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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


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