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This interview is already an important historical document.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.