Anyone who has sat in the national stadium in Cardiff and heard the power of the Welsh crowd when properly buoyed cannot fail to be impressed by the strength of the national singing voice. The collective sing-song is something that has formed part of the Welsh character for centuries. A famous passage in Gerald of Wales’s The Description of Wales written in the twelfth century holds that:
When they come together to make music, the Welsh sing their traditional songs, not in unison as done elsewhere, but in parts, in many modes and modulations. When a choir gathers to sing, which happens often in this country, you will hear many different parts and voices as there are performers, all joining together in the end to produce a single organic harmony and melody in the soft sweetness of B flat.
Gerald, it seems, had a bit of an obsession with B flat as he suggested in his earlier Topography of Ireland that ‘whether they are playing in fourths or fifths’, the Irish ‘always begin with B flat and then come back to it at the end, so that the whole melody is rounded off sweetly and merrily’. But his musical observations of the peoples of the British Isles are interesting not least because it reveals distinct cultural differences between the Irish, the Welsh, and the English that have persisted. It’s perhaps worth quoting what Gerald actually says about the musical customs of England. Note the point he makes about import from Scandinavia.
In the northern parts of Great Britain, across the Humber and in Yorkshire, the English who live there produce the same symphonic harmony when they sing. They do this in two parts only, with two modulations of the voice, one group humming the bass and the others singing the treble most sweetly.
The two peoples must have developed this habit not by any special training but by age-old custom by long usage which has made it second nature. As the English, in general, do not adopt this way of singing, but only those who live in the north, I think the latter must have taken their part singing from the Danes and Norwegians, who so often invaded these parts of the island and held them longer under dominion.
Imported, then, but also less sophisticated than the musical harmonisation found in Wales. A theme which has lingered for centuries hence as time and again the Welsh have travelled around and been called upon to sing. ‘You can because you’re Welsh’, say everyone else. Think of the famous passage in the 1964 Stanley Baker film, Zulu, when the Welsh soldiers at Rorke’s Drift sing out Men of Harlech in response to the Zulu chants they can hear on the air. ‘They’ve no top tenors, that’s for sure’:
That never happened, of course, but fifty years prior to the film’s release, in December 1905, the British press found themselves writing about the use of Welsh songs to respond to something from elsewhere, in this case the Maori Haka. The match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the Welsh national team on 16 December 1905 has gone down in history as perhaps Wales’ greatest rugby triumph. But it is notable in particular for being the first occasion at which the Welsh national anthem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, was deliberately sung at a rugby match at the Arms Park – although it had often been sung by supporters on the way to the ground. Before the teams took to the pitch, the crowd had been entertained by the marching band of the 2nd Volunteer Battalion of the Welsh Regiment, then based in Cardiff itself. Having entered the field, the two teams faced each other and the New Zealanders, dressed in their characteristic black jerseys, black shorts and black socks, lined up for the haka. ‘Amidst a silence that could almost be felt’, wrote one local journalist later, ‘the Colonials [sic] stood in the centre of the field and sang […] their weird war cry’. Ka mate ka mate / Ka ora ka ora. Words that rugby fans the world over will be familiar with today. Then, though, it was novel, and left the crowd enraptured listening with ‘breathless silence’ until it was all over. Not wanting to lose the moment, the Welsh XV strained ‘somewhat listlessly’ (as one journalist had it) to respond with the Welsh anthem until the crowd responded with a great roar. The English journalists that had travelled to Cardiff wrote in their reports in the days after that it was the anthem that did it. The Weekly Dispatch recorded that ‘Henry V at Agincourt commanded no better’. High praise indeed!
Rugby football was slow in taking up the song as a bolster to Welsh fortunes. By the mid-Edwardian period, it was used in all manner of circumstances from Eisteddfodau to trade union meetings, from political rallies to funerals. Indeed, the song had so penetrated Welsh popular culture that few other songs were sung at public events with such regularity, not even the British national anthem. When Keir Hardie won re-elected to the Merthyr Boroughs seat in January 1906, for instance, his victory meetings frequently ended with a rendition, usually at his request. Lloyd George, from his North Wales vantage point, did much the same thing. And when the Pan-Celtic Congress met at Caernarfon in 1904, the gathered dignitaries from Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, agreed to make Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau the unifying rallying cry of the six Celtic nations. Over a century later, Britanny, Wales and Cornwall still share the music, if not the lyrics, in their respective anthems. An English translation of the Manx version, as an aside, appeared in a song book put together by a soldier serving in the British Army during the Great War. The Welsh original was sung on the streets of Jerusalem in 1918 by soldiers of the 53rd (Welsh) infantry division. Perhaps with as much gusto as it was here:
Those of you, dear readers, who have had chance to hear the variety of songs sung in the stadium in Cardiff on match day will recall that Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau is the last of a long line of popular ‘anthems’ including Sospan Fach, Delilah, Hymns and Arias, and Cwm Rhondda. Although the middle two are modern songs from the pop and folk canon, Sospan Fach and Cwm Rhondda are late-nineteenth century favourites. I’ve written before now on the history of Cwm Rhondda, so I shall spare you a repetition, but a century ago Sospan Fach provided much discussion in the newspapers as to its origins having made it all the way to the exile community in San Francisco. It appears to have been written around about 1895 in the Mid Wales village of Llanwrtyd Wells – on the Heart of Wales line today – some 40 miles north-east of Llanelli where Sospan Fach has been adopted as the pre-eminent rugby tune. The lyrics have changed significantly over the years – Dai Bach y Soldiwr didn’t make an appearance until the 1911 riots in Llanelli, for instance. The earliest reference that I’ve so far found for the song is this snippet from the South Wales Daily Post published in November 1895.
Y Sospan Fach is now the principal topic song at Pontardulais now. It was all the rage at Llanwrtyd and Llandrindod last summer […] even on Sunday old chapel goers could be heard humming the refrain, ‘a’r gath wedi scramo Johnnie bach’.
It was already spoken of as the ‘war song’ of Llanelli RFC and, with some irony, a ‘classical song’ by the writers of the Merthyr Times. Rather like Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau the little saucepans travelled far and wide, much to the amusement (or bemusement) of anyone who heard the song. ‘Sospan Fach has gone north of the Clyde’, declared the Cardiff Times in the summer of 1896, ‘and might have been heard sung with great gusto in an excursion train from Glasgow to Loch Lomond on Wednesday last by a “Young Wales” party from Llanelly. The guard could not understand it’.
Whilst not quite an invented tradition, then, the ‘traditional’ songs that we sing in the rugby stadiums of Wales are not much more than a 120 years old. Welsh rugby, of course, dates from the 1870s and the WRU from 1881, but its wider traditions are firmly Edwardian. Historian Kenneth O. Morgan in his classic account of the development of modern Wales defined the Edwardian period as Wales’ Liberal ‘high noon’, a time of relative stability (not least because every seat bar 1 – Keir Hardie’s in Merthyr – at the 1906 General Election went Liberal) and increasing prosperity. If, as Gareth Williams showed many years ago in his work on the history of Welsh rugby, the sport had lost its earlier radicalism, as illustrated by the adoption of regal red and the three ostrich feathers of the Prince of Wales in place of the black jerseys and leeks of the original conception of a South Wales team. But, of course, the idea of an Edwardian ‘high noon’ of stability and prosperity is actually false. The period before the Great War is marked yes by greater and greater profit for the coal owners, but also the rise of a new idea of Welsh society, which found its fracture points in places familiar to most South Walians today. Tonypandy, 1910. Llanelli, 1911. Tredegar, 1911. South Wales, 1912. Even before the high noon of the 1906 General Election, Labour had gained its first mayor – appropriately, Enoch Morrell of Merthyr Tydfil. By the time of the Great War, the Labour Party was in virtual control of both Merthyr Tydfil and Rhondda, and was on its way to controlling half a dozen other local authorities across the region.
So what do these songs all mean, then? Are they symptomatic of the Liberal establishment in Wales, or something different? Searching through the newspapers now available, it is clear that both Sospan Fach and Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau were established as unifying songs, rather than uniquely for one side or another. But at the same time they were definitely utilised by the Labour movement as signifiers of their direct relationship with working-class popular culture and customs. For if the ‘Labour anthem’ was absolutely The Red Flag, in Wales there was this second stream that united the Red and the Green (to borrow terms more usually applied to Ireland). Nationalism and Labourism were natural and integral to the expression of working-class identity in Edwardian Wales. It’s a theme that’s better understood in Ireland, but has been little explored in Welsh historiography. Perhaps it’s time to look at it all again. That, as they say, is a story for another day. Until then, here’s Max Boyce in full voice: