As you can read in Stephanie Hall’s Post “May Day: A Festival of Flowers,” on May Day, or May 1, people in Europe traditionally celebrated the coming of summer with songs, dances, and ceremonies. But confining our understanding to one day alone would limit the materials we can share with you regarding springtime holidays, while also distorting the historical record of spring and early summer celebrations. For example, at various times and places in Britain, where many of our May traditions come from, May-Day-like celebrations occurred as early as St. George’s Day (April 23), and as late as Whitsuntide, the week after Pentecost. (Pentecost occurs seven weeks after Easter. Whitsuntide can therefore begin as early as May 10 or as late as June 13.) At any time between these two dates in late April or mid-June, British people in different times and places performed songs, dances, and rituals related to spring and the coming of summer, much as Stephanie documented for May Day itself.
One of my favorite collection items relating to this extended May tradition in Britain is a recording made by Vance Randolph in September, 1941, in Galena, Missouri. The recording is of Lillian Short singing a one-verse song about Robin Hood, which she said she had learned from schoolchildren in Cabool, Missouri. The words she sang were:
Robin Hood and Little John they both are gone to fair-o And we will to the greenwood go to see what they do there-o And for the chase the buck and doe, to chase the buck and doe-o and for to chase the buck and doe, with hail an to sing merry-o
Hear her version in the player below:
Randolph gave this fragment the title “Robin Hood and Little John.” However, that title usually refers to the famous ballad in which Robin Hood first meets Little John and fights with him on a narrow bridge, which is clearly not this song. Folklorist Norm Cohen later decided that Short’s song was possibly a fragment of the ballad “Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar,” but that too proved to be wrong, as Cohen later realized.
Both scholars, seeing the names of Robin Hood and Little John, were looking at the ballad tradition for other versions of the song. It turns out they should have looked at seasonal song traditions instead. I say this because, in the town of Helston, Cornwall in southwestern Britain, on May 8, it has long been the tradition to celebrate “Flora Day” with a song whose first verse and chorus are as follows:
Robin Hood and Little John They both are gone to Fair O And we will go to the merry green wood
To see what they do there O
And for to chase O to chase the buck and doe. Hal an Tow Jolly Rumble O!
For we are up as soon as any day O
And for to fetch the summer home
The summer and the May O
For summer is a come O
And winter is a gone O
Clearly, Mrs. Short’s lyric is very close to this traditional Cornish May song, complete with the nonsense words “hail an to” where the British song, as sung today, has “hal an tow.”
Mrs. Short, as it happens, was probably preserving a very old tradition. Although a full text of “Hal an Tow” was not written down until 1846, according to folklorist Peter Kennedy and composer Inglis Gundry, the chorus was recorded as early as 1660, and was already then associated with May celebrations:
In 1660 Nicholas Boson of Newlyn said that there the may-pole was set up by men singing ‘Haile an Taw and Jolly Rumbelow’. It looks from this as though ‘tow’ in the 17th century rhymed with ‘awe’ rather than with ‘cow’. (In Cornish ‘Hal an to’ (taw) would appear to mean ‘Hoist the Roof’.)
Extending Kennedy and Gundry’s point about pronunciations, it also appears that in 1660, the word now pronounced “hal” was pronounced “hail,” which is how Mrs. Short pronounces it on the recording. In this respect, then, her song is closer to the fragment recorded in 1660 than to the more complete versions recorded in 1846 and later.
It’s also interesting that the song mentions Robin Hood. Robin Hood was strongly associated with May Day songs and dances beginning in the sixteenth century, but this association began to fade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
From all this evidence, it seems likely that at least the chorus and the Robin Hood verse come down to us ultimately from southern British observances involving singing, dancing, and playing Robin Hood in the seventeenth century. Mrs. Short’s song incorporates only that verse, and a few words of the chorus in a form close to the 1660 trace recorded by Boson, suggesting it has roots in an early strand of the tradition that produced the modern “Hal an Tow.”
Another interesting aspect of Mrs. Short’s song is the tune, which is different from the one sung in Helston. As it happens, the tune she uses is also associated with May 8 in Helston, but separately from the song. A version of the same melody is used for a dance called the “Furry Dance,” and is a prominent part of Flora Day observances in the town. In the video at this link, you can see and hear the “Hal an Tow” and the “Furry Dance” as they were performed in Helston in 2012; The “Hal an Tow” begins at about 0:30, and the “Furry Dance,” performed by a full brass band, begins at about 4:30.
To be clear, both this song and this tune appear to have been in wider British tradition at one time; Kennedy and Gundry printed a version of the “Furry Dance” tune from the Cornish town of Truro, and we’ve seen that some version of the Hal an Tow seems to have been used in Newlyn. So there may be no association between whoever brought them to America and Helston proper. In fact, it’s an open question how and when this song and tune came to America. They could have come in the oral tradition as early as the seventeenth century, as some ballads and songs surely did. However, it’s also true that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially at women’s colleges, there was a great awakening of interest in May Day observances, and many young women learned songs and plays from written or recorded sources at that time. It’s possible that Mrs. Short’s version was dug out of a book by an earnest college student in the early 1900s, only to enter oral tradition and be collected about forty years later.
In short, we’ll probably never know exactly how these two musical pieces, both separately associated with May 8 and with Helston, Cornwall, came to be combined, brought across the Atlantic, and collected in the Missouri Ozarks in 1941. But that’s OK; when studying the mysteries of the seasons, it’s appropriate that we solve one riddle only to find another in its place.