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 cornishtrad.com 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.

Guise dancing sources – newspaper transcriptions

Over the last few years we have been researching guise dancing, a form of mumming that takes place during the twelve days of Christmas (and in recent times, a few days before). There is a wealth of information about the tradition in historic newspapers, and we have begun to transcribe the many wonderful articles on guise dancing so that they are searchable and freely available online.

One of the reasons for doing this is that in reading the well-known books that mention guise dancing, there seemed to be a fair bit of repetition, and not much life to something that, in our experience, is a pretty lively custom. We have used both the British Newspaper Archive and microfilms at Kresen Kernow in Redruth, Cornwall.

This is the kind of liveliness that we mean, found in an 1863 edition of the Cornish Telegraph:

Serving Him Out: An Incident of the Guise Dancing at St Ives

On Friday evening the 9th inst. a party of guise-dancers entered a beer shop at St Ives and obtained an interview with the landlord, whom they well plied with drink until his eyes blinked like two revolving lights and his dizzy head manifested unmistakable signs of a desire to change places with his lower extremities. In this unenviable state (which by the bye is better described than felt, we should think) four of the strongest of the party took the somnolent landlord by the arms and legs and ere could he say ‘What doest thou?’ spirited him into the open street, where a goodly number (as if by magic) started into the middle of the road and formed a procession singing the Old Hundredth with a more than mournful twang, and away they marched towards the beach (the house is situated near the sea side) landlord and all.

Some one at intervals gave short sentences from the Burial Service. As may be expected, the sudden and by no means welcome termination of a good day’s business roused into fury all the drink be-clouded and drink-debased energies of the poor fellow, but all his imprecations were met with the remark ‘Prepare, Evil! prepare; thy time is short indeed.’ His struggles and cries were all in vain and in a short time the edge of the water was reached. And now as the sobered man heard the rippling of the waves, he seem to fear the result, and made a superhuman effort to free himself, but alas! the hands that held him were too strong and whilst he was cursing his tormentors and invoking vengeance on their devoted heads he was borne out into the tide, whilst one, with a fine nasal accent, pronounced aloud, ‘We now commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ ; if no one else will have him, the d—l must,’ and down they threw their burthen (wretches that they were) and scampered off, leaving their victim to scramble ashore as best he might.

Fortunately the only effect produced in the landlord is a determination to hate guise dancers in general with a perfect hatred. Who the delinquents are is a mystery. 

Cornish Telegraph – Wednesday 28 January 1863, page 3, column 6

So, dig in, and explore the heady adventures of the folk of West Cornwall in their pursuit of fun and entertainment, bringing fun and life into the darkest time of the year. Visit our guise dancing sources: newspaper archives page.

Cornish traditional music on YouTube

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.

Cornish Trad playlist on YouTube.

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.

Mike O’Connor (fiddle) and Barbara Griggs (harp) play John Old’s Nameless.
Salt and Sky play and sing the Egloshayle Ringers.

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.

Nine Brave Boys by early music and La Moresca
Cornish dance Tin Stamps to the tune of the same name by Merv Davey.
British Movietone footage of Helston Furry/Flora Dance.

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.

Jen Dyer (viola) and Neil Davey (fiddle)–also of Dalla–demonstrate the Cornish five-step or kabm pemp.
Opera Reel of the American Old Time tradition is also the Duke of Cornwall’s Reel here in Kernow!

Penzance Cornish Music Session is one year old

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 us!

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.

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub showing some standing and audience sitting.
All are welcome, and its free (Lee J Palmer)

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. 

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub, showing violins, recorders, melodeon.
Wrapped around the nauticalia of the Admiral Benbow pub (Lee J Palmer)

“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.

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub showing a torn Cornish flag in the background.
Fiddles, melodeons, concertinas, whistles, mandolin all feature regularly at the session (Lee J Palmer)

“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.
Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub showing a packed out room with musicians clapping, dancers dancing and audience smiling.
Packed out with musicians, dancers and punters in the height of the summer (courtesy of Lee J Palmer)

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.
Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of dancers dancing to musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub.
Local Cornish dancers joined by visitors (Lee J Palmer)

“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.”

Tom Goskar. 

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.
Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub showing two fiddlers, mandolin player and drummer and audience looking on.
Sometimes the musicians get up for a dance too (Lee J Palmer)

“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.

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub for Cornish dancers.
Spontaneous and instinctive (Lee J Palmer)

“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.  

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of dancers dancing hand in hand to Cornish music by musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub.
I just followed the music (Lee J Palmer)

“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. 

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of two musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub, one a fiddle, the other a whistle.
Standing up to the Duke of Cornwall’s Reel (Lee J Palmer)

Can Jack and Pencarrow

We decided, on a whim, to make a recording of the two beautiful tunes Can Jack and Pencarrow. It was raining steadily outside, and we had been lamenting the lack of Cornish traditional music on YouTube. A little bit of direct action, if you like.

Here’s our description:

These two beautiful tunes are from Cornwall’s rich Celtic music tradition. The first, Can Jack (meaning “Jack’s Song” in Kernewek, the Cornish language) was written around 1905 by Robert Morton Nance, a key figure in the Cornish Celtic revival of the early 20th century and Cornish language pioneer. It features in his ‘Cledry Plays’ published much later in 1956.

The second, Pencarrow, is traditional in that we do not know who it was written by. This tune is used for a ballad called ‘The Arscott of Tetcott’, and relates to the family that lived at Pencarrow House in North Cornwall. It was collected in Cornwall by Sabine Baring Gould in the late 19th century and published in Songs of the West.

Played by Tehmina Goskar (violin, cello) and Tom Goskar (mandolins) in September 2019. Photos are of the far west and mid Cornwall, taken by the musicians.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rj4Ei6g_ZYI

Article on Historical Guise Dancing and its Music

As we move rapidly towards autumn and winter our minds are drawn towards one of west Cornwall’s wonderful traditions – guise dancing.

Guise dancing is an ancient tradition from west Cornwall performed during the twelve days of Christmas. It is a form of mumming, whereby participants disguise themselves (hence the term ‘guise’) and entertain people through music, dance, drama and games. Guise dancers go from house to house, pub to pub, or process through streets and lanes bringing merriment and mischief during the darkest time of the year.

Last year, in 2018, we gave a paper at the Lowender Peran (Cornwall’s largest festival of Celtic music and dance) Cornish Music Symposium entitled “Historical Guise Dancing and its Music“. The article contains research which took several years to complete, seeing us visit libraries, archives and museums, as well as talking to people who remembered traditional guise dancing in the towns and villages of west Cornwall.

Madron Guise Dancers, Western Morning News, 7 Jan 1935, p. 10.

We had been meaning to publish it in a journal, but have decided to post it here, as it will have the widest possible audience. Our new guise dancing section will grow as we begin to publish the sources and transcriptions of our work, and we hope that it will encourage others to produce new works and research into this wide and wondrous topic. It might even encourage some to take up guise dancing in their part of west Cornwall, and explore Cornish traditional music while they do it.

Guise Dancers of the Isles of Scilly. Western Morning News, 4 Jan 1936.

Troyls – Cornish celebrations

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

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

Dances in fish cellars and sail lofts

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

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

Dictionaries and Cornish language

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

19th century newspapers

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

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

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

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

Royal Cornwall Gazette – Friday 09 November 1849 p.5

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

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

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

Western Morning News – Thursday 03 January 1867 p.4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royal Cornwall Gazette – Thursday 15 November 1906 p.8

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

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

Cornishman – Thursday 03 July 1879 p.7

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

Troyls today

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think Aunt Keziah would approve.

Historical instruments in traditional Cornish music

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

Processing bands

“concertinas, tin pans, flutina and bones”

St Ives, 1898.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen from 1.19.

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

Singers and players

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

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

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

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

Bassoons and horse’s legs

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

The Cornishman, 21 December 1893.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Violins, the tone of “old fiddle”

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

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

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

List of historical instruments in Cornwall

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

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

What does Cornish music sound like?

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

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

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

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

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

Playing style

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

Contrasting speeds

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

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

Contrasting rhythms

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

Song melodies

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

Dance music

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

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

Repertoire and sets

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

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

Keys

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

Era

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

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

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

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

Cornwall is not an island

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

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

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