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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
Malcolm Douglas Lyr Req: Hal n Toe? / Hal an Tow (26) RE: Lyr Req: Hal n Toe 08 Jan 00

Thankyou, Bruce! You will be familiar with the following, some of which has turned up on earlier threads:  The point I should have made more clearly is that Hal An Tow is a song associated with a single specific custom, place and time of year; it was not, so far as is known, sung anywhere else traditionally.  Of course, it has changed over the years, but presumably differing versions in print were simply written down at different times.  The earliest known printed version is from 1846, though the custom was referred to at least as early as 1790, in The Gentleman's Magazine (quoted by Charles Kightly in The Customs & Ceremonies of Britain, Thames & Hudson, 1986):

In the morning, very early, some troublesome rogues go round the streets with drums or other noisy instruments, disturbing their sober neighbours and singing parts of a song, the whole of which nobody now recollects, and of which I know no more than that there is a mention in it of the grey goose quill and of going to "the green wood to bring home the summer and the May-O": and, accordingly, hawthorne flowering branches are worn in hats.

With the folk song revival of the 1950s and '60s, songs like this one began to be sung outside their normal context, and it is perhaps at this point that new variations may have begun to creep in.  It is possible that not everybody who has performed or recorded this particular song has provided proper information as to their source; when people subsequently learn the song from them, it may become so divorced from its original context that people may be singing the song with no idea that it has a context, and fanciful "pagan" interpretations -and, indeed, interpolations- may be introduced.  That's all well and good, provided a distinction is made between "authentic" versions deriving from the ceremony and modern re-writes which are not connected with it.  That may seem pedantic to some, but this is, I think, one of those special cases.

On the subject of the title, Inglis Gundry writes, in Kennedy's Folksongs of Britain & Ireland  (1975)

The meaning of the title is disputed.  According to one theory it is "heave on the rope", an adaptation by Cornish sailors from the Dutch "Haal aan het touw" ("tow" is pronounced to rhyme with "cow" in Helston today).  Others think it might refer to the heel and toe dance of The Monk's March, which is still danced in the English Cotswold morris tradition.  Mordon (second Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd)  evidently inclined to this view, for he writes that it "has every sign of being a processional morris dance even to the slow part at the beginning of the chorus in which, when its steps were still known and used, the dancers in characteristic morris style would have spread out sideways for a few steps, waving their handkerchiefs before forming into line as before."  But it seems a pity with such a Cornish-sounding title to despair of finding a link with the old language.  In 1660 Nicholas Boson of Newlyn said that there the may-pole was set up by men singing "Haile an Taw and Jolly Rumbelow".  It looks from this as though "tow" in the 17th century rhymed with "awe" rather than with "cow".  (In Cornish "Hal an to" (taw) would appear to mean "Hoist the Roof".)

To confuse the issue further, Kightly mentions a 15th century "sea-shanty" from Bristol (no source given) which contained the following lines:

Haile and Howe, Rumbylowe
Steer well the good ship and let the wind blowe

He thinks that the custom, and the Furry Dance which takes place on the same day, is "a rare survivor of...the Robin Hood May Games once played from Cornwall to Southern Scotland".


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