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A pageant featuring a red dragon
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.

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

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[This post is part of a series of blog posts about the song “Hal An Tow.” You can find the whole series at this link.]

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


Comments (38)

  1. 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.

    • 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!

  2. 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.

    • 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!

  3. 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 “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, citing George Boase in 1887.)

    • 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.

  4. 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.

    • 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.

  5. 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 supports that reading.

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

    • 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!

  6. “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!

  7. I suspect it’s auditors from south of the Trent who are hearing ‘the’ rather than ‘no’, or rather ‘ne’, most certainly the pronunciation in the Watersons’ native Hull. (I dern’t kner which hertel to stay at) and indeed throughout the North. This renders the ‘e’ sound in ‘the’ as the same in both words and the production of the start of both words with the tongue behind the upper teeth makes confusion in a hardly perfect video recording quite understandable.
    When I bought Frost and Fire in the 60’s I heard and sang ‘ne’ and still do. John Jones with the Oysterband does appear to sing ‘the’ which is surprising given his childhood in Yorkshire but perhaps his response was influenced by so many years in Exeter and Canterbury?
    It also seems unlikely that the horns referred to here are those associated with cuckoldry, other than in a very tenuous way. Some here might have read The Inheritors by William Golding, the first edition of which bore a drawing taken from the walls of the cave of Les Trois-Frère in southern France, done 13,000 years ago and showing a human form wearing a set of antlers in what is assumed to be a ritual activity. I recently saw a skull and antlers in York museum which are dated to the Neolithic period and show piercings to enable the whole thing to be worn as a headdress, presumably for similar purposes.
    The connection to As You Like It is interesting and it’s worth looking at the context of the song in the play.
    Jaques: Which is he that killed the dear?
    First Lord: Sir, it was I.
    Jaques: Let’s present him to the Duke like a roman conquerer. And it would do well to set the horns upon his head for a branch of victory. Have you no song, forester, for this purpose?
    Cue, ‘Take no scorn to wear the horn’
    Clearly the implication here is that the wearing of the horn as ‘a victory’ is something to be proud of and highly unlikely to attract scorn from others, rather the reverse. It’s worth remembering, too that the wearing of the horn in antiquity, as in the Trois-Frère example is believed to be the role of a shaman or seer who would have been highly respected, hardly scorned by others, which the ‘Take the scorn’ reading implies.
    I find it strange and unlikely that someone would be enjoined in song to be proud to wear the cuckold’s horns with pride because his dad and granddad had both had unfaithful wives and there is a different explanation of the cuckold/horns connection which I won’t go into.
    The meaning implied by ‘take no scorn’ however, puts the choice into the hands of the wearer and means ‘do not disdain to’ accept an honour, which is clearly the implication in Jaques’ idea. The invocation of parent and grandparent now implies a compliment, far from the idea that the wearer will attract scorn.
    It does seem that the conflation of the horn verse with the Furry Dance is a recent one but certainly both traditions have their origins in rituals from the mists of time, an idea dealt with pretty well of course by Frost and Fire.

    • Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment, Peter.

      I’m not fully in agreement about your interpretation of Shakespeare. Even in context, the song certainly implies that, although “wearing the horn” is a sign of pride among foresters specifically, it is interpreted by some people as something shameful. Thus, not only does the song contain the lines “take thou no scorn to wear the horn,” but also “the horn the horn the lusty horn, tis not a thing to laugh, to scorn.” Why all this emphasis on NOT laughing and scorning the horn if it is, as you say “highly unlikely to attract scorn” in the first place? This would make us think the forester, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “doth protest too much.”

      For this reason, the standard interpretation in Shakespeare scholarship is that it is indeed a reference to cuckoldry. You can find this, for example, in Peter J. Seng’s article “The Foresters’ Song in As You Like It,” from Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Spring, 1959), pp. 246-249

      But there is an ironic edge to the honors that Jaques is so eager to confer: the horns of the deer are to be placed on the head of the hunter “for a branch of victory”. The “branch”, of course, is the age-old symbol of the cuckold. The jest would never escape an Elizabethan audience, and it does not escape the assembled foresters.

      The reason for this reference to cuckoldry in the song is interpreted differently by different scholars, but most of them agree it is indeed such a reference. So for example, Stephen Cohen in his article “No Assembly but Horn-Beast: : The Politics of Cuckoldry in Shakespeare’s Romantic Comedies” in the Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall – Winter, 2004), pp. 5-34, states:

      The song marks the transformation of the foresters, in the course of Rosalind’s sojourn, from a pastoral band that has “No enemy / But winter and rough weather” (2.5.7-8) to a community of honorable cuckolds – a gesture at once acknowledging and redressing the consequences of subordination to a powerful woman.

      This is not the only possible interpretation, though, and I think in general scholars have assumed it is simply Shakespeare playing with the amusing idea that what might be a symbol of honor among foresters might simultaneously a bawdy and shameful reference to everyone else. In folkloristic terms, this is interesting because it is a recognition on Shakespeare’s part of the existence of what folklorists would now call different “folk groups” within a larger culture. In this case, the occupational folk group of Arden Foresters has a different meaning for the particular symbolic reference of a man wearing antlers than the surrounding culture at large. The fact that Shakespeare makes the foresters themselves aware of this is both realistic and humorous as well. Culture really does work that way, and Shakespeare was a keen observer and presenter of culture, as we know.

      What this means, then, is that the forester is NOT being in your words “enjoined in song to be proud to wear the cuckold’s horns with pride because his dad and granddad had both had unfaithful wives.” He is being enjoined to wear the antlers of a slain deer as a symbol of the honorable and skilled forester, because his dad and granddad both did the same; but to do so specifically DESPITE the fact that others might misunderstand the reference and laugh at him.

      You are quite right, of course, about the ancient practice of wearing antlers. In English folk culture this is represented by the “horn dance” of Abbots Bromley, and we can assume that whoever added the Shakespeare lines to “Hal An Tow”–whether A.L. Lloyd or Mike Waterson or someone else–was well aware of this too.

  8. Stephen, having returned to the text in a slightly less cursory way, I take your point about the dual meanings and the attitude towards the ‘horns’ in the scene.
    It does seem that Shakespeare’s not uncommon theme of the tensions between ‘natural’ and ‘sophisticated ‘ man are in play here. ( Lear’s journey from, ‘allow not nature more than nature needs, man’s life is cheap as beasts’ to, ‘here’s three on us sophisticated – thou art the thing itself’ comes to mind.)
    The point I think I was making was that the immediate implication of Jaques’ statement, appearing as one of the ‘Lords in the habit of foresters’ was to reflect the latters’ natural rather than a ‘courtly’ attitude to the horns as a source of admiration for the victory over the stag. His own instinct as a sophisticate is to invoke the classical references to a, ‘Roman conqueror’ and the appropriate laurel ‘branch’ but it seems the Bard cleverly reflects the duality of the character’s role and movement away from a courtier concerned with, ‘who’s in, who’s out’ and a scandalous view of the ‘branch’ of cuckoldry to a more ‘natural’ acceptance of country matters. Will the cure for his sophisticated cynicism lie in remaining in the greenwood, an ‘unaccommodated man’ with the newly enlightened Duke?
    With regards to the original point, I notice that a contributor to ‘mudcat’ (MGM Lion 24. Sep ’10) says that he rang Norma Waterson to ask where they got the verse from and she said, ‘Oh, no problem; we got it from As You Like It and thought it sounded good there.’
    Only anecdotal of course but it does seem possible that the Watersons could have seen the play and/or read the Nettel passage at the same time as Mike wrote the acknowledged verse and included both in their version, in which case evidence of their inclusion in Hal An Tow prior to 1965 seems highly unlikely.
    After fifty-odd years in Yorkshire, not too far from the Watersons’ origins, I’m still hearing, ‘Tek ne scorn’ but can see why southerners or North Americans might think it to be ‘the’!

    • Thanks again Peter,

      Norma’s comment is indeed anecdotal and also subject to various interpretations (not to mention being a memory of something which had occurred at least 45 years previously). Who is “we,” and what does it mean that “we” “found it”? If “we” is just shorthand for “The Watersons,” presumably one of them found it and brought it to the others. Presumably it was not Norma, or she would be more likely to say “I found it.” If it was brought to the group by Mike, which seems likely since he clearly was playing with the text and composed another verse, she might not know HOW he found it in As You Like It,’ which could have involved an intermediary such as Lloyd. Or as you say he could have seen the Nettl book himself.

      I still suspect A.L. Lloyd’s involvement, because I and others have documented Lloyd doing exactly this kind of thing before (that is, incorporating poetry by known authors into versions of traditional songs). There are other reasons, too: in the book Singing from the Floor, J.P. Bean quotes Mike Waterson saying the he remembers the Frost and Fire album being Lloyd’s idea in the first place. Mike says The Watersons didn’t have enough calendar custom songs to make an album, and Lloyd offered to supply more songs. Lloyd then sent them “reams” of songs, and vetted material on the album, approving some songs and rejecting others. Mike says he was “a guru to us.” And of course Lloyd wrote the liner notes. Lloyd was such a close collaborator that he could well be included in Norma’s “we” statement as well, the way you might include the producer of your album along with the band in the statement “we thought of this idea in the studio.”

      With Mike and Lal and Bert gone, unless Norma specifically remembers personally having the idea to include the verse, I don’t think we’ll ever get to the bottom of it for sure. I agree it’s unlikely, though, that pre-1965 evidence will turn up, because even if Bert Lloyd was involved, the creation of the Frost and Fire album is the most likely time for the inclusion to have occurred. Before that it would likely have been one of those things Lloyd saw in Nettl’s book and filed away in his head for future use!

      Thanks for pointing out that Mike’s pronunciation of “Take ne scorn” is probably behind other singers changing the line to “Take the scorn and wear the horn.” That certainly makes sense! I still believe the line itself makes sense either way–that is, “take no scorn to wear the horn” would mean “do not feel it is shameful to wear the horn,” while “take the scorn and wear the horn” would mean “wear the horn even though you may have to endure the scorn of those who misinterpret it.”

  9. This might also suggest thatthe nobles “taking up the burden”would imply their singing as they exit-the burden being the chorus of the song not the body of the deer-presumably here a chance for audience participation?

  10. Thanks for this really interesting piece Stephen; I have the Nettel book, but hadn’t noticed this juxtaposition previously.

    I’ve cited this piece in a wider piece around the Hal-an-Tow that I’ve put together as the first instalment of a new lockdown project to learn/record and research/write about #AFolkSongAFortnight; it may be of interest as ‘wider reading’ to others who’ve appreciated your own above writings, particularly as I include a fairly extensive bibliography.

    Further thanks, and keep well all, in these uneasy times!

  11. But no-one covers what are likely to be the oldest lyrics for the song, i.e the Cornish Hal an Tow. What is the meaning of these words, and were any more Cornish lyrics lost? As far as I am aware the words Hal an Tow were recorded in Newlyn in 1680 by Nicholas Boson, and Cornish was very much the vernacular in that area at that time. Thoe who say it derives from Dutch must surely be mistaken, there was a lot of contact between Brittany and Cornwall at that time, but not much with Netherlands.

    • Dear Davyth,

      Thanks for your comment!

      I did cover a little of this in a different post about “Hal an Tow,” which you can read at this link. But I’ll elaborate here, since that post was not really about the theoretical existence of a Cornish original.

      I believe that Boson only recorded the one line, which he wrote as “Haile and Taw and Jolly Rumbelow.” I don’t believe any other Cornish lyrics survived, and as far as I know, Boson didn’t imply that there were any other lyrics. So it’s not clear if the 1660 words were Cornish, English, or nonsense words.

      In the 1970s, Peter Kennedy published a Cornish-language version in his book Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, but it was a translation into Cornish of the English words as sung in Helston. The translation is credited to “Talek and Yleweth” and I believe it had been previously published by Kennedy’s Cornish consultant Inglis Gundry.

      Kennedy provided the quotation from Boson, and also speculated that the words “Hal an Tow” were originally Cornish:

      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’.

      If Kennedy and his Cornish collaborators had been aware of a version sung in Cornish and collected from oral tradition, they surely would have made reference to it. But they don’t, and I’ve never seen a subsequent reliable reference either. So I (and most scholars who write about the song) assume that any Cornish-language version has been lost. But if anyone has further information I would love to hear it as well!

  12. Ah how disappointing! Good to know though.

  13. I was introduced to this tune at faire more than fifteen years with possibly an original verse, exact lyrics are fuzzy but it’s something like:

    Blessed be to England
    All day and night-0
    Blessed be Elizabeth
    Our queen and light-O

  14. If memory doesn’t let me down the reference to “hal an tow” in shakespear is followed by the instruction “the nobles exit carrying the burden”-generally taken to mean carrying the corpse of the deer,but alternatively it maybe interpreted to mean ‘singing the chorus of the song’,so perhaps as the lyrics are not incuded in the script the assumption may be made that they were well known?

    • Thanks, Tony! To be clear, there is no reference to “Hal an Tow” in Shakespeare. Shakespeare prints a verse of a song which he may well have written himself, and which was associated with “Hal an Tow” for the first time in the 1950s. The direction about the “burden” occurs before the text, so it could simply have been directing the actors to sing the text as it appeared in the script, as opposed to a chorus which they would have to know already. But what you suggest is not impossible: it could have been a well known song at the time.

  15. Stephen, have you considered the similarity of the more traditional-seeming ‘Robin Hood’ verse of ‘Hal An Tow’ to the first part of Thomas Weelkes’s 1608 verse in ‘Ayres or Fantastic Spirits’, no. XX that celebrated Will Kemp’s dance to Norwich and projected dance over the Alps?

    John Ward (The Morris Tune. J. American Musicological Society, 39 (2 – Summer), 294-331, 1986) finds the tunes of both to be part of what he designates ‘The’ morris tune family used for processional morris dances.

    Incidentally, Violet Alford (The Hobby Horse and other Animal Masks – book, not paper, 1978) also includes words that seem to come from Hal An Tow amongst those she prints (seemingly from personal experience) as part of the Padstow May song.

    And when did the song tune change from the ‘revival’ one to the ‘English County Gardens/Heston Floral dance’ one as on your clip of Lillian Short – or vice verse?

    • Thanks for your comment, John. I don’t see THAT much similarity between the Weelkes text and Hal An Tow. In Hal An Tow, “are gone to” means “have gone to,” while in Weelkes I take “are gone” to mean “are in the past, i.e. dead and gone,” though it could mean the enactments portraying them are gone for the season. The two passages are natural enough that it seems most likely they just arose independently, though of course it’s also possible one was an influence on the other.

      As to Alford, thanks for the reminder! Yes, the line about eating the goose and eating the roast is in both songs, as are a couple of other lines. It’s not surprising at all for ritual lyric songs associated with the same area of the country and the same holiday. In my previous post I pointed out that the Hal An Tow itself was at one time known beyond Helston, with an early version noted in Newlyn, and of course the Flora Day tune is also used in Truro, which is about equidistant from Padstow and Helston, so these traditions did travel!

      It’s not clear when the words were set to each tune, but that is a great question!

  16. Just a detail. The line about “take no (ne) scorn and wear the horn” sounds to me like an expression of exactly the opposite, i.e. a way of saying “be proud to wear the horn…” I realise this doesn’t add much to this fascinating discussion, but I offer it for what it’s worth.

    • Yes, I agree, Michael. My point was that the phrase works either way. If it’s “Take ne [no] scorn to wear the horn” then it means (just as you say) “don’t think it is shameful to wear the horn” or “be proud to wear the horn.” But if it’s “Take THE scorn and wear the horn,” which is how The Oyster Band and others have interpreted it, then it means “endure the scorn of ignorant people and be proud to wear the horn anyway, because you know its real meaning and the scornful onlookers don’t.” So just another flavor of “be proud to wear the horn!” Thanks for commenting!

  17. I’ve always sung the ‘take no scorn’ verse in just that way (in spite of being a southerner) as I felt that viscerally, it harked back to those prehistoric days of the interconnection between human and hunted animal as represented in that French cave. In fact, an invention of Mike Waterson; just shows what an incredible feeling of folk memory that man had and I shall continue to sing it that way, especially on this day of the year. Sad today as we’ve now lost Norma Waterson, the last of that Waterson generation.

  18. Cuckoldry never occurred to me!

  19. Concur with Andy Norfolk. But note that In the 1960s just the first two verses were sung, the other verses existing in various written sources.

    The verse about St Piran is a modern insertion twice over. It has appeared in the last decade or so, but is itself a rewrite of a verse about St Michael that was invented by Robert Morton Nance in about 1932. St Michael was then considered the patron saint of Cornwall.

    The current enthusiasm for Piran is since his flag (An Baner) was adopted by the Cornish Nationalist Party (not Mebyon Kernow) in the 1980s.

    That said, St Petroc, was more venerated in North and mid-Cornwall, and his church in Bodmin was a great focus for medieval pilgrimage. So Cornwall now has (at least) three patron saints.

  20. I suppose somebody has already pointed out that, in modern Cornish, “hal an TAW” would mean “The hushed/silent moor”…? Just as “Men an Tol” means the holed stone, or the stone with the hole in it. Obviously, “the silent moor” doesn’t much fit the song…!

  21. A couple of comments from a Cornish perspective. The reference to Aunt Mary Moyses indicates a pre-reformation origin, there is also a connection with Padstow, years ago I found a 19th century reference to the Hal an Tow in Padstow with Bosons reference it indicates this was a distinctive Cornish cultural May activity found across the land. (Just like hurling once Was)

    With that in mind it’s easy to see that Hal an is not two words but one word Halan meaning the beginning of the month and mirrored by Halan Gwav (Cornish Halloween). This is referenced in the 16th century from the reformation period showing the normal Cornish usage. It’s clear that the surviving Cornish words in the modern verses are heavily corrupted over time but originally it might have been a completely Cornish language piece.

    The Tow part is traditionally pronounced around Helston as Cornish Tew which means fat – the 1st of May was the traditional period for moving cattle to new pasture for fattening and has parallels with the Beltane fires. I’d be interested in the views on Rumbelow as I’m pretty sure this is Cornish as well.

    Finally the Cornish flag was popularised well before the CNP in the 1980s. Mebyon Kernow members first started campaigning for its popular use in the 1950s during the Festival of Britain. Having been born in Cornwall in the 60s I remember seeing it throughout the 1970s. It was finally adopted by the then Cornwall County Council in the 1980s following a proposal by Councillor Neil Plummer RIP a Mebyon Kernow member.

    • Thanks, Conan! In the comments to this post and the others in the “Hal an Tow” series, there are other suggestions of Cornish-language derivations that might interest you. The “Halan Tew” derivation is quite interesting, thanks! As a theory it suffers a bit from the fact that while “Tew” means fat (as an adjective), it’s not otherwise used for the name of a season or month that could have a Calends or a “Kalan.” So in “Kalan Gwav” or “dy’halan gwav,” gwav means winter and dy’halan (from kalan) means the first day of a month or season. This is the normal grammatical use of “kalan” or “dy’halan,” also seen in “kala’me” from “Kalan me,” another Cornish name for Mayday. “Halan Tew,” as a phrase meaning “The first day of fatness” would be an outlier grammatically, in that it wasn’t common to call the first day of any new phase of life a “halan-plus-adjective;” it’s usually used with the names of months or seasons. The phrase also doesn’t occur outside the song or references to it (such as Borlase’s) in the corpus of known Cornish writings, and it’s not part of spoken Cornish as far as I know; people don’t call Mayday “dy’halan tew.” So it would be a unique usage with unique grammar. But it’s still possible of course!

      Incidentally, I have looked up the Boson reference and I am certain the passage in question was actually written by Dr. Borlase, who edited the Boson manuscript in 1748, not by Boson himself. So I agree it indicates a wider provenance for the custom, since it mentions Newlyn, but the reference is from 1748 and not 1660 as is often claimed.

  22. What does jolly rumble 0 mean?

    • Thanks for your comment, Maureen. “Rumbelow” is generally accepted to be a nonsense word used in work songs. It’s first recorded in Layamon’s “Brut,” about 1400, in which it is used in a rowing song with the refrains “hevalogh” and “Rombylogh.” In this form, the word persisted in accounts of oarsmen and sailors for about 500 years, with R. H. Stoddard writing “With a yo-heave-ho, And a rumbelow” in 1890.

  23. I am grateful to finally find this in all it ‘iterations. A good song will inevitably be folk-processed and it seems the more so the older it is. So the Hal & Tow which I first heard from Roberts & Barrand, and it’s still my favorite. about 1970; an the was a Canadian trio who named their group after the song, all from New Brunswick, and stellar talents.
    Someone said ‘wearing the horn’ mean being a cuckold. I don’t see that here.

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