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“Hal An Tow”: Some Intriguing Evidence on a May Song

This dragon was part of the Helston “Hal An Tow” procession in 2006, when the festivities (like this year) occurred on May 6. The photo is by Frances Berriman, and was shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

It’s May 6, and the people of Helston, Cornwall, are celebrating Flora Day [1], a large outdoor festival featuring dancing in the streets throughout the town [2].  One of the fascinating elements of the festivities is the “Hal An Tow” procession, featuring dramatic enactments, dancing, and a distinctive song, also called “Hal An Tow.” Three years ago on Flora Day, I published a blog post about an unusual version of the “Hal An Tow” song here in the AFC archive at the Library of Congress, which was recorded by Vance Randolph from Lillian Short in Galena, Missouri.

As I explained then, “Hal an Tow” was once more widespread, and was sung in other towns in Cornwall besides Helston. Some version of the song goes back to the 1600s, since the chorus was written down at that time, but the full verses were not recorded until the 1840s. To refresh our memories, let’s give a listen to Mrs. Short’s version.

“Hal An Tow” has also become a popular song in the folk revival, with such groups as the WatersonsOysterband, and Jon Boden recording popular versions. In most of these folk-revival versions, the song begins with the following verse:

Take the scorn and wear the horn
It was the crest when you were born
Your father’s father wore it
And your father wore it too. [3]

Among many others, Jon Boden has noted the similarities between this verse and a passage from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Act IV, Scene 2:

Take thou no scorn to wear the horn
It was a crest ere thou wast born
Thy father’s father wore it and thy father bore it.

This similarity led Boden to conclude:

[“Hal An Tow”] appears, albeit in a very different form, in As You Like It [Act 4, Scene 2], from whence comes the first verse in this version.

(Boden also added another quatrain from Shakespeare to his own version, which you can hear at his blog.)

Helston is not the only Cornish town with a fascinating May procession. This photo, which is in AFC’s James Madison Carpenter collection, shows the Hobby Horse (or ‘Obby ‘Oss) procession in nearby Padstow. The version in the Carpenter Collection is a postcard, and the photographer is identified as Edward C. Edyvane. The photo was also published in March 1905 in the journal Folk-Lore, and before that was exhibited at a meeting of the Folk-Lore Society. This version is from the journal, and is marked “Thomas King Co.” We believe the photo to be in the Public Domain.

If Jon Boden is right that verses from “Hal An Tow” are quoted by Shakespeare, it would mean “Hal An Tow” is a bit older than anyone knew, and also that Shakespeare knew and drew on a venerable May song from Cornwall–not impossible, but certainly interesting. So is he right?

Alas, I think not.  Listening to recordings, and reading transcriptions, of traditional versions of “Hal An Tow” reveals that it almost always begins the same way Mrs. Short’s version does: “Robin Hood and Little John.”  See for example, this version published in 1868, and this one from 1892.  (You can look through records of many known published versions at the Ralph Vaughn Williams Memorial Library, at this link. For many of the records, the first line is given.) I’ve never found a traditional version that contains the lines that seem so similar to Shakespeare.

The verse about the horn shows up, it seems, only in versions of the song by folk revivalists. So Jon Boden appears to have the story reversed. The song is not quoted in Shakespeare, Shakespeare is quoted in the song. In other words, at some point someone took the verse about “wearing the horn” from Shakespeare and added it to “Hal An Tow,” making it appear as though the two texts are related.

Like many people, I have suspected this for years, but for a long time I couldn’t find a definitive answer to why, how, and by whom, the Shakespeare verse got added to “Hal An Tow.”  Many people attribute the change to Mike Waterson, but Mike in fact wrote a different verse to begin Hal an Tow, which does not appear on the Watersons’ most popular recording of the song, leading many people to believe that references to him writing a new first verse for the song relate to the “horn” verse.  Mike’s new verse for Hal An Tow ran:

Since man was first created
His works have been debated
And we have celebrated
The coming of the Spring

You can see more about the Watersons’ versions of the song and Mike’s new verse, and hear Mike sing “since man was first created” at the Mainly Norfolk site.

Accepting that most references to Mike Waterson having added his own first verse to Hal An Tow refer to “Since man was first created…” leaves us no closer to understanding how Shakespeare’s lines got added to the song.  Now I think I’m a little closer to the truth, thanks to a book that’s been sitting on my shelf for years. In 1954, the Shakespeare passage and the beginning of “Hal an Tow” appeared on the same page of Reginald Nettel’s book Sing a Song of England, later republished as A Social History of Traditional Song. Nettel uses the Shakespeare passage as a segue between discussions of two seasonal customs, “The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance” and the “Hal An Tow.”  The Shakespeare passage shares with Abbots Bromley the feature of antlers, in both cases referred to as “horns.” It shares with “Hal An Tow” the feature of outlawed noblemen in the greenwood, such as Robin Hood.

The relevant page of Reginald Nettel’s Sing a Song of England. The layout of Page 55 makes it look as though the top passage, from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, is part of the “Hal An Tow” song.

Nettel does not claim or even suggest the Shakespeare lines are part of “Hal An Tow.” Rather, he seems only to be suggesting that some of the imagery surviving in English and Cornish seasonal songs and customs may derive from the culture of Shakespeare’s era–something with which most current scholarship would agree. However, the passage is presented in such a way that it’s easy to get the wrong impression. The Abbots Bromley discussion occurs on the previous page. The page with “Hal An Tow” begins with the quotation from Shakespeare, followed almost immediately by “Hal An Tow.” Although there is a sentence or two of Nettel’s commentary between the Shakespeare passage and “Hal An Tow,” there is also a sentence or two of his commentary between the two verses of “Hal An Tow.” “Hal An Tow” continues on page 56, again with Nettel’s comments interspersed between each two verses.

Because of all this, a singer looking quickly at the page could easily get the impression it was all one song with commentary between the verses. Even if not deceived, a singer might have seen the Shakespeare passage next to the song and been inspired to combine them.

Thus, my current theory is that the Shakespeare lines were added to “Hal An Tow” by a singer who saw the juxtaposition in Nettel’s book. That would make “Hal An Tow” an example of a folklore item whose form and meaning have been significantly altered by folklore scholarship. Nettel, in his role as an observer and analyst of folklore, changed what he was observing.

If my theory about Nettel is correct, it also means the earliest possible date for a version of “Hal An Tow” with the “Scorn and horn” verse is 1954.  So to test the theory, I would love to hear from anyone with an example of “Hal An Tow” with the Shakespeare verse (“Take the scorn and wear the horn”) recorded or transcribed before that year.

As always, any other comments are welcomed as well!


    1. Traditionally, some people have called the Helston festivities “Furry Day” and “The Furry Dance,” while others have preferred “Flora.”  ”Furry” probably comes from the Cornish-language word “fer” for a feast day.
    2. The traditional date for Flora Day is May 8, but if this falls on a Sunday or Monday the festivities are moved to Saturday.
    3. Some versions begin with yet another verse, which according to Norma Waterson was written in the 1960s by her brother Mike Waterson:Since Man was first created
      His works have been debated
      And we have celebrated
      The coming of the Spring



  1. Andy Norfolk
    May 6, 2017 at 9:47 am

    You have things a little wrong here. Firstly the Hal an Tow as sung in Helston and as recorded here does not include those verses from Ax You Like It. We do not sing them and never have. Those stray verses were added relatively recently in “versions” by the Watersons et al. Those versions are bogus and not the real Helston song.

    These are the current verses and chorus

    Robin Hood and Little John,
    They both are gone to fair, 0
    And we will to the merry green wood
    To see what they do there, 0
    And for to chase, 0
    To chase the buck and doe.


    Where are those Spaniards
    That make so great a boast, 0?
    For they shall eat the grey goose feather
    And we will eat the roast, 0
    In every land, 0
    The land where-e’er we go.


    St Piran showed his care for us
    And all our sons and daughters, 0.
    He brought the book of Christendom
    Across the western waters, 0
    And taught the love of Heaven above
    For Cornishmen below.


    As for that good knight, St George
    St George he was a knight, 0.
    Of all the knights in Christendom
    St George he is the right, 0
    In every land, 0
    The land where-e’er we go.


    But to a greater than St George
    Our Helston has a right, 0:
    St Michael with his wings outspread,
    The archangel so bright, 0
    Who fought the fiend, 0
    Of all mankind the foe.


    God bless Aunt Mary Moses
    And all her power and might, 0
    And send us peace in merry England
    Both day and night, 0.
    And send us peace in merry England
    Both now and ever more, 0.


    Hal-an-tow, jolly rumble, 0.
    For we are up as soon as any day, 0
    And for to fetch the Summer home,
    The Summer and the May, 0
    For Summer is a-come, 0,
    And Winter is a-gone, 0.

  2. Stephen Winick
    May 8, 2017 at 10:13 am

    Thanks, Andy. You are exactly right, except for your statement that I “have things a little wrong.” In fact your description of what happened is the same as mine. I state in the blog that “at some point someone took the verse about ‘wearing the horn’ from Shakespeare and added it to ‘Hal An Tow’….” I specify that I believe this occurred after 1954. And I say in the note that Mike Waterson added the “coming of the Spring” verse. These descriptions comport exactly with your correct statement that those verses were “added relatively recently in ‘versions’ by the Watersons et al.”

    The only difference between our observations is that I was a little more specific, and pointed out Reginald Nettel’s 1954 book, which seems to be the source of the addition of the “scorn and horn” verse to the song. If you have any further information on who first sang that verse as a part of the song, I’d be most interested. It could have been the Watersons, of course, but there were almost ten years between Nettel’s book and their recording, so I suspect that others may have sung it first. (Bert Lloyd seems a likely suspect!)

    Thanks very much for the correct verses as sung in Helston, too. They’re a great addition to the post and a good reference point for readers!

  3. Paul Davenport
    May 9, 2017 at 10:55 am

    Andy, above is quite correct. The ‘As you Like It’ verse was the work of Mike Waterson. The fact that many folk singers believe it to be traditional is an indication of Mike’s astute feeling for traditional song.

  4. Stephen Winick
    May 9, 2017 at 11:04 am

    Thanks, Paul. The Nettel book shows the “As You Like It” verse was associated with the song about a decade before Mike took it up. I know that Mike definitively wrote and added the other new verse (“Since man was first created….”), but I’ve never seen direct evidence, such as a statement from Mike or Norma, that he was the first to sing the “As You Like It” verse as well. I’d love to know what your source is. Did Mike or a member of his family tell you this?

    Of course, Mike being the first person to sing the verse is one of the most likely solutions, but I still wonder if someone else (who had seen the Nettel book) might have passed the song on to the Watersons with that verse already in place. If Mike was the first to sing it that way, it certainly seems likely he himself had seen the book. Either way, one could argue the verse being perceived as traditional is an indication of Nettel’s astute feeling for traditional song too. And of course, since Shakespeare was himself writing the verse as a pastiche of a ritual song, it speaks to Shakespeare’s feeling for the genre as well. Thanks again for your comment!

  5. Ed Wynn
    May 9, 2017 at 1:34 pm

    Thanks for the interesting article. Although not a full connection to the “scorn and horn” verse, some versions of the Padstow “Day Song” do at least mention cuckoldry and wearing horns. See for example http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/prwe/prwe345.htm: “Thou mightst have shown thy knavish face! / Thou mightst have tarried at home O ! / But thou shalt be an old cuckold, / And thou shalt wear the horns O;”. (This verse was also quoted by Lucy Broadwood http://www.jstor.org/stable/4434037, citing George Boase in 1887.)

  6. Ed Wynn
    May 9, 2017 at 1:45 pm

    The old photo you show was published in the journal “Folklore” in 1905 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/1254468, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0015587X.1905.9719437). It was sent to the Folk-Lore Society by Mr F.G.Green and was captioned “The Padstow Hobby Horse 1903”.

  7. Ed Wynn
    May 9, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    You (and others) might like to hear the snippet in the Lomax archive: http://research.culturalequity.org/rc-b2/get-audio-detailed-recording.do?recordingId=11845. (I think the listing of instruments “[horn, vocal]” may be mischievous.)

  8. Stephen Winick
    May 9, 2017 at 2:22 pm

    Thanks for the connections, Ed! I’ve changed the date on the photo, but I will leave James Madison Carpenter’s identification of the photographer until I can check on it.

  9. Dave Eyre
    May 10, 2017 at 5:23 am

    Re: Mike Waterson and Hal and Tow.

    The lines were written because at that time the song started Hal and Tow ` and Mike thought it strange that a song should start with a chorus.

    So he wrote a verse for it. So very talented. Very typical of Mike’s versifying.

  10. Stephen Winick
    May 15, 2017 at 6:47 pm

    Thanks, Dave. Norma Waterson said the same thing in the booklet for the CD set Mighty River of Song, so you’re quite right. But, to be clear, this story refers to the “Since man was first created” verse rather than the verse about horns.

  11. Alec Brady
    November 26, 2017 at 6:22 pm

    As an inveterate folky, I was surprised by the line “Take the scorn…” as I’ve always heard it as “Take no scorn…” (i.e. “do not be scornful”). This page https://mainlynorfolk.info/watersons/songs/halantow.html supports that reading.

    Do you have any examples of the “Take the scorn…” version?

  12. Stephen Winick
    November 27, 2017 at 10:24 am

    Thanks for your comment, Alec! Both versions of the line are certainly sung in the revival. Although the site you give transcribes the lyrics from the Watersons’ Frost and Fire album as “Take no scorn,” in the video, Mike pretty clearly sings “take the scorn.” If you listen to the album version, it also sounds like “take the scorn,” despite the transcription.

    The other very popular version that uses “take the scorn” is the Oyster Band (now known as Oysterband). Because of these two versions, Mike apparently singing “take the scorn” (although possibly intending “take no scorn”), and Oysterband actually singing “take the scorn,” many revival groups do it this way, and if you google “take the scorn” in connection with “Hal An Tow” you’ll find a selection of lyric sheets, etc., giving that version.

    I like both versions of the lyrics. “Take no scorn to wear the horn” means, as you say, “do be not scornful of wearing the horns.” (I’ve also heard people modernize that line to “do not scorn to wear the horn.”)

    “Take the scorn and wear the horns” means “wear the horns despite the scorn of others.” In fact, wearing them would have required both: a willingness to suspend one’s own scorn and to accept that of others, so both lines make sense!

  13. Albert Rogers
    May 8, 2018 at 2:09 pm

    “Your father’s father wore it
    And your father wore it too”
    Leaves a delightful ambiguity.
    We neither know who was your sire, nor who was his!

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