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More About “Hal An Tow”: Early Evidence of a May Song.

Helston Hal An Tow performers on May 6, 2017. Photo by Tom. Shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

[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.]

Back in 2014, at the blog post at this link, I first mentioned a recording made by Vance Randolph in September, 1941, in Galena, Missouri. The recording is of Lillian Short singing a one-verse song 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:

As I pointed out, Short’s ditty is a version of “Hal An Tow,” a venerable carol now sung as part of a day-long celebration which usually occurs on May 8 in Helston, Cornwall, in the UK.  But as I also pointed out back then, the tune Lillian Short sings is not the one associated with “Hal An Tow” in Helston field recordings made in the 20th century. You can hear a field recording of Helston children singing “Hal An Tow” at this link on the Association for Cultural Equity site; Alan Lomax copied the recording in 1951, and Peter Kennedy believed it was made in the late 1930s or early 1940s. You can hear another field recording, from the 1940s or 1950s, at this YouTube link.

As you can hear at those links, the modern tune is totally different from Short’s. Interestingly, though, the tune Short uses is also associated with May 8 in Helston, 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 the May 8 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.

All this caused me to muse in 2014: “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.”

A person in a red dragon costume is surrounded by other people dressed in green leaves.

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

I have since learned more about the early history of the song, which suggests that Lillian Short has preserved an earlier tradition than the town of Helston itself. I’ve traced down what I believe to be the earliest known text and melody of the Helston song, published in 1802, and it’s more like Lillian Short’s than it is like the modern Helston song.

The reference comes from Edward Jones’s book The Bardic Museum: Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards Volume 2. As a sort of appendix to his Welsh material, Jones included the words and music to a song he called “The Cornish May Song,” which is none other than “Hal An Tow,” set to the same tune Short sings on AFC’s field recording.

After finding Jones’s book, I also found a useful 2019 article by Michael Heaney, who likewise recently rediscovered Jones’s publication, and calls it “a source that appears to have been otherwise completely neglected.” I agree with Heaney; not only does it include the words and tune to “Hal An Tow,” it contains a description of the entire Flora Day custom as it existed at the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries, which is rarely referenced by modern scholars. I therefore think his account is worth quoting at length.

As was common in his day, Jones is quirky in his use of capitalization and punctuation, and even made corrections after typesetting his book by the use of strikethroughs.  I’ll try to reproduce his account as closely as possible, and add some of my own notes afterward.

Edward Jones’s Account of Flora Day and Hal An Tow

The inhabitants of Cornwall, being a remnant of the Ancient Britons, consequently they still retain some of their ancient customs, as the Welsh do. This old traditional Ballad is the source of conviviality of the inhabitants of the Town and neighbourhood of Helston, in Cornwall, where it is always Sung and universally danced by them, on the eighth of May, when they hail the Summer with peculiar rejoicings; rural revelry, festivity, and mirth. The common people call the ceremony FFYNNU and FFODI; which implies prosperity, and happiness: and others call it, Flora-day. This custom seems to have originated from the DRUIDS; because, the fruits of the earth are then tender; and to avert their being blasted, it was usual to return thanks to GOD for his infinite blessings, and to rejoice at the flourishing prospect of the produce of the earth which was generally celebrated on the sixth day of the new moon.

The custom now is this: at break of day, the commonalty of Helston go into the fields and woods to gather all kinds of flowers, to decorate their hats and bosoms, to enjoy the flowery meads, and the cheruping of the birds: and during their excursions, if they find any person at work, they make him ride on a pole, carried on men’s shoulders, to the river, over which he is to leap in a wide place, if he can; if he cannot, he must leap in, for leap he must, or pay money. After this rustic sport is over, they then return to the Town and bring their flowery garlands, or Summer home (Hawthorn boughs, Sycamore &c). Then they form themselves into various dancing groups, with the lasses, and they jig it, hand in hand all over the town; claiming a right of dancing through any person’s house, in at one door, out at the other, and so through the garden: thus they continue their Ffodi or prosperous song and dance until it is dark.

Hail bounteous May that dost inspire
Mirth and youth and warm desire
Woods and groves are of thy dressing
Hill and dale doth boast thy blessing
Thus we salute thee with our early song
And welcome thee and wish thee long——–Milton

In the afternoon, the gentry of the place, take their May excursions in parties, and some go to the farm-houses in the neighbourhood to drink Sillabubs, Cider, Tea &c; and afterwards they return to the Town in a Morrice-dance; both the ladies and gentlemen elegantly dressed in their summer attirement, and adorned with nosegays, and accompanied with Minstrels, who play for the dancers this traditional May-Tune; so they whisk it along all through the streets, and after a few dancing essays, each gentleman leads his partner into the Assembly-room, where there is always a Ball that Evening; and such Bevies of fair women, in their native simplicity, as are rarely to be seen. There they enjoy their happy dance until supper time; when they repair to their festive houses to their convivial repasts: thus the night is crowned with harmony, as well as the day. The inferior classes of the people pass their evening in similar merriment at the public houses, and at other places; which is continued until midnight with the greatest hilarity and decorum.

To welcome the summer was a very ancient custom among the old Britons, by the number of May carols which are still preserved among the Welsh; and indeed it is an universal custom among most nations. The month of May, among the ancient Romans, was consecrated to MAIA the daughter of ATLAS, and mother of MERCURY. Hall’s Chronicle mentions king Henry the eighth, and queen Catherine’s going a-maying from Greenwich to the high ground of Shooter’s-hill accompanied with many Lords and Ladies.

Robin Hood and Little John, they both are gone to fair-o;
And we will to the merry green wood, to see what they do there-o;
And for to chase-o the Buck and Doe, to chase the Buck and Doe:
And for to chase-o the Buck and Doe; with Halan tô sing merry-O.

We were up as soon as day-o for to fetch the summer home;
The summer, and the may-o, for Summer is a come-O:
And winter is a gone-o, and summer is a come-o;
And winter is a gone-o: with Halan tô sing merry O.

Those French-men that make such a boast, they shall eat the grey-goose feather;
And we will eat up all the roast in every land where e’er we go;
And we will eat up all the roast-o: Sing Halan tô, and merry O.

Saint George next shall be our Song, Saint George he was a knight-O:
Of all the kings in Christendom, King Georgy is the right-O;
In every land that e’er we go sing Halan tô, and Georgy O.
Sing Halan tô and Georgy O

Bless aunt Mary with power and might; God send us peace in merry England,
Pray send us peace both day and night forever more in merry England
Pray send us peace both day and night; with Halan tô sing merry o, with Halan to, sing merry O

Probably the before-going Ballad is only a part of the original Cornish May Song, the remainder is now forgotten; some of it evidently appears to be ancient, and part modern; that is, some verses have been added at different periods, according to the circumstances of the times, like those of God save the King. Aunt Mary, mentioned in the 5th stanza, may probably allude to Queen Mary, in whose reign, the war was not alltogether successful: Also, according to tradition there was an old Lady at Helston, whose name was Mary, who used to give libations of liquor to the inhabitants, on the eve of Flora day, thinking she was remembered in their Song.

The Town Arms of Helston, is St. MICHAEL slaying the Dragon. The common tradition is that a fiery-Dragon in days of old, threatened destruction to the Town: but that the goddess FLORA, having collected such powerful odours of flowers, whose perfumes filled the air, the monster kept aloof, and by that means the place was preserved.

Take it upon this condition;
It holds credit by tradition.

Notes on Jones’s Interpretations

This anonymous painting of the British (Welsh) School shows Edward Jones (1752-1824), also called Bardd y Brenin. The original is in Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru (The National Library of Wales). We believe the image is in the public domain.

Edward Jones (1752-1824) was well known in his day as both a musician and a collector of old music. A native of Llandderfel, Gwynedd, Wales, he moved to London in the 1770s and found success as a harpist, playing in London’s first subscription concert series with Johann Christian Bach and Karl Friedrich Abel. He became the harp tutor of choice for many wealthy Londoners, including the Prince of Wales (the future King George IV), who became his patron. Jones dedicates “The Bardic Museum” by permission to the Prince of Wales, and signs himself simply “Bard to the Prince.”

Jones does not tell us how he came to collect the text and tune of  “Cornish May Song.” However, his description of the event does not seem to have been based primarily on personal observations. Rather, much of it was clearly drawn from a 1790 account of the custom published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, in a letter from “Durgan,” which you can read at this link. This letter is the earliest known clear reference to the Helston custom. Durgan includes only a few words of the song, roughly consistent with Jones’s version of  “Hal An Tow,” and no transcription of the melody:

In the morning, very early, some troublesome rogues go round the streets with drums, or other noisy instruments, disturbing their sober neighbours and singing parts of a song, the whole of which nobody now recollects, and of which I know no more than that there is a mention in it of the ‘grey goose quill’ and of ‘going to the green wood to bring home the summer and the May o;’ and, accordingly, hawthorn flowering branches are worn in hats.

Durgan and Jones both describe many other details in very similar terms, including the custom involving carrying men to the river where they are forced to leap in; the house-visiting of the gentry to drink syllabub; and the dancing through houses, “in at one door, and out at the other.” In places, Jones’s language is so close to Durgan’s that it could be considered plagiarism.

Many of the elements described in these accounts continue to be part of the event today. The celebration is still normally held on May 8, though if May 8 falls on Sunday or Monday, the celebration is now held instead on the preceding Saturday. (This year’s celebration is on May 7!) The fact that the event has more than one name, including “Flora Day” and various more obscure names, is also still true. Durgan tells us that the day is called “Furry Day, supposed Flora’s Day.” Durgan further tells us that the dancing party is called a “Faddy,” but doesn’t attempt to explain the word. In repeating Durgan’s account, Jones applies his own skill at languages and attempts to furnish more accurate terms; he omits the term “Furry” entirely, and replaces “Faddy” with “Ffodi.” He says “Ffodi” implies prosperity, suggesting he derived the term from old Welsh “ffodion,” meaning “fortune.” This in turn implies a Common Brittonic word ancestral to Welsh “ffodion” and to the word Durgan reported as “faddy.” Jones appears to believe that this putative British word is the source of both “faddy” and “furry,” and also claims the ceremony was sometimes called “Ffynnu.” Finally, he states that some people called the celebration “Flora Day.”

The origin and meaning of the term “furry” has puzzled other scholars as well; Davies Gilbert, in the 1823 second edition of Some Ancient Christmas Carols, explains “furry” instead as a “foray” that the people were making to “bring the summer home.” Nowadays, most scholars believe it comes from Cornish fer [pl. feryow], a fair or festival day. Most interestingly, it is still known today by some as “Furry Day” and others as “Flora Day,” demonstrating that a degree of uncertainty about the traditional names of the custom has itself become a tradition!

Black and white photo of a group of people in costumes outside a church.

The Hal An Tow performers, Helston, May 8, 1959. The performers are outside the Willows in Church Street. Eric Dare, first left, is playing Friar Tuck and conducting the performance. The photo, which is  by an unknown photographer, is in the Helston museum.  

Jones also applied his linguistic gifts to the song text, particularly the line “Hal An Tow,” which was not apparently known to Durgan. In a marginal note, which you can see in the page image above, Jones explains the words “halan tô,” as he transcribes them, to mean “Calends garland.”  Where he got the idea that the phrase meant this is unclear. “Calan” in Welsh and “kalan” in Cornish do mean the first of the month, and May Day is referred to as “Calan Mai” in Welsh and “Kala’ Me” in Cornish. “Tusw” in Welsh and “toos” in Cornish mean “bouquet” or “bunch of flowers,” so Jones could have been thinking of “calan toos,” but this isn’t that close to “Hal An Tow.” As with the case of “ffodi,” it looks as if Jones, who did after all believe the custom went back to the time of ancient druids, was positing some conjectural ancient British words suggested to him by applying his knowledge of Welsh and Cornish to the obscure phrase “Hal An Tow.”

The meaning of “Hal An Tow” has since been the subject of many more guesses. Some of these include the English “heel and toe,” referring to the dance, and the Cornish “halya tohow,” which would mean haul up the roof, or “raise the roof.” This latter idea was suggested by Peter Kennedy and Inglis Gundry in Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, based on Gundry’s report that the phrase “Haile an Taw, Jolly Rumbelow” was recorded in the writings of Nicholas Boson as having been sung in Newlyn while a maypole was being erected in 1660. If the Boson reference is genuine, I myself wonder if “Hal An Tow” could derive from Cornish “halyansow” which means “heaves,” in the sense of several pulls at a tow-rope–another way in which it could apply to raising a maypole. On the other hand, I have found no account of the maypole incident in Boson’s published writings, which are online here, and all references to the account point to Gundry’s claim rather than a Boson text, so I no longer have full confidence in the claim. It’s unlikely Gundry made it up, but he didn’t supply an exact reference, so it remains a mystery. He may have been familiar with an obscure Boson text or he may have confused Boson with another Cornish writer of the era.

A group of people in colorful costumes walks up a town street toward the camera.

The Helston Hal An Tow performers on May 6, 2017. Photo by Tom. Shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

To return to the question of the song, some of the most interesting revelations of these accounts are the musical ones. The fact that the tradition includes both the “Hal An Tow” song and the “Furry Dance” is clear from both Jones’s and Durgan’s accounts, and this is still true today. Otherwise, Jones goes beyond any musical descriptions attempted by Durgan, and supplies us the first recorded text and tune of the song. Jones also introduces the term “Morrice dance” to describe the dancing, and indeed the “Furry Dance” tune and its variants are common in the morris dance tradition, something Jones apparently knew.

Most importantly for our archive, we learn from Jones that in 1802 the “Hal An Tow” song and the “Furry Dance” both used the same tune, and that it was the tune to which Lillian Short sang “Hal An Tow” 140 years later in Missouri. As we have seen, by Lillian Short’s day the Furry Dance still used that tune but the “Hal An Tow” song had adopted a different melody in Helston. The question I asked back in 2014 should therefore change. Rather than wondering when the song and the dance were combined into one, I should be seeking evidence of when they separated into distinct melodies. Although all the 20th century field recordings seem to use what we might call the newer tune, earlier transcribed versions are likely to shed light on this question–a Maytime enquiry for a future year!

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