An old Cornish air – O what is that upon thy head?

An old tune remembered from Nancledra near St Ives and Penzance in west Cornwall from around 1852. It was published in Journal of the Folk Song Society, 1905, No. 7, p.94. We play an instrumental version here with autoharp (Laura Luing), whistle (Paul Antonelli) and violin (Tehmina Goskar). Recorded separately then mixed and mastered by Laura Luing, May 2020.

This beautiful modal air has been adopted into the Cornish traditional music canon. A single verse was remembered by a certain Joseph White in the mid-19th century before it was ‘collected’ and published by the English Folk Song Society at the turn of the 20th century. The lyrics probably come from a hymn sung at church or chapel. In Cornwall hymn music could be hyper-local to village churches and chapels, with one singing verses of praise to a very different tune to another. If anyone reading this is good at identifying the origins of hymn verses like this let us know.

O, what is that upon thy head

So dazzling and so light?

O, what is that upon they breast

Which shines so clear and bright?

Upon my head there is a glorious Hope

Upon my breast my shield

And with my sword I mean to fight

Until I’ve gained the field.

In Inglis Gundry’s Canow Kernow 1966, two further Kernewek (Cornish language) verses are added to make more of the tune and the original English verse is interpreted into Cornish. Gundry drew Biblical inspiration from Ephesians 6:3-17, though whether the original verse had any connection to this is uncertain. The tune may also be familiar to Dalla fans. It appears on their 2004 album More Salt under a new name, Nancledra, after the place where the tune was collected.

In this version we were playing around with melodies and harmonies, separately and then decided to try and put a short version together as we enjoyed the combination of whistle, autoharp and violin carrying a background harmony. An impromptu and welcome bit of creativity in the early weeks of the pandemic lockdown.

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