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Cornish carols: Heritage in California and South Australia

Cornish carols: Heritage in California and South Australia

Kate Neale, University of Exeter

Key findings

  • Cornish carols remain a part of diaspora communities in both California and South Australia.
  • Heritage is not static, but is part of a process, or dialogue between the past and the present.
  • The cultural meanings and significances given to heritage shift over time.


This research examines Christmas carols as heritage in the Cornish diaspora. Emerging from the same carolling tradition in Cornwall, labour migration during the 19th century resulted in the transfer and development of this musical practice in two key diasporic locations; namely, Grass Valley, California, and the Copper Triangle, in South Australia.

Interest in the local performance of musical repertoire is growing at a grass roots level in Cornwall, and carols continue to be seen as part of Cornish (and other) heritage in these overseas communities. This study traces and compares the diverging developments of the musical form, and the practices and cultural narratives associated with and emerging from its performance in these locations. Heritage theory and ethnomusicological methodologies provide a nuanced account of these diasporic Cornish carolling traditions, and helps us to see that carols offer a compelling case study of how heritage operates as a process that engenders cultural meanings and significances that shift in orientation and emphasis.

The study begins by examining the musical materials of Cornish carols, discussing the selection and development of repertoires particular to each location. Secondly, it explores the emergence of particular cultural narratives around the carols and their performers, finding that the traditions developed new performance practices, contexts and cultural significances. Finally, it explores contemporary perspectives of the carols as local and other heritages in their present day contexts of revival and re-enactment. Combining archival and ethnographic research, it shows that the differing trajectories of the carol traditions in each location show us how notions of heritage may emerge, shift, and develop over time within a musical context.

» Read full paper at Online Research @ Cardiff (ORCA)