Someone once said that the Cornish national instrument was the voice and in former times that was certainly so. Wherever Cornish folk gathered, at home or in the distant mining camps of the world, at work or at leisure, they sang. With Methodism as the established church in this far flung corner of Britain, they certainly sang hymns when in chapel, when gathered at sporting occasions or going up and down the shaft of the mine – they sang, with each voice harmonising with the other quite naturally – they didn’t have to be taught to sing, it was their birthright. Particularly at Christmas time they sang Cornish Carols, songs known only in the far west. Interestingly, these are not truly Cornish at all but represent the remnants of the gallery music once sung throughout Britain before the advent of organs and suchlike in churches and chapels. They were collected by a Cornishman, Davies Gilbert who wrote them down in the eighteenth century when local ad hoc choirs visited his home at Tredrea Manor, near St Erth singing traditional Christmas songs. Often they had only two parts, the melody line and a bass part, then later Victorian musicians added other harmony lines. These were the origins of some of the most well-known British carols – The first Nowell, for example owes its survival and popularity to Davies Gilbert.
The Cornish also have a rich repertoire of folk songs which often reflected the occupations and pastimes of the peninsula – miner, fisherman and farmer, they all had their own songs about aspects of their daily life, though sadly not in the Celtic language.
Camborne folk still join as one to sing about that time in their history when “the ‘osses stood still and the wheels went around” as Trevithick’s first horseless carriage literally changed the history of the world and pubs fall silent throughout the county when someone strikes up the beloved “White Rose”.
Some songs, which are claimed by the Cornish, are not local in origin at all – the popular “Little Eyes” or “Little Lize” was recorded in the USA in the middle of the twentieth century and is said to have its origins in North America. Who knows, perhaps the regular passage of miners between America and Cornwall, saw its arrival on these shores. These songs continue to be written and sung by groups like the Camborne based “Proper Job”– the evergreen St Ives songs made popular in the twentieth century by the Barber family and more recent songs like the evocative “Cornish Lads” by Roger Bryant, made famous when it was written on the wall outside South Crofty when it closed.
Sadly, recent years have seen the decline of the sort of community singing once so popular in Cornwall and a group of Cornish people are setting out to reverse that trend and get people using their voices again. After a year of consolidation with their new Musical Director, Angela Renshaw, the Holman-Climax Male Voice Choir are embarking on a series of initiatives to raise the profile of singing in the community and to encourage everyone, whatever their age, to learn and sing the songs of the Cornish. They still perform in the traditional male voice venues of church and chapel but feel a great chunk of the population know little of the great choral traditions of their county.
Already renowned throughout Cornwall for her work with the Cornwall Boys Choir, Angela is at the forefront of a whole series of initiatives, starting in Cornish primary schools. Recently, she and a number of members of the Holman-Climax Choir went into Bodriggy School at Hayle to kick start the process and get both children and staff singing.
Choir member and Cornish Bard, David Oates, set the scene for the whole school by reminding them of the county’s long and illustrious history and focused on the story of The Mousehole Cat, which is essentially about the legend of Tom Bawcock, looking at its possible ancient origins around the shortest day of the year and the coming of light and the days of spring. After a brief explanation of dialect terms like “morgy” and “clunk”, the men sang the folk song, “Tom Bawcock’s Eve” and invited the whole group to try the simple melody. This was followed by another favourite of West Cornwall, “The Old Grey Duck”, sung to an old carol tune. The group also sang the beautiful four part harmony, “Calm is the Sea” to show what can be achieved with a little practice.
The junior boys and the choir members then participated in a workshop where the boys learned a piece well-known to the choir, “Goin’ to rise up singing” and sang the melody while the choir members provided the harmony.
After a most successful afternoon plans were laid to build on the foundations made and the choir hopes to continue supporting singing in local schools.
This is just just the start for Bodriggy, and other Cornish schools, with public participation with Holman-Climax as an initial goal – watch this space for a revival of that great Cornish tradition, starting with the young people of the county.