Singing tradition in Cornwall has several interwoven threads which we follow in the Cornish National Music Archive. There are popular songs from the ubiquitous singing session or “Shout”. These overlap a little but are mostly quite different from the folk songs and ballads that provided entertainment in the days before mass media. Cornish cultural identity is also represented by composition and composers from Cornwall and world-wide. Songs in Cornish are a popular way of sharing and expressing the language and these are featured in a separate section of this archive.
Songs are drawn into the repertoire of the Cornish “Shout” unconsciously and indiscriminately with no qualification other than that they lend themselves well to the improvised harmony of these sessions and in turn the sense of community identity. We find everything from “The Sweet Nightingale” with a long provenance in Cornish folk tradition to “Little Lize” and “Sloop Joh B”. “Little Lize” started life as a 19th century American Minstrel Song and metamorphosed in style and lyrics to become a Gospel Song before arriving in Cornwall for yet further changes in the 1950s. Songs like “Sloop John B” owe their presence to the influence of the 1960s popular music scene.
Folk song collectors Sabine Baring Gould, Cecil Sharp, George Gardiner, James Madison Carpenter and Peter Kennedy all visited, and had songs sent to them from, Cornwall. The Old Cornwall Societies were also important recorders of Cornish songs some of which were published in the Old Cornwall journal but most in the collections edited by Ralph Dunstan and Inglis Gundry. The songs and melodies represented here are sometimes unique to Cornwall and sometimes Cornish variations on themes to be found across Europe as well as the English-speaking world. When Sabine Baring Gould visited the Falcon Inn at St Mawgan in 1891, for example, he found the familiar lyrics of the “Lark in the Morning” sung to two quite distinct tunes.
Anthems celebrating the sense of Cornish identity are a feature of singing tradition in Cornwall and follow the path forged by Robert Stephen Hawker’s “Trelawny”. Written in 1824, this song was quickly embraced by the Cornish Diaspora and became a global expression of Cornish solidarity and identity. Trelawny has since been joined by a string of popular Cornish anthems including Kenneth Pelmear’s “Hail to the Homeland” and Harry Glasson’s “Cornwall my Home”. These anthems merge with a wider stream of composition across the range of music genre celebrating the landscape of Cornwall and the history of its people.
The Cornish National Music Archive explores these threads, the links between them and the people involved.