Learn traditional Cornish songs

PUBLISHED: 15:55 17 September 2020 | UPDATED: 15:55 17 September 2020

nightingale sings a song sitting in the crown of trees , wild nature

nightingale sings a song sitting in the crown of trees , wild nature

Archant

Merv Davey is a Bard of Gorsedh Kernow which exists to maintain the national Celtic spirit of Cornwall

Sabine Baring GouldSabine Baring Gould

The Rev Sabine Baring Gould was a popular Victorian author but is particularly well known for his folk song collecting on Dartmoor and in East Cornwall. He was the parish priest and squire at Lew Trenchard overlooking the Tamar Valley and travelled the area visiting inns and farmhouses on folk song collecting expeditions. He observed that many of the songs he collected shared lyrics with songs across the English-speaking world but had very different and beautiful melodies. He explained this by suggesting that as the Cornish language ceased to be widely used in the community, so the music associated with songs in that language transferred themselves to English lyrics.

Modern historians recognise that the executions in the aftermath of the failed 1549 rebellion were targeted on those protesting a distinct Cornish cultural identity and that this was a near fatal blow to the Cornish language. It is certainly possible that fear of persecution caused people to drop the Cornish language but retain traditional melodies in the way suggested by Sabine Baring Gould. Adapting old tunes and creating new ones for popular lyrics is a recognised feature of folk tradition but there is an interesting twist to the story here. Barely two generations before Baring Gould’s folk song collecting expeditions there was a major migration from West Cornwall to the Tamar Valley and Dartmoor as a result of a boom in copper mining. It became known as ‘Greater Cornwall’ and was the beginning of the Cornish diaspora. The miners certainly brought with them and left behind cultural heritage in the form of mining terms such as “wheal” for workings. It is likely that they brought their songs as well and that this contributed to the singing heritage Baring
Gould uncovered.

The Sweet Nightingale is one of the oldest and enduringly popular songs from Cornish tradition and believed by Sabine Baring Gould and others to have originally been sung to Cornish language lyrics. It first appears in print in a collection of verse published in 1854 by James Dixon and Robert Bell. It was attributed to the singing of a Cornish miner called John Stocker, who was working in Germany. The English lyrics were probably inspired by verse from an 18th Century musical which was in turn based on older folk songs. Dixon and Bell’s collection did not include the melody. The melody was noted down with the lyrics by an E F Stevens from St Ives and sent to Sabine Baring Gould in 1892. It was described as sung throughout Cornwall at the time and remains a popular song in Cornwall and across the Cornish Diaspora today.

We do not know what the original words in Cornish might have been, but the Cornish lyrics provided by Grand Bard Talek (E G Retallack Hooper) in 1960 capture the spirit of this quaint but beautiful little song well.

1 Ow huv kolon gwra dos,

A ny glewydh y’n koos,

An eos ow kana pur hweg?

Burdhen

A ny glewydh hy lev,

A-woles a sev,

Y’n nansow ow kana mar deg?

Y’n nansow ow kana mar deg?

2 Na fyll, Betty ger,

Na vydh yn ahwer,

Dha gelorn y’n degav dhe’th vos

Burdhen

3 Ogh, gas dhymmo kres,,

My, y’n degav gans es

Ke dhe gerdhes, ny vynnav vy mos.

Burdhen

4 Esedh dhymmo, sur

Genev vy y’n leur,

Yn-mysk an brialli y’n lann .

Burdhen

5 Akordys ens i,

A dhemedhi devri,

Ha distowgh dhe’n eglos dhe vos.

Burdhen

Translation

1 My sweetheart, come a-long,

Don’t you hear the fond song,

The sweet notes of the nightingale flow

Chorus

Don’t you hear the fond tale,

Of the sweet nightingale,

As she sings in the valley below?

As she sings in the valley below?

2 Pretty Betty, don’t fail,

For I’ll carry your pail,

Safe home to your cot as we go.

Chorus

3 Pray let me alone,

I have hands of my own,

Along with you, sir, I’ll not go.

Chorus

4 Pray sit yourself down,

With me on the ground,

On this bank where the primroses grow.

Chorus

5 The couple agreed,

To be married with speed,

And soon to the church they did go.

Chorus

This article first appeared in Cornwall Life magazine. For our latest subscription offers click here

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