Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Watersons: Hal-an-Tow

The folk singer Mike Waterson died last week. He was a member of the family group the Watersons, described in a tribute by the Guardian Music blog as:
the Yorkshire singing family whose dynamic voices and instinctive harmonies galvanised the nascent folk scene back in the day and whose early career was guided by the great folklorist Bert Lloyd.

"He asked us to sing a song once, which we did, and then he asked us to sing it again," Mike told me, recalling early days with his sisters Lal and Norma. "When he asked us to do it yet again we said are we doing it wrong? He said: 'No, it's pure indulgence because it's giving me so much enjoyment.'

He told us we had wonderful mixolydian harmonies. We all looked at each other and when we got home we went to Hull Library to find out what it meant."
This song is taken from a 1966 documentary about The Watersons, filmed by the new BBC2 in 1966. Rob Young writes in his Electric Eden:
It's a rare visual record of the folk scene at that moment. Fly-on-the-wall cameras inveigle themselves into The Watersons' terraced house in Hull, where mountains of books jostle for space with LPs by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

What's most interesting is the musicians' awareness of their own position as pretenders to an established tradition. The films shows the group visiting Cecil Sharp House and studying various old cylinder recordings, reinforcing their entitlement to be seen as "authentic" singers because they see this connection with the older revivalists.
Hal-an-Tow forms part of the Helston Furry Dance celebrations each year:
This feature of the day is distinct from the Furry dance and, owing to its association with drunken revels in the 19th century, fell in disrepute and decay. In 1930 it was happily and decorously revived by the Helston Old Cornwall Society, and is now one of the interesting events connected with Flora day. Some antiquarians declare that Hal-an-Tow may be the oldest part of the days proceedings. Whether this is correct or not, there can be no doubt that it is a further expression of the reason for the day's rejoicings. "For Summer is a come O, and the Winter is a Gone O."

Very early in the morning youths go out into the neighbouring woods to gather branches of sycamore. they return at 8.30 a.m., and waving the branches above their heads perambulate the town, stopping at places of vantage to sing the Hal-an-Tow song. Some youths dress in costume to represent the characters in the song.

Morton Nance, the late Grand bard of Cornwall, suggests that the delightful old song seems likely to be Elizabethan rather than much older. the words in the chorus, "Hal-an Tow, Jolly Rumble O" appear to have come from a mediaeval seaman's shanty, while the verses are all in the English tradition and have no special Cornish flavour about them.

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