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.