This song appeared in Dixon’s “Ancient Poems” in the nineteenth century with the note “ The very ancient custom of lighting fires on Midsummer-eve, being the vigil of St. John the Baptist, is still kept up in several parts of Cornwall. On these occasions the fishermen and others dance about the fires, and sing appropriate songs. The following has been sung for a long series of years at Penzance and the neighbourhood, and is taken down from the recitation of the leader of a West-country choir. It is communicated to our pages by Mr. Sandys.” This is William Sandys, known for his books on Cornish Christmas carols and customs. I have not found this song in his books about Cornwall, although I have not found a copy of Sandys’ “Festive Songs Principally of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” to check in case it is in that one.
In 1769, Dr Borlase wrote “In Cornwall, the festival fires, called bonfires, are kindled on the eves of St John the Baptist, and St, Peter’s Day; and Midsummer is thence, in the Cornish tongue, called Goluan, which signifies both Light and Rejoicing. At these fires the Cornish attend with lighted torches, tarred and pitched at the end, and make their perambulation round their fires, going from village to village and carrying their torches before them”
If we think about the Methodist hymns as the “authorised” repertoire of Cornwall; respectable and approved, then this song is at the other end of the scale. It is part of a Cornish bawdy genre, where “gallants” seduce “fair maids” and indicates a sexual celebration of midsummer “as they lay sporting on the ground”:
The Cornish Midsummer Bonfire Song
The bonny month of June is crowned
With the sweet scarlet rose;
The groves and meadows all around
With lovely pleasure flows.
As I walked out to yonder green,
One evening so fair;
All where the fair maids may be seen
Playing at the bonfire.
Hail! lovely nymphs, be not too coy,
But freely yield your charms;
Let love inspire with mirth and joy,
In Cupid’s lovely arms.
Bright Luna spreads its light around,
The gallants for to cheer;
As they lay sporting on the ground,
At the fair June bonfire.
All on the pleasant dewy mead,
They shared each other’s charms;
Till Phoebus’ beams began to spread,
And coming day alarms.
Whilst larks and linnets sing so sweet,
To cheer each lovely swain;
Let each prove true unto their love,
And so farewell the plain.
This song was included in Dunstan’s collection in 1929 with the words changed to be less explicit. In particular “as they lay sporting on the ground” was changed to “They skip it featly on the ground” which combines with other tweaks he made to suggest that dancing was the main activity being described rather than sex. Merv Davey translated this into Cornish for Hengan in 1983 and put the tune “Marigold” with it, changing that line again to “As they jump sporting o’er the flames”.
Then John Mills produced an instrumental song with the title “Tansys Golowan” in 1994. This does not appear to be related to Dunstan or Sandys. It appeared in the Racca project in 1994 in 5/4 time. This was the tune used by Dalla in their album “Rooz”, and also the version used by Radjel at Lowender Peran in 2010
As part of the “Cornish revival”,and contemporary with Dunstan, Robert Moreton Nance wrote a midsummer bonfire ceremony in Cornish which is used today at midsummer events organised throughout Cornwall by the Old Cornwall Societies. Because of lockdown these could not go ahead in 2020 and so Cornish language group Agan Tavas joined with the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies in order to celebrate the Cornish Midsummer Bonfires 2020 (Tansys Golowan) online.
We edited a Cornish language film of the ceremony, and one highlight of the event was being able to put divergent aspects of Cornish culture back together again. You do not usually hear the Cornish Midsummer Bonfire song performed at Cornish Midsummer Bonfires, but we were given a Cornish language translation by Pan Celtic song contest winner Phil Knight and it was performed by another Pan Celtic winner for Cornwall, Benjad, (Benjamin Jago) who performed it in that other neglected aspect of Cornish culture; the “Three Men’s Song”. The whole film was in Cornish for “Speak Cornish Week” to celebrate our language, culture and identity.
Borlase, 1769, p136 (1974 facsimile)
Dunstan R. 1929: The Cornish Song Book (Lyver Canow Kernewek), London, Royal Institute of Cornwall, p33