Posts tagged ‘Cornwall’

December 20, 2020

Week 301 – Nowell, Nowell

A carol with strong connections to Cornwall. The version of ‘The First Nowell’ sung at carol services up and down the country for the last century or more is based on that printed by William Sandys in his Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833). Sandys commented

The carols contained in the Second Part, with the exception of the last four, are selected from upwards of one hundred obtained in different parts of the West of Cornwall, many of which, including those now published, are still in use. Some few of them are printed occasionally in the country, and also in London, Birmingham, and other places, as broadside carols; others have appeared, with some variation, in Mr. Gilbert’s collection, having been derived from similar sources; but a large portion, including some of the most curious, have, I believe, never been printed before.

This is one of those which had appeared – in a slightly different form – in Davies Gilbert’s 1822 publication Some Ancient Christmas Carols. Gilbert, from Helston in Conwall, had the carol from a manuscript prepared around 1816, and now with the Archives and Cornish Studies Service in Truro, A Book of Carols collected for Davies Gilbert Esq. M.P. and F.R.S. by John Hutchens.

Cecil Sharp only collected the song twice, both times in Cornwall, and on consecutive days. He noted this version from Mr Bartle Symons of Camborne on 10th May 1913. Mr Symons said he had learned it when he was a boy from a Mr Spargo. David Sutcliffe’s excellent new website Cecil Sharp’s People identifies this as most probably

Thomas Spargo, born 1811, a stonemason who married a widow Sally Bartle in the 1830s. She brought 3 boys and a girl to the marriage (by her first husband William Bartle). Although Sally died in 1862 and Thomas Spargo remarried, he continued to live near to the Bartle/Symons family. He did not die till 1888 and the link between the two families must have been maintained perhaps at Christmas time in the singing of this carol.


Nowell Nowell, as collected by Cecil Sharp from Bartle Symons

Nowell Nowell, as collected by Cecil Sharp from Bartle Symons

Sharp published the song, slightly amended, in the 1914 Journal of the Folk-Song Society. The American collector James Madison Carpenter had Mr Symon’s words in his collection, but he appears to have typed them out from the Journal. However he did encounter the carol several times on his visits to Cornwall, and you can hear cylinder and disc recordings made by Carpenter on the VWML site – for instance this recording of an unnamed singer from the late 1920s or early 1930s.

Had yesterday’s Magpie Lane concerts taken place yesterday, this carol would almost certainly have been in the programme (we left it out last year, so it was due for a comeback). We recorded it on our 2006 CD, Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell, and it’s been a regular part of our Christmas repertoire ever since. Having stood next to Ian Giles for so many years, I thought I probably wouldn’t have too much trouble learning the words, and this proved to be the case. But although I sing it in the same key as Ian, I found that I couldn’t sing it and play my normal concertina part. So I’ve switched to a different concertina, with different fingering, and that seemed to make things easier. It also helped to make this a bit less of a pale imitation of the Magpie Lane version. To distinguish it further, I decided to retain the 6/8 rhythm as noted by Sharp. This felt really awkward to start with – and, to be honest, I still prefer it in three-time – but I eventually settled into the new time signature. Just to cement the rhythm in my head, I prefaced the song with ‘The Rose’, one of many splendid morris tunes from the Oxfordshire Fieldtown tradition. Think of it as a Christmas rose.

The Rose / Nowell, Nowell

Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina

January 1, 2016

Week 228 – Padstow Wassail

A few days ago I was considering a temporary suspension of activity at A Folk Song A Week. I have a particularly busy month coming up, and no song recordings in my store (apart from the one I have saved for use as The Last Song On The Blog). But a recording window presented itself (i.e. the rest of the household were out for the day!) and I now have enough songs put by to last me into February. Moreover, prompted in part by a reminder from Jim Causley that there are twelve days of Christmas, and they’re a long way from being over, this song suggested itself as just right for New Year.

I knew it from a 1950s Peter Kennedy recording of Charlie Bate from Padstow, included on the Topic/Caedmon LP Songs of Ceremony (Volume 9 of the Folk Songs of Britain series). Some twenty years ago I suggested it as a possible Magpie Lane number, but at the time it met with little enthusiasm. Subsequently I’ve occasionally thought of trying it out as a solo piece, but never quite got round to it. On Monday, however, I found the tune going round my head so, in the evening, I listened to the Songs of Ceremony track to get the words down. What I had forgotten was that the LP only included a couple of verses before segueing into the Truro Wassail Bowl Singers singing the ‘Malpas Wassail’. A search of the web failed to turn up any further verses, although clearly Charlie Bate’s song is a version of this Cornish Wassail song (source not given) and this one from Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Song Book (1929). I emailed a query to the TradSong list, and by 10 next morning had been sent a different Kennedy recording of Charlie Bate, made in 1956, and included on the Folktrax cassette West Country Wassailers.

This recording had six verses which I quickly transcribed and set about singing. As I had anticipated, the song sits beautifully in C on a C/G anglo, and by 11.30 that morning I had recorded the song for inclusion here.


Charlie Bate

Charlie Bate

Charlie Bate was an important figure in Padstow, and a man with a lovely, gentle singing style. You can hear a number of recordings of Charlie singing if you search the British Library Sounds website. I’m making no promises, but I’m greatly tempted to learn his I was the lover of Lady Chatterly!

Given the state of the world, it might be unduly optimistic to wish everyone peace, happiness and prosperity, but I hope at least that making and listening to music may bring you joy in 2016 – in fact, I can do no better than to repeat the traditional blessing

Joy, health, love and peace
Be all here in this place

Padstow Wassail

Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

April 26, 2014

Week 140 – Down By The Shannon Side

I learned this song from the Cornish traveller Charlotte Renals, who is featured along with her sisters Betsy Renals and Sophie Legg on the Veteran cassette Catch me if you Can (now available in expanded form as VT119CD). Her version has several two and three line verses. I’ve filled in the gaps, and put the verses in a more logical order, with the help of a very complete set of words collected by Cecil Sharp in August 1905 from Captain Robert Lewis of Minehead in Somerset.

In Charlotte Renals’ version the male protagonist is Captain Walters. A perfectly respectable name. But in Captain Lewis’ version the bounder’s name is Captain Thunderbold:

My name is Captain Thunderbold
It’s a name I will ne’er deny

Well why would you deny a name like that? And how could I resist including it in the song?

Looking at the numerous broadside versions available via Broadside Ballads Online  the name seems to be universally given as ‘Captain Thunderbolt’ and this is the title Phoebe Smith has for her version of the song.

The Shannon Side – broadside from the Bodleian collection, printed by H. Such, between 1863 and 1885.

The Shannon Side – broadside from the Bodleian collection, printed by H. Such, between 1863 and 1885.

I had let this song lapse for several years, but recently relearned it, and I must say it’s good to have the song back in my repertoire.

Down By The Shannon Side


March 3, 2013

Week 80 – The Farmer in Leicester

A song which seems to have been widespread in the English tradition, under a variety of titles. The farmer can hail from Leicester, Chester, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Sheffield, Devonshire… although why the song is named after the farmer at all is a mystery, when it’s daughter who does all the work.

Betsy Renals, from the Veteran website; photo courtesy of Vic Legg.

Betsy Renals, from the Veteran website; photo courtesy of Vic Legg.

I learned this version from a recording of Vic Legg’s auntie, Betsy Renals, made by Pete Coe in 1978. Pete’s recordings of Betsy and her two sisters – all good singers – are  available on Catch me if you can on the Veteran label. I have the original cassette album, but actually there’s now an expanded CD release. The Veteran website has a good summary which I shan’t try to improve on:

Betsy Renals, Charlotte Renals and Sophie Legg were born into one of the best-known West Country travelling families, the Orchards. They were 78, 77 and 60 years old respectively in 1978 when these recordings were made.

Their early life was spent travelling the lanes of North Cornwall hawking haberdashery from their horse drawn wagon Their songs were passed down through their family or learnt at way-side meetings with other travelling families around the camp fire, which could also be the occasion for a step dance often just to mouth music, called ‘tuning’.

This fine collection includes well known folk songs, sentimental and comic songs as well as some rarely recorded narrative ballads.

I’ve not heard the CD, but three quarters of the tracks were on the original cassette, and both the songs and the singing are a treat.

Mike Yates’ notes say that this song dates back to the eighteenth century; and also include this interesting comment:

According to the folklorist Sam Richards, Betsy’s song was used by Gypsy singers to establish boundaries when they came into contact with non-Gypsies; the Travellers feeling that, like the heroine of the song, they too were equal to any potential threat that might develop.

This is one of very few traditional songs where I’ve felt the need to compose an extra verse. Somehow “She’s counted the money twice over / There were three thousand pounds if not more” didn’t seem a satisfactory ending, so I’ve added another, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, verse at the end.

The Farmer in Leicester

December 9, 2012

Week 68 – Lo! The Eastern Sages Rise / Hark Hark What News

In Under the Greenwood Tree Thomas Hardy describes how a bunch of church band musicians found that their services were no longer required. The same thing was happening in country churches all over the country, as reforming parsons, fired up with the evangelical zeal of the Oxford Movement – and a desire to make their parishes more respectable – got rid of the old, independent-minded musicians, and replaced them with an organ, or a harmonium, or a barrel-organ, and Hymns Ancient and Modern. In many places the old way of singing just disappeared, but it survived in carol-singing traditions in a few places, most notably in certain South Yorkshire villages and at Padstow in Cornwall. The main difference between  the traditions in those places is that in Padstow they go out carol-singing in the streets, while in villages around Sheffield the carollers have found a welcome home in the pub – places like the Fountain Inn at Ingbirchworth, the Royal Hotel at Dungworth, and the Traveller’s rest at Oughtibridge.

I learned ‘Hark Hark What News’ from a wonderful LP, A People’s Carol, which featured recordings made in the 1970s by Ian Russell at those three pubs, and – in this case – the Black Bull at Ecclesfield. Like all Leader and Trailer LPs, A People’s Carol has long been unavailable, but those traditions and others from the same geographical area are represented on a CD released on the Smithsonian Folkways label, English Village Carols: Traditional Christmas Carolling from the Southern Pennines. ‘Hark Hark’ is on that CD, but it’s the earlier recording which would be one of my Desert Island Discs. Partly because of the presence of a local brass band on verses 1 and 3; but also because, as the singing dies away, a voice off-mic can be heard to say, in a broad Yorkshire accent, “grand old one!”. It is a grand old one, and that comment somehow seems to capture the value which people assign to their local community carolling traditions and, indeed, the importance of all such community traditions, whether involving song, dance, drama or bizarre old customs which are often just plain daft!

Ian Russell’s notes to the Folkways CD say that this

is the only carol to be repeated during the evening, “Hark, Hark! For latecomers.” It has been sung in the village for as long as anyone can remember. The music is attributed to John Hall of Sheffield Park, a blacksmith who dies in the poorhouse in 1794, and it was probably included in his “Selection of Sacred Music on the Nativity” performed at the Hospital Chapel, Sheffield, 26 December 1792. The text appears in broadsheets and chapbooks from the early nineteenth century, but its author is unknown.

'The star of Bethlehem', printed by W. Wright. (Birmingham) between 1831 and 1837; from the Bodleian collection ‘The star of Bethlehem’, printed by W. Wright. (Birmingham) between 1831 and 1837; from the Bodleian collection

‘Lo! The Eastern Sages Rise’ is sung at Coal Aston in Derbyshire, but this version is derived from the way it is still sung today at Padstow.  I was first introduced to the carol, and Cornish carolling traditions, by Graham Kirkham in the late 1980s. It was included on the Veteran tape Rouse, Rouse, a collection of Doc Rowe’s recordings from Padstow released in 1988. That cassette was superseded a few years later by the CD Harky, Harky. I’m not sure if that’s still available, but if it is do try to get hold of a copy, as the singing (and the songs) are quite wonderful.

The carol words were written by Jehoiada Brewer (1752?-1817), a Congregational (Independent) minister at Queen Street Congregational Church, Sheffield and Carrs Lane Congregational Chapel, Birmingham; they are set to a tune by Samuel Stanley (1767-1822) of Birmingham. The words – including some verses not retained in oral tradition – can be found on two broadsides printed in Birmingham in the first half of the nineteenth century, and available from the Bodleian Library’s Broadside collection. In both cases the song is entitled The Star of Bethlehem, and the first line is given as “Lo! the Eastern image rise”.

The carol has strong connections with Cornwall: there was a version in Ralph Dunstan’s The Cornish Song Book (1929), and Dunstan notes

This Carol was formerly very popular in the Parishes of St. Agnes, Mithian, and Perranzabuloe — and is still sung there. Variants of the tune exist, with interpolations. The version given here is from the most reliable MS. collections of 1840-1850.

It also travelled with Cornish miners to America – for instance to New Almaden in California, where many Cornish men worked in the quicksilver mines:

Besides singing in the mines, the Cornish miners would sing door to door beginning a week before Christmas. They sang songs popular in Cornwall, England, where they immigrated from, such as “Lo the Eastern Sages Rise,” “Hark What Music Fills Creation,” as well as the better known “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Afterwards, they would visit with the residents and share saffron cake and tea.

from the Almaden Times, December 22, 2005

The two recordings here are hot off the press – recorded at a Magpie Lane concert at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking. The term a capella is very loosely – and often erroneously used – these days. But given the acoustics of this church, I think we really were singing a capella last night – I have certainly not needed to added any reverb to these recordings!

We were, incidentally, very pleased to be joined on stage by former Magpie Marguerite Hutchinson, who had helped to organise the concert – thanks Marguerite.

Lo! The Eastern Sages Rise

Magpie Lane, recorded the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking, 8th December 2012.

Jon Fletcher, Sophie Thurman, Marguerite Hutchinson, Andy Turner, Ian Giles, Mat Green – vocals

Hark Hark What News

Magpie Lane, recorded the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking, 8th December 2012.

Jon Fletcher, Sophie Thurman, Andy Turner, Ian Giles, Mat Green – vocals