Welsh Folk and Traditional Songs: A Rich Musical Heritage
Land of Song
Wales is often referred to as the Land of Song, with good reason. Choral music is a wonderful part of Welsh culture. The country has long been famous for its male choirs. Hymn singing is another valued tradition, even by people who don't attend church regularly. Welsh folk music has experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent times. Folk songs are often accompanied by the harp, which is sometimes considered to be the national instrument of Wales.
Most of the songs described below were part of my childhood. Some of the lyrics are in Welsh and others in English, just as I encountered them while growing up in South Wales. The songs are classified as either folk or traditional songs. The difference between these two genres is fuzzy, but a folk song is often older, has an unknown composer, and was spread orally before being published. Both types of songs are a valuable part of the rich musical heritage of Wales.
Location of Wales
Cardiff is the capital city of Wales and is located at the southern border of the country. The Welsh name for the country is Cymru, which is pronounced kumree.
Wales Is a Country in Great Britain and the United Kingdom
- Great Britain, or Britain, is an island consisting of three countries—England, Wales, and Scotland.
- The United Kingdom, or the UK, consists of Great Britain and the country of Northern Island.
- The four constituent countries in the United Kingdom are united by one monarch, one prime minister, and one set of MPs (Members of Parliament).
- The National Assembly for Wales has the power to pass some types of legislation without consulting the UK parliament. Scotland and Northern Ireland have similar organizations.
- Travellers can move freely between the countries in the UK, making them like provinces in Canada or states in America for practical purposes.
- The Republic of Ireland, or simply Ireland, is located on the same land mass as Northern Ireland but is not part of the United Kingdom.
Praise the Lord! We are a musical nation.— Reverend Eli Jenkins in Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers)
Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau is the national anthem of Wales. The title of the song means Old Land of My Fathers, although the word old is generally left out of the English translation. Phonetically, the Welsh title is pronounced "hen oo-lad vur n’had-eye".
The song is powerful and moving, especially when sung by a large group of people. It's wonderful to hear and to sing. Singers and poets, brave warriors, the country of Wales, and the Welsh language are all celebrated in the song. The anthem has become a rallying song at international football and rugby games.
The song was created in 1856 by two Welshmen. Evan James wrote the lyrics and his son James James composed the tune. The song wasn't created as an anthem but became one as it grew in popularity. The Welsh lyrics and an English translation are shown in the video below.
The Welsh National Anthem
Wales is a bilingual country. Many people can speak both Welsh and English, although they may be more fluent in one language than the other. Both languages are taught in schools. Some schools go beyond teaching Welsh only in a language class and teach some of the other courses in the curriculum in Welsh.
Men of Harlech (Rhyfelgyrch Gwŷr Harlech)
Men of Harlech is both a song and a military march. It describes a seige of Harlech Castle in North Wales. The most popular idea is that the song refers to the longest seige in British history, which lasted from 1461 to 1468 during the time of the War of the Roses. During the seige, the castle occupants prevented an attack by potential invaders. In most versions of the song, Welshmen are the heroes in the castle who will "never yield". In others, however, they are British.
Charlotte Church Sings Men of Harlech
Ensemble singers and solo vocalists are a source of pride for Welsh people today. Charlotte Church, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Bryn Terfel, and Katherine Jenkins are Welsh vocalists that have become well known in the UK and internationally. Charlotte Church started her career in her childhood by singing classical songs from the adult repertoire. She was known for her vocal range. Today she sings pop songs.
Sosban Fach (Little Saucepan)
I learned Sosban Fach in school at an early age and always loved singing it. The song is popular today with rugby players and spectators as well as the general public. It's sometimes considered to be an enjoyable nonsense song as well as a folk song.
The song describes events in the life of a family, beginning with the fact that Mary Ann has hurt her finger and continuing with a description of some other minor disasters. Two saucepans filled with boiling water make repeated appearances. At some stage in the story we are told that little Dai is a soldier with his shirt tails hanging out. The story often—but not always—ends with peace returning to the household. Different versions of the lyrics exist. Some are more nonsensical than others.
The pronunciation of "fach" in the title of the song is unusual for someone who hasn't heard Welsh before. The f is pronounced like the English v, as in very, and the a like ah. The ch is not pronounced like the ch in chair. It's an aspirated sound that sounds like the ch in the word loch.
The performer in the video below is Paul Carey Jones, a baritone and an opera singer. He performs a humorous version of the song after giving a brief introduction in Welsh.
The baby in the cradle is crying,
And the cat has scratched little Johnny.
A little saucepan is boiling on the fire,
A big saucepan is boiling on the floor...— Traditional lyrics of Sosban Fach
A Humorous Version of Sosban Fach
All Through the Night (Ar Hyd y Nos)
I heard this song mainly in the English version while growing up, although I was familiar with the Welsh title. The song is classified as a folk song and a hymn. It's also sung as a lullaby and a Christmas carol. The English lyrics are not a literal translation of the Welsh ones. Both songs present the idea that we are still connected to God or the heavenly realm while we're sleeping, however.
The tune was first published in 1784. As is the case with many folk songs, the composer is unknown. The Welsh lyrics that are most often sung today were written by John Ceiriog Hughes (1832-1887), a poet, lyricist, and folk song collector. The most common English lyrics were written by Sir Harold Boulton in 1884. This is the version that I'm familiar with. The video below contains a beautiful Welsh rendition of the song by Bryn Terfel. He's a base-baritone and an opera singer.
Sleep my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night— Sir Harold Boulton
Bryn Terfel Sings Ar Hyd y Nos
Dafydd Y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock)
David or Dafydd Owen was a real harpist of the eighteenth century. He is thought to have been born in 1712 and to have died in 1741 while he was still quite a young man. Garreg Wen (white stone or rock) was the name of his farm. The musical part of the folk song about him was first published in 1784. Much later, Welsh lyrics to the song were written by John Ceiriog Hughes.
Legend says that as David lay on his deathbed, he asked for his harp to be brought to him. He then composed the tune played below and asked for it to be played at his funeral. In the lyrics, David bids a sad farewell to his wife and life. I think the version of the song sung by Rhys Meirion is lovely. Like Paul Carey Jones and Bryn Terfel, Rhys is an opera singer from Wales. Unlike them, however, he's a tenor.
Rhys Meirion Sings Dafydd Y Garreg Wen
There are lots of online resources for anyone who would like to learn a little Welsh. Language lessons, Welsh and English lyrics for songs, and Welsh lyrics written phonetically are all available. Using English phonetics to describe Welsh sounds sometimes gives only an approximately correct result, but it's still helpful.
Myfanwy is a love song. The lyrics describe the singer's love for a woman named Myfanwy and his sadness that she no longer returns his affection. The music was written by Joseph Parry and published in 1875. The lyrics were written by Richard Davis, a poet, singer, and conductor.
Myfanwy is often performed by male choirs. The Treorchy Male Voice Choir is based in the village of Treorchy in the Rhondda Valley. It's one of the best known all-male choirs in Wales, if not the best known, and is greatly admired. Its version of the song can be heard below.
The Treorchy Male Voice Choir Sings Myfanwy
Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer (Cwm Rhondda)
Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer is a hymn that I've been familiar with since childhood, although I didn't realize that the tune had a Welsh origin until I was an adult. Neither the title nor the lyrics of the English song are literal translations of their Welsh counterparts. Both songs praise God, however.
Cwm in the Welsh title means valley. Rhondda refers to the River Rhondda. (The w in cwm is pronounced quite similarly to the double o in the English word good.) The English song is sometimes known as Cwm Rhondda, too. It's also called Bread of Heaven, a phrase that appears in its lyrics.
John Hughes (1873 to 1932) wrote the first version of the tune in 1905. In 1907, a new organ was installed in Capel Rhondda, or Rhondda Chapel. Hughes wrote a version of his tune for the inauguration and played the organ himself at the event. This is the version that is used for today's songs. Hughes used the words of an eighteenth century hymn by William Williams as the lyrics for his song.
A Stirring Rendition of Bread of Heaven
Suo Gan is a traditional Welsh lullaby that I discovered only recently. I think it's beautiful, especially as sung by Bryn Terfel in the video below. In the song, a woman gently and lovingly sings to the baby in her arms as the child falls asleep.
The song is quite old and appeared in print for the first time around 1800. It may have been shared orally before this time. The composer is unknown. There is uncertainty about how the title of the song should be literally translated into English. It seems to be agreed that the approximate meaning of the title is simply "Lullaby". The song was featured in Steven Spielberg's 1987 film entitled Empire of the Sun.
Bryn Terfel Sings Suo Gan
There are many other lovely Welsh songs to explore. Cymru Fach is one of them. It's a patriotic song whose title is usually translated as Dear or Dearest Wales, despite its literal meaning. The lyrics were written in 1927 by Howell Elvett Lewis, a minister and hymn writer. The music was composed by David Richards.
The video below shows Katherine Jenkins singing the song at the annual Llangollen International Music Eisteddfod. An eisteddfod is a festival and competition that celebrates music and poetry. The Llangollen event includes performers from different countries. Katherine is a mezzo-soprano from Wales. She's classified as a classical crossover artist.
Music, poetry, and song lyrics can be a powerful combination. The traditional vocal music of Wales is enjoyable and frequently moving to hear. It's also interesting because it often transmits information about culture and beliefs. Katherine Jenkins' rendition of Cymru Fach below and the soaring melody of the tune are wonderful ways to celebrate the joy of Welsh vocal music.
Katherine Jenkins Sings Cymru Fach
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Linda Crampton