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Welsh Folk and Traditional Songs: A Rich Musical Heritage

Linda Crampton has loved music since childhood. She plays the piano and recorder, sings, and listens to classical, folk, and early music.

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 in the UK and Europe

Location of Wales in the UK and Europe

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 Ireland.
  • 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)

Harlech is a seaside town in North Wales. "Men of Harlech" is both a song and a military march. It describes a siege of Harlech Castle. The most popular idea is that the song refers to the longest siege in British history, which lasted from 1461 to 1468 during the time of the War of the Roses. During the siege, 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

Lots of online resources are available for anyone who would like to learn 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

"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.

The song 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

"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

Cymru Fach

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

Resources

The following resources may be helpful for someone who is exploring Welsh songs.

  • A Welsh-English and English-Welsh online dictionary from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David
  • Facts about the Welsh national anthem and lyrics in Welsh and English from Wales.com (A Welsh government website)
  • Welsh With Us is a YouTube channel that teaches Welsh. It states that it follows the courses taught at Glamorgan Welsh for Adults. This organization is currently known as Learn Welsh Glamorgan and is run by the University of South Wales. It's advisable to start with the first video in the series in order to get used to the pronunciation and intonation of the language.

Questions & Answers

Question: Do you know a song with words like "my vangary bithron ve" in the lyrics? I’m trying to find a song from my mother’s childhood.

Answer: I can’t identify the song that you’re thinking of, but based on my limited knowledge of Welsh I think I can translate the first part of the lyrics from your phonetics. Perhaps that will be of some help.

Mae sometimes means there is, depending on the context.

In Welsh, f is pronounced as v, so the first part of your second word is probably fan. Fan is considered to be a mutation of ban, which means a peak.

Caru is a Welsh verb for love and is pronounced like the English name Gary.

I think the lyrics are referring to a mountain that someone loves and is viewing.

Question: What is this Xmas melody? It's in 6/8 and goes: Do// Re Mi Fa So/ So Fa// Mi// Do/ Do Re///// etc. (Cymraeg). Maybe it's Clychau Nadolig? Can you help me identify this Welsh Christmas song?

Answer: I don't recognize the song, but I found a site that allows visitors to hear the first part of a choral version of Clychau Nadolig (Christmas Bells) for free. It sounds like a lovely song, even if it's not the one you're looking for.

https://soundcloud.com/ysgolglanclwyd/clychaur-nad...

Question: Where can I find the words to the Welsh song "Love Deep as the Ocean"?

Answer: I don't know whether this is the song that you're looking for, but the YouTube video mentioned below shows English and Welsh lyrics on the screen for the song "Here is love vast as the ocean" or Dyma gariad fel y moroedd.

The video is found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EM6Kg-mK4jY&t=...

© 2017 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 12, 2020:

I'm glad you enjoy the songs, Peggy. I love them, too, which is one reason why I chose them.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 12, 2020:

Thanks for writing this. I watched that first video with the national song and am now listening to the beautiful voice of Charlotte Church. I'll have to come back and listen to more of the videos when I have more time. These are lovely!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 13, 2020:

Thank you for the comment.

Emyr Langley on January 11, 2020:

"my vangary bithron ve" in the lyrics? my translation could be fy nghariad byth fe =my love forever be

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 17, 2018:

Thanks for sharing the information. If this is the song the person was looking for, I hope they find it.

John on September 15, 2018:

Re the last query - it's a very well known children's hymn, named by its first line. it is easily found, composer, tune etc, on line. The chorus line is saying 'He loves me, I''m sure,etc,' or something like that.

Hoff yw'r Iesu o blant bychain,

Llawn o gariad ydyw Ef.

Mae yn gwylio drostynt beunydd,

Ar ei orsedd yn y Nef.

Mae'n fy ngharu, wyf yn gwybod

Mai ei eiddo byth wyf fi;

Mae'n fy ngharu, diolch iddo!

Prynodd fi ar Galfari.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 22, 2018:

Sorry, Teresa, I don't. I did a quick search on the Internet but didn't find anything. It sounds like it could be a Scottish song because it refers to the highlands.

Teresa dosch on March 22, 2018:

Do you know a song tbat begins.. my valley home is beautiful but oh....i miss the ...highlands that I know

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 25, 2017:

Thank you very much for such a detailed and interesting comment, Alun. I appreciate the share, too. There is more Welsh music that I'd like to write about. There's really too much for one article! As you say, it's sad that traditional Welsh music doesn't get as much attention as the music from the rest of the UK.

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on March 25, 2017:

Thanks Linda! As someone who varies between being 50% English and 50% Welsh (most of the time) to being 100% Welsh (when Wales are playing England at rugby) it was great to read - and listen to - this article! I know all the songs, but it was still nice to hear them again, all in one place.

Welsh folk music really is good, but somehow doesn't get quite the same coverage that traditional Irish or Scottish music gets. And I must admit I find it difficult to find versions I really like, as I'm not particularly keen on opera singers or male voice choirs which seem to dominate on most albums. I prefer solo folk singers. Despite that personal preference, you've picked some good performances here - and I LOVE Katherine Jenkins!

Perhaps I'm biased, but I think the Welsh National Anthem is one of the three or four best anthems in the world - whilst 'Suo Gan', 'Men of Harlech' and the other tracks you play here are also great songs. But I have to dock you a couple of points for leaving out my all-time favourites 'Calon Lan' and - best of all - the beautiful 'Ash Grove' ('Llwyn Onn' in Welsh)!! :)

Your article gives much useful information about the songs which I didn't know, and that made them more interesting. And thanks for the section about Great Britain and the United Kingdom - I'm aware it is a source of much confusion elsewhere in the world, but you explain the distinctions between them very clearly.

Wales - like its music - doesn't get quite as much attention worldwide as the rest of the United Kingdom, but it really should attract tourists with its history, landscapes and culture. So I have to share this article. Alun

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 23, 2017:

Thank you for the lovely comment, pstraubie. I agree—great music does transcend language. It's such a wonderful part of life. I appreciate the angels very much.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on February 23, 2017:

So thankful that this music is being shared....music transcends language and rests in my soul...And O what a gift Charlotte is....

Angels are once again on the way ps

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 28, 2017:

I'm glad you enjoyed the article, Vellur. I'm happy to discover that other people like the songs, too.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on January 28, 2017:

Enjoyed reading about Welsh music and got to know about these wonderful songs. Thank you for sharing.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 25, 2017:

Thank you very much, Don. It's interesting to discover that people in the United States have Welsh ancestors. Family roots are intriguing to explore.

Don Bobbitt from Ruskin Florida on January 25, 2017:

Great article. I found it to be very informative and your descriptions bring another piece of my family's roots to me even after many generations as an American.

DON

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 16, 2017:

Thanks for the visit and comment, Faith. I did have an enjoyable time in Wales. The music and countryside are beautiful.

I'm looking forward to reading your new articles. Peace and blessings to you, too.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on January 16, 2017:

Oh, what a beautiful, interesting and information hub on Welsh folk and their traditions, Linda!

The songs are enchanting and beautiful to say the least. Your childhood must have been so magical growing up in Wales and listening to such inspiring music.

I'm off for the holiday here and thought I'd pop in to read a bit. I hope to start writing again soon after my absence here.

Peace and blessings always

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 15, 2017:

Hi, Suhail. I lived in Glamorgan and often went to the park that you refer to. The coastline there is beautiful. I like Loreena McKennitt's songs, too! Thanks for visiting and commenting.

Suhail and my dog K2 on January 15, 2017:

Linda,

I am a big fan of Pembroke National Park located in Wales and was once a great follower of a Welsh cricket county - Glamorgan, but I admit I have to start listening to Welsh Music. The closest I have ever come is by virtue of being a fan of Laureena McKennitt, who is a Canadian musician, composer, harpist, accordionist and pianist who writes, records and performs world music with Celtic and Middle Eastern themes.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 14, 2017:

Thank you very much, Jodah. I'm glad you enjoyed the music!

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on January 14, 2017:

this was wonderful, Linda. Wales is an intriguing country to me and it was great to hear these amazing songs and the accompanying information. i also learned that "Ireland" is not part of the United Kingdom. I should have known from the title "the Republic of Ireland" I guess.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 13, 2017:

Thanks, Mel. I'll check this out.

Mel Carriere from San Diego California on January 13, 2017:

I think she was in the musical Chicago. Since I have never seen it, I don't know for sure, but I assume she sings.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 13, 2017:

Hi, Flourish. I learned how to drive in Canada, so driving in the UK is harrowing for me, too! My sister and I rented a car on a visit there some time ago. Since I did most of the driving, I definitely remember what it was like being on the opposite side of the road. If I'm ever able to go to the UK again, I'll be travelling by train and bus, not by car. Thanks for the visit.

FlourishAnyway from USA on January 13, 2017:

This was so informative with the facts you presented about the country as well as folk songs. I played several of the songs just to get a feel for their sound. The national anthem is beautiful. My family visited the UK about a decade ago (driving throughout -- a bit harrowing), but we never made it to Wales. We didn't know what specifically to visit there so we sadly, we just spent extra time in Britain. I didn't know you grew up there; perhaps that's a travel hub for you -- where to visit in Wales.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 13, 2017:

Thanks for the interesting comment, Mel. I've never heard Catherine Zeta-Jones sing before. I'll have to add this to my "To Do" List!

Mel Carriere from San Diego California on January 13, 2017:

My maternal great-grandmother was an orphan from Wales. I think this explains my Father's dark eyes and dark curly hair, which is unusual since we are otherwise German in ancestry. The Welsh are a lively, intelligent bunch. US President Thomas Jefferson was Welsh. They have produced some fantastic entertainers. As you mentioned, Tom Jones was Welsh, and let us not forget the lovely Catherine Zeta-Jones, who I think is also a credible singer. Music runs deep in the Welsh veins. Great hub!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 12, 2017:

Thank you, Larry. There are many interesting facts associated with Wales.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on January 12, 2017:

Very educational:-)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 12, 2017:

Thanks, MsDora. I love the songs that you've mentioned, too. They've stayed in my mind for a long time, especially the first song.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 12, 2017:

Hi, Heidi. I think visitors to the UK would enjoy a trip to Wales. There are lots of interesting and often beautiful things to see there. I hope you're able to see the country one day.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 12, 2017:

Sleep My Love...has always been one of my favorite lullabies even through parenting my babies. Guide Me...is a musical composition I also enjoy. I thoroughly enjoy this history, social studies, foreign language and music lesson. Thank you.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on January 12, 2017:

I also didn't realize you were from Wales. Definitely on a to-visit list when I finally get to the UK one day. Thanks for sharing the beauty and heritage with us!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 12, 2017:

Thank you so much, Bill! I appreciate your kindness a great deal.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 12, 2017:

One of your best articles, Linda! I loved this, could listen to the music while reading, learned some history, great music....bravo!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 11, 2017:

Thank you, GoodLady. I hope all your memories are happy. Wales is a lovely country. If I am ever able to visit it again, I want to explore the northern part in more detail. I went there as a child, but most of my family's expeditions took place in the southern part of the country.

Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on January 11, 2017:

Had no idea you come from Wales! I'm from the North.

Wonderful article. Brings back memories.

Thank you so much.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 11, 2017:

Thank you very much, ChitrangadaSharan. I did feel a bit nostalgic while creating this article. It's nice to think about happy memories of childhood.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on January 11, 2017:

Wonderful hub about Welsh music! How beautiful and interesting!

I can understand how nostalgic it becomes when your childhood memories are associated with something.

Thoroughly enjoyed going through your wonderful information, pictures and videos.

Thanks for sharing this well presented hub!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 11, 2017:

Hi, Bill. Yes, Charlotte Church had a lovely voice as a child. I always enjoyed listening to her. I haven't heard what her voice sounds like now that she's an adult, but I'm hoping to find out. I'd like to hop on a plane to Wales right now, too!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 11, 2017:

Hi, Martie. I love the National Anthem, too! It's one of the Welsh songs that I've never forgotten. Thanks for the visit.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on January 11, 2017:

Hi Linda. How interesting. I loved the Welsh National Athem. Had not heard Charlotte Church in years, oh my, what an amazing voice. This is a wonderful collection of Welsh songs. I had no idea that you grew up in South Wales, unless I somehow missed it. Listening to these songs makes me want to hop on a plane to Wales!

Martie Coetser from South Africa on January 11, 2017:

Oh, I love Wales national anthem, and all their traditional songs. Thanks for all this interesting information and songs, Alicia!