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.

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.

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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.

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.


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


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

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

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

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

Cornwall is not an island

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

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

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

Can Palores – Song of the Chough

We are very happy to share news of a rare manuscript of Cornish music found in Penzance’s Morrab Library. It is of a song called Can Palores or Song of the Chough.

In March 2019, Cornish Trad editors Tom and Tehmina Goskar, were rootling in the pamphlets section of the Jenner Room when they found two documents slipped into the cover of a copy of Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Dialect and Folk Songs, 1932.

The song was composed by Dr. Ralph Dunstan, a Cornishman and musicologist to whom we owe much of our knowledge of traditional Cornish music and song. The musical manuscript is fleeting, providing barely 12 bars of a lilting tune, somewhat of a slow air, in D major, set for harmony singing. It is beautifully penned in Dunstan’s own hand with one of its verses in Kernewek, the Cornish language. Until the discovery of this manuscript no one in modern times knew the song’s tune.

Can Palores manuscript (Morrab Library)

1932 is a key year in the story of this find. Tehmina takes up the story.

The Western Morning News of 17 September 1932 contains an article by a correspondent called Cornishwoman. It describes a Celtic song, dance and theatrical concert performed at the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro under Dunstan’s direction.

Excerpt from Western Morning News, 17 September 1932 describing the Celtic concert at the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro

The newspaper article refers to the performance of An Balores, a “Cornish interlude” in which Phoebe Nance took part. Phoebe Nance, later Procter, from Carbis Bay was made a bard of the Gorsedh the week before and took the name Morwennol—Sea Swallow. Could it have been Phoebe that performed Can Palores during her interlude? We know Phoebe was musical and also a fluent Cornish speaker.

It became clear that the four verses at the end of the play belonged to Can Palores that we found in the Morrab Library.

Having found the newspaper description of the Truro performance, it remained a mystery what the “interlude” called An Balores was referring to. Correspondence with Cornish bard, scholar and poet Pol Hodge mentioned that also in 1932 Robert Morton Nance had published a short play called An Balores. Luckily we were able to locate a copy from the public library quite quickly and it became clear that the four verses at the end of the play belonged to Can Palores that we found in the Morrab Library.

An Balores by Mordon (Robert Morton Nance), published in St Ives, 1932

King Arthur is not dead!

The short and little-known play–published locally in St Ives and not widely circulated–involves four men and two women who debate the death of a chough on a bier in front of them. One of them is the justice. He questions the others about the reason for the bird’s demise. The play and song’s purpose is to link the symbolism of the (Cornish) icon of King Arthur, Cornish identity and the Cornish language, which, through its revival, will ensure that the chough and King Arthur – and Cornwall – will live on. The refrain of the song, which appears at the end of the play, is “Nyns-yu marrow Myghtern Arthur!” or “King Arthur is not dead!”

Morton Nance, who became Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorsedh a couple of years after writing An Balores, was also the founder of the Old Cornwall Society movement and a chief proponent of the Cornish language and culture revival.

“I have many other Cornish Songs of various kinds – several from Jim Thomas — I see no hope of ever publishing them in complete form with accompaniments.” 

Letter from Ralph Dunstan to Henry Jenner, 18 July 1932 (Morrab Library)

The letter that was found with Can Palores was written on 18 July 1932, just months before Ralph Dunstan’s death on 2 April 1933. Dunstan writes to Henry Jenner, another leader of the Cornish language and culture revival and founder of the Gorsedh in 1928. In the letter Dunstan spoke of many unpublished manuscripts of songs he had collected from Cornish communities that he had hoped to publish so they may be enjoyed again. Tragically this did not come to pass and his musical archive is believed to have been destroyed either by going damp in a garden shed or possibly burned by his daughter.

“As Cornish speakers, our little choir makes a point of singing only in the Cornish language.”

Steve Penhaligon, Keur Heb Hanow choir

Modern day debut and talk

The song will enjoy its first public performance in 87 years at a concert at Morrab Library on Tuesday 2 July at 5.30pm. Cornish-language choir Keur Heb Hanow will perform Can Palores together with a selection of other Cornish folk songs. Tehmina Goskar will present a short talk on the historical context of the discovery.

Steve Penhaligon, leader of the choir said, “Keur Heb Hanow are really excited and grateful to be involved in the rediscovery and relaunch of this song.

As Cornish speakers, our little choir makes a point of singing only in the Cornish language. However, ninety-five percent of what we sing was written originally in English and then translated especially for us. So, it’s a rare and thrilling experience to be given something to perform that was written in the Cornish language.

The piece has added meaning for us as it was written by one the key language revivalists and second Grand Bard, Robert Morton Nance.”

An balores, du hy lyu,
Ruth ha’y gelvyn cam ha’y garrow,
War als Kernow whath a-vew,
Kyn leverer hy bos marrow.

Ebon hued, with leg and bill
Coral crimson, brightly planished,
On the cliffs of Cornwall still
Lives the chough they said had vanished.

Yn palores, ny a-wor,
Spyrys Arthur, mo ha myttyn,
Whath a-dryk, ha ryp an mor
A-wra gwytha Enys Breten.

In a chough, as all men know,
Arthur’s spirit, too, unsleeping
Round our isle while tides shall flow,
Over us his watch is keeping.

Myghtern Arthur, dre dha voth,
Pan us gansa dha balores,
Re-bo gans tus Kernow Goth
Bys vynytha bew dha spyrys.

O, King Arthur, grant that all
Who shall take thy chough as token,
May upon thy spirit call
To keep Cornwall’s faith unbroken.

Yeth Kernow, re-be hyrneth
A’y growth yn enewores,
Ena a-dhassergh ynweth
Maga few avel palores.

So again our Cornish tongue,
That has lain so long a-dying,
Shall rise up as strong and young
As is e’er a chough that’s flying.

Nyns-yu marrow Myghtern Arthur!

King Arthur is not dead!

Spread the tune and the words

Roz Peskett of Keur Heb Hanow, said that the revival of this Cornish song should be an opportunity for discovery, celebration and performance.

Free to download and distribute. Play Can Palores at your session or in your band or music group.

As proponents of Cornish music as a living tradition we agree. Update: We have pulled out the melody so that instrumentalists can play it at sessions or arrange it for band set lists.

We would love to see people use Can Palores as a source of inspiration for introducing the song into their choirs and bands or even adapting the tune for a session or contemporary piece. Kernow bys vyken!

Booking for the performance and talk is essential and a suggested donation of £4 will be requested on the night. For more information and to secure a reservation, please ring Morrab Library on 01736 364474.

Ryb An Avon – the Cornish roots of Maid in Bedlam and Gustav Holst’s I Love My Love

The beautiful tune Ryb an Avon is often played in Cornish traditional music circles. It sounds very similar to the song Maid in Bedlam which was recorded by many folk artists in the 1970s. It is also rather similar to Gustav Holst’s choral work I Love My Love. Is Ryb An Avon just a version of that tune, or is there more to it?

Merv Davey has already been on the case, and in his paper Folk Song, Dance and Identity in Cornwall, he says:

“In 1905 the Rev Quintrell sent George Gardiner, an academic folk song collector, the music score for a nameless tune he had collected from a Mrs Boaden of Cury near Helston. Gardiner in turn sent this to a fellow collector, Lucy Broadwood for her comments. She decided that the melody was a very good match to the lyrics of a song called “I love my love” and drew the conclusion that this must be its original and correct title. Anyone listening to the lyrics of “Clementine” sung to the tune of the hymn “Bread of Heaven” will appreciate that such a deduction is not well supported! But Gardiner and Broadwood did succeed in making a very beautiful tune widely accessible by associating it with the words of “I Love My Love” and it reached a wide audience through Holst’s military band arrangement. It was subsequently reclaimed for Cornwall by Tony Snell who wrote lyrics in Cornish for it and renamed it “Ryb An Avon” (By The River). It can be seen that neither name has precedence of authenticity over the other. The title “Ryb An Avon” is nevertheless viewed as inauthentic and contrived by the English Folk Revivalist whilst not questioning the title “I Love My Love”.

Folk Song, Dance and Identity in Cornwall, Merv Davey 2017

I followed up some of the references that Merv Davey gave in his paper, to pages 93 and 94 of the Journal of the Folk Song Society Vol 2 1905-1906, No. 7. The pages are presented here:

Folk song collector George Gardiner’s colleague E Quintrell noted down a nameless, wordless tune from a Mr Boaden at Cury near Helston in Cornwall. According to Inglis Gundry in Canow Kernow – Songs and Dances from Cornwall, Boaden learned it from a Mr Curry of Helston. The tune was unknown elsewhere. It was sent to Lucy Broadwood, editor of the Journal of the Folk-Song Journal. She decided that it fitted the words to The Maid in Bedlam, and published them as such. The tune and words are now inseparable, having been recorded and performed by many of the folk greats of the 1970s.

Gustav Holst, the composer famous for composing the Planets Suite, heard the song and created the now-famous choral work I Love My Love (which he does attribute to a Cornish folk tune).

The Cornish origins of the “tune to the Maid in Bedlam” are often forgotten. Musician Tony Snell, on learning this, decided to ‘take back’ the tune. He composed a song in the Cornish language using the tune remembered by Boaden, and gave it the new Cornish name, Ryb an Avon. In Kernewek, the Cornish language, this means “by the water”.

The simple tune remembered by J Boaden Esq from the hamlet of Cross Lanes in Cury, near Helston in Cornwall, grew into a folk song classic and a great choral work, now reclaimed as the Cornish tune that it is, with a Cornish name.

Was it originally a Cornish tune? Like most traditional tunes whose composer is unknown, we will never know for sure. But it lived on down here in Cornwall, and it was captured from the mind of Mr Boaden before he died, saving the tune from the tenuous thread of oblivion. And now, what a life it has.

Now that’s the “folk process” in action, and a great example of the living tradition of Cornish music alive and kicking today.

Origins of Karol Korev

Updated: 3 April 2020.

Followers and players of Cornish trad music will be familiar with a festive tune called Karol Korev. It has been made popular by Davey and Dyer, the phenomenally talented high-octane duo who released their version of the tune on Dynamite Quay in 2018.

Karol Korev means something like ‘beer song’ or ‘ale carol’. We have just introduced the tune to the Penzance Cornish Session where we play it in a set of 16-bar furries. This led me to wonder what its origins might be as anyone who hears it will agree that it definitely has the air of a very old tune.

In the Daveys’ Scoot Dances, Troyls, Furrys and Tea Treats. The Cornish Dance Tradition, 2009 they describe the use of the tune to dance a ‘Carole’ (pp. 131-32). The tune was adapted from one of the old carols published by Inglis Gundry in Now Carol We (see below) by Merv Davey in 2000 specially for the carole dance. In 1980 the Cornish songwriter Tim Saunders (father of Gwenno) wrote words to the tune and gave it its drinking song identity.

Now Carol We

Thanks to the knowledge of Frances Bennett who heads up Cornwall’s ever expanding fiddle-driven band Bagas Crowd, she directed me to a lesser-known collection of Cornish tunes, mainly carols or songs related to liturgical times of the year such as Passiontide, Christmas and Candlemas, by Inglis Gundry called Now Carol We, published in 1966. It is an arrangement of tunes taken from a c.1825 musical manuscript that belonged to a certain John Hutchens. Originally the manuscript was sent to Davies Gilbert for publication with his Some Ancient Christmas Carols but arrived too late for his 1823 second edition. Gundry had been given access to the manuscript by Davies Gilbert’s descendent Minnie Davies Gilbert.

Gundry tells us in his introduction that John Hutchens, who came come from the St Erth area, provided the melodies of 27 tunes in this manuscript, “written in a clear hand.” The tunes were already considered ancient when Hutchens penned them so we may even be hearing a tune familiar to 17th and 18th century Cornish audiences.

Unfortunately I was persuaded, rather against my will to add 4 part harmony, which slows down the melodies and prevents them from speaking for themselves.

Inglis Gundry, The Last Boy of the Family, chapter 20.

It is with caution we note that Gundry applied his own musical sensibilities to arrange the original melody (something he came to regret according to his autobiography). Gundry is better known for his publication of Canow Kernow, a generational successor to Ralph Dunstan’s Lyver Canow Kernow Cornish Song Book (1929).

When God at first created man

You will find the tune of Karol Korev in Carol no. 2 ‘When God at first created man’. It is annotated as being of relevance at various times of the year, not specific to Christmas. Gundry arranges it for soprano, alto, tenor and bass. It is scored in G major (session version tends to be in D major) and is complete with 13 verses and a chorus. Rhythmically the version we play today is pretty true to Gundry’s arrangement of the melody. Gundry notes that the words to the song are similar to those given in the carol collections of Davies Gilbert and William Sandys but this tune is quite different.

The lyrics are pretty heavy and Biblical, each verse taking you on a journey from Adam and Eve falling from grace to the immaculate conception of Mary to the birth and death of Jesus Christ.

As an instrumental tune it is very addictive and resonates beautifully when different melody instruments take it on in unison. I always hear bells. The major sixth interval in the first phrase sets off the whole tune, without which it would sound quite ordinary and unremarkable. As it is, it is great to have this tune back in circulation in contexts new.

Courtesy of Inglis Gundry, Now Carol We, Oxford University Press, 1966. Reproduction copy from Banks Music Publications (nd).
Excerpt of When God at first created man, the original name of Karol Korev.

Penzance Cornish Session new sets

Now that the Cornish session at the Admiral Benbow pub every Thursday, 8-10pm, has reached 6 months old some sets of tunes have really bedded in. We are creating fantastically energetic or contrasting lyrical sounds by experimenting with tune combinations using tempo or key changes.

Check out the current set list.

Most, although not all, tunes are played as they feature on the Cornish Music Resource website Kesson. There are some notable exceptions, for example, we play Pencarrow as a waltz not a jig as it appears on the tunery. You can find our version in Neil Davey’s Fooch! (no. 53). We play it after Can Jack.

Some things have become a tradition already. You can expect that we will always start with our furry set which is readily growing and has now reached 5 tunes in alternating keys and rhythms:

Super furry set

Duke of Cornwall finale

We always end with the Duke of Cornwall’s Reel (G) played pretty briskly. We don’t have many fast reels in the repertoire so this is a great way to end and always a crowd pleaser.


The dance tune sets remain crowd and musician favourites, for example the D dance set: Cornish Quickstep, Bolingey Furry (AAB), Giddy’s King Harry and Begone from My Window.

The classic pair of slow waltzes Breannick and Now the Summer is Over (Andy Davey) are also firm favourites, well known across Cornwall and played by several bands and dance groups.

We are also partial to a wide range of modal and minor key sets. A recent addition which is set to stay is a slow jig called An Diberdhyans (The Parting) paired with Mike O’ Connor’s Dons Bewnans both in E minor (this tune became so rapidly popular thanks to the Penzance session that it has also been adopted by dance group Tros an Treys and the Golowan Band). An A minor set with similar tempo change is An Dufunyans (The Awakening) followed by the snappy and speedier polka by Neil Davey, Ewon An Mor – both in A minor.

Other crowd pleasers include: St Just Cock Dance (G), an Old Cornish polka that we play slightly differently nowadays, and Raffidy Dumitz with Gelasma (Dm), both modern tunes written by Len Davies and Robin Holmes respectively.


Jigs are trickier to introduce to a completely new session as they are more demanding both in terms of learning tunes by heart and playing them fast. Cornish jigs tend to be played straight and even rather than with a lot of emphasis on the first and fourth beats of a 6/8 bar, or dotted triplets (although these do play a role in some Cornish jigs). It can be difficult to get a good bouncy and even sound. However when we do manage it, it is electric!

Two of our common jig sets are: Falmouth Gig (D), Bishop’s Jig (G) and Porthlystry (D), and the Petticoats set. These are two very old tunes found in the archives of Morval House near Looe. Thanks to their publication by Mike O’Connor we first introduced them to our dance group Tros an Treys last year, and then to the session. Petticoats Tight (D) is followed by Petticoats Loose (G minor). Neither are on Kesson yet.

Listen out for some new jig sets, with particular favourites such as Ker Syllan by Merv Davey and The Mallard (An Culyek Hos) as well as Forbidden Fruit (which was adapted from an early 19th century carol). All can be found on our current set list.


We play a couple of hornpipe sets that can vary. Currently you can always expect to play We Be (G), Tinner’s Fancy (D) and Causewayhead (G/D). Occasionally we will rest We Be and return to Cock in Britches (G).

Boscastle Breakdown always appears as the start of a three-tune set with Quay Fair (D) and Duncan Hunkin (G).

Coming up

We’d like to introduce some 5-steps (Kabm Pemp) into our regular sessions. So far we have tried Tansys Golowan (D) paired with Coer Elath (G) as well as Oll an Gerriow (Am) with Neidges Awarra (Em). You might also expect the return of some tunes that are being rested as well as the reworking of some sets. It can be difficult to balance the introduction of new tunes to a session while retaining a critical mass of tunes most people can have a go at. Two sets that I predict will become new favourites is a pair of hornpipes called Travelling with Strangers/Waiting for a Bus (D/G) and Polperro Furry which goes very nicely after the haunting Descent (D minor) by Steph Doble.

If you have any suggestions for new tunes and sets please do leave a comment.

Join us every Thursday, 8-10pm at the Admiral Benbow Pub, Chapel Street, Penzance.