May Day Revels, Part 2

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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.

Maypole from Hone's Every-Day Book, illustration probably by Cruikshank Table of Contents
Freya (different page)
Invocations
May Day Revels, Part 1 (different page)
Walpurgis Night
Customs for Children
Hawthorn Tree Songs
May Dew Songs
May Day Songs (different page)
Visiting Songs
Syllabub Recipe
May Day Revels, Part 2 (this page)
Furry Day Dances
Maypole Dancing
Tree in the Wood Songs (Summerisle or Maypole Song)
Morris Dances
#furry

Furry Day Songs and Dances

Furry 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
Padstow is a town in Cornwall, and the custom of welcoming spring with songs and a procession for the Padstow ’Obby ’Oss (Hobby Horse) is considered very ancient, but no one really knows how old it is or what the basis of it is. A lot of ink has been expended over the “Pagan” origins of it. The arguments are somewhat tenuous, nevertheless the custom of celebrating festivals with hobby horse processions is very widespread among the Indo-Europeans and certainly it is common in Celtic areas. The “Merry Morning of May” song has two parts. The Night Song is sung after midnight before the day of the celebration (May 1st); and then the Day Song is used during the day for the “’Obby ’Oss” procession. The fast part of the song which begins “Unite and unite....” is sung while the horse is dancing around and then the slow part “O where is Saint George...” is sung when he is lying down or “resting.” When the horse jumps up again, the people cry “Oss, Oss, Wee Oss!” All of the townsfolk sing this song so it has been remembered forever. The song is sung in English although it has been back-translated into Cornish. The phrase “summer is a-comen today” has a very archaic form meaning “summer has (completely) come today.” The verb is a perfective form, so that it expresses completion, and this type of verb form also occurs in the Medieval English song “Summer is icumen in” which is thought to date back to around 1250 CE, so the composition of the song may be English. The tune is considered an old Cornish tune however.

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.

fast part
Unite and unite, and let us all unite,
For summer is a-comen today.
And whither we are going we all will unite,
In the merry morning of May.

The young men of Padstow, they might if they would,
For summer is a-comen today.
They might have built a ship and gilt her all with gold
In the merry morning of May.

The maidens of Padstow, they might if they would.
For summer is a-comen today.
They might have made a garland with the white rose and the red.
In the merry morning of May.

Where are the maidens that here now should sing?
For summer is a-comen today.
They are in the meadows the flowers a-gathering,
In the merry morning of May.

slow part
Where is Saint George? O where is he, O?
He is out in his long-boat, all on the salt sea, O.
Up flies the kite, and down falls the lark, O
Aunt Ursula Birdwood, she had an old ewe,
And she died in her own Old Park, O!

Cries of
Oss, Oss, wee Oss!

fast part again
Up Merry Spring, and up the merry ring,
For summer is a-comen today.
How happy are those little birds that merrily do sing
In the merry morning of May.

Now fare you well and we bid you all good cheer,
For summer is a-comen today.
We’ll call no more unto your house before another year,
In the merry morning of May.

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.
Night Song or “The Merry Morning of May” filmed and posted by Joyce Murgatroyd on YouTube.
Day Song from 1932 archival footage on YouTube
World Library Of Folk & Primitive Music, Vol. 1: England which was recorded by Alan Lomax and has the slow and fast songs on it.
• There is also a bit of a movie made by Alan Lomax in 1953. This has good singing but there is a narrator who talks over it. Nevertheless, the explanations are very clear about what is going on.
Day Song with teasing the Blue Ribbon Oss in the Social Club on YouTube, which has good singing.

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.

2. Hal-An-Tow
There is a spring festival at Helston, another town in Cornwall, now set to the 7th or 8th of May. There are many traditional songs and dances associated with this. Of the two main versions of the Hal-An-Tow, one has the Jolly Rumbalow chorus and the other has a Buck and Doe chorus. The etymology of “hal-an-tow” is disputed, but it might be “heel and toe,” a sprightly dance step widely used in May dances.

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
It was the crest when you were born.
Your father’s father wore it
And your father wore it too.

Chorus
Hal-an-tow, jolly rumbalow!
We were up long before the day-o
To welcome in the summer
To welcome in the May-o.
The summer is a-coming in
And winter’s gone away-o.

Where are those Spaniards
That made so great a boast-o.
They shall eat the grey goose feather
And we will eat the roast-o.

As for the good knight St. George,
St. George was a knight-o.
Of all the knights in Christendom,
St. George he is the right-o!

Robin Hood and Little John
Have both gone to the fair-o.
And we will to the merry greenwood
To hunt the buck and hare-o.
[or “to see what they do there-o”]

God bless Aunt Mary Moses
And all her power and might-o.
And send us peace in Merry England
Send peace by day and night-o.

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
There is a fabulous performance of a play at Helston and you can see the Helston Play performed by townsfolk entirely on YouTube. It’s very charming though I think it may have been created to attract tourists. No harm in that and plays in which a hero kills a dragon were very common in Germanic-speaking areas in the Middle Ages and later. The song is very similar to the Hal-An-Tow song as sung by the Watersons, with some different verses which the people act out.

4. Helston Furry Dances
Yes, they are called Furry Dances, “furry” being the word for a festival or feria. These are processional dances (that is, they dance them in a long line through the town), and they are danced by the people of Helston at the annual festival. The instructions for the dance are published by Cecil Sharp in English Country Dance as the Helston Furry Processional Dance on p. 20 and pp. 34-35.

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

Maypole Dancing

How 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
A very elaborate May-pole Dance is notated in the Second Folk Dance Book by C. Ward Crampton, pp. 77-79 and he includes the notated music, a version of “Bluff King Hal” in 4/4 time.

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

May Morning by Robert Anning Bell A very typical song associated with the turn of the century May Day celebrations is an English broadside called Maypole Song, which begins “Come lasses and lads, get leave of your dads...” This is known from broadsides dating to the 17th century when the song was clearly very popular because there are many copies of it. The song is published several places with musical notation including on p. 107, “Come Lassies and Lads, Maypole Song” in Marguerite Ickis’ The Book of Festival Holidays and also in J. L. Hatton’s Songs of England, p. 122. There is a very nice performance of Come Lasses and Lads by Michael Bannett on YouTube, from the Journey Through the British Isles CD.

7. Winding the Ribbons
However, my favorite tradition for Maypole dancing can be seen in a video of a modern Pagan Beltaine celebration at Glastonbury with winding the ribbons and it looks like the most fun. There is no need to learn the dance ahead of time and everyone can participate. Drums are used to keep the time, and the video even includes a little ritual at the end. #treecircle

Tree in the Wood songs

These 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
Following are the slightly racier set of lyrics for this song from the Wicker Man movie, where it is called the Maypole Song (Summerisle). The chorus “Summerisle, Summerisle, Summerisle” was added to the song for this film; Summerisle is the imaginary island where the events in the film are supposed to have taken place.

In the woods there grew a tree
And a fine fine tree was he

And on that tree there was a limb
And on that limb there was a branch
And on that branch there was a nest
And in that nest there was an egg
And in that egg there was a bird
And from that bird a feather came
And of that feather was
A bed

And on that bed there was a girl
And on that girl there was a man
And from that man there was a seed
And from that seed there was a boy
And from that boy there was a man
And for that man there was a grave
From that grave there grew
A tree

In the Summerisle,
Summerisle, Summerisle, Summerisle wood
Summerisle wood.

Two 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,
The finest tree you ever did see,
And the green leaves grew around, around, around,
And the green leaves grew around.

And on this tree there was a limb,
The finest limb you ever did see,
The limb was on the tree,
The tree was in the wood.
And the green leaves grew around, around, around,
And the green leaves grew around.

And on this limb there was a branch,
The finest branch you ever did see,
The branch was on the limb,
The limb was on the tree,
The tree was in the wood.
And the green leaves grew around, around, around,
And the green leaves grew around.

And on this branch there was a nest,
The finest nest you ever did see, etc.

And in this nest there was an egg,
The finest egg you ever did see, etc.

And in this egg there was a yolk,
The finest yolk you ever did see, etc.

And in this yolk there was a bird,
The finest bird you ever did see, etc.

And on this bird there was a wing,
The finest wing you ever did see, etc.

And on this wing there was a feather,
The finest feather you ever did see, etc.

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
This is the Irish version of this song, though sung in English. It has the cumulative lyrics that the other versions have, but as far as I know it doesn’t go any further than the bug on the feather on the bird’s wing. The lyrics for Rattling Bog are given on the Kididdles site and there is a lively performance of Rattling Bog by Raymond Crooke with guitar on YouTube. The chorus is:

Ho, ro, the rattlin’ bog,
The bog down in the valley-o.
Ho, ro, the rattlin’ bog,
The bog down in the valley-o.
#morris

Morris Dancing

Morris 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
This song has three elements, the music, the lyrics and the actual dance steps, however, it’s a bit of a chimaera. Apparently the music of Staines Morris became associated with Maypole Dancing because William Chappell noticed that the music known from Playford’s Dancing Master (1651 edition) fit perfectly with a set of lyrics which had been known from an early play “Actaeon and Diana” by Robert Cox published in 1656. These lyrics begin, “Come, ye young men, come along, With your music, dance, and song. Bring your lasses in your hands, For ’tis that which love commands” with the chorus “Then to the Maypole, come away, For it is now a holiday.” On the strength of this, Staines Morris became a Maypole Song and that version of the song is given on Digital Tradition as Staines Morris with both words and music. It’s also in the Peter Kennedy book, as well as in Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time, Vol. 1, pp. 125-126.

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,
With your music, dance and song.
Take your partner by the hand,
And obey the Spring’s command.
Come to the May-pole, come away,
For it is a holiday.
Come to the May-pole, come away,
For it is a holiday.
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
Bonnie Green Garters or just Green Garters as it is also called, is a Morris Dance but this dance is included here because it can be danced in a circle around a Maypole. Most Morris dances are done either as a procession or as a stage performance, and cannot be made to fit the geometry of a field with a pole in the middle but this one can. However, since this dance has a complex set of steps with changes, it is usually done by trained Morris dancers, so it is more of a performance dance than a participatory activity. The dance steps for Bonny Green Garters are published in The Morris Book, Part III, by Cecil Sharp and Herbert C. MacIlwaine, p. 50, and p. 58. The music is published in Morris Dance Tunes, Pianoforte Solo, Set VI, by Cecil Sharp & Herbert C. MacIlwaine. Bonnie Green Garters was also published with the music and words in the “English Folk Dance and Song Society” Journal in 1961. Just the simple tune is available as the Bonnie Green Garters with mandolin tabs on traditionalmusic.co.uk site.

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 shoes
And here’s to our bonnie green garters
A pair for me and a pair for you
And a pair for them that comes after.
Then 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