‘A Newlyn maid who dearly loved to sing’, was how Brenda saw herself – although she became known by many titles around the world: La Grande Cornouaillaise, Mama Cornwall, the Voice of Cornwall and more.
Born Brenda Ellery, she had a warm and caring Cornish upbringing in which music was always a strong element. Her artist father never made it into the echelons of ‘Newlyn School’ prestige, but did very well with pub signs and relief-moulded paintings for which he jokingly charged ‘sixpence a colour’. After a steady diet of chapel and choir music during her teenage years, and a decade of involvement in the production of local am-dram, she was almost middle-age before she realised that her singing voice was anything special.
It was a visit to a new ‘folk club’ at the unlikely venue of an old tin mine counting house on the cliffs at Botallack that finally pushed her up onto the stage to sing. It was 1964, and the start of the Count House Folk Music Club. She never looked back. Accompanied by the steady guitar of that stalwart of Cornish folk, John Langford, known everywhere as John the Fish, she toured the UK, encouraged by a good friend, Alex Atterson. Alex booked them at his club in Norwich, and arranged gigs for them around the country. On one of these tours, Brenda got a message that the Count House was to close in 3 weeks’ time – and she knew she couldn’t let that happen.
While still touring, she went into overdrive, writing letters and making phone calls, and as soon as the Count House closed, Pipers Folk in St Buryan Village Hall opened. One of the first resident singers was Ralph McTell, at £3 per night, but the ‘folk’ names that were to come through those doors over the years, and when the club returned once more to Botallack after a year or so, were legendary.
By 1974, with Pipers well established as one of the premier folk clubs in Britain, Brenda struck out on her own, with a new guitarist, Robert Bartlett, as a folk duo named Crowdy Crawn. She took the, for her, major step of turning professional as a singer. This meant leaving her safe job running her brother Peter’s Tremaen Craft Market in Penzance, a family venture which had sprung out of his Tremaen Pottery, started in Newlyn in 1963. Her husband John was running his own electrical business in Penzance, and gave her his full support, but it was still a huge gamble. She appointed me – her daughter – in her place as manager, and set off for a tour and a festival in Brittany.
Her repertoire had certainly broadened – she was leaving ‘folk music’ behind, and exploring every new avenue that presented itself. She embraced blues, burlesque and jazz numbers, soul music, old standards and love songs, whilst still incorporating some old favourites from the folk club – but thereafter, she resisted any attempt by journalists and others to simply pigeonhole her into the ‘folk music’ genre. She chose what appealed to her, and her programme was always eclectic.
After two years, Robert had left, and Brenda’s career, now mostly in Europe, grew apace, with a succession of guitarists, and agents in several European countries. One person who was to have a profound effect on the direction Brenda’s music would take was Cornish Bard and linguist Richard Gendall. They had met in 1972 when she was asked to perform a song in Cornish at the Pan Celtic Festival in Killarney, which Richard wrote for her, and went on to form a very productive and rewarding working relationship over the next fifteen or so years. Richard welcomed Brenda singing his songs – he eventually wrote over 460 for her, at least 100 in the Cornish language. No performer himself, yet a compulsive and skilled composer, he was grateful for Brenda’s promotion of his musical creations around the world. For Brenda, the discovery that her country had its own ancient language was a revelation, and although she was never able to learn it thoroughly, she loved singing in Cornish, and pledged to perform at least one song in Cornish at every concert – which she did.
European audiences adored her – at her peak in the early 1980s, she was often mobbed if seen out on the streets of Paris. Brittany, Cornwall’s sister country, was her great love, and she returned many times to the famous Lorient Interceltic Festival, where she was known as La Grandmère du Fête. It wasn’t long before she was exploring the wider extent of the Cornish diaspora, with concerts throughout Europe, in Australia and in Canada, attended by 1000s of exiled Cornish people eager to hear the voice of this new phenomenon from ‘home’. In South Australia, she attended the Kernewek Lowender Festival in Cornwall’s Copper Triangle three times, performing several concerts, visiting historic Cornish sites, and teaching the Premier of South Australia how to make a pasty.
She took Cornwall with her wherever she went, telling yarns and singing about her homeland, its culture, its legends and its people – but it took longer to make an impact in her own home country. Throughout the 70s and 80s, she had continued to produce music albums, ultimately over 30. She was hugely supportive of the homegrown Cornish talent at the Lowender Peran Festival, and worked tirelessly with Cornish schoolchildren, creating activities for them around the songs she’d chosen to teach them about their homeland. In 1980, she was invited to produce her own weekly radio request programme, Sunday Best, on BBC Radio Cornwall, and was able, between other requests, to slip in 2 or 3 of her own songs each week. This did awaken some of the Cornish to her phenomenal voice, and to her amazing success abroad, but most, whilst being huge fans, still thought of her as ‘our Brenda’, and in a way, she was quite comfortable with this.
Her proudest year, with two major events that thrilled her, was undoubtedly 1977. In September, she was made a Bard of the Gorsedh Kernow at St Columb Major, taking the Bardic name Gwylan Gwavas, or Seagull of Newlyn. And a month later, her first Grandchild, Davy Luscombe was born; second grandson, Jan Luscombe, arrived in 1980 – and missing them so much made Brenda’s busy professional life touring Europe and elsewhere just that little bit more difficult.
By the late 1980s, Brenda’s health was deteriorating, and much to her distress, she was unable to continue recording, touring and performing. She died in 1994, and nine years later, in a poll conducted by the Western Morning News to find the 100 Greatest Cornish People, Brenda was voted the top woman by far, at number 11. In 2017, she was awarded a prestigious Blue Plaque by BBC Radio Cornwall listeners for her contribution to Cornish music and culture. She was a Cornishwoman who made a massive impact in everything she did.
Brenda’s selection of material for her concerts very much depended on her singing songs with which she felt comfortable, which appealed to her, and hopefully, to her audiences. Fairly obviously, her choices were very popular with audiences around the world – and although her love of Cornwall shone through every programme, audiences could also expect to be regaled with an eclectic range of songs incorporating bawdy humour, sensitive love songs, powerful spirituals, ballsy blues and punchy rock numbers. Below is a sample of some of her material, including a couple of her obligatory Cornish language songs. Click on title to listen to song:
|Betsy Watson||Pasties & Cream||Traditional|
|Cockleshells||Brenda at Buryan||Traditional|
|De Sul Vyttyn||Lyonesse||Cornish Language – Gendall|
|Everybody Knows||Seagull||Brenda Wootton - lyrics/Francis - Lai music|
|Fish To Find||Gwavas Lake||Brenda Wootton lyrics/Gendall – Cornwall|
|The House Of The Rising Sun||Un Jour de Fete||Ballad/Blues|
|I’m Troubled||Pipers Folk||Spiritual|
|Kerra Kernow (Most Beloved Cornwall)||Boy Jan||Cornish Language – Gendall|
|Lagan Love||Tin in the Stream||Trad Irish|
|Lyonesse||All of Me||Gendall – Cornwall|
|Pasties & Cream||Way Down to Lamorna||Herbert Thomas – Cornwall|
|Remember Me||Children Singing||Gendall|
|Silver Net||Carillon||Gendall – Cornwall|
|Summertime/It Ain’t Necessarily So||My Land||Ballad/Blues|
|Sunny Side Of The Street||Brenda Sings Ballads||Ballad/Blues|
|Tamar||Starry Gazey Pie||Gendall – Cornwall|
|Tryphena Trenary||Lamorna||Herbert Thomas – Cornwall|
|Album titles (by date of release)||Comments|
|1 More Singing at the Count House||+ other residents|
|2 Pipers Folk||(Fisk Jubilee Singers Spiritual) 1st album privately recorded at club|
|3 Pasties & Cream|
|4 Crowdy Crawn||Album recorded with R Gendall|
|5 Kertalg ‘73||Recorded in Brittany at Kertalg Festival (bootleg)|
|6 No Song To Sing|
|7 Pamplemousse||Recorded in Brittany|
|8 Kertalg ‘74||Recorded in Brittany at Kertalg Festival (bootleg)|
|9 Tin in the Stream||Recorded in Germany|
|10 Starry Gazey Pie|
|11 Children Singing|
|13 Boy Jan, Cornishman|
|14 La Grande Cornouaillaise|
|15 Gwavas Lake|
|16 Un Jour de Fete au Feminin Présent||Recorded at a huge Festival for Women in France; other artists|
|17 Berceuses Celtes des Iles Britanniques Single||Celtic lullabies|
|19 My Land|
|20 2 Xmas Carols Single|
|21 Way Down to Lamorna||Compilation LP|
|22 Cornish Australian Single|
|23 ‘B’ Comme Brenda|
|24 Tamar||Compilation LP|
|25 Everybody Knows Single||Maxi single + Francis Lai|
|26 So Long Cassette||Charity concert + John the Fish|
|27 Seagull||Brenda’s final recorded album|
|28 Berceuses du Monde Entier||Lullabies from other countries; other artists|
|29 The Voice of Cornwall CD||Keltia Music, Brittany; Compilation|
|30 All of Me CD||Knight Music, live French concert|
|31 Brenda at Buryan CD||Produced by Sue Ellery-Hill|
|32 Brenda at Christmas CD||Produced by Sue Ellery-Hill|
|33 Brenda Sings Ballads CD||Produced by Sue Ellery-Hill|
©Sue Ellery-Hill 2020
Further information and Brenda merchandise is available at www.brendawootton.org – including her recently published Biography ‘For the Love of Cornwall’.