For music knows no bounds

Cornish music absorbs it all, celebrating not isolation but connection with other countries and cultures.

The Cornish Trad ‘About‘ page

We began blogging about Cornish traditional music alongside our own musical journey learning and playing tunes from Cornwall. We’ve always been ‘practitioners’ first. At first we learned and played what we were told was Celtic Cornish music. And some of it could well be described that way. Identity is a complex subject.

The music of a particular region of any country is mainly pretty difficult to define. Where there are people there are variations. I don’t think that even now, after learning hundreds of tunes, that, if pushed down the pub for a convincing and succinct definition of Cornish traditional music, that I could provide one.

Cornwall undoubtedly has some historical tunes that are – so far – unknown elsewhere. There is a thriving community of Cornish musicians writing new tunes. The new tradition of ‘5/4s’ with their accompanying ‘5-step’ hand-in-hand dances is a recent creation, but hundreds of people have adopted it as their own and travel around Cornwall to dances called Nos Lowen. It’s a friendly community, many of whom take part in Breton exchanges and love exploring the historical and linguistic connections. And today, there is a very real musical connection.

However, as we have begun to explore music from other places – English, Irish, Scottish, Manx, and may more from continental Europe – we realise now that some of ‘our’ Cornish tunes are well-known elsewhere, sometimes with different names. We’ll likely never know where the tunes originated. Cornish imports or English interlopers? Just enjoy them.

Whatever your views on Cornwall as a Celtic nation may be, other parts of the UK – England too – have their own unique tunes only known, or traditionally played, in their locality. Our neighbouring county of Devon has lots of its own too, sharing several of the main 19th century sources (such as Sabine Baring-Gould’s Songs of the West) used to discover those played and sung in Cornwall.

What we celebrate here is the Cornish repertoire. Music traditionally played here, and the ways that we have come to play it. We find it fascinating rather than challenging if we find out that a tune once thought to be unique to a small village is known by different names in many different countries.

It is also easy to feel cheated to find out that a tune with a name in Kernewek – the Cornish language – is a recent translation, especially if the tune is also known elsewhere. Some have labelled it appropriation. But people are free to do this, especially if they are part of the Cornish speaking community (many Cornish musicians speak some Kernewek).

As with any ‘folk’ tradition though, sometimes tall tales become accepted truth. A Cornish tune with a Cornish name must, therefore, be Cornish. Sometimes this is done consciously to fit an agenda. We won’t shy away from doing our research to see if this is really is the case.

If people travel, music travels

In truth, lots of pre-1900 tunes in the Cornish repertoire can be found in England, Ireland and Scotland too. And not every tune with a reference to Cornwall, or a Cornish place name, is from here. It’s likely that some Cornish tunes have found their way into the traditions of other countries or regions too, with their origins forgotten. There are tunes that, after exploring Playford’s The Dancing Master, have a distinct familiarity about them. Some people are disappointed to find this out. But we find it exciting – for music knows no bounds.

Cornwall in the 19th century and earlier had an incredibly busy shipping industry. Ships sailed from the ports of (to name the busiest) Falmouth, Fowey, Penzance, St Ives and Hayle, to Bristol and London (daily), Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France, Spain, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and many ports in the Baltic Sea. Some went even further, taking emigrating miners to Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada. And of course, shipping came the other way.

Cornish ports were part of a global network of trade routes. If not destination or origin ports, then stops along a much longer route. People and goods moved about by sea as inland routes were slow, rough, and uncomfortable. Look at 19th century newspaper reports from port towns and you’ll find that they were often lively cosmopolitan places. And where there’s people, there’s music. And where there’s people from many different places, there’s music from different places.

Shipping destinations and arrivals at Penzance, January 1823 (Royal Cornwall Gazette, Saturday 25 January 1823)

Just this one day, 23rd January 1823, and just one port – Penzance – sees shipping arrive from England, Wales, Ireland and Norway (Dram/Drammen) and sailing for Italy, France and Jersey. I bet there was a musician or two amongst the many crews.

People then weren’t much different from us today. If they heard a tune and liked it, and they could play an instrument, they might learn it and play it regularly. If a name isn’t remembered, it might be given one. There’s no regard for the tune’s origin. And if the tune’s a cracker, it’ll stick around, evolve a bit, and be played for generations.

That’s the absolute beauty of the ‘folk process‘. It’s the same for anywhere in the world. Take a listen to the Cornish tunes Newlyn Reel and Turkey Rhubarb and you would be forgiven for wondering about their origins (possibly Poland).

Newlyn Reel. View it directly on YouTube and look at the comments and speculations on the tune’s origins.

Rather than search for that elusive, untouched and ‘pure’ Cornish music in a distinct Cornish style (which doesn’t exist) we should just get on and play the tunes traditionally played in Cornwall, wherever they originated. We’ve got hundreds and hundreds of traditional tunes in the Cornish repertoire, with so many that rarely get played. There are also hundreds of recently composed ones, including a few recent imports (I’m looking at you, Cornish March!).

Some people may want to play with a Celtic style with complex ornamentations, newly composed tunes may well fit in with Irish or Scottish trad (or older ones may be part of those traditions too), or, shock-horror, play those that are also known in England in full-on English country dance mode. It’s all fine. Identify as you wish.

I recently added the following to the Cornish Trad ‘About‘ page:

We recognise that ‘music knows no bounds’ and that ‘traditional music of’ does not equate as ‘native to’. The latter can be hard and sometimes fruitless to prove. The music of Cornwall, like its people, has been influenced by its geography – jutting out into the sea – and its role throughout the past as a place to start, stop, or break a journey by ship or boat. A glance at the shipping section of a Cornish newspaper from the 19th century is enlightening; the list of regular destinations as well as the home ports of visiting ships is a very long and varied one. There’s also the long land border with England. Cornish music absorbs it all, celebrating not isolation but connection with other countries and cultures.

Here’s to celebrating those connections through our wonderful Cornish musical repertoire, and to playing those lesser-known tunes to keep them alive. For music knows no bounds!

Visit the Cornish National Music Archive for what is fast becoming a formidable list of tunes of Cornwall’s traditional music.

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