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Welsh Folk and Traditional Songs: A Rich Musical Heritage

Updated on January 11, 2017
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Linda Crampton has loved music since childhood. She enjoys playing the piano, singing, and listening to classical, folk, and early music.

A Welsh landscape
A Welsh landscape | Source

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.

Harlech Castle as it exists today
Harlech Castle as it exists today | Source

Charlotte Church Sings Men of Harlech

Both ensemble singers and solo vocalists are a source of pride for Welsh people today. Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Charlotte Church, Katherine Jenkins, and Bryn Terfel are Welsh vocalists that have become well known in the UK and in some cases internationally.

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, 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.

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. He's another opera singer from Wales.

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

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

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.

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

© 2017 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 6 months ago from Essex, UK

      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

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 7 months ago from sunny Florida

      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

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 8 months ago from Dubai

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

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 profile image

      Don Bobbitt 8 months ago from Ruskin Florida

      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

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 profile image

      Faith Reaper 9 months ago from southern USA

      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

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

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      Suhail and my dog K2 9 months ago

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 9 months ago from Queensland Australia

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Mel. I'll check this out.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 9 months ago from San Diego California

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 profile image

      FlourishAnyway 9 months ago from USA

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 profile image

      Mel Carriere 9 months ago from San Diego California

      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!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 9 months ago from Oklahoma

      Very educational:-)

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 9 months ago from The Caribbean

      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.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 9 months ago from Chicago Area

      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!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

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      Bill Holland 9 months ago from Olympia, WA

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

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 9 months ago from Rome, Italy

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

      Wonderful article. Brings back memories.

      Thank you so much.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 9 months ago from New Delhi, India

      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!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 9 months ago from Massachusetts

      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!

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 9 months ago from South Africa

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