Magic Fire – The Midsummer-eve Song and Dance – Richard John Noall
Noall’s Notes: “The Magic Fire ” is a sort of nick-name our St. Ives Old Cornwall choir gave to the Midsummer Eve Bonfire Song. By the way, we used to have an excellent Old Cornwall Choir at St. Ives, until our folks’ interest got “slocked” away with the apparently somewhat prevailing idea that all “pieces and dialogues” was the proper thing for Old Cornwall evenings or concerts. There is nothing wrong with the Sarah Siddonses or Henry Irvings, but,”give es a bit of music between.” We have sung ” The Magic Fire ” for years at the little out-of-door concerts before lighting the bonfire on Midsummer Eve.
Hints for Magic Fire as Song and Dance. – I had thought that it would have made a good dance. The verse to be sung by the party moving slowly hand-in-hand around, ring-a-roses fashion, in a circle. On reaching the semi-chorus- “As our fathers did before us”- start to waltz still hand in hand. Begin phrase by stamping left foot, then take four longish side-steps to the right; four shorter ones to the front and slightly to the right; four back, slightly to the right, and so on – this will gradually rotate the circle.
On reaching the chorus- “We’ll dance around the Magic Fire” -unclasp hands and wave them in a graceful fashion to the rhythm of the music, stepping as before, but with movements freer, and longer strides. This will carry the dancers around the circle. The centre can be a light or an imitation fire. The whole dance could work up to a rather wild crescendo near the end. The singing of each verse, slowly moving hand in band in a circle, gives a breather for the dance.
These are only just a few hints. The procedure really can be pretty well left to the ideas and taste of any Folk-Dance Society. If a relief team should be standing by it would be a great help to the singing; women and men, or boys and girls, each taking their respective parts. The men have a bold solo in the chorus, and in one part are meant to represent the ancient bards.”
Richard John Noall (1871-1944) was part of the Celto Cornish revival in Cornwall in the 1920s. He was one of the founders of the Old Cornwall Society movement and was initiated as a bard of Gorsedh Kernow during the first modern ceremony in 1929 taking the bardic name of Kenteller – collector.[i] He was also a musician and choirmaster and encouraged a revival of interest in traditional Cornish songs and carols alongside of the dialect and patriotic songs of the revival. He arranged and composed number of songs for use by the revival some of which were published in the Old Cornwall Society Journal and some published in a collection called “Cornish Patriotic and Dialect songs” published in 1934. The St Ives museum hold two collections of his music scores; “Carols and Cornish Folk Songs” dated 1926 with 29 songs; and “Cornish Patriotic and Dialect Songs” dated 1934 with 7 songs.
Richard John, as he was known within the revival movement, was involved in the re-institution of Tansys Golowan, the Midsummer Bonfire ceremonies. He lit the bonfire for the Old Cornwall Societies in St Ives in 1929 and there is a sense in which he represented continuity of tradition as he was born in 1871, had taken part in the hilltop bonfire celebrations in the 19th century. He could remember both the huge street bonfires of Penzance and the miners “shooting the midsummer holes”. The miners drilled holes into granite outcrops on the hillsides and used them to create gunpowder fireworks.
Richard John wrote the “Magic Fire – The Midsummer-eve Song and Dance” to be performed as part of the ceremony and newspaper reports in the 1930s refer to dancing around the fire and jumping through the flames at the end of the dance.[ii] The song and the dance do not seem to have continued after the war although it has to be said that ceremonies vary across Cornwall. No mention of this song was made when the Old Cornwall Societies were consulted about their different practices prior to the publication of the updated ceremonies booklet in 2019.[iii]
See also Tansys Golowan by Matt Blewett
[i] Obituary, The Cornishman – Thursday 27 July 1944, p.5.
[ii] E.g. Western Morning News – Thursday 24 June 1937, p.5.
[iii] Merv Davey, Tansys Golowan – The Midsummer Bonfire Ceremonies, (St Agnes, Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, 2019).