As part of the Hypatia Trust’s Women of Cornish Music project we had planned to deliver a workshop in Penzance on 4 April. In a little under a week I converted the workshop into a webinar and delivered it on 11 April. It was quite an experience, a slightly out of body experience, but I was thrilled at the numbers of people who attended live and those that signed up to watch the recording afterwards. People attended from far and wide – a much more diverse audience than had we done the in-person workshop. People tuned in from Nairobi, Jeddah, Littleton, Helsinki, Cardiff as well as those from Cornwall.
I enjoyed reading the chat that was ongoing throughout the webinar, participants remembering, providing interesting reactions and tit-bits of information. It was really gratifying to follow it.
Gwaryoryon (Playing People). L-R Hilary Coleman (Clarinet), Liz Davies (Accordion), Jo Tagney (Fiddle)
(courtesy of Hilary Coleman).
I interviewed Hilary Coleman and Frances Bennett over Zoom a few weeks ago about their journeys in Cornish traditional music. I asked them about their views of being performers, composers, teachers and leaders of a stellar list of groups and movements on the Cornish Trad scene.
This interview is already an important historical document. It is about so much more than their personal experiences that is relevant to anyone interested in Cornish traditional music and its history. It covers their early life in music, learning instruments, being part of seminal Cornish Trad bands such as Gwaryoryon, the Jack and Jenny Band and Sowena. How Dalla emerged from these groups, why the Nos Lowen (Happy Night) movement started, how Bagas Crowd, Cornwall’s mighty fiddle group started and continues to grow, how they go about composing new music for the tradition including the creation of kabm pemp (5-steps), and finally some fantastic insights into gender and challenging the archetype of the “young Cornish working class man.”
These two women are two of my great inspirations when exploring and playing Cornish music and it was a real privilege to have had this opportunity to capture their stories. Meur ras bras!
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 2 – the 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 .”
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 51project 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.
From Truro to Australia
There seemed to be and indeed is more music than the reconstructed tune known today. It was at this moment we also looked into the different search results you get when searching for “Mary Kelynack” and “Mary Callinack.” The former more aligned to the modern spelling of the little hamlet outside St Just and a surname of West Penwith. A quick search for “Mary Callinack’s Polka” revealed a digitised version of the whole piece of music written by Henry Goodban in tribute to Mary’s story. It is in the digital collection of the National Library of Australia called Trove. The Australian edition was published in Sydney, suggesting Mary Kelynack’s fame spread to other parts of the globe, indeed where Cornish diaspora communities may have appreciated her story.
The polka is written for piano to a classic 19th century polka rhythm. It is an instrumental piece to be danced to and no song is associated with it, extending to some 85 bars with a four-bar introduction. As far as the original tune compares with the version we have now adopted into the Cornish tradition, they are pretty faithful to each other in style, key and tempo. We now have the oompah of the bass part to play around with and there are far more decorations and flourishes in Goodban’s version.
Incidentally, Henry Goodban was a well-known composer of ‘light’ dance music in the mid-19th century. He was known for composing the Fire-fly Polka and the Wood Nymphs Polka. Polkas were very popular to dance to at this time, apart from the bopping music, they were racy and permitted close contact as part of the dance. I can’t find out much about who Henry Goodban was, except a composer of popular music of the same period. A notice in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser of Saturday 22 November 1851 mentions the publication of the Mary Callinack Polka by Goodban, describing it as “beautifully illustrated in colours, with a drawing from the life of the now celebrated Old Cornish fisherwoman.”
The portrayal of Mary Kelynack on the cover of “An Aged Dame of Cornish Fame” points to another piece of music written for her, this time by S. Nelson. The Song of the Cornish Fish Wife was probably written by the composer Sidney Nelson, shortly after the Great Exhibition in 1851 (dating on popular publications at the time was patchy to say the least so we can only guess). He was a prolific composer and writer of songs. For another time to get hold of the music and song lyrics.
Free webinar coming up on women in Cornish traditional music
If you are interested in the stories of other women who have shaped Cornish traditional music, head on over to my free crowdcast webinar:
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.
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.