A hidden treasure revealed
By Tehmina Goskar
Song of the Chough
Black is the Chough’s colour,
Red are its singing beak and legs,
Still alive on Cornish cliffs,
Although people say it is dead.
He is not dead,
He is not dead,
King Arthur is not dead!
This is the translation of a remarkable Cornish song found tucked away in the Jenner Room in the Morrab Library. While examining the music pamphlets drawer for something completely other, I came across two slips of paper in an original copy of Dr Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Dialect and Folk Songs, 1932. One is a letter from Dunstan to Henry Jenner, father of the Cornish language revival and founding bard of Gorsedh Kernow. The other is a beautifully penned musical manuscript of a song called Can Palores (Chough’s Song) composed (or arranged) by Dunstan. The book was inscribed by Dunstan to Jenner, dated 16 July 1932.
Dr Ralph Dunstan was born in Carnon Downs on 17 November 1857. He learned to play the bassoon, violin, organ and more. Dunstan became a music teacher at Westminster Training College and won a doctorate from Cambridge. He published widely on the theory of music and in particular composition and harmony. Dunstan was also a Cornishman, alive during an incredibly vibrant period for the Celtic-Cornish movement that saw the establishment of the first Old Cornwall Society in St Ives in 1920, the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies in 1924, and Gorsedh Kernow in 1928. He spent his retirement devoted to Cornish musical matters.
The musical manuscript found at the Morrab is fleeting, barely 12 bars long. It is scored in D major and seems to be arranged for harmony singing—arrangements familiar to those who have studied Dunstan’s other arrangements of Cornish songs (see his Cornish Song Book or Lyver Canow Kernewek, 1929).
The last line of the refrain, ‘King Arthur is not dead!’ is a motto that we find on some Cornish language publications of this period and it appears with a chough in the middle forming an emblem. The imagery and the words are tied up with the Cornish lore of King Arthur whose soul is said to reside in a Cornish chough.
Robert Morton Nance, a key protagonist of the Cornish movement, and a correspondent of Dunstan, used this emblem on several of his pamphlets. Dunstan himself became deeply interested in Arthurian ballads when he moved back to Cornwall.
Its single verse, in the style of Cornish that was being used for the language revival in the 1920s, suggests there were others. A search in the newspaper archives gives us an intriguing clue as to what this song might have been used for. The Western Morning News of 17 September 1932 contains an article by a correspondent called Cornishwoman. It describes a Celtic song, dance and theatrical concert performed at the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro under Dunstan’s direction.
The article refers to a Cornish interlude called An Balores (the Chough) in which Phoebe Nance took part. Phoebe Nance (Morwennol—Sea Swallow) from Carbis Bay was made a bard of the Gorsedh the week before. Could it have been Phoebe that performed Can Palores during her interlude? The evidence is compelling. In the same year, 1932, Robert Morton Nance (Mordon) – Phoebe’s father –published a short play called An Balores and it ends with a three-verse song that finishes with the refrain, “Nyns yu marrow Myghtern Arthur!”
The letter, dated 18 July 1932, leaves a clue to the vast collection of unpublished material that Dunstan said he still had in his possession. “I have many other Cornish Songs of various kinds – several from Jim Thomas — I see no hope of ever publishing them in complete form with accompaniments.” Jim Thomas was a massively important figure for Dunstan during his collection of Cornish music and song of the type that took place in village halls, at chapel tea treats and mostly, in pub sessions up and down the Duchy. He goes on to describe the kind of book he would have liked to have published next, a Pocket Companion of Cornish Songs, and what would be in it. The letter itself does not refer to Can Palores.
Ralph Dunstan died on 2 April 1933, not long after writing the letter to Henry Jenner, and his Pocket Companion was never published. Dunstan’s own personal archive was apparently either burned by his daughter after his death or according to another report, left to go damp in a garden gazebo. Whichever is true, these two original survivals become all the more precious.
An Balores du hy lyw,
Ruth ha’y gelvyn can ha’y gar-row,
War als Ker-now whath a vew,
Kyn leverer hy bos marrow.
Nyns yu marrow,
Nyns yu marrow,
Nyns yu marrow Myghtern Arthur!
(Translation above courtesy of Cornish Language Office, Cornwall Council).
For information on interpreting the music and understanding Ralph Dunstan’s context, our sincere thanks to:
– Merv Davey, Folk Songs & amp; Music Recorder, Federation of Old Cornwall Societies
– Anna Dowling, Violinist, Singer and Composer
– Steve Penhaligon, Keur Heb Hanow
– Karin Easton, Perranzabuloe Museum and President of Federation of Old Cornwall Societies
– Pol Hodge, Cornish language scholar and poet, Golden Tree Productions
Tehmina Goskar, May 2019. For correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org