On 8 May 2018 we made it to our first Helston Flora Day (also known as Furry Day). We gathered at 6.30am at Penzance Bus Station for the first bus to Helston. When we arrived we headed for breakfast at the Coinage Hall pub before wandering around town on the tail of the Hal-an-Tow, a performance which melds late medieval interest in Robin Hood, St George, Dragon, hobby horse, animal, sea creatures and even a St Piran character. I’m not sure you get more promenade theatre than this. The whole town is the stage and we’re in the round.
Doorways and windows decorated with May (sycamore), other greenery and copious flowers.
We then awaited the 10 o’clock children’s dance to hear the famed Helston Town Band play its signature tune. I can only associate Flora Day with the sound of the addictive bassline played by trombonists and tubas. As with other long musical processions the melody somehow winds its way through drums and bass. After enjoying the festivities we retired to the Blue Anchor (about 10.30am) and were permitted to play some tunes so long as we downed instruments when the parade came past. It had started to rain and the pub quickly filled up. So fuelled by Spingo we played all sorts (though not Helston Furry) to an attentive audience of smartphone photos and videos–and even a party who had come especially to Flora Day from the Faroe Islands. One memorable moment was being asked if we took requests. Asking what it was, he said, “Can you play St Just Cock Dance.” So we did, and he did too, with shouts of “Culyek! Culyek!”
The ancient-ness of Flora Day is never under-stated, with the Helston Furry Dance taking up the baton from the Hal-an-Tow and continuing through the day with dances at 7am (Early Morning), 10am (children’s dance always described as popular!), Midday and Evening (around 5pm). How an entire day’s soundtrack is constructed around two tunes is quite brilliant and points to the significance of specific music to specific places and occasions in the Cornish tradition (much like Padstow May Day).
In the week I received one of the regular Museum of Cornish Life newsletters. The description of Flora Day from the museum point of view is completely wonderful, authentic, a testimony to how something like Helston Flora Day is impossible to ignore when you are part of the town. I wanted to share it in full here (with permission).
Since the start of May we have been turning our thoughts to Flora Day. Every year it is a highlight in the museum calendar. We normally celebrate by mounting an exhibition focusing on our wonderful collection of Midday Dance dresses. The day before Flora Day a team of volunteers assemble to decorate the museum with bunting and flower archways. This provides a colourful welcome for the Town Band and Dancers of the Furry Dance.
On Flora Day itself the the museum may be closed but we are not empty instead hosting a morning tea party for our volunteers, supporters and Holifield Farm Project. Holifield Farm offers day support to adults with additional needs and the museum provides a quite space so they can attend Flora Day.
As 12 noon approaches the main role of the museum is to have the doors ready to be opened so the Helston Town Band and Midday Dance can pass through the museum on their route around the town. Having the Dance in the museum is a singularly magical experience and when the doors are closed, by the Stewards, the building seems to buzz with energy and we are all renewed.Annette MacTavish, Director of Museum of Cornish Life, Helston, May 2020.
Much like the Padstow May Day Song, the tune and words of the Hal-an-Tow have been much commented on and studied, variously by folklorists, scholars of folk music and dance, and historians. There seems to be much more interest in the words than the tunes so if you are that way inclined, head to the archive and library catalogues. Fortuitously I was flicking through a newly-purchased working copy of Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Song Book. Lyver Canow Kernewek (1929) when a slip of paper (undated) with the lyrics of the Hal-an-Tow fell out. Dunstan comments at length on the lyrics and their ‘true’ form. At some point in the 1920s they undergo Morton-Nancisation (pp. 30-31). In Dunstan’s version we only get to “Rumble O” rather than the more familiar “Jolly rumble O.”
Inglis Gundry in Canow Kernow (1966) makes reference to a Nicholas Boson of Newlyn writing around 1660, describing the erection of a Maypole to strains of “Haile an Taw and Jolly Rumbleow!” (p.12) When you watch the video below you can hear it is still sung this way today. You hear the words chanted more than sung, with percussion such as side drums, and tambourines providing some sense of rhythm to the relentless May Horns and whistles.
Drums, fifes and fiddles
Reports from the newspaper archives contain some sense of the instruments that were played on Flora Day (drums, fifes, fiddles). A very early detailed description from 15 May 1802 (Royal Cornwall Gazette) gives us a sense of the occasion:
Our Flora-day seems to have lost none of its attractions. The first hour of the morning was ushered in with drums, fifes and fiddles. Various parties proceeded to the country, where they ravished the gardens and hedges of their sweets, decorated themselves in the spoils, passed a few hours in junketing, and then returned to the town, faddying it thro’ the streets. About ten o’clock, the Volunteers, commanded by Major Johns, proceeded through the Downs, where after going through various evolutions, they returned, and fired three vollies in the Coinage-hall-street. The town now began to fill with visitants in their holiday cloaths; who with the town’s people, faddied at intervals thro’ the streets, and regaled themselves with their friends till evening.Royal Cornwall Gazette, Saturday 15 May 1802.
In the early 19th century descriptions, of which there are a fair few in the newspapers, distinction isn’t made between the Hal-an-Tow and Furry Dance being separate things, but rather part of the same set of festivities bringing in the countryside to the town, and invariably ending up with spectacles and balls in the taverns and theatre. Royal Cornwall Gazette from 10 May 1823 describes:
Dancing however commenced at a very early hour, and the pleasures of the morning were greatly enhanced by the staff of the Cornwall Yeomanry Cavalry on duty, who had a public breakfast at the Guildhall… Returning from the field they immediately threw off the laborious duty of the soldier, and lightly trip’d the flora dance thro’ every street to the music of their excellent band.Royal Cornwall Gazette, 10 May 1823.
From those early descriptions it is interesting that the military seemed to take over leading the music (and eventually the regimented brass bands). This wasn’t always so. Royal Cornwall Gazette, 4 May 1855, describes Helston Flora Day with an excerpt from Murray’s Handbook for Devon and Cornwall (later published in 1859 and possibly serialised in the papers before then).
About nine in the morning, the people assemble at the Grammar School, and demand a prescriptive holiday, after which they collect contributions to defray the expenses of the revels and then proceed into the fields, when they are said to fadé into the country… and about noon return, carrying flowers and branches through the streets, and in and out of different houses… preceded by a fiddle playing an ancient air, called the “furry tune.” They also occasionally chant in chorus a traditional song, involving the history of Robin Hood, the King of the May.”Royal Cornwall Gazette, 4 May 1855.
Ralph Dunstan also speaks of “violins and other instruments” adding to the simple melody of the Helston Furry tune, “according to taste and fancy.” (Cornish Song Book (1929), p. 31). Tracing descriptions of Flora or Furry Day back into the 18th century, Mike O’Connor in Ilow Kernow 5, pt. 1. (in process, p. 94) cites Polwhele describing furry dancers in Helston dancing to the sound of a fiddle (History of Cornwall, vol. 1, ch. 3, 49pp., 1803). Fiddles certainly seemed to be the order of the day before then too, O’Connor shares a description in R.A. Warner’s A Tour Through Cornwall in the Autumn of 1808 (1809) 216pp.: “The unusual gaiety of the 1796 celebration is spoken of ‘with rapture’. He described the Hal an Tow as a chorus song sung by a large number of people. The main dance was then preceded by a fiddle playing an ancient traditional tune.”
The music of the Helston Furry tune we recognise today is synonymous with the repertoire of brass bands, in this case Helston Town Band. Davies Gilbert in the appendix of secular tunes published in 1823 (Some Ancient Christmas Carols, 2nd ed.) introduces the “Helston Forey,” forey or foray being one of the many variations of Furry, also Faddy, Flurry, Flora. He presents a treble and bass of the tune in Eb (p.79). It is immediately recognisable with some rhythmic variation from that which we hear the band play today. Davies Gilbert describes the Helston Furry tune as a “specimen of Celtic Musick” also heard in Ireland and Wales.
Davies Gilbert’s consciousness of a genre of music understood as Celtic is remarkable given the extensive modern-day critique of Cornish Celtic music having no real history. It also brings into question the appropriation of both Hal-an-Tow and the Furry Dance tune as part of a notional English tradition (claimed as the tunes were by Lucy Broadwood and the like (see also below). He continues:
In Cornwall it is almost peculiar to the town of Helston, where a Forey was annually celebrated up to recent times, with all the pantomime of a predatory excursion into the country, and a triumphant return of the inhabitants dancing to this air.Davies Gilbert, 1823.
Gilbert also comments on the festivities of 8 May in his day as being “some shadow of the festival… but with its nature totally changed, and its name obscured, by a fanciful allusion to Greek or Roman Mythology.” (p.79).
Uncle Jan Trenoodle’s description
The antiquarian William Sandys produced a number of books in the mid-19th century of a musical nature, including collections of Christmas carols and histories of Cornish customs (amongst other subjects such as violins). His pen name was Uncle Jan Trenoodle and under this pseudonym he published Specimens of Cornish Provincial Dialect in 1846. Maybe his playful name is why he hasn’t been taken seriously by subsequent scholars. We think his work is much under-estimated. Sandys’ description of the music and lyrics of Flora Day as well as its supposed origins has nevertheless been analysed and used ever since he published it.
He includes the lyrics of the Hal-an-Tow as he knew them (pp. 60-61) and calls it the “Furry-Day Song.” His description of the events on 8 May echo much of what we have gleaned from antiquarians and reports from newspapers (pp. 5-6). What makes Sandys’ analysis interesting is his picking out the difference between the lyrics of the Hal-an-Tow and the tune of the Furry Dance with versions known to him being mixed up, trying to adapt the words of the former to the tune of the latter. For clarity (he thought) he provided his version at the back of the book (pp. 106-8). Later students of Cornish music have been puzzled by Sandys naming of the Hal-an-Tow tune as “The Furry Day Song-Tune.” Dunstan (1929) reproduces this version as the Hal-an-Tow (p. 30) although he was less than complimentary about Sandys’ grasp on music. Just to clarify, Sandys only provides the music for what we know as the Hal-an-Tow and not the Helston Furry tune which Davies Gilbert provided (see above).
The Furry Dance tune, although most associated with Helston, was certainly not peculiar to it. The early 19th-century newspapers speak of the furry tune and furry dancing in Truro, for example. A beautifully detailed description of “Rejoicings in Truro” (looking at the date likely to be midsummer festivities) which included bands, music, dancing and feasting, and furry dancing:
As soon as the children had gone off, the Furry Dances commenced, (in which all classes joined without distinction,) and were kept up with unabated spirit to a late hour of the night, or rather an early hour in the following morning.Royal Cornwall Gazette, 2 July 1814.
Ralph Dunstan in Cornish Song Book-Lyver Canow Kernewek (p. 31) gives two simplified versions of Helston Furry, both in F, commenting:
Of all the variants of the melody of the Dance, that popular in the Truro district at any time during the past 100 years is the most simple and unadorned, and probably the most ancient.Ralph Dunstan, Cornish Song Book. Lyver Canow Kernewek, 1929, p. 31.
Dunstan goes on to say that the tune was often used for the lyrics of other songs, e.g. Southey’s Well of St. Keyne. One of our relatives, a baritone singer, commented on the refrain of the Helston Furry tune being clearly heard in Tallis’s Spem in Alia c.1570 !
Origins, tradition and adaptation
The earliest record of the music of Helston Flora Day comes in the Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 60, Part One (1790), p. 520. It comes as a response to a Mr. Urban by a certain Durgan enquiring after the nature of the festivities of Flora Day. Writing from Cornwall on 8 June, Durgan says:
At Helstone, a genteel and populous borough town in Cornwall, it is customary to dedicate the 8th of May to revelry (festive mirth not jollity). It is called the Furry-Day, supposed Flora’s Day; not, I imagine, as many have thought, in remembrance of some festival instituted in honour of that goddess, but rather from the garlands commonly worn on that day.Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 60, pt. 1, p. 520.
The letter continues with a description of the early morning Hal-an-Tow, though not called that, mentions “troublesome rogues” who go round the streets with drums and other noisy instruments, and wearing hawthorn blossoms in their hats. The demanding of a holiday, going from house to house collecting money, are features. Then the Furry Dance is described:
About the middle of the day they collect together to dance hand-in-hand round the streets, to the sound of the fiddle playing a particular tune, which they continue to do til it is dark. This is called a “Faddy.” In the afternoon, the gentility go to some farmhouse in the neighbourhood to drink tea, syllabub, etc. and return in a morice-dance where they form a Faddy, and dance through the streets till it is dark.As above.
The correspondent then speaks of changes in custom and the gentry retiring to a ball, all dressed up, then faddying back to their homes at night. The rest of the community, the “mobility” as they are described, adjourn to pubs where they continue to dance until midnight. Read the full description.
Furry dancing and the tune of Helston Furry, while for a long time associated extremely closely with the town and Flora Day, definitely have histories outside the town too. The origins of the Furry, like origins of most traditional music and dance send one on a futile quest. What we can confidently say is that the furry is Cornwall’s most distinctive communal dance and the music that goes with it, old and new, provides a strong backbone to our repertoire. The Daveys, in Scoot Dances, Troyls, Furrys and Tea Treats (2009), p.15, describe the furry being a simple processional dance for mixed couples performed on fair and feast days (Cornish fer being origin of furry). Largely because of a perceived over-reliance on tunes such as Helston Furry and Bodmin Riding, several modern furry tunes have been composed or old tunes adapted for furry dancing, for example, Fer Lyskerris (Liskeard Fair), Tregajorran Furry by Neil Davey and Hilary Coleman, Bolingey Furry by Will Burbridge and Polperro Furry by Mike Jelly.
The Helston Furry tune itself has had a life well outside the Cornish tradition. Katie Moss (1881-1947) incorporated the tune into her piece, ‘The Floral Dance’ in 1911. Since then the Furry Dance also becomes known as the Floral Dance or Cornish Floral Dance or just Cornish Dance. It is probably her music that made this tune so internationally recognised in the very many versions that have been released (including Terry Wogan’s).
Mike O’Connor provides an intriguing description of how Katie Moss came across Helston Furry. She came from London and studied at the Royal Academy as a violinist, pianist and singer. She visited Helston on Flora Day 1911. She wanted to join in but ‘had no boy with her’. She saw the Welsh baritone David Brazel and pulled him into the dance. On the train back to London, Moss wrote her song telling the story of the day. Moss used the melody of the Furry Dance as the basis for its chorus (Ilow Kernow 5, Part One (in process), p. 167). No mention in this or any of the historical descriptions of the modern-day protocol that you have to have an association with Helston (born in or through family) and take part in a ballot to be permitted entry into one of the Furry Dances.
How nice to think that all this stuff we’re researching from the past really is still happening now. Enjoy the video and if you like it, please subscribe to the Cornish Trad YouTube channel.