Unite and unite: Padstow May Day and its music

The Padstow Hobby Hoss comes out of a building watched by a group, he is being led by a man in a very odd costume – something like a Morris Dancer. People are singing in the background. The man in the horse-like costume keeps backing into the crowd and moving them back – this appears to be part of the custom. Several of the women in the crowd are laughing.

Notes to British Pathé’s The Padstow “Hobby Hoss” film 1932.

I feel slightly fraudulent writing this post today as Padstow May Day is one of the celebrations that we haven’t yet had the opportunity to witness. Instead we revisited our favourite archive films on YouTube and spent a bit of time learning the Padstow May Song in its many variations, though all equally recognisable as almost a chant that accompanies the visually-addictive sight of the Obby Oss(es).

Of all old Cornish customs, probably the most has been written about Padstow May Day and Helston Flora Day which is coming up on 8 May (though only vicariously this year) but what about the music that this custom has continued?

Accordions, voices and trance-inducing drumming, the odd tambourine play in the Padstow May Day Song and the accompanying O, Where is St George? The anticipation, the Red and Blue Oss rivalry, the bringing in of the May (greenery), the drinking, the dancing and the singing. The film from 1932 and Alan Lomax and Peter Kennedy’s film 20 years later in 1953 show remarkable continuity in the musical landscape of Padstow May Day. The main difference is in the clothes of those taking part, very much work wear in the 1930s but more costumed in the 1950s.

Mike O’Connor in Ilow Kernow 5. Part One (p. 153) remarks on the tensions between the Padstow Oss organisers and the English Folk Dance Society on its various visits to London in the 1920s. In 1927 some disagreed with the Oss being taken out of Cornwall and also having to wear EFDS standard white slacks and shirts (Morris-style). It is interesting also that by reifying Padstow May Day music, song and dance, the English Folk Song and Dance Society (EFDSS) may have made some feel the event was being taken out of its annual spontaneous community rite.

Behind the band come the two main dancers-the strong and agile young man who bears the weighty hoop of the ‘Obby ‘Oss on his shoulders… Behind them and around the whole procession parties of young people join in the dance arm-in-arm, singing the tune and adding to the general excitement with their shouts of “Wee ‘Oss!” When the ‘Obby ‘Oss falls to the ground exhausted, the musicians take up the second tune – “Oh, where is St. George?”- which everybody intones with sentimental fervour.

Inglis Gundry, Canow Kernow, 1966, p. 15.

‘Unto day’ is completely mistaken

Inglis Gundry includes detailed field notes among the several versions of the Padstow May Day Song in Canow Kernow (1966, pp. 14-17). His first comment is on the words: “The expression “a-come unto day”, though generally accepted in print, has been altered to “acumen to-day” at the suggestion of Reg Hall and Mervyn Plunkett.” Gundry seemed to have a real issue about the difference between ‘a-come unto and icumen’. In the 1932 film above it sounds more like ‘a-comin’ (to me anyway). Hall and Plunkett were ethnographers and published a detailed study of the Padstow Song-Dance in Ethnik, vol. 1, no. 3, that Gundry refers to. Gundry himself was a composer of operas so his attention to articulation of words in music would have been as keen as a razor.

In his autobiography, Last Boy of the Family (1998) Gundry recalls meeting Peter Kennedy, whose pioneering recordings of pub singing and music in Cornwall have contributed much to our repertoire. Kennedy also provided much of the material collected by Gundry for Canow Kernow. Gundry recalls the “very happy May Day following the Blue Team up and down the streets of Padstow.” Of the music he noted, “There seemed to me to be variations of the tune during the day, and that was not surprising when I was told by one of the team that they never sang the song from one May Day until the next.” (p. 84)

An example of a living folk tune, still in process of evolution

Gundry provides no less than seven versions of the tune, and some variations even in those. The oldest version taken down is by B.H. Watts of Padstow in 1860 and in the personal manuscript collection of Sabine Baring-Gould. Baring-Gould is also the originator of the second version, “from the man who dances the Hobby Horse,” originally notated in B-flat–it makes me wonder again about the use of woodwind instruments like clarinets and bassoons prior to the popularity of accordions for outdoor folk music performance.

Padstow May Day Song as collected by Sabine Baring-Gould (SBG/1/2/412) (courtesy of Vaughan Williams Memorial Library)

The third was published in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, 1912-13 and the fourth, noted by Cecil Sharp of the English Folk Dance Society as “sung by the Villagers of Padstow” on May Day 1914. The fifth comes from Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Song Book or Lyver Canow Kernewek, apparently as sung on 1 May 1928 by Mr. Tonkin. Gundry’s own version compares the versions played by the Blue and Red (Old ‘Oss) Ribbon teams in 1962 and follows the same pattern and key of the others, a kind of G major/D modal in 2/4 time (though tempo stretches and contracts in other versions). A Children’s Team variation for “unto day” is up an octave. Gundry provides commentary on keys and phrases–very akin to the concerns of Dunstan, another professional musician and composer with ears for detail, harmony and structure. He comments that Peter Kennedy’s recording of 1958 is in the key of A-flat rather than the G (D modal) of his 1962 version.

Gundry felt that the tune had changed considerably over the century before his collecting and speculated that it would have been much different in medieval or ancient British times. But I’m not sure that is the case. To lesser ‘trained’ ears the continuity is remarkable, and also evident in the two videos featured here. When we played through these versions you could go from one to the next and not notice much difference. Folk tunes are never finished, anyway. While retaining their essence, they should change, merge, mould and indeed they do.

Cornish medieval music?

Purely instinctively, the Padstow May Day Song has much that feels familiar with medieval music known to us today. It suits simple drones and regular rhythmic accompaniment. No fluff or ornament. I’m not sure whether people still speculate about Pagan or pre-Christian origins for May-time celebrations in Cornwall or Britain, and I’m not sure it really matters, but this tune certainly feels at home in a medieval social setting, similar to Helston’s Hal-an-Tow.

Printed music and annotations.
An excerpt from Inglis Gundry’s Canow Kernow (1966) showing some of the variations of Padstow May Song.

It’s not easy to tease the actual words of the song out of Gundry’s analysis but he was really keen to make sure ‘a-come unto day’ was corrected to ‘icumen today’ much like the Cuckoo Song/Sumer is Icumen In. Whichever you prefer, the lyrics are fit for any form of seasonal chivalry: a ship gilded with gold, Queen’s lady in waiting, young men in England and France [probably fighting], swords by sides, steeds in the stable [Oss].

Morning Song

Unite and unite and let us all unite, 
For summer is a-come unto day
And whiter we are going we all will unite
In the merry morning of May.

Day Song

All out of your beds,
Your chamber shall be strewed with the white rose and the red.
Arise up Mr-I know you well afine,
You have a shilling in your purse and
I wish it was in mine.
Arise up Miss-all in your gown of green,
You are as fine a lady as wait upon the Queen.

O, where is St. George,
O, where is he, O?
He's out in his long boat all on the salt sea, O.
Up flies the kite, down falls the lark, O.
Aunt Ursula Birdhood she had an old yow [ewe]
And she died in her own park O.

The St George revival verse (teaser and musicians symbolically revive the Oss) contains phrases which may have changed over time. The ones above are those noted by Gundry in the 1960s. One imagines that Aunt Ursula Birdhood (unknown to Gundry) may have taken the place of another conceit in the song. Gundry remarks on the use of ‘parc’, the Cornish for field.

Where does it belong?

Like much folk studies I am sure these lyrics will be/have been analysed and read into much more than many of the Mayers of Padstow have cared for. Is it Cornish, is it English? No locals anymore, it will die out. Is it just another performance for tourists? I can hear it now. However the sense of ownership of Padstonians of May Day precedes it. On first starting to play Cornish traditional music in the Raffidy Dumitz Band I remember the debate over whether the band should play the Padstow May Song or not because of its belonging to Padstow and to May Day in particular. In the end it didn’t catch on because somehow it felt wrong to play it out in Penzance, or worse, contemplate playing it in Padstow as outsiders. We have experienced a similar thing with Helston Furry. A Helstonian friend hates it when we play it, outside of the context of Flora Day and outside Helston. When we went to Flora Day in 2018 we were invited impromptu to play in the Blue Anchor provided we downed our instruments when the procession past (and respectfully we didn’t play Helston Furry either).

A more considered reflection comes from Dr. Merv Davey in his thesis, ‘As is the manner and the custom. Folk tradition and identity in Cornwall’ (2011, pp. 469-470) following May Day singing in Padstow’s Golden Lion and London Inn pubs:

Observed Singing sessions in Golden Lion and in London Inn. London inn a small pub with strong local clientel. Songs various but mostly Cornish. There was a group of people from Wadebridge who were regular singers in Padstow pubs and also the Ring of Bells at St Issey etc. They were not in Padstow not in whites. They sang an identifiable
Cornish repertoire – Little Lize – Lamorna – Maggie May. Interrupted by
Mayer ―You should not be singing here this day is for Padstow people and May Day, you can sing any time of the year but not today, it is for locals. Singers upset – some have been coming to Padstow for May Day singing sessions all their adult lives. Stephanie Noorgard identified continuous ―tradition― of singing Cornish songs at Padstow since six- ties – especially the London Inn. Reassured to find singing elsewhere. There was some discussion of why the individual concerned was prompted to make this comment. Other Mayers thought that if he was concerned about the tradition then he should have been in the procession supporting the Oss and not in a pub.

Merv Davey, field notes for Padstow May Day, 2010.