• Introduction to Proto-Indo-European Religion
• Indo-European Languages
• Proto-Indo-European Goddesses
• Proto-Indo-European Myths
• Proto-Indo-European Rituals
• Festivals, Food and Farming
• May Day 1
• May Day Songs
• May Day 2
This is the second major section of May Day Revels. May Day is celebrated on May 1st for the Proto-Indo-European Goddess *Pria, the Goddess of Spring Flowers. These pages mainly address May Day Customs in the Germanic language-speaking areas, especially English, where the Goddess is known as Freya. However some songs, dances and traditions are included from Cornwall which was a traditionally Celtic-speaking area. The main topics in this section are Furry Day Songs and Dances, Maypole Dancing, the Tree in the Wood Song and a couple of Morris Dances associated with Maypole dancing. Though this work is based on linguistic research, most of the songs have been chosen because they are pretty, fun and fairly easy to learn. They are numbered for convenience of reference.
There is so much information about May Day that I have divided it into four separate pages on this website. To make it easier to find the various topics, here is a Table of Contents for all four pages.
Table of Contents
Furry Day Songs and DancesFurry Day is the name of a May Day festival very famous for its traditional customs in Cornwall, the southwest extension of the island of England. Cornish, a Celtic language, was spoken there until the 1800’s. Cornish is now spoken as a revived language, but English is the standard language. There is a set of Furry Day songs associated with this festival, but as with many folk songs, they all have the same name, e.g. Furry Day Carol, Furry Dance, etc., so I have tried to distinguish them. These songs are strongly associated with May Day celebrations, although some of the festivals are now set to May 7th or so. This is said to be because the change of calendar in 1752 has set them away from the original May 1st date but it may be for economic reasons. Small towns do better if they don’t have to compete with each other for visitors on their major festival days. Notes in the Oxford Carols say that furry is from Latin feria, which has also come into English as the word “faire” meaning a gathering for exchange. Or it may be connected to the words Freya and fairy as appears to be the case. All of Freya’s days seem to be “free” days, that is, fairs or holidays.
1. Padstow ’Obby ’Oss Music
The words only are published in Festivals by Ruth Manning-Sanders, p. 89-92. Manning-Sanders seems to have been the one who first noticed that this was Pagan. The words and music are published as #86 Can Cala Me “May Day Song” in the Peter Kennedy book on pp. 212-213. Here the words are given in Cornish (back-translated) and in English with additional explanation about the traditions on pp. 229-231. I give the words here from Manning-Sanders although the verses vary quite a bit.
There are many recordings of the songs, and videos of all the Padstow traditions on YouTube, where you can hear the songs sung. Here are a few recordings that are easy to access and where the songs can be heard fairly well.
There is a CD called Bryn Cambron available from FolkTrax in England on which Richard Gendall performs songs actually in Cornish and he sings Can Cala Me. This CD also has Hal-An-Tow (see next), Jowan Bon (John the Bone, but properly John the Good) and An Wedhen War an Vre (Tree in the Wood, further down on this page). These songs are all associated with May Day and are given with words and music in the Peter Kennedy book.
The words with the “jolly rumbalow” chorus are given for the Watersons’ version of Hal-An-Tow on the Mostly Norfolk website, with lyrics transcribed by Gerry Gillard off the CD. Variations on Hal-An-Tow include a version in Cornish. The words for Hal-An-Tow in Cornish (probably back-translated) and in English, with the music are given in the Peter Kennedy book, as #92, with additional explanations. This is a version with the buck and doe chorus. Another Furry Day Song which is different from the last one is given with the words and music in the Story of the Carol, p. 128-129, with better notation, and a slightly different rhythm. The Watersons' version of Hal-An-Tow has the lyrics as follows:
Take no scorn to wear the horn
Poor Aunt Mary Moses was surely once Saint Mary, but she got desainted after the Reformation in England. Before that she was probably a version of the Pagan Goddess of Spring, almost certainly Freya. And if you don’t happen to be in England, you can ask her to send “peace through all the land.”
Hal-An-Tow is performed by the Watersons on the Frost and Fire CD, one of my all time favorite CDs, because this was the first time I realized that traditional English folk music had a relationship to the seasons of the year. In the United States, we knew a lot of these songs or at least we had heard of them but they were like nursery rhymes or jump rope songs to us. We didn’t realize that they were connected to particular holidays. This has always been recognized by people in England, irrespective of all the arguments about reconstructing Pagan traditions. In any case there is a version of Hal-An-Tow sung in a bar by the Watersons on YouTube, which I really like because it has no accompaniment except stomping. That’s my kind of song.
3. Helston Hal-An-Tow Play
4. Helston Furry Dances
The music and dance (no words) can be seen on YouTube. The dance is performed several times during the day at Helston, the main difference being how people are dressed. For the Morning Dance at Helston, the ladies wear tea dresses and then for the Midday Dance at Helston, everyone is dressed as if they are off to Ascot. The dance is relatively simple, but a woman would have to be very athletic to dance in high heels on those cobblestones.
Maypole DancingHow to Maypole Dance
Maypole dancing is the most well known and favorite activity of May Day. Patti Wigington, on About Pagan/Wiccan.com gives clear instructions on how to Maypole dance. The most important thing is to have an even number of people, but even that is not necessary. Starhawk describes a maypole dance that started out with an odd number of people, and predictably they got all tangled up, but no one cared and they all had fun. And remember to fasten the ribbons to the pole before you set it up. Another good site, especially suitable for children is called Painted Maypole. This describes a variety of crafts and activities for May Day.
Here are some good videos that show how it can be done and how it is done. First here is a video that shows one way of raising the maypole in Austria. Americans would use a helicopter to do this. Maypole dancing is still widespread in Austria because it is still a Catholic country unlike most of the historically Germanic-speaking countries of the Old World (England, Germany, Scandinavia and the Low Countries) which are now Protestant. In the process of rejecting Catholicism they also rejected holiday traditions as being both “Pagan” and “Catholic.” Austrian maypole dancing is well represented on YouTube and quite entertaining.
Of course music will be needed to dance to, so here is some rather diddly Maypole music from RCA records which has pictures but no video. I don’t like this all that much, but it is used for teaching children, and gives an idea of what the rhythm should be. The most important thing is to keep a steady rhythm, so drums will do. Most of these songs don’t really have words, but some simple lyrics are included as much as possible because it makes it easier to remember the tunes. This is also useful because if there are no musicians it is still possible to sing the songs and dance around the Maypole to everyone’s singing as was done in the old days when the word carol meant both dancing and singing in a ring.
5. May-Pole Dance
Here are two examples of children doing Maypole dances of the more elaborate kind. These dances have to be learned, but they are very charming. The first one, of children at Bryn Mawr school in Baltimore has very pretty music, but it doesn’t show winding the ribbons. The second one is of a Spring Dance at Head-Royce and shows a very careful way of winding the ribbons in a pattern.
6. Come Lassies and Lads, Maypole Song
7. Winding the Ribbons
Tree in the Wood songsThese songs are also known by the names The Tree on the Hill, Maypole Tree, Everlasting Circle and for that matter Rattling Bog, all grouped together as ROUD 129. The song is included here because some versions are thought to encapsulate the idea of a Maypole as a phallic symbol. The song is found in various Celtic and Germanic language groups according to the notes in the Peter Kennedy book, but the original may have been in Welsh or another P-Celtic language based on the verse forms in those languages. Kennedy gives the words in Cornish (back translated), under the title “An Wedhen War an Vre,” and lists other titles such as “Ar y Bryn Daeth Pren” from Wales; “Ar parc caer” (The Fair Field) in Breton; “Le Bois Joli” in French; “Langt udi skoven” (Long out in the Wood) in Danish; and “Dert unde-n-i-der” or “On Dert steit a Birliboum” from Switzerland. The song has even been recorded from the Appalachians in the United States and also in Labrador in Canada.
8. Maypole Tree song
In the woods there grew a treeTwo performances of the song, beautifully sung by Paul Giovanni, are linked here, both from the Wicker Man movie. The first one has the Maypole Tree song with a bit from the movie which gives the explicit reason for why people associate maypoles with fertility and also shows why everyone either loves or hates this movie. The second link is just for the Maypole Tree song without the explanation.
9. Another of the closely related songs, also called the Tree in the Wood or the Everlasting Circle has the cumulative verse structure with tamer lyrics and a different chorus. The words and music for this version of the Tree in the Wood which is now at joe-offer.com which has taken over the old folkinfo.org website. You can click on the PDF button to read the music.
All in a wood there grew a tree,
And on this tree there was a limb,
And on this limb there was a branch,
And on this branch there was a nest,
And in this nest there was an egg,
And in this egg there was a yolk,
And in this yolk there was a bird,
And on this bird there was a wing,
And on this wing there was a feather,
This song has a very beautiful melody, but I couldn’t find any good performances of it which are convenient to link to. However, I did find this great performance of the Green Grass Grows All Around by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Band, which I think is fabulous and very American. This song has slightly different words and there are a few skips in the video but the tune is the same, so you can learn it from this if you like.
10. Rattling Bog
Ho, ro, the rattlin’ bog,#morris
Morris DancingMorris Dancing is not really appropriate to May Day, because Morris dancing is a type of war dance and so it is more closely associated with the May Harvest. This is another major festival with its own set of songs. In my view, Morris dancing is traditional among Indo-Europeans for the protection of the grain crop as it is ripening. The May Harvest was extremely important to the western Indo-Europeans who harvested their winter grains in the spring typically in May, but of course the exact date varied according to the climate and weather. However, the May Harvest festival often combined elements with the May Day (Spring flower) festivals, and in any case, Morris dancing was done in England at any time of year because it was fun and gave the gentleman an excuse to show off for the ladies or for other gentlemen. With this in mind, there are two Morris dances that are especially associated with Maypole dancing: the Staines Morris and Bonny Green Garters.
11. Staines Morris
There is a simpler set of lyrics for children given by Marguerite Ickis, p. 110. These are much less mannered (i.e. less dorky) than the lyrics which have been floating around since the late Renaissance but they may not be authentic.
Come, ye children, come along,The original Playford dance (of 1651) is described by Masato Sakurai in a mudcat thread as a “kissing-dance of processional type sufficiently appropriate to May-day.” The instructions for this dance have been republished in a modern edition of The English Dancing Master by John Playford, 1651; edited by Hugh Mellor, London, 1933; republished by Dance Horizons, NY, (no date), p. 87.
There are two good performances of Staines Morris on YouTube. One is of the Staines Morris done as a Morris dance by the Westminster Morris Men. The other is of the Staines Morris song with the “Come, ye young men, come along....” lyrics on the CD Morris On with Shirley Collins on vocals. The music, with its step, step, step, hop rhythm, is perfect for the more formal maypole dancing and it is often used for that. However, when the dancers have just come to have fun and are not trained, they usually just walk throughout, especially as the ribbon winding tightens down.
12. Bonny Green Garters
There are several good performances of Bonny Green Garters on YouTube. The first one is by a very good Morris team, the Gloucestershire Morris Men doing Bonny Green Garters. They first sing the words so that the musicians will know what to play:
Here’s to our stockings and here’s to our shoesThen they begin dancing and enter the field in two lines until at a certain point, they turn and begin to dance in a circle. That is the part of the dance that could be done around a Maypole. The second video is from a Mixed Morris Ale doing Bonny Green Garters in Greenwich, CT. The quality of the video is not as good, however I really like this one because it includes both men and women and a few children and they look like they are having fun. It is not possible to see the turn in this film because the camera pans away to look at the musicians at exactly that point and then it turns back. But this is a less complex version of the dance, without the interlacing figures, so it might be possible to learn it by watching. It’s very vigorous but I think some people might like to do this dance.
In case you are wondering, a “garter” was any bit of cloth woven in narrow strips and so it applied to ribbons as well as to the straps that men use to hold their trousers up. It is also the name for garter snakes which have a “ribbon” down their backs, in red, yellow or green. Here it probably refers to green ribbons which people often wore when May dancing. Nevertheless the mention of an item of ladies’ underwear has inspired a great deal of extremely sophomoric humor, and should you wish to learn some additional verses, see this thread about green garters on Mudcat, a forum for scholarly discussions of folk music.
And finally I thought everyone might like to know there is an entire ABC library of Morris Tunes on the internet. They can be copied into an ABC interpreter, like the ABC Converter which is now at the mandolintab.net website (organized by Simon Becker), and then the music can just be printed out as a PDF file, though there is no midi button where you can listen to it. And many thanks to Jon Freeman for all the work he did at folkinfo.org.
So I hope you like all this happy, cheerful music and a joyful May Day to you!!!
References for May Day Revels, Part 2• The Book of Festival Holidays, by Marguerite Ickis, Dodd, Mead & Co., NY, 1964.
• The English Dancing Master by John Playford, 1651; ed. by Hugh Mellor, London, 1933; republ. by Dance Horizons, NY, (no date).
• English Country Dance, by Cecil J. Sharp, Novello and Co., Ltd., London, 1919.
• English Folk Dance and Song Society Journal (EFDSS), London, 1961.
• English Minstrelsie, ed. by S. Baring-Gould, T. C. Jack, Grange Publ. Works, Edinburgh, 1896, (8 vol. with index in last vol.)
• Festivals, compiled (and partly written) by Ruth Manning-Sanders, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., NY, 1973.
• Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, ed. by Peter Kennedy, Oak Publications, NY, 1984.
• The Morris Book, Part III, by Cecil Sharp and Herbert C. MacIlwaine, Novello & Co., London, 1924.
• Morris Dance Tunes, Pianoforte Solo, Set VI, by Cecil Sharp & Herbert C. MacIlwaine, Novello & Co. Ltd., London, c. 1910.
• Oxford Book of Carols, ed. by Percy Dearmer, R. Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw, Oxford University Press, London, 1928, 1964
• Popular Music in the Olden Time; by William Chappell; Cramer, Beale & Chappell, London, 1859 (2 vol.).
• Second Folk Dance Book by C. Ward Crampton, A.S. Barnes Co., N.Y., 1916
• Songs of England by J. L. Hatton, Boosey & Co., London, (late 1800's).
• Story of the Carol by Edmondstoune Duncan, The Walter Scott Publishing Co., Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1907.
© 2012, last updated 5/4/2013, on piereligion.org/mayday2.html