An invented tradition? Cornish traditional music in a modern context

Cornish music is a big part of my life. I bought my first mandolin in May 2015, and began to learn to play it by ear. Since then I have experienced an exciting voyage of discovery, getting to know the music, learning to play it, and becoming curious about the history of Cornish tunes. Through playing in a community band, a dance band, at Cornish events, and from meeting other musicians who play the Cornish repertoire, I have found myself part of a passionate community who love and care for the music of our Duchy.

In just four years I have seen interest in Cornish music grow. I know many people who, upon learning that there is a large repertoire of Cornish tunes, not just the small pool that are played at festival events, have embraced and learned them. Many of us travel around Cornwall to meet with others to play. It’s exciting and fun. We don’t pretend to be part of an unbroken chain whose musical roots stretch back, unbroken, into the depths of a manufactured Celtic past. We play as a living tradition, playing tunes from the 18th century up to new compositions influenced by older ones. We feel part of something special, a scene with incredible passion and energy, that even has its own divisions and differing opinions.

Each week we play at a pub session in Penzance that plays Cornish traditional music. We helped to start this session in October 2018 as part of a dual purpose; to get together with friends to play the music we enjoy, and to give other people – locals and tourists alike – a chance to hear the Cornish repertoire. Sometimes we have as many as 15 musicians, and an audience of 60+ people. Sometimes, in the winter, it’s just us.

The criteria for what we class as “Cornish” is also up to us. There is no rule book. Broadly speaking, we’re happy to play it if the tune is:

  • included in one of the tune books kept by the larger Cornish houses (based on the findings of Mike O’Connor)
  • noted by dancing masters such as John Old of Par
  • has been collected in Cornwall by one of the well-known tune collectors of the 19th / early 20th century
  • recorded by the Old Cornwall Societies
  • discovered in an archive
  • written by a well-known Cornish composer in the past
  • newly composed with the direct intention of being a Cornish tune (which may draw influence from older ones, although this isn’t always the case)
  • associated with Cornwall (e.g. Duke of Cornwall’s Reel)

Music has been an important part of people’s lives in the past, in the days before mass media. A trawl through the British Newspaper Archive will reveal articles that mention music being played on the streets, on the beaches, in pubs, fish cellars, at funerals, feast days, and indeed any occasion with an excuse to play it. And people still do.

The concept of a Cornish session, that plays only Cornish tunes, is of course a recent one. In the past people would have played whatever tunes were popular at the time, wherever they came from. Cornwall’s geographic position, jutting out into the Atlantic, along with its many ports, mean that, along with mineral exports, it was a convenient place for ships of all sizes to stop and restock supplies and water. Port towns and villages would have temporarily accommodated people from England, Ireland, Wales, France, Spain, and others. Where there are people, there is music. I can imagine that local tunes mixed with imported ones. Some tunes stayed, and perhaps some were exported. Taverns and inns were natural places to play and hear music the world over. But there were probably always local favourites too.

There was less of the music in pubs after the arrival of the jukebox, but it was still played at traditional events, village fêtes, and processions. In recent years there has been a movement to bring Cornish music back into places where it can be enjoyed by more people, and encourage more to take it up.

Some of the books of Cornish tunes. The earliest here is Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Dialect and Folk Songs from 1932, reprinted in 1972. The most recent is the updated Golowan Band Tunes from 2019. Mike O’Connors books pick out tunes from 18th and 19th century manuscripts from Cornwall.

A few rare recordings of traditional music from the regions were made by the BBC in the 1940s, notably at Boscastle in Cornwall where William Hocken and the Tintagel and Boscastle Players, along with Mr Dangar’s Trio performed a number of tunes that were either Cornish, or had become adopted as such. Pinning down exactly where an old tune came from originally is often a rabbit hole that you’ll never emerge from.

I regard the tunes on this recording as both ‘traditional’ and ‘Cornish’. The musicians from Boscastle and Tintagel in the 1940s were playing the tunes they always had done. In the 1960s new tunes were being written for dancing, such as Heva (composed by Mr H Whipps of St Mawgan). In the early 1970s you could still hear Cornish tunes at traditional events such as St Ives Feast, Padstow May Day, Helston Flora Day and many others around the Duchy.

By the late 1970s, through the work of the Davey brothers Merv, Neil, Andy and Kyt, amongst others, a new-found energy emerged to track down and play lesser-known Cornish tunes. The establishment of the annual Lowender Peran festival in 1978 has helped to grow awareness of Cornish music, and foster a living tradition where new ones can be written and old ones rediscovered.

The Cornish traditional music scene has been the subject of academic study, and healthy academic critique (more on that soon). To me, there is no doubt that Cornish traditional music is very much a living tradition.

Is Cornish music Celtic music?

In 1904 the Celtic Congress declared Cornwall a Celtic Nation. If you go by that definition alone, then yes, it is. I am under no illusion that Cornish music can be traced back into a misty Celtic past with Iron Age roots. It can’t. But I’m not sure where else can. Much of the fast ‘trad’ sound you hear today in Scotland and Ireland evolved in the 20th century.

Visitors to our Cornish session in Penzance often ask if the music we’re playing is Irish or Scottish – to some of them it might sound similar, and our instruments are certainly similar (fiddles, whistles, mandolin, bouzouki, melodeon etc). We’ve never had someone say that it sounds English, for example. We don’t knowingly play our music in any other style than our own, and we don’t try to force any particular ‘sound’. We all play in a style that comes naturally and suits the music.

As a musician playing Cornish music I have four centuries of tunes available to me. I can hear recordings of tunes that I play today made before I was born. It’s not an invented tradition, but one that has evolved. Also, the music allows me to express my Cornish identity. Traditions should be defined by the people that take part in them, and thus to me, I play Cornish traditional music.