Penzance Cornish Music Session is one year old

It’s been a phenomenal year for the Penzance’s Cornish Traditional Music Session every Thursday night, 8-10pm, at the Admiral Benbow pub. Time for some thank yous, foremost to John Gallagher, session leader and founder for introducing us to incredible music and creating wonderful set lists; to Chris Morgan, landlord of the Benbow, for your hospitality and support, to Russell, manager of the Benbow, for looking after us too; to fellow musicians for being dedicated to turn up even in the coldest, darkest evenings; to the dancers for adding a bit of magic to the music; to our audiences who have come from far and wide but especially our regulars from our community whose support is so valued; and thanks and admiration to Lee J Palmer for documenting the session from its wintery beginnings to its summer madness. Enjoy these timeless images as we reflect on the last 12 months.

Join us!

Join the Penzance Cornish sessioners at their anniversary knees-up on Thursday 10th October, 8-10pm, at the Admiral Benbow pub, Chapel Street, Penzance. Free.

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

Already featured in Time Out magazine, Penzance’s weekly Cornish Trad Music Session at the Admiral Benbow pub in Chapel Street, has developed a bit of a cult following. Since starting up one year ago, the Thursday night Cornish Session has attracted hundreds of tourists and locals to the town’s most enigmatic Treasure Island themed boozer. 

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

“I’d rather be here than at Glastonbury”

Over the last year, happening upon the session has surprised and delighted. “I’d rather be here than at Glastonbury” one punter visiting from Truro said. From modest beginnings huddled in the downstairs bar, the Cornish Session has grown in popularity with the busiest nights in the summer attracting upwards of 50-60 people with anywhere between 6 and 12 local musicians joyously playing the night away. Session organisers estimate nearly 1,500 people have enjoyed historical and contemporary Cornish tunes (and the odd song) in its first year.

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

“I never knew Cornwall had its own music”

It all started on 4th October 2018, when a group of friends who played melodeons, fiddles, mandolin, bouzouki, concertinas, whistle and recorder, autoharp, and occasional guitar gathered in the Admiral Benbow on Chapel Street in Penzance to play Cornish jigs, furries, reels, marches waltzes, polkas and airs. Many people are surprised to hear that Cornwall has a distinctive musical tradition that is part of the wider world of Celtic music. The repertoire of tunes is large and varied, some of them new tunes inspired by Cornish people, places and themes, others deeply historical.

“’I never knew Cornwall had its own music’ is a phrase we often hear. People express surprise that we have our own music and that we are part of a living tradition. They often think it must be Scottish or Irish. We might play one tune that is over 200 years old followed by one composed for the tradition only a few years ago.”

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

The session was originally the idea of local musical legend Len Davies, who sadly died in 2015. His friend, melodeon player John Gallagher, approached fellow musicians Tehmina and Tom Goskar in the summer of 2018 to see if they were interested in supporting him in starting a new Cornish traditional music session.

“I’ve loved the Celtic music traditions of Ireland and Scotland all my life and when, more recently, I discovered that there is an equally rich Celtic music tradition right here in Cornwall, I was determined that it should be explored and celebrated where I now live in Penzance.”

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

“Cornish traditional music is normally heard at Cornish festivals such as Golowan, Montol, St Piran’s Day, feast days, and at small dance-led events in halls across the Duchy. We wanted a public and easy to reach venue. We didn’t hesitate to go for the Benbow, with its unique maritime décor and a destination for visitors to Penzance. We knew our ‘Cornish soundtrack’ could make the place come alive.”

Tom Goskar. 

Chris Morgan, landlord and owner of the Admiral Benbow, offered them a Thursday evening slot. 

“It’s great to see the Benbow rocking again to some lively and fun Cornish music. People come here for the salty dog maritime vibes and the Cornish Sessions are a really good fit.”

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

“Better than the Fishermen’s Friends”

The often fast and foot-tapping music is regularly accompanied by spontaneous dancing, either freeform or in the style of traditional Cornish dancing led by local dancers, making the event into a lively evening reminiscent of the troyls and dances that took place across Cornwall in years gone by.

The musicians have evolved into a group with a distinctive ‘trad’ style whose sound has captured the imagination. “Better than the Fishermen’s Friends,” a merry party from Birmingham cheekily remarked to us after one particularly lively session. Many of the musicians also play for other Penzance groups such as the Raffidy Dumitz band, Golowan band and dance groups Tros an Treys and Penzance Guizers.

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

“Most of us are not formally trained in music, we have learned our instruments ourselves and play for the love of the tunes. I love our instinctive way of playing together. Sometimes we sound like a great big crashing marching band, and other times we sound almost orchestral. The fact we mostly play back to back tunes in sets of 2,3 and even 6, creates a soundscape that is truly unique.”

Tehmina Goskar, session co-organiser.

“I just followed the music”

The Penzance Cornish Session is voraciously photographed and filmed, particularly by visitors from abroad. Session organisers have estimated people from over a dozen nations have experienced their music, including France, Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, USA, Canada, Spain, Italy, Australia, New Zealand and China. Two film students from University College London visited in August especially to film the session in 360 degrees to share the experience with elderly people in care homes. It has even featured in a German radio broadcast made by visiting sailors on a round Britain tour.  

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

“I’d heard about it but I didn’t know where to find it, and then I just followed the music,” a traveller said.

Local photographer Lee J Palmer has become a fan of the Cornish Traditional Music Session too. Since the cold early months of 2019 when the session was held next to the fire at the front of the pub, Lee has created a unique visual documentary. In stunning black and white photojournalistic style, his photos capture the joys and realities of this very Cornish event. 

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

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.

Highlights

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

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.

Hornpipes

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.

Penzance Cornish Session is six months old!

On Thursday 4th April the Penzance Cornish Session, a weekly pub session dedicated to Cornish traditional music, turns 6 months old. We held our first session on Thursday 4th October 2018, and it’s been held every week since, with just a break for Christmas. It’s been great fun so far, and we’re looking forward to the summer with all its visitors to Penzance, and sharing the wonderful tunes from Cornwall with tourists and locals alike in the Admiral Benbow.

There’s a great core of regular musicians, but we welcome more to join us. The session is led by melodeon player John Gallagher, along with the Cornish Trad authors, with members of Tros an Treys, Golowan Band, Penzance Guizers, Craggs Law (and several of us are in several of these!). We’ve had melodeons, concertinas, fiddles, mandolins, mandolas, bouzoukis, plus the occasional guitar and autoharp. Some musicians have joined us while on holiday and have picked up a few tunes with us along the way.

Have a listen to one of the sets recorded in the pub in November 2018. The Cornish Session is every Thursday 8-10pm. Come along sometime!

Find out more about the Penzance Cornish Session.

Marc Cragg and Andrew Law of Cragg’s Law playing at the Penzance Cornish Session
1830s flutina at the Penzance Cornish Session
Our second session in October 2018 saw the Admiral Benbow packed out with the German crew from the nearby filming of a Rosamund Pilcher episode.