‘Ah, go on, sing Cwm Rhondda’.

It’s an invitation that most Welsh people have been offered at some point in their lives. More so than any song, even the national anthem, Cwm Rhondda is a marker of Welshness. It’s a certain type of Welshness, of course, nonconformist, choral and, dare I say it, South Walian and Anglophone. The fact that, over a century after its composition by John Hughes, it has been sung at funerals and football matches, in the pub and on the pavements, on the Western Front and on the Hunger Marches, tells us much about the song’s endurance and its significance for Welsh cultural identity.

So, where to begin? The story of Cwm Rhondda – or Bread of Heaven as it’s often colloquially known – echoes the history of the nation in which it was written. John Hughes, born in November 1873 in Dowlais, began working underground in the mines at the age of 12, eventually becoming a clerk at the Great Western Colliery in Hopkinstown, Pontypridd. Like many working-class people in that part of the South Wales Coalfield, Hughes was a Congregationalist and served as a deacon for his chapel. A keen organist, Hughes composed the first form of Cwm Rhondda in 1905 in the aftermath of the great religious revival that spread across Wales in 1904. Led by Evan Roberts, a minister from West Wales, the revival saw thousands have their faith reinvigorated and an attempt to rid Welsh society of some of its more distracting enthusiasms, including rugby football.

In 1907, at the request of the minister of Capel Rhondda for music to mark the inauguration of the new organ, John Hughes returned to his tune. The first performance of this new version took place at Capel Rhondda on 1 November 1907 with Hughes playing the organ. On that occasion the melody was accompanied by the lyrics of Ann Griffiths’ (1776-1805) song, ‘Wele’n Sefyll Rhwng y Mwrtwydd’ (There he stands, amongst the myrtles). Not long after, the tune gained English lyrics in the form of William Williams’ (1717-1791) hymn ‘Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer’ (or Jehovah). The difference in imagery presented by the two songs is apparent in the lyrics, as can be seen below. In Welsh, the song speaks of a vision of Jesus and a personal conviction of faith; but in English it tells of God leading his people from slavery – a subject that, on the cusp of (an often Christian-) socialist revolution in South Wales, spoke significantly to the people who sang it.

There he stands among the myrtles,
An object worthy of all my mind;
Though in part I know
He is above the things of the world;
Hail the morning, hail the morning
When I shall see him as he is.
When I shall see him as he is.

Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
Hold me with thy powerful hand:
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven
Feed me till I want no more.
Feed me till I want no more.

The speed with which Cwm Rhondda became a song for purposes other than religious gatherings is notable. In the early 1920s, the Archdruid of Wales, Reverend Elvet Lewis, demanded that it be banned from chapels because it was so associated with the football stadium. When Pontypridd gained a rugby league club in 1926, fans on the terraces sang it with gusto as a signifier of the town’s civic consciousness and to mark their Welshness as the sole representative of the Welsh rugby-playing tradition in the Rugby Football League. Today, of course, no Welsh rugby international can get underway without it being sung with gusto by the crowd a few times.

Just a year after the formation of Pontypridd Rugby League Club – a club that is indelibly linked to the 1926 General Strike and Miners’ Lockout – men from South Wales marched to London on the first of several hunger marches that took place in the late-1920s and 1930s. 270 miners set off from communities across the South Wales Coalfield and they sang songs wherever they went. As one man from Bristol, who was about sixteen at the time, recalled:

I can remember the Welshmen coming up from Wales, singing round the streets in groups, they’d go round an area, they might go through about half-a-dozen streets singing and it was nothing for them to finish singing and go into a pub for their lunch and come out and carry on again – there was a lot of that done.

On each march, in 1927, 1931, 1934 and 1936, Welsh miners sang songs that were expected of them. In many of the diaries and unpublished memoirs from those marches, the commonest song, the most popular of all, was Cwm Rhondda. Over and above any other request, crowds across England whether in Bristol, Reading or London, called on the miners to sing the song of liberation. Fifty years later, at the end of the bitter 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, the workers at Maerdy Colliery, the last pit, the last Little Moscow, in what was once the central hub of the South Wales Coalfield, went back to work marching behind their banner with the strains of Cwm Rhondda echoing behind them. This time, however, the lyrics were slightly different and ended like this:

Hungry Miners, Hungry Miners,
We’ll support you ever more.
We’ll support you ever more.

They still do.

The poignancy of singing on the hunger marches or the miners’ strike of the 1980s is surpassed only by this final anecdotal tale. Revealed in the pages of the Pontypridd Observer several years after the Second World War by John Hughes’ wife, it takes us back to Mametz Wood on the battlefield of the Somme. The objective of the 38th (Welsh) Division, Mametz Wood was attacked by the Welsh on 7 July 1916. They never made it and many were mown down by Germany machine gun fire. A few days later, they tried again with even greater numbers committed to the attack. Heavy fighting, often hand-to-hand with bayonets, saw the wood eventually relinquished to the Welsh Division. Almost 4,000 Welshmen were killed or wounded at Mametz Wood. In her interview, Mrs Hughes, reflecting on the sacrifice of the Welsh in the First World War, told of hearing that as they went into battle the men of the 38th Division sang her husband’s song. It was, she reflected, probably the last thing many of them ever said.

As we approach the centenary of the First World War, the 70th Anniversary of the National Hunger March and, in a few years’ time, the 90th Anniversary of the General Strike and Miners’ Lockout (and Pontypridd Rugby League Club!) it is worth pausing to reflect on the songs that sustained the people involved in them. Though most unlikely to dislodge ‘Pack All Your Troubles’ or ‘Tipperary’ from the compilation CDs of First World War songs, Cwm Rhondda will remain a song that is thoroughly Welsh (heck, South Walian) in sentiment and cultural value that has sustained the nation in the worst of times and the best of times. Next time someone asks you to sing it, remember the Somme and the Hunger March, and give it a little more welly.

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