> The Watersons > Songs > Hal-an-Tow
> Shirley Collins > Songs > Hal-an-Tow
> The Albion Band > Songs > Hal-an-Tow

Hal-an-Tow

[ Roud 1520 ; Ballad Index K092 ; trad.]

Canow Kernow Everyman's Book of English Country Songs The Everlasting Circle Songs of the West Room for Company

The Watersons sang Hal-an-Tow on their 1965 LP Frost and Fire. It was also included on the Topic CD sampler The Season Round and in 2004 on the Watersons' 4CD anthology Mighty River of Song A.L. Lloyd commented in the original album's sleeve notes:

The green calendar of spring has many songs. dances and shows, particularly around the opening days of May. Here and there are clear traces of old cults and superstitions (well-dressing against droughts, etc.) but generally their original meaning is lost. So the customs are transformed into ritual spectacles, festivities, distractions, opportunities for a good time, such as the old May Games that once comprised four sections: the election and procession of the May king and queen: a sword or Morris dance of disguised men; a hobby horse dance; a Robin Hood play. The Hal-an-Tow song was sung for the procession that ushered in the summer. A variant of it still accompanies the Helston Furry Dance on 8 May.

Note that the first verse (“Take the scorn…”) is not from the Helston tradition. It comes from Shakespeare's play As You Like It, Act 4, Scene 2.

The Watersons also sang Hal-an-Tow in 1965 on their BBC TV documentary video Travelling for a Living with another first verse written by Mike Waterson; this can be found on YouTube now:

Australian radio presenter, singer and archaeologist Bob Hudson noted:

The term “halan” means “calends,” or first of the month, and “tow” means “garland”. This is No. 135, under the title Helston Furry Dance, in Palmer's Everyman's Book of English Country Songs.

Source-note: Frost and Fire gives no indication as to where the Watersons may have learned Hal-an-Tow, but in his notes to the album, A. L. Lloyd states, “A variant of [this song] still accompanies the Helston Furry Dance on 8 May.” The LP Songs of Ceremony (The Folk Songs of Britain, Volume 9, 12T197, 1971) has precisely that variant. (Note that “variant” is the correct word here. Although the tune is basically the same as the one the Watersons sing, a fifth line is added to both the stanza and chorus that is not present in the Watersons' version.) The recording does not indicate who made the tape or when. My guess, based on other sources, is that it was recorded by the BBC on 8 May 1944.

In the town of Helston, Cornwall, May 8 is called Furry Day (the Feast of St. Michael), and a procession is held each year. Early in the morning, in former times, a group of revellers would rise early in the morning, gather green boughs, and dance through the city streets. The revellers themselves were referred to as Hal-an-Tow. In recent times, the celebration consists of a kind of snake dance through the streets—and even in the front door of some residences and out the back.

This recording from the Helston May festivities by Peter Kennedy can also be found on the 1982 Saydisc LP All Round England & Back Again. The sleeve notes don't mention when this recording took place but according to the Roud Index it may have been the one on 7 May 1959 (BBC recording 25951) [VWML RoudFS/S183760] .

Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band sang Hal-an-Tow in 1971 on their album No Roses. This track was also included in 1991 on the Mooncrest compilation Walking on the Moon and in 1997 on the Castle anthology New Electric Muse II. Shirley Collins commented in her liner notes:

Sung as a part of the May celebration in Helston, Cornwall.

Hal-an-Tow is an ancient ritual song, well known perhaps because of The Oysterband version. I learned mine from a 1951 field recording, again from the BBC archives. Does it mean “heel-and-toe“ as part of the dance? I'm not sure—I like the mystery of words that have been unconsciously altered and made strange in the process of being handed down by word of mouth over the centuries. Nobody really knows precisely what they mean, there's an echo there of things past, which is a great part of their charm.

Martyn Wyndham-Read, Geoff and Pennie Harris and Arky's Toast sang the Furry Day Carol in 1976 on their Trailer album Maypoles to Mistletoe.

The Oyster Band sang Hal-an-Tow in 1988 on their Cooking Vinyl album Wide Blue Yonder.

Jon Boden sang Hal-an-Tow as the 2 May 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He commented in the blog:

Well known as a Watersons’ number. It actually appears, albeit in a very different form, in As You Like It [Act 4, Scene 2], […] whence comes the first verse in this version.

Stephen Winick argues quite convincing in his May 2017 blog “Hal An Tow”: Some Intriguing Evidence on a May Song that the Shakespeare verse connection to this song originates from Reginald Nettel's 1954 book Sing a Song of England. In it, both were printed on the same page (page 55, to be precise) without a clear separation.

Mike Block sang Hal an Tow on his 2016 CD Brisk & Breezy.

Lisa Knapp sang Till April Is Dead / Hal-an-Tow as the title track of her 2017 CD Till April is Dead: A Garland of May. She noted:

Folklore is an engrossing subject I find and I came across many of these adage and aphorisms in the book The English Year by folklorist and historian Steve Roud. My imagination fired up I started searching around and discovered one from Spain. Asking friends from further afield I found very similar sayings and beliefs hailing from France and Germany and one from Ireland referencing the Celtic May festival of bealtaine. The similarities struck me, I love how ideas, beliefs and customs cross borders of country and language. Playing around with the spoken rhymes I joined them to some verse of the Hal-an-Tow, a song performed as part of a mystery play on Flora Day in Helston, Cornwall. I'm struck by the supernatural image of ‘St Michael with his wings outstretched’ and the way they “welcome in the summer, welcome in the May O”. The 8th May is celebrated with the Furry Dance through the town.

Jon Wilks talked with Lisa Knapp about Hal-an-Tow on May 1 2020 in Episode 8 of his Old Songs Podcast.

Lyrics

The Watersons sing Hal-an-Tow
on Frost and Fire
The Watersons sing Hal-an-Tow
in Travelling for a Living

Take the scorn to wear the horn
It was the crest when you was born
Your father's father wore it
And your father wore it too

Since man was first created
His works have been debated
We have celebrated
The coming of the Spring

Chorus (after each verse):
Hal-an-tow, jolly rumble O
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

Chorus (after each verse):
Hal-an-tow, jolly rumble O
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

What happened to the Spaniards
That made so great a boast O?
Why they shall eat the feathered goose
And we shall eat the roast O

Take the scorn to wear the horn
It was the crest when you was born
Your father's father wore it
And your father wore it too

Robin Hood and Little John
Have both gone to the fair O
And we will to the merry green wood
To hunt the buck and hare O

God bless Aunt Mary Moyses
And all her power and might O
And send us peace to England
Send peace by day and night O

God bless Aunt Mary Moyses
And all her power and might O
And send us peace to England
Send peace by day and night O

Shirley Collins sings Hal-an-Tow Helston recording

Robin Hood and Little John
They both are gone to fair O
And we will to the greenwood
To see what they do there O
And for to chase O
To chase the buck and doe

Robin Hood and Little John
Are both gone to the fair O
And we will to the merry greenwood
To see what they do there O
And for to chase O
To chase the buck and doe

Chorus (after each verse):
Hal-an-tow, jolly rumble O
For we are up as soon as any day O
For to fetch the summer home
The summer and the May O
For summer is a-coming in
And winter is a-gone

Where are the Spaniards
That made so great a boast O?
Why they shall eat the goose feather
And we shall eat the roast O
In every land O
The land where'er we go

Chorus (after each verse):
Hal-an-tow, jolly rumble O
For we were up as soon as any day O
And for to fetch the summer home
The summer and the May O
For summer is a-come O
And winter is a-gone O

And as for our good knight St. George
St. George he was a knight O
Of all the knights in Christendom
St. George he is the right O
In every land O
The land where'er we go

As for St. George O
St. George he was the knight O
Of all the knights in Christendom
St. George he had the right O
In every land O
The land where'er we go

But for a greater than St. George
Our Helston has the right O
St. Michael with his wings outspread
The archangel so bright O
Who fought the fiend O
Of all mankind the foe

God bless Aunt Mary Moyses
And all her power and might O
And send us peace in England
Send peace by day and night O
In merry England
Both now and evermore

Job Boden sings Hal-an-Tow Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 4, Scene 2

What shall we have that kill the deer?
His leather skin and horns to wear
Then sing him home without a care
The rest shall bear this burden

Take no scorn to wear the horn
It was the crest when you was born
Your father's father wore it
And your father wore it too

Chorus (after each verse):
Hal-an-tow, jolly rumble O
We were up long before the day O
To welcome in the summer,
To welcome in the May O
For summer is a-coming in
And winter's gone away O

What happened to the Spaniards
That made so brave a boast O?
Oh they shall eat the feathered goose
And we shall eat the roast O

Now Robin Hood and Little John
They both went to the fair O
And we shall to the jolly green wood
To hunt the buck and hare O

God bless Aunt Mary Moses
And all her power and might O
And send us peace to England
Send peace by day and night O

Second Lord (sings)
What shall he have that killed the deer?
His leather skin and horns to wear.
Then sing him home.
(The rest shall bear this burden.)
Take thou no scorn to wear the horn.
It was a crest ere thou wast born.
Thy father’s father wore it,
And thy father bore it.
The horn, the horn, the lusty horn
Is not a thing to laugh to scorn.

Acknowledgements and Links

Transcribed from the singing of the Watersons by Garry Gillard

See alson the Mudcat Café thread What does 'Hal an Tow' mean?; it contains links to all the Mudcat files about this; notably Malcolm Douglas's contribution in another thread, Lyr Req: Hal n Toe? / Hal an Tow.

See also John McMahon's May 2020 blog #AFolkSongAFortnight No.1: Hal-an-Tow and Steve Winick's May 2017 blog “Hal An Tow”: Some Intriguing Evidence on a May Song.