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 CornishTrad.com 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.
The podcast host, Marc Gunn, announced that An Diberdhyans / Dons Bewnans was one of the most popular tracks of 2019. All of us who played on it are humbled and amazed. Thanks for playing us, Marc!
For those unfamiliar with Kernewek, the Cornish language, An Diberdhyans / Dons Bewnans is pronounced An Diberth-yans / Donns B-you-nanns which means The Parting / Dance of Life.
The Irish and Celtic Music Podcast is the world’s most popular for Celtic music with a global listenership running into the hundreds of thousands. It’s great for so many to hear some trad music from Cornwall, which is so often underrepresented in the wider Celtic music world.
It wasn’t just us from Cornwall in the top 20 either. Another Cornish band, The Grenaways, made it to number 16, with their track Rowan.
If you’re looking forward to more from Andy Law & Friends, keep your eye on Money to the Moon, our new band.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve created a YouTube playlist called Cornish Trad. I’ve selected 45 videos over the last year or so, and the list will keep growing. They represent, to us at least, the best of Cornish trad music, mainly instrumental, on YouTube at the moment. If you have a video that we’re missing out on, drop us a line!
The playlist is pretty varied, from the brilliant Cornish Knight jigs by MacQuarrie and Toms — Bishop’s Jig (trad), Hernen Wyn (trad), An Marrak (Merv Davey)– to the full play of the first ever album of Celtic Cornish trad by Bucca, The Hole in the Harper’s Head or An Tol Yn Pen Yn Telynor released in 1982.
Enjoy the performance of historical Cornish tunes such as John Old’s Nameless by Mike O’Connor and Barbara Griggs, and the Egloshayle Ringers by Salt and Sky (Emma Packer and Lizzie Pridmore), learn about Cornish instruments such as the Cornish double bagpipes or find out more about the dances that some of the tunes are used for such as the Cornish five-step or kabm pemp.
You can save YouTube playlists but you can’t subscribe to them directly, unfortunately. There is still much out there on YouTube waiting for discovery. More and more historical archive footage is being uploaded too.
Because many of these videos are not titled or tagged specifically as Cornish music the best way to find your favourite tune is to search for its name or the many other names it might have in other traditions, for example, the Duke of Cornwall’s Reel is also known as the Opera Reel.
It’s been a phenomenal year for the Penzance’s Cornish Traditional Music Session every Thursday night, 8-10pm, at the Admiral Benbow pub. Time for some thank yous, foremost to John Gallagher, session leader and founder for introducing us to incredible music and creating wonderful set lists; to Chris Morgan, landlord of the Benbow, for your hospitality and support, to Russell, manager of the Benbow, for looking after us too; to fellow musicians for being dedicated to turn up even in the coldest, darkest evenings; to the dancers for adding a bit of magic to the music; to our audiences who have come from far and wide but especially our regulars from our community whose support is so valued; and thanks and admiration to Lee J Palmer for documenting the session from its wintery beginnings to its summer madness. Enjoy these timeless images as we reflect on the last 12 months.
Join the Penzance Cornish sessioners at their anniversary knees-up on Thursday 10th October, 8-10pm, at the Admiral Benbow pub, Chapel Street, Penzance. Free.
Already featured in Time Out magazine, Penzance’s weekly Cornish Trad Music Session at the Admiral Benbow pub in Chapel Street, has developed a bit of a cult following. Since starting up one year ago, the Thursday night Cornish Session has attracted hundreds of tourists and locals to the town’s most enigmatic Treasure Island themed boozer.
“I’d rather be here than at Glastonbury”
Over the last year, happening upon the session has surprised and delighted. “I’d rather be here than at Glastonbury” one punter visiting from Truro said. From modest beginnings huddled in the downstairs bar, the Cornish Session has grown in popularity with the busiest nights in the summer attracting upwards of 50-60 people with anywhere between 6 and 12 local musicians joyously playing the night away. Session organisers estimate nearly 1,500 people have enjoyed historical and contemporary Cornish tunes (and the odd song) in its first year.
“I never knew Cornwall had its own music”
It all started on 4th October 2018, when a group of friends who played melodeons, fiddles, mandolin, bouzouki, concertinas, whistle and recorder, autoharp, and occasional guitar gathered in the Admiral Benbow on Chapel Street in Penzance to play Cornish jigs, furries, reels, marches waltzes, polkas and airs. Many people are surprised to hear that Cornwall has a distinctive musical tradition that is part of the wider world of Celtic music. The repertoire of tunes is large and varied, some of them new tunes inspired by Cornish people, places and themes, others deeply historical.
“’I never knew Cornwall had its own music’ is a phrase we often hear. People express surprise that we have our own music and that we are part of a living tradition. They often think it must be Scottish or Irish. We might play one tune that is over 200 years old followed by one composed for the tradition only a few years ago.”
Tom Goskar, one of the session organisers.
The session was originally the idea of local musical legend Len Davies, who sadly died in 2015. His friend, melodeon player John Gallagher, approached fellow musicians Tehmina and Tom Goskar in the summer of 2018 to see if they were interested in supporting him in starting a new Cornish traditional music session.
“I’ve loved the Celtic music traditions of Ireland and Scotland all my life and when, more recently, I discovered that there is an equally rich Celtic music tradition right here in Cornwall, I was determined that it should be explored and celebrated where I now live in Penzance.”
Session leader John Gallagher.
“Cornish traditional music is normally heard at Cornish festivals such as Golowan, Montol, St Piran’s Day, feast days, and at small dance-led events in halls across the Duchy. We wanted a public and easy to reach venue. We didn’t hesitate to go for the Benbow, with its unique maritime décor and a destination for visitors to Penzance. We knew our ‘Cornish soundtrack’ could make the place come alive.”
Chris Morgan, landlord and owner of the Admiral Benbow, offered them a Thursday evening slot.
“It’s great to see the Benbow rocking again to some lively and fun Cornish music. People come here for the salty dog maritime vibes and the Cornish Sessions are a really good fit.”
Chris Morgan, Landlord of the Admiral Benbow.
“Better than the Fishermen’s Friends”
The often fast and foot-tapping music is regularly accompanied by spontaneous dancing, either freeform or in the style of traditional Cornish dancing led by local dancers, making the event into a lively evening reminiscent of the troyls and dances that took place across Cornwall in years gone by.
The musicians have evolved into a group with a distinctive ‘trad’ style whose sound has captured the imagination. “Better than the Fishermen’s Friends,” a merry party from Birmingham cheekily remarked to us after one particularly lively session. Many of the musicians also play for other Penzance groups such as the Raffidy Dumitz band, Golowan band and dance groups Tros an Treys and Penzance Guizers.
“Most of us are not formally trained in music, we have learned our instruments ourselves and play for the love of the tunes. I love our instinctive way of playing together. Sometimes we sound like a great big crashing marching band, and other times we sound almost orchestral. The fact we mostly play back to back tunes in sets of 2,3 and even 6, creates a soundscape that is truly unique.”
Tehmina Goskar, session co-organiser.
“I just followed the music”
The Penzance Cornish Session is voraciously photographed and filmed, particularly by visitors from abroad. Session organisers have estimated people from over a dozen nations have experienced their music, including France, Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, USA, Canada, Spain, Italy, Australia, New Zealand and China. Two film students from University College London visited in August especially to film the session in 360 degrees to share the experience with elderly people in care homes. It has even featured in a German radio broadcast made by visiting sailors on a round Britain tour.
“I’d heard about it but I didn’t know where to find it, and then I just followed the music,” a traveller said.
Local photographer Lee J Palmer has become a fan of the Cornish Traditional Music Session too. Since the cold early months of 2019 when the session was held next to the fire at the front of the pub, Lee has created a unique visual documentary. In stunning black and white photojournalistic style, his photos capture the joys and realities of this very Cornish event.
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.
As we move rapidly towards autumn and winter our minds are drawn towards one of west Cornwall’s wonderful traditions – guise dancing.
Guise dancing is an ancient tradition from west Cornwall performed during the twelve days of Christmas. It is a form of mumming, whereby participants disguise themselves (hence the term ‘guise’) and entertain people through music, dance, drama and games. Guise dancers go from house to house, pub to pub, or process through streets and lanes bringing merriment and mischief during the darkest time of the year.
Last year, in 2018, we gave a paper at the Lowender Peran (Cornwall’s largest festival of Celtic music and dance) Cornish Music Symposium entitled “Historical Guise Dancing and its Music“. The article contains research which took several years to complete, seeing us visit libraries, archives and museums, as well as talking to people who remembered traditional guise dancing in the towns and villages of west Cornwall.
We had been meaning to publish it in a journal, but have decided to post it here, as it will have the widest possible audience. Our new guise dancing section will grow as we begin to publish the sources and transcriptions of our work, and we hope that it will encourage others to produce new works and research into this wide and wondrous topic. It might even encourage some to take up guise dancing in their part of west Cornwall, and explore Cornish traditional music while they do it.