For newcomers, local culture can be a hard thing to get properly into. Truthfal’s Christer Davanger helps you get started by sharing the five most important songs you should definitely get to know as a Cornishman or Cornishwoman.
Listening to folk music has for a long time been a loved and cherished part of culture for Cornish people, especially when it’s over a pint with a few mates at the local pub.
When I first came down here as an international student who’d never really lived beyond the Norwegian borders, I must admit I knew very little of Cornwall and the Cornish lifestyle, never mind traditional folk songs. I knew there were beaches and lovely scenery, and that was enough for me. I was one of THOSE people.
It took me a good two years of south-west living to expand my sense of what Cornish life and culture was, beyond that of the standard university student experience. A music enthusiast at heart, what caught my eyes (or rather, ears) was the folk music.
While Cornish folk music, might not be everyone’s favourite cup of Earl Grey, it still provides a unique and fascinating window into the culture.
However, I have now joined the ranks of the lucky ones aware of this unique part of Cornish living, it has come to my attention that a lot of my fellow students and youths seem to remain in the dark. To make it easier for these individuals to become properly familiar Cornwall and all of its treasures, below I have gathered five of the most important Cornish folk songs people ought to know.
To make sure my selection was accurate and a true representation of Cornwall, I asked Cornish folk singer Harry Glasson to help me. Glasson, who has spent over 30 years singing his own original folk songs in pubs all over Cornwall, was happy to share some of the songs he found had been the most influential and inspiring.
A Spotify account is required to listen to the songs.
Assumed to be from way back in 1910, Lamorna is a ballad named after the village in west Cornwall. It tells the story of a man who meets a lady in Albert Square, whom he immediately takes a liking to, even if her face is covered by a veil. The two flirt all night, and in the end, as they get in a horse-drawn cab, she turns out to be his wife.
The version you can hear below was recorded by legendary Cornish singer Brenda Wootton, who was known to be an international ambassador for Cornish culture.
The 1910 equivalent of your wife posing as your Tinder date. The morale of the story is, when you’re flirting with someone on a night out, make them take off their veil. Or take them wearing a face-covering veil as a red flag. Not exactly an inspirational ballad of love, but nevertheless an important part of Cornish musical culture, and one that is catchy and sing-along-appropriate at that!
Camborne Hill (also known as Goin’ Up Camborne Hill)
Popular at rugby matches and Cornish gatherings all across the world, ‘Camborne Hill’ celebrates Tregajorran-born Richard Trevithick’s steam engine ride up Camborne Hill. Quite famously, this song was sung on megaphone by a Hayle-born chief security officer during the evacuation of the World Trade Center following the terror attack, to keep morale up.
What this song manages to do is perfectly convey the emotions of the story it’s telling. Close your eyes, and you can practically feel the excitement from the passengers around you, the cold winter wind blowing through your hair, the uncertainty of whether the steam engine in front of you is going to blow you into a million pieces.
Its long-lasting appeal is definitely justified. Could potentially do great today with a club remix.
Little Eyes / Little Lize (Lil’ Lize)
A track that was brought to Cornwall by miners in the early 20th century, after having learned the song while working in the US. It grew popular in the south-west after American group Delta River Boys released it as a b-side during the 1950s, carrying the title ‘Honey, Honey’. With a few lyrics changes, this relatively modern addition made its way into the Cornish cultural heritage.
It might be the modern musical elements working, but this gets me going. It’s stuck in my head like jam and clotted cream on a scone (the jam first, of course). The little Cornish man inside me feels like grabbing a pasty, and eating it outside in the lovely Cornish spring weather, while trying not to drown.. Favourite song so far!
The Song of the Western Men / Trelawny
Perhaps the most famous Cornish folk song there is, The Song of the Western Men, often referred to as simply ‘Trelawny’, is often sung at Cornish rugby union matches. While it was based on older folk songs, its modern rendition was written by Robert Stephen Hawker.
It is a highly political song, but there is a disagreement amongst listeners about who exactly the ‘Trelawny’ in the song is referring to. Some claim it’s about Sir Jonathan Trelawny, the Bishop of Bristol, who was imprisoned by King James II in 1688 in the Tower of London, while others claim the song revolves around Trelawny’s grandfather, Sir John Trelawny, a Cornish Royalist imprisoned in 1628 by parliament.
For a song that has grown to become an unofficial anthem of Cornwall, this to me is a bit dry. I could see the appeal of it after two or six pints, though. A Brenda Wootton cover would help.
Sweet Nightingale / Down in those Valleys Below
As with so many other folk tunes, the origins of this song is unknown. Irish man Robert Bell published it in a song collection in 1846, after having heard it sung in Germany by four Cornish miners. It was apparently a tradition for miners to sing on pay-day.
The version below was recorded by The Story Republic, a group project aiming at spreading Cornish culture of songs, poems and stories.
Oh, to be a miner on pay-day! This harmonious tune is very simple, yet effective in what it does. Somewhat more poetic in its lyrics than the rest of this list, making it stand out and earn its spot in Cornish history.
Whether you’re a Cornish newcomer without a clue or you’ve lived here all of your life completely oblivious to the Cornish culture, hopefully now you feel somewhat less lost. If by some chance you don’t, and you find yourself at a pub and everyone else is singing along to one of the Cornish tunes, half-mumbling, half-cheering as you bury yourself in your pint is completely acceptable. Good luck!
Do you have any favourite Cornish folk songs? Did we miss out on any? Tell us in the comment section below, or tweet us!