horn pipe

Music of Cornwall

Cornwall has been historically Celtic, though Celtic-derived traditions had been moribund for some time before being revived during a late 20th century roots revival.


In medieval Cornwall there are records of performances of ‘Miracle Plays’ in the Cornish language, with considerable musical involvement. Also (as frequently mentioned in the Launceston borough accounts) minstrels were hired to play for saints day celebrations. The richest families (including Arundell, Bodrugan, Bottreaux, Grenville, and Edgecumbe) retained their own minstrels, and many others employed minstrels on a casual basis. There were vigorous traditions of morris dancing, mumming, guising, and social dance.

Then followed a long period of contention which included the Cornish Rebellion of 1497, the 1549 Prayer Book Rebellion, the Persecution of Recusants, the Poor Laws, and the Civil War and Commonwealth (1642-1660). The consequences of these events disadvantaged many gentry who had previously employed their own minstrels or patronised itinerant performers. Over the same period in art music the use of modes was largely supplanted by use of major and minor keys. Altogether it was an extended cultural revolution, and it is unlikely that there were not musical casualties.

However, a number of manuscripts of dance music from the period 1750 to 1850 have now been found which tell of renewed patronage, employment of dancing masters, and a repertoire that spanned class barriers. Seasonal and community festivals, mumming and guising all flourished.

In the 19th century, the nonconformist and temperance movements, frowning on dancing and music, encouraged the demise of many customs, but fostered the choral and brass band traditions. Some traditional tunes were used for hymns and carols. Church Feast Days and Sunday School treats were widespread - a whole village processing behind a band of musicians leading them to a picnic site, where ‘Tea Treat Buns’ (made with smuggled saffron!) were distributed. This left us a legacy of cheerful marches and polkas. Records exist of dancing in farmhouse kitchens, and in fish cellars Cornish ceilidhs called troyls were common, they are analogous to the fest-noz of the Bretons. Some community events survived, such as at Padstow and at Helston, where to this day, on May 8th, the townspeople dance the 'Furry Dance’ through the streets, in and out of shops - and even through peoples' houses. Thousands converge on Helston to witness the spectacle.

Folk songs include Sweet Nightingale, Little Eyes, and Lamorna. Few traditional Cornish lyrics survived the decline of the language. In some cases lyrics of common English songs became attached to older Cornish tunes. Some folk tunes have Cornish lyrics written since the language revival of the 1920s. Sport has also been an outlet for many Cornish folk songs, and Trelawny, the unofficial Cornish national anthem, is often sung by Cornish rugby fans, along with other favourites such as Camborne Hill and The White Rose. The Cornish anthem that has been used by Gorseth Kernow for the last 75 plus years is "Bro Goth Agan Tasow ("The Land of My Fathers", or, literally, "Old Country of our Fathers") with a similar tune to the Welsh national anthem ("Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau") and the Breton national anthem. "Bro Goth Agan Tasow" is not heard so often, as it is sung in Cornish. Another popular Cornish anthem is "Hail to the Homeland".

Cornish dances include community dances such a 'furry dances', social (set) dances, linear and circle dances originating in karoles and farandoles, and step dances - often competitive. Among the social dances is 'Joan Sanderson’, the cushion dance from the 19th century, but with 17th century origins.

Cornish music is often noted for its similarity to that of Britanny; some older songs and carols share the same root as Breton tunes. From Cornwall, Brittany was more easily accessible than London. Breton and Cornish were (and are) mutually intelligible. There was much cultural and marital exchange between the two countries and this influenced both music and dance.


Cornish musicians have used a variety of traditional instruments. Documentary sources and Cornish iconography (as at Altarnun church on Bodmin Moor and St. Mary's, Launceston suggest a late-medieval line-up might include an early fiddle (crowd), bombarde (horn-pipe), bagpipes and harp. The bodhrán (crowdy crawn in Cornish) and fiddle (crowd in Cornish) were popular by the 19th century. In the 1920s there was a serious school of banjo playing in Cornwall. After 1945 accordions became progressively more popular, before being joined by the instruments of the 1980s folk revival. In recent years Cornish bagpipes have enjoyed a progressive revival.

Modern scene

Modern Cornish musicians include the former Cornish folk singer Brenda Wootton, the Cornish-Breton family band Anao Atao and the 1980s band Bucca. Pioneering [Techno] artist Richard D.James aka Aphex Twin/The Tuss is possibly the most internationally renowned contemporary Cornish musician, regularly naming tracks in the Cornish language. Along with friend and collaborator Luke Vibert and business partner Grant Wilson-Claridge, James has crafted a niche of 'Cornish Acid' affectionately identified with his home region. Bands such as Dalla and Sowena are associated with the noze looan movement of Cornish dance and music, which focuses on audience participation whilst negating the need for a caller. Troyls (generally with a caller) occur across the county with bands including Asteveryn (formerly Cam Kernewek), the Bolingey Troyl band, Hevva (with Cat in the Bag) and Pyba. Skwardya and Krena play rock, punk and garage music in the Cornish language. The Cornwall Songwriters organisation has since 2001 produced two folk operas 'The Cry of Tin' and 'Unsung Heroes'

The Cornwall Folk Festival has been held annually for more than three decades and in 2008 was staged at Wadebridge. Other festivals are the pan-Celtic Lowender Peran and midsummer festival Golowan. Cornwall won the PanCeltic Song Contest three years in a row between 2003 and 2005.

  • 2003: Naked Feet
  • 2004: Keltyon Byw
  • 2005: Krena

Also cornwall has a selction of up and coming young bands such as "Heart in one hand" and "The small print".

Cornish music and language radio

Cornish music radio can be found on "Radyo an Gernewegva" and features such artists as Dalla, Bagas Degol, Cam Kernewek, Leski, Ahanan, Julie Elwin, Phil Knight, Ryb an Gwella, Sowena, Captain Kernow and the Jack and Jenny Band, Quylkyn Tew, Gwenno, Skwardya and Trev Lawrence.


See also

External links

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