STALKING THE ELUSIVE CORNISH FOLKSONG
BY JIM WEARNE
As I was growing up, my grandfather had always told me that we were English. His father had emigrated to the USA from England, he said, and we were therefore of English extraction. This was fine with me, as many of the things that were particularly 'cool' in my teenage years (the Rolling Stones, long hair) were English imports.
The main drawback was this: whereas my friends could claim that they were Italian, Irish, Polish or Whatnot (despite having been born in the USA) the minute I said that I was, by the same token, English, I was challenged with the fact that I had been born in St. Louis, Mo., spoke with a flat Midwestern accent, and was about as English as a state fair corndog. I then realized that English-Americans were considered the American non-ethnic group; the colorless norm that all others differ from, and not allowed their own ethnic identity.
I was in my thirties before I realized that all of that was based on my misunderstanding. My great-grandfather had emigrated from Cornwall. I was not, in fact, English, but Cornish. Although being Cornish carries its own penalty of having to listen to "witty" remarks about small chickens and a yellow, starchy vegetable, Cornishness opened a new vista of ethnic identification to me. I soon discovered that the Cornish even have their own country.
Cornwall is now a county of England, but as one of the ancient Celtic kingdoms (Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Brittany, Galacia and Cornwall) Cornwall has just as much claim to nationhood as Scotland and Wales who also share the island of Britain and with England comprise most of the United Kingdom.
The Cornish have their own language, which is once again being taught to Cornish children in school. Cornish food (principally the much-mispronounced Pasty) escapes the English reputation for being bland and overcooked. Cornish culture has contributed much to the world, including bowling and Long John Silver. A Cornishman, Richard Trevithic, invented the steam locomotive in 1801.
There must be, I assumed, a rich lode of traditional Cornish music. As a folksinger in search of a 'folk' to sing about, I resolved to mine that lode and sing the songs of my people.
Friends and neighbors, I spent two years searching every source I could find, both here and by mail from Britain. The sole recording I could locate that had remotely to do with Cornwall was one cut on Two Gentlemen Folk, an album of folksongs sung by Bill Crofut and opera star Ben Luxon (a Cornishman.) While I recommend this CD to anyone, I hardly felt that I had made much progress toward finding enough songs with which to build a repertoire.
Now, I hear you say "But surely there must be song books that contain the sort of material you're after." And so there are. I even managed to secure one. It might as well have been in Russian. Many of the lyrics were in Cornish, which rivals Welsh for unpronounceability. That, together with the fact that I do not read a note of music, deepened my frustration. I felt like a blind man in a strip club. What I desired was there, but I had no way of experiencing it.
Finally, through circumstances irrelevant to the discussion, I came upon a bit of ready cash. Enough (just) for air fare and lodging for four days in Cornwall. I got a passport and made detailed, minute by minute plans for a whirlwind tour of southwest Cornwall. I would stay in the town of Helston, which was my Great-Grandfather's old home town and contains a pub called the Blue Anchor, whose home-brewed ale is legendary.
I flew over, and took the train to Penzance. They don't use those nice train cars with compartments anymore. I took the bus to my B&B, and prepared to set out to mix sightseeing and loading up with cassettes of Cornish folk music.
Well, the sightseeing was fine. The weather held for most of the time, and I had some nice walks along the coast. I even ran into some distant relations and friends of friends. I asked everyone I met to direct me to where I could find tapes of Cornish folk music. In almost every case, this produced a blank look, and a mumbled apology that they had no idea, and what did I want with that sort of thing, anyway?
Some directed me to certain bookstores or music shops. When I asked for Cornish music, I was invariably directed to a small, obscure shelf with a couple of dusty cassette cases whose labels identified them as recordings of local choirs singing favorite Methodist hymns, or of town bands playing Sousa marches. Time was running short.
Finally, pay dirt. Of a sort. At a large bookstore in Penzance, I found a bit of what I was after. There were one or two taped collections of local groups including the usual Methodist choirs and town bands that also included old songs recorded at sing-alongs at area pubs. I had heard of a lady named Brenda Wootton, considered one of the finest singers of Cornish folksongs. I was discouraged to hear that she had recently died, but here in the store were two of her cassettes. Here, too, was a tape of Trevor Lawrence, a singer and storyteller. Altogether, I found six or seven cassettes that seemed to have some usable material.
I'm not sure if this method of marketing cassettes is universal in Britain, but the tape cassette cases on the shelf were empty. It was necessary to take the cases of the tapes I wanted to a counter, where the cassettes themselves were gotten out and put into the cases for purchase. I suppose this is a good enough system, but to a shrink-wrap oriented American, it seemed very strange.
The rest of the trip is a bit blurry, thanks to my having found the legendary pub and having spent an evening therein with a local house painter, each of us determined to drink each other under the table. He was snoring when I stumbled back to my B & B, so score one for the USA.
Upon arriving home, I proceeded to practically wear the tapes out trying to squeeze every ethnic culture-hit out of them that I could. Some of the cuts were instrumental, taking them out of consideration (for me) as potential repertoire, and some were in Cornish. I had laid down a ground rule that I would not try to learn any Cornish-language songs phonetically. One or two were very well-suited to a simple recitation of the lyrics as verse.
The instrumental cuts, by groups like Cam Kernewek and the Newlin Reelers resemble very strongly the music of Irish and Scottish groups, with accordion, fiddle, tin whistle and such. The Cornish bagpipe, which is being revived by Merv Davey and others, is in evidence, and offers an alternative pipe sound to the popular Scots pipes. Much of the vocal material is sung by choruses, whether official town or church choirs or impromptu groups who all just happened to be in the pub when someone switched on the recorder. Seldom do you find the most traditional songs being sung in a "folksinger" sort of style, with one person on stage behind a guitar and microphone. Most of the songs I learned required some adaptation to fit into this American form. Also, the lyrics often contained Cornish words or dialect which I could not make out. My years of writing lyrics for corporate jingles came in handy filling in the blanks. Eventually I put together enough pub songs, sing-alongs and recitations to begin performing them at open mikes.
I was gratified to find that they were reasonably well-received. Most of the songs lend themselves to group singing and sing-alongs usually go over well. I couldn't resist the temptation to do a bit of a lecture-demo, and to talk about Cornwall and the Cornish people.
I went to more open mikes as I learned more songs. My lecture content grew. After a set one evening, a very attractive young lady came up to speak to me. "Hot dog!" I said to myself. One of the reasons I had become a folksinger was to meet girls, and, after 30 years, it looked like it was finally going to pay off. I was disappointed, however. She fixed me with a frosty glare and said: "Some of us know where Cornwall is, you know" and stalked away. My lecture content got trimmed a bit after that.
I soon realized that I had learned all of the songs that I could from the tapes I brought back. I had little idea of how to obtain more tapes from here, so it looked like I would need to make another trip. This time I would be more focused, find more time, and most of all stay away from house painters. One small problem: No budget.
Fortunately, A small Deus Ex Machina appeared in the form of a check from a publishing company to whom I had sent manuscript of a 'How To' book I had written. It just covered the air fare and car rental. The rest I could scrape up, so I set about getting the vacation time, and making arrangements.
I wrote several letters to contacts based on the tapes I got on the first trip. A couple were to the record labels and one was to Trevor Lawrence, the storyteller and singer. I hoped to meet some of these people and pick their brains.
My first hint that the second trip would be somewhat more interesting than the first was in the form of a message on my answering machine. It was from a man named Chris Blount, who had produced one of the tapes. As it happens, his main job is as a presenter on BBC Radio Cornwall, in their Truro studios. He wanted to meet with me, and maybe have me as a guest on his program. All right!!!!
Finally I was waiting in line at O'Hare for a boarding pass to Heathrow. The next good omen for this trip came in the form of an impromptu upgrade for me to business class from tourist. Why it happened, I'm not sure, but I asked no questions. On the flight over, I emulated Ford Prefect in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy:
"'Yes, please.' He said to the cabin attendants whenever they glided up to offer him anything at all. He smiled with a curious kind of manic joy.........."
The rental car I was assigned at Heathrow had just rolled off the delivery truck. The odometer read 00000043. With a silent prayer of "God help the British Nation", I got in on the wrong side, and pulled out into traffic, and, after a few moments' panic from driving on the left (Which after a few minutes seemed as natural as breathing maple syrup. Don't let 'em kid you) concentrated on navigation.
Stonehenge looks nothing like its pictures, and is located right next to a car park. I mention that only in passing as it was almost the only stop I made on the drive down to Penzance.
Much of my time in Cornwall was spent in general sightseeing. If this were a travelogue, I would enthuse poetically about the beautiful countryside, the moors, the coastal walks, Land's End (ignore the theme park) the prehistoric stone monuments, and any of a thousand beautiful and fascinating things to see and do. For details about these things, look me up and buy me a beer.
One of the first things I did was to go to Wadebridge, in north Cornwall, to attend a sing-around at the Ship Inn. I arrived early, and parked myself at the bar. Soon several people arranged themselves around small tables by the window and took out accordions, fiddles, a banjo, tin whistles and the flat, circular drum that the Cornish call a Crowdy Crawn. Not a guitar in sight!
After the exchange of only a few words, the festivities commenced. Jigs and reels poured out for 20 minutes at a time. Instruments were passed over the tables as each instrumentalist seemed equally skilled in at least 2 or 3. I found a seat closer in.
After a break and some conversation, it was time for the singers. The popular form of going around the circle to lead songs with all joining in was followed. By this time, I had introduced myself, and had been added to the circle on a probationary basis as a novelty. The songs were mostly unfamiliar, and I will kick myself forever for not having brought along my mini-recorder. One young lady whose name I did not catch had the silvery voice of an angel. She said she was about to sing at a festival in Brittany. The young lady I sat next to (named 'Little Mo' Keast) had an earthier voice, and a wonderful command of the material. It seemed she was singing about her own life, rather than that of 200 years ago.
By the time my turn came, I had discovered why my seat had been vacant. It was right next to the coal-burning fireplace and my entire right side was getting toasted. Undeterred, I gave them Stan Rogers' Barrett's Privateers which they knew and joined in lustily. We swung around the circle a couple more times, but the effect of the jet lag, the long drive and the ale convinced me that it was time to go. Finally I felt that I had heard Cornish folk music in its natural habitat.
One piece of information that I gleaned that evening was that a pub had been reopened in Penzance, very near my B & B. The new landlord was none other than Trevor Lawrence! The next day, after a visit to St. Michael's Mount, I looked up The Old Vic in Victoria Square. I found Trev Lawrence immediately, and he knew me from my letter. He is a friendly and hospitable man, and I spent several evenings at his pub, swapping stories and songs with Trev and his regulars (including a former CID man and his artist wife, a former landlord of the pub, who speaks in local dialect thick enough to spread on a scone, a brother of a popular local entertainer named Jethro, and a pack of local characters and regular folks.)
At Trevor's invitation, I came in one afternoon and recorded a song he sang for me about the state of the mine industry. I learned other songs there, and Trev lent me some song sheets to copy.
On the Sunday, I went to church at the little Anglican Church in Wendron, where my family went before they all turned Methodist. Afterward, I was chatting with the folks there and mentioned my interest in local folk music. They all said "Oh you must meet Sue!" As it turns out, Sue's husband Jinx Jenkin is the leader of a 3-part harmony group called Jinx' Stack who do a lot of folk material. With no hesitation, Sue loaded me into her car, and took me home to meet Jinx.
I spent a pleasant afternoon with Jinx and Sue and their baby daughter. I came away with a CD of the group from which I was able to pull some usable material.
The climax of the trip was taking the train to Truro and meeting with Chris Blount in the studios of BBC Cornwall. I had sent on a demo tape of me singing Cornish songs, and Chris said that he would intersperse cuts from that with the interview material we would record. We talked for a while, then he switched on the tape machine and we swapped radio-chat for about fifteen minutes. I have no idea what the finished product sounded like, but I heard later from Chris that he got good responses from listeners about it.
In the mean time, I was gathering more recordings of traditional material. I came away with about a dozen tapes and CD's, mostly with the usual mix of singable Cornish folksongs and other material. I am still in the process of learning songs from these, but I now have enough to make a "gig's- worth."
So that's the story of my search for the elusive Cornish folksong. I had to cover a lot of ground, but I had experiences that will stay with me the rest of my life, and discovered more wonderful music, people and history than I will ever be able to properly appreciate. I hope I can sing some of these songs for you sometime, and, if you haven't been, that you get the chance to visit Cornwall. You'll never be the same again if you go.
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