Group photo of Andy Law and Friends featuring Andy Law with fiddle, John Gallagher with melodeon, Tom Goskar with mandolin, Marc Cragg with melodeon, Tehmina Goskar with fiddle and Dave Higginbotham with guitar
Group photo of Andy Law and Friends featuring Andy Law with fiddle, John Gallagher with melodeon, Tom Goskar with mandolin, Marc Cragg with melodeon, Tehmina Goskar with fiddle and Dave Higginbotham with guitar

Take the Cornish Trad Christmas Quiz 2019!

Time for some seasonal fun. What do you really know about Cornish traditional music? Take our quiz and share it with your friends.

Find out if you’re a dreary dirge or a joyous jig. Please comment and subscribe with your results.

The Cornish Trad Christmas Quiz 2019

Do you know your furries from your polkas? How well do you think you know Cornish traditional music? Pit your wits against the Christmas Quiz 2019. Most answers can be found somewhere on this lovely website. There are 30 multiple choice questions. Nadelik lowen.

Degol Stul – Cornish Twelfth Night Music and Dance

On Saturday 4 January 2020, there will be a Cornish celebration of feasting, music and dance at Grampound Village Hall, TR2 4SB, a few miles outside Truro. The evening starts at 3.30pm with communal decorating of the hall and laying out a feast. After partaking in the feast there will be a procession led by fiddle-tastic band, Bagas Crowd. This starts at 5.30pm. Suggested donation of £5.

From 7.30pm until about 11pm no less than four Cornish Trad music bands will play the night away for a Nos Lowen (Happy Night) with lots of dancing, some of which will be led by Cornish dancers, and maybe also a bit of free styling. Music will be played by veterans Henavek, the gorgeous Heb Mar, Money to the Moon (that’s us) and the thrilling Davey & Dyer Duo. Tickets on the door: £10.

Degol Stul means Twelfth Night, the twelfth day after Christmas Day, a traditional time for festivity and gaddery. This wonderful event is organised by the Big Nos committee.