Song of the Day, September 6: Hal-An-Tow

WatersonHalAnTowToday’s song is Hal-An-Tow, a very old traditional song (Roud #1520) associated with the various Spring greening festivals performed in England in May. It is particularly associated with the Helston Furry Dance, one of the oldest British customs still performed today. The title means “calends garland” and refers to the floral abundance of early May. As folk singer and collector A.L. Lloyd 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…

It’s a perfect song for the Watersons’ debut album, Frost and Fire, a celebration of the seasons.

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

The-Oyster-Band-Hal-an-TowTheir version is stirring and energetic, showing off their unique family harmonies. They also included a wonderful live version on the documentary Travelling For A Living which shows just how much fun they had performing.

Many other artists have recorded the song, perhaps most famously the Oyster Band. It was their first single from the powerful album Step Outside, demonstrating their passion for traditional music and their skill at adapting the old songs to electric treatments. They use similar lyrics to those chosen by the Watersons, demonstrating the stirring power of traditional songs, no matter how they are interpreted.

Noted British traditional singer Shirley Collins also recorded a version of the song. Her first collaboration with her husband, Ashley Hutchings (of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span fame) was the splendid No Roses, featuring over 20  guest musicians under the umbrella name the Albion Country Band. On this track, Richard Thompson provides guitar and Trevor Crosier adds a quirky Jew’s harp line. Collins is in fine vocal form, ably joined by Barry Dransfield, Royston Wood, and Simon Nicol for the rousing chorus. The result is a splendid reading that fits with the experimental but loving touch given all the tracks on the album.


About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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