For centuries, traditional music in Wales has endured empire, organized religion, and connections with port towns in Ireland, like Wexford and Cork.
In this special IMS spotlight on Cymru, Rhodri McDonagh, Ceri Rhys Matthews, Angharad Jenkins, and Patrick Rimes explore how the Welsh language, the rhythms of industry, and the lyricism of the rural landscape have shaped the music—and the oxen traditions—of one of Ireland’s closest neighbors.
Thanks to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, Brian Benscoter, Ian Bittle, Finian McCluskey, Joel DeLashmit, Jonathan Duvick, Gerry Corr, Mark Haynes, John Ploch, Chris Armstrong, Ken Doyle, Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Paul DeCamp, Suezen Brown, David Vaughan
Episode 53-Songs of Cattle and Copper
How language, landscape, and industry have shaped music in Wales
This Irish Music Stories episode aired July 13, 2021
Speakers, in order of appearance:
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories
>> Rhodri McDonagh: Piano and fiddle player who produced Welsh Trad Music: a beginner’s guide
>> Ceri Rhys Matthews: Artist and flute/guitar player who has studied and promoted traditional music for decades
>> Beverly Evans: Poet
>> Patrick Rimes: Multi-instrumentalist and composer who performs with Calan, VRï, and who coaches trad ensembles
>> Angharad Jenkins: Fiddle player, singer and educator who has designed traditional music courses
>> Nigel Jenkins: Poet
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
>> Shannon: I’m Shannon Heaton. And this is Irish Music Stories. The show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it.
[ Music: Triban Yr Ychain Copor – (the triban of the copper oxen), from Interview Recording
Artist: Ceri Rhys Matthews with overdubs from Matt & Shannon Heaton ]
Like how the Irish cattle at O’Leary’s Farm in Wexford might enjoy this old Welsh song, sung here by Ceri Rhys Matthews. It’s a poem for the copper oxen.
From O’Leary’s Farm in Ireland, it’s just a four hour ferry ride to Fishguard, this little Welsh coastal town with galleries, cafes, and an annual Spring folk music festival, where you might hear an oxen song.
>> Rhodri: These work songs or cattle driving songs, you’d get a guy stand in front of the cow. And the way they would plough the land is would just be this man singing walking backwards. And then the cow would follow them and pull the plow and plow the field that way. When I heard it I was like, get away! That’s crazy!
>> Shannon: That’s Rhodri McDonagh. I first learned about Welsh oxen songs—and more about traditional Welsh instruments like triple harp, crwth, and cow horn, from his beginner’s guide to Welsh Trad Music video. Rhodri lives in Abergevanney, in the Southeast. It’s just six miles from the English border. And it’s almost a three hour drive to the Fishguard ferry —that’s like continents away in Wales.
Swansea is closer to Fishguard. That’s where musician and artist Ceri Rhys Matthews grew up. In Swansea, which is where he says this old oxen song is from. The verses describe the hellish nature of industrial Swansea, and the ‘ma-hoo’ at the end of the verse is for the oxen.
[ Verse two of Triban Yr Ychain Copor ]
Ceri Rhys Matthews is an artist and now a flute player. That’s a less common Welsh instrument. But even flute playing is shaped by the sung melodies. You can really hear the language in the music. Ceri’s birthplace of Swansea used to have two parts: the English and the Welsh speaking. Ceri is from the Welsh speaking part, which has faded over the years.
He now lives in a rural area, only about an hour from Swansea
>> Ceri: So I’m from the town. So moving here was like moving to a foreign country for me really. The accent is different here. The language is different. They think I’m a bit of a simpleton, because I’ve got a very urban way of speaking, and they’ve got very rural way of speaking (in Welsh. I mean, you know). They’re very different.
You see, Swansea was hugely industrialized. It was beautifully magical mixture of, um..
[ Music: “Yr Hwiangerddi,” from Solomon
Artist: Calan ]
Well, Dylan Thomas was from Swansea for example. The poet? And he called it an ugly, lovely town. And it’s got that dichotomy to it. And so the Welsh I had was sharp and hard and clickety clackety. Like the sounds of all the machines that were there really. And here, I’ve got a friend who’s a poet. And he’s described the Welsh from this part of the world as being like like purple berries.
>> Beverly Evans:
The words represent things: ‘River’ ‘light’
As words will
But their meaning is a journey
To a continent rich in harbourage
And when we sing them,
The boats race homeward
On a quick tide.
>> Shannon: That’s from Ceri’s latest recording with Beverly Evans reading a bit of Diarmuid Johnson’s poem “Another Language.” In this Irish Music Stories episode, I’ll talk to Ceri, Rhodri, and also Angharad Jenkins, and Patrick Rimes about the Welsh language, and about modern and historic traditions of one of Ireland’s closest neighbors. I’ll explore how the rhythms of industry and the lyricism of the rural landscape have shaped music in Wales: how tunes and singing traditions (like the oxen songs) have endured and transformed through empire, organized religion… and through connections with industrial and port towns in Ireland and England.
>> Ceri: Cork, Bristol, Swansea is a world in itself. These places were so intimately connected, because it was easy to get from Bristol to Swansea to Cork, and back again. For instance, there’s a little village in West Cork called Allihies. And there’s one called Eyeries as well. And they were copper mining places. They exported 100% of their copper to Swansea. The ships that were carrying them to Swansea were Bristol ships and Swansea ships. Really, Allihies and Swansea had a much more intimate relationship than did Allihies and Dublin.
The industrial revolution coincides with Regency. The Regency tunes and the dancers were spread via railways and boats. And those connections are quite important. This is why you have Liverpool Hornpipe, Manchester Hornpipe and so on and so forth.
You’re working together and you’re overnighting, and you’re probably singing on the ship together.
( music swells )
* * * * *
>> Shannon: Okay. Wales circa 1830;
The Methodists had just seceeded from the Church of England.
The British Government was about to ban the Welsh language from schools.
The eccentric old song collector and poet Iolo Marganwg had just died.
And Wales’s two big towns, Swansea and Cardiff were teaming with iron foundries and tin and copper plating.
But there was still this quaint old practice of singing to the cattle.
>> Shannon: I heard this notion of Welsh people as they plow, you would in fact, face your cattle and walk backwards and sing to your cattle.
>> Ceri: Yeah. Canu Cethrain it was called. Singing to the oxen. Canu is to sing and Cethrain is to lead an oxen.
>> Shannon: So I’m imagining all of this going down in pastoral settings. Nope. This was also happening in these busy port towns.
[ Music: Môr, from Soundtrack
Artist: Rhodri McDonagh ]
>> Ceri: Yeah. Until about the 1920s, this was happening in South Wales, whilst all the coal mining, and copper works, and spelter works, and the iron foundries, and the tin plating and everything was happening, people were using oxen! Ha! And in fact, the copper that was delivered to Swansea, it had come from Chile, from Valparaiso.
>> Shannon: So copper is coming to Wales from the Atacama Desert in South America. To turn it into copper plate requires loads of coal.
>> Ceri: So it comes around Cape horn, blown on the wind, copper from the Atacama lands in Swansea. Because you bring copper to coal, that’s the reason Swansea was so important. And then the ship docks. It goes up the river as far as it can. The boat docks, and an ex slave from west Africa steps off. The coal is unloaded. And what do they use to take the coal to the copper smelts? They used oxen. So it wasn’t just a rural thing, you see. This is, like, in the heat and flames of Gehenna. You know, in the most horrible hellish landscape, you can imagine.
And so those pictures are so amazing to me. That interaction with beasts of burden in that kind of landscape, in the industrial one I mean. And there’s this kind of poetic meter also there. Then you take it back. And you can take it back. And you can take it back so far to the times when humanity followed the cattle rather than driving the cattle.
And those songs that were sung, they were generally a poetic meter call a Treban, which is extremely old. We’re talking, you know 1500 at least years old. And of course the things that carry that poetic form over 1500 years are going to change. They’re going to change drastically and radically from 500 AD to 1950 AD.
[ Music: Hyd y Frwynen, from Demo for Irish Music Stories
Artists: hatao and nami ]
The tunes that will carry those words will change. So when you find stuff from the 1820s that’s carrying those words, they’re hornpipes. When you find stuff from the 1920s it’s kinda music hall stuff. And when you find stu ff from earlier, they’re kind of weird medieval tunes.
>> Shannon: Ancient tunes with words about ancient customs and beliefs… played on ancient instruments. Like the pibgorn.
In a letter from 1759, this guy William Morris writes about seeing young farmworkers playing single reed horns to their cows. Again, the cows!
This pibgorn tune, Hyd y Frwynen is played by hatao and nami, a duo based in Japan. The words of the song talks about maids who would light reeds to know whether their sweethearts still loved them. If the form of their lovers appeared to put out the flame before the reed burned, obviously love was still alive.
As Rhodri explained, the words and music were always together.
>> Rhodri: Poetry was written to be accompanied by music. And music was written to be accompanied by poetry. And the word Caerd in a Welsh, it means both music and poetry or poem. And so the two are just linked completely. You know, going way, way, way, way back to the bardic tradition, which is still kind of present in a lot of Welsh tunes that have survived the Methodist revival and survived the ‘Welsh Not’ and people just sort of scrapping music all together.
>> Shannon: There are ancient melodies and words that have survived partly because of early song collectors who wrote them down before the 18th and 19th century Methodist Revivals grabbed a lot of the melodies to use in church services. And before some church communities discouraged dance music. There are even stories about burning harps and fiddles.
But these melodies also survived because the church grabbed hold of them.
[ Music: “Tir,” from Live at Cwmyoy Church
Artist: Rhodri McDonagh ]
>> Ceri: The church (the Vicars and people like that) took a great interest in culture. In a kind of, you know, privileged way. In a kind of very middle-class kind of privileged way. They studied the peasantry. Ha! But wrote their tunes down. Took great delight in them, noted the dances, the costumes
>> Shannon: Chapel Vicars were collecting as a curiosity. And also adopting some of those traditional melodies to use in church services. All this at a time when many people were busy making copper plating. Not everybody knew—or cared—about old oxen songs.
[ Music: “Chimes,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Ceri: What you got in Wales was that it tended to be that the Welsh speaking working class became religious. And that the English speaking working class became unionized—first off became communized, and then joined the labor party. And that’s how they expressed it. There was huge amount of English speaking working class because of the massive nature of the Industrial Revolution. They were all in from all sorts of places. And therefore the Lingua Franca they by and large learnt was English.
So there was a big split. And of course, those working class people weren’t really au fait with the continuum of the tradition as such. They didn’t know the song. Whereas the Welsh speakers did.
It’s true at that point that it’s stolen from them by the chapel, in that they were obliged to sing hymns instead of dirty songs, or fun songs, or profound historical songs or whatever they had been singing beforehand.
>> Shannon: To make these melodies work for three-part vocal harmony and brass ensembles, some of the funkier folk elements (like the notes between an F and an F# for example) were kind of “fixed.” Or the melodies with uneven phrases got squared off into neat and tidy 8-bar sections. They were still the old traditional melodies, just without some of the rougher, cooler edges.
[ Music: Profiad Yr Eos Brido, from Telyn Berseinol Fy Ngwlad / Sweet Harp of My Land – A Collection of Welsh Music On the Welsh Triple Harp
Artist: Robin Huw Bowen ]
Outside of the church, Romani Gypsies had come to Wales. Some of them learned and played Welsh tunes. Fiddle player Patrick Rimes told me these players really kept things going, especially the harpers.
>> Patrick: The harp has always been quite a sort of macho instrument in Welsh music. And these gypsy harpers would strap these heavy, triple harps to their back and they’d walk from village to village to go and play their music. So that, you know, in that respect, we have a line back to our musical forefathers.
>> Shannon: So these Romani gypsies they’re playing Welsh music on the harp?
>> Patrick. Yeah. Traditional Welsh music, and also some things with a more Eastern European flavor. We’re really lucky that that happened. Otherwise we would have lost a huge trench of our musical heritage completely.
>> Shannon: So, in a sense, church vicars and members of the Romani Gypsy community were both keeping these melodies alive. And across the Irish sea in the mid 1800s there was a piper, an Anglican vicar in County Kerry called Canon James Goodman. He was also collecting a few Welsh tunes. In his manuscript of over 2000 Irish tunes, songs, and poems, he included the Swansea Hornpipe, the Merthyr Hornpipe. These were part of the Irish repertoire, because there was just so much coming and going, back and forth with Ireland and Wales.
[ Music: Miners Hornpipe, from Ffidil
Artist: Jane Ridout & Mike Lease ]
Ceri called Goodman’s collection a pre famine photograph of Irish and related music.
>> Ceri: It’s really, really interesting, the fact that he’s an Anglican. And the stories of how the Catholic priests at the time in West Cork and Kerry were trying to stop the music and stop the dancing. Whereas you had an Anglican priest taking an interest in it. There’s a massive history of Vicars, priests, but also industrialists, noting the music and writing the songs down and so on.
So there’s a woman in particular called Maria Jane Williams from, not far from Swansea, from Neath. And she collected very early—1830s— traditional songs. She notes, the sort of grace notes that the singers used. And all the things that later on disappeared, you know.
[ Music: Slip Jig Dreams, from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Shannon: Around that time, Thomas Crofton Crocker was also on the scene, collecting fairy tales from Cork. Apparently, he took a bunch of stories Maria Jane had collected.
>> Ceri: He stole them! He stole a significant amount of them from Maria Jane Williams. He was visiting Maria Jane Williams. And he stole a lot of the stories, just lifted them and gave them localized Irish names and so on. It was an absolute scandal at the time, you know!
>> Shannon: There’s stealing stories and songs. And there’s appropriating melodies for your Sunday services. And then there’s just picking up vibes. Remembering or assimilating things you’ve heard, and then inadvertently re-writing them.
>> Ceri: There’s a pretty well known hymn tune from Wales called Calon Lân. The story of that tune is really quite interesting. So John Hughes wrote that tune in 1904 in Swansea. He was a Swansea boy and he wrote it for competition. And won the competition.
>> Shannon: OK. John Hughes writes this melody, Daniel James writes the words. Both guys were tinplate workers. They enter the competition. They win. And the song becomes an instant hit. It still is. People sing this song before rugby matches. Even if you aren’t a Welsh speaker, apparently, you know the words to Calon Lân (in Welsh).
Calon Lân is the Welsh anthem. Buuuut …
>> Ceri: Uh, do you also know “a miner’s life is like a sailor’s?”
[ Music: “Miner’s Lifeguard,” from The Original Talking Union and Other Union Songs
Artists: Pete Seeger & the Song Swappers ]
>> Shannon: “A Miner’s Lifeguard” is attributed to Florida-born composer Charles Tillman. He claims to have written the tune around 1890. The words are anonymous.
>> Ceri: Before that, it was a Music Hall tune in London. It was a tune about a young girl. She loses her honor to a rich bloke.
[ Music: “She Was Poor, from On Tour
Artist: Theodore Bikel ]
>> Ceri: And then the chorus goes “It’s the rich, what gets the gravy. It’s the poor what gets the blame,” and so on.
>> Shannon: So this political song from London shows up as a union song in America (and also as a religious song—Life is Like a Mountain Road is sung to the same tune).
Then it comes becomes a quintessential anthem in Wales, attributed to John Hughes and Daniel James. Is this plagiarism? Or just inadvertent reinvention?
>> Ceri: Daniel James wrote the words. And then John Hughes wrote the tune. Or at least he thought… either he thought he’d written it, or he downright stole it.
[ Music: “Calon Lân,” from Hymns and Praise, Vol. 1 (Organ Accompaniments)
Composer: John Hughes
Artist: John Keys ]
>> Ceri: Or he’d been down the music hall in Swansea and heard, you know, people singing the raucous version of the song. And that maybe it had got in his head.
>> Shannon: And maybe he didn’t even know, or realize, right?
>> Ceri: Exactly. Exactly. It’s like you’d get a guy walking down a country path, you know, whistling it to himself. And if we were playing a mental game and we were, you know, church of England tune collectors from 1780, and we heard that somebody whistling that tune, we would just jot it down. And we wouldn’t ask much more than that really.
None of that really matters. It certainly is a shared common experience that tune. And it makes people feel a certain way. And it moves them in a certain way. Like Junior Crehan, right? I mean, he’s got that one tune in his head which turns into the Golden Castle, or the Mist on the Mountain.
[ Music: “Mist Covered Mountain,” from As it happened
Artist: Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh
>> Shannon: Martin Junior Crehan was a fiddle player from County Clare. He’s recognized as the composer of beloved Irish tunes like The Golden Castle Hornpipe, the Otter’s Holt, and the Mist Covered Mountain.
>> Ceri: That was a Jimmy Shand tune that he’d heard, wasn’t it, on the radio? Well, it’s a Scottish Marching tune. So people couldn’t figure out how Junior Crehan had heard, you know, on his little croft in West Clare, had heard a Scottish marching tune. But Jimmy Shand was quite a well known accordion player from Scotland who became very popular all over Britain and Ireland. And was on the radio and everything. And Junior Crehan must have heard the tune, because it’s exactly the same. It’s just it’s a waltz.
But of course, Junior Crehan’s treatment of it is unbelievably beautiful. This is why he’s truly an artist, I think. It’s like he opens the window for you and lets the air in. And he says, look at the view out there. And we all look out through the window and go, “Aaaah!”
Only Junior Crehan doing his little twists and things and holding his vision, you know? But for most people it’s an Irish jig now, but it isn’t really. Neither is Calon Lân a Welsh hymn. But it does give a blas, and a color, and a texture of shared experience and community. Really interesting stuff.
>> Shannon: Well before John Hughes and Daniel James’s Calon Lân, and before Junior Crehan’s Mist Covered Mountain, flute player, poet, and activist Iolo Morganwg was collecting music from all over Wales.
[ Music: “ym mhontypridd ma nghariad,” from yscolan
Artist: ceri rhys matthews ]
He was born Edward Williams, but is known by his bardic name, which means the handsome lord of Glamorgan.
Just like Maria Jane Williams (the song collector whose stories were nicked by Thomas Crocker in Cork), handsome Iolo was interested in the stylistic elements of songs. The way they were sung. The ornaments. The interesting bits. He’d notate all those details. And Iolo gave Maria a bunch of songs to publish, because he wasn’t interested in publishing his own collections. He had lots of other interests, like geology, linguistics, ecology, architecture, social justice.
So he just filled up notebooks with songs and stories that he heard. Or that he’d invented. There’s still disagreement about which pieces were medieval ones, and which ones he made up.
This is one Iolo collected. He said that he ‘picked it out of the mouth of a ploughboy.’ This is a rural one—older than the industrial revolution. It’s still got that sweet woah call at the end of the phrases
[ Music: “Cainc y Cathreiwr,” from Interview Recording
Artist: Ceri Rys Matthews ]
[ Music: from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
[ Music: C# meditation
Artist/Composer: Shannon Heaton ]
>> Ceri: Ploughboys were the main protagonists of these songs. So you imagine a teenage boy, really, with two huge oxen heads either side of him, right next to him. And their ears are right next to him. So the oxeners are confessors in a way. So he can say things to them that he couldn’t say to anybody else. And say things to him that he certainly couldn’t say to the girls he had an eye on.
>> Shannon: Confessing to the cattle. Tempting instead of teasing. Rhodri McDonagh and I were both totally taken by this sweet tradition:
[ Music: Slip Jig Dreams Reprise ]
>> Shannon: Oh my goodness, come on! This is my favorite part of your video is learning about the cattle singing!
>> Rhodri: Oh, yeah. That that was new to me as well. Just to give it some context as well, there was a guy called Iolo Morganwg who went round South Wales writing down folk tunes and writing down songs. And the biggest thing that he collected was these cattle driving songs. He was an absolute genius. He was against slavery in a time where everyone was like, what slavery, of course you do slavery. Why not? And he even had a shop where he refused to sell anything that came from a plantation. So he was very socially conscious. Yeah, he was one of the first people in Wales—well, one of the first people in Britain—to go around to actually sort of write down contemporary tunes and songs. And then on the other hand, he forged so much stuff. He’d go, “Ooh, look at this ancient poem that I found!” And he forged like a whole Druidic alphabet that was used to decipher Druidic ruins and that. And it was just totally made up. But people bought it. And he’s the reason that there’s Druids in the Eisteddfodd
>> Shannon: There was another late 18th century collector, this harp player Edward Jones who also came up with a lot of Druidic lore. Edward published some of Iolo’s research and claimed it as his own. And you see that stuff reenacted today at the Eisteddfodd, which is like the Irish Fleadh Cheoil. This big music contest—and it’s been running since the 12th century.
[ Music: “Awyr,” from Soundtrack
Artist: Rhodri McDonagh ]
>> Rhodri: Like the biggest thing in the Eisteddfod is the poetry. And the music. Like the musician’s medal is another thing as well. And I went along to the award ceremony. And it’s kind of, it’s a bit of a strange one, because they got these guys in robes and people on the harp. And they all revolve around a stone circle. And they shout about peace and poetry and stuff. It’s totally bizarre. And everybody knows like, oh yeah, that was kind of made up. But we like it. So we keep it. You know, it’s funny!
>> Shannon: That’s wild. It makes for good TV.
>> Rhodri: Yeah. It’s a nice spectacle, isn’t it?
>> Shannon: The Eistedfodd is spectacle. It’s a performative competitive display of professionalism. Winners perform at a super high technical level. It’s not really about informal social traditions.
>> Angharad: I think we’re sometimes in Wales were used to Eistedfodds. And competitive music making. And there can be an emphasis on kind of a classical level, you know? Like how well you sing it and, and you lose some of the whole ‘Hwyl.’
[ Music: “Ryan Jigs,” from Solomon
Artist: Calan ]
>> Shannon: That’s fiddle player Angharad Jenkins. She used to work for Trac Cymru. That’s the Wales Folk Development organization. She helped set up a four-day youth music camp with playing, dancing, singing, sessions, outdoor activities. The emphasis is on fun. It’s good craic, or as they say in Wales, it’s good Hwyl.
>> Shannon: I wanted to talk to you about this, uh, course that Rhodri had said. The Gwerin…
>> Angharad: Gwerin Gwallgo, yeah! I mean, there was just a need for a course for young people to just leave home for four days. You know, and just get to know people all around Wales, for one thing. And then just immerse themselves fully. And, yeah, there’s lots of young people coming out of that now, sort of playing traditional Welsh music. And sort of understanding a little more about it. And to bring people together and have fun with it and trying to find relevance for it today.
>> Shannon: And so what’s your experience with Welsh music as a social event?
Well, um, my mum is a harpist so I grew up with music. She played in a band called Aberjaber. So I remember going to see her perform at festivals. So I suppose it was something my parents did and my parents listened to it. It wasn’t that cool. And it was not relevant to me.
[ Chimes reprise ]
>> Shannon: Welsh music was not something that resonated with Angharad. Until she went to this festival in… Sweden. (By the way, I got into my playing the recorder and then the tin whistle during the year my parents were teaching at UNN, the University of Nigeria at Nsukka. So, you never know.)
[ Music: “D Big Build,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton
>> Angharad: I went as a grumpy teenager, just finishing my exams. My friends went off on like a boozy sunny trip somewhere, and I got to go to this music camp. And I was just not interested at all. But it was like a musical epiphany for me, really! I went there, and I was learning tunes by musicians from Scotland, Ireland, England, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Mozambique. And it was sharing music, and the music was like unlocking conversations about culture and language. And it was absolutely a light bulb moment for me. It opened my eyes and ears. Like I wasn’t using my ears before that course. Because I was classically trained, so I was just reading the dots.
I came back to Wales like with a fire in my stomach, wanting to tell everyone about how amazing this music can be. Not to worry about it being perfectly correct, just being creative with it. You know, this is how it goes, but add your own harmonies. Or if it doesn’t sit well on your instrument, just change it a little bit. And it changed my life really! And I think that’s why I went on to work for Trac and want to set up a residential course in Wales.
>> Shannon: When Angharad got home from that course, she pored over her parents’ music:
>> Angharad: A lot of their record collection included lots of fiddle music from Ireland and Scotland, Shetland stuff. And I loved that style. And I just listened, listened, listened to all that music. But I wanted to play the Welsh tunes and try and make them sound as exciting as what I was hearing in other Celtic countries, you know. A lot of the time probably speeding it up a lot. Because I used to just see, like, middle-aged people doing very polite folk dancing with probably not that much life really hahaha!
>> Shannon: Yeah, that’s not hot.
>> Angharad: As a teenager anyway. I’ve grown to appreciate a lot more as I get older. But, um, I just wanted to play fast. I wanted to play tunes that fitted on the fiddle.
[ Music: “Viva Cariad,” from Llinyn Arian
Composers: Angharad Jenkins & Delyth Jenkins
Artists: Delyth & Angharad ]
>> Angharad: Because the harp plays a big part in traditional Welsh music. So a lot of the tunes are written down with the harp in mind. Lots of arpeggios and stuff, which is not so great on the fiddle. So it was just sort of like I was just on a bit of a journey of discovery really.
>> Shannon: Eventually that passion found an outlet with the band Calan. Formed in 2006, the group’s mission has always been to find old Welsh tunes and share them in a modern context. All five band members sing in Welsh and English.
A few years later, she started the duo DnA with her mom. Their debut album was nominated for the 2014 Welsh Album of the Year.
For Angharad, this passion for playing Welsh music bloomed in… Sweden. Where they also have a tradition of singing to their cattle—to call them home at night. Come on. What a lovely practice.
Angharad’s band mate Patrick Rimes has also been taken by the oxen songs. With his other group, VRï, he’s working on some of these old Canu Cethrain songs.
>> Patrick: Yeah, I’ve been fascinated with this tradition for a long time. And I always thought of it as sort of antiquated. And probably an old wives’ tale. But then of course Rhodri who shared me that video of the bloke who goes to sit in a field with his trombone.
[ Music: “An Ox Driving Song from St Athan, in the Vale of Glamorgan,” from rough edit of forthcoming album
Artist: VRï ]
>> Shannon: Rhodri McDonagh packed a lot of good stuff in that Beginner’s Guide to Welsh Music video. I’m so grateful to Rhodri for introducing me to the cattle singing tradition. And for encouraging this Irish Music Stories dive into Welsh Music. It gives me a chance to share this rough edit sneak peek of a project that VRï is working on right now. Without Rhodri I might not have connected with Patrick there. And Angharad. And Ceri.
And without Welsh language, Welsh music would certainly be quite different.
>> Rhodri: So about, I think, 30% of the population is sort of fluent Welsh speakers. Everybody in Wales learns Welsh in school . And then you kind of get to get to choose when you’re a teenager whether you sort of take Welsh as a long core subject, like French and German. Yeah, I was quite good at Welsh in school. And then when I got to GCSE level (sort of high school sort of thing), if you wanted to do Welsh, you had to stay in at lunchtime basically. As a teenager I was like oh I don’t want to do that. I want to out for my lunchtime. I’m not gonna bother with Welsh. So like a lot of people, I kind of sidelined it.
And then when I went to university, I came across so many other Welsh speakers. And that made me feel sort of incredibly guilty. Like of, I’m from here, I live here. Why don’t I speak Welsh, you know? So then I kind of started a long journey of learning it again.
[ Music: Awyr reprise ]
>> Shannon: The Welsh Language Society was established in 1962 by Plaid Cymru, a political party mostly supported in Welsh-speaking North and West of Wales. That’s where Patrick Rimes was born and raised.
In 2011, the Welsh language received official status, along with English.
>> Rhodri: Where I am in this in the Southeast, there’s not many Welsh speakers. It’s growing. But Welsh is seen more on sort of road signs and official documents. Like when my letter for the COVID vaccine came in through the door, you know, it’s in English and in Welsh. So it’s a really interesting kind of dynamic that sort of appeared over the last kind of 10, 20 years, I suppose. From being this language that sort of was, well, it was pushed down quite a lot with the Welsh Not in the 1800s.
>> Shannon: Yeah, that Welsh Not. So, the British Government banned the Welsh language from schools in 1847. Kids caught speaking Welsh would be given this piece of wood, usually with the letters WN (Welsh Not). And it would pass to the next kid caught speaking it. The last kid holding the Welsh Not got punished for speaking this old Celtic language.
Welsh, like Cornish, is a P-Celtic language, which is related to the Q-Celtic languages of Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic and Manx. Those are also historically minoritized languages.
When Ireland began efforts to revitalize its ancient indigenous language, it offered support for Gaeltacht or Irish speaking communities.
>> Rhodri: On one level Welsh is very kind of like in Ireland where you’ve got pockets of Irish that really celebrate and preserve Irish. And it’s kind of the same in Wales, but just in a larger area. So there’s a town called Caernarfon up in north Wales and it’s got this beautiful castle. And literally every man, woman and child and baby, and dog speak Welsh, honestly, They don’t even think about, um, that they’re speaking Welsh. It’s just that ingrained, you know?
>> Shannon: And is this because, like with the Gaeltacht, there was a bit of a government initiative as well as social interest in preserving and revitalizing language?
>> Rhodri: Yeah definitely. So, there’s a government initiative. They want a million speakers by 2050, I think it is. And we’re on about 800,000 or something like that now. So we’re getting there! Um yeah, the government is definitely pushing for that.
It’s funny, because the opposition to that has come from England. And said, ah, you know, you should put more money into maths. And you just put more money into science, this that and the other. But the thing is like in Wales, even with non speakers, it’s something like 80-90% of the population as a whole in favor of preserving the language. It’s something that the whole country kind of wants in that way.
[ Music: “Kân,” from Solomon
Artist: Calan ]
>> Shannon: So Calan recorded this song con how did this come about?
>> Angharad: In Calan we’re very proud that we are all five of us are fluent Welsh speakers. Buti there’s a huge sense of responsibility on our shoulders to use that language. If we’re not speaking it, we feel massive guilt. And there’s a whole, you know, you’re proud to be able to do it. But you’ve got responsibility and guilt all muddled. It’s a whole, like, mental burden sometimes trying to keep this language and culture going. So the song tries to convey that mixture of feelings that us Welsh people feel on a daily basis, you know?
>> Shannon: Yeah. Wow.
>> Angharad: It took us on a bit of a different musical path, this one. Because it’s inspired by the ancient form of canny punk, sort of chanting Psalms in chapel. So, um, they would read verses from the Bible on this chant. Very sort of monotone fifths unison fifths.
>> Shannon: Is it like singing verses from the Bible like they do in Latin churches?
>> Angharad: I guess so, yeah! Probably it’s very similar to that. [Demonstrates canny punk.] Very rough and ready and raw as well. Yeah. It’s absolutely amazing. And we were like, we’ve got to do something with this. So Beth Ann who writes most of the words in our band, she wrote a couple of verses, one in Welsh, one in English, all about the Welsh language and culture and our complicated relationship we have with it really. That’s what it’s all about.
( Song excerpt plays )
>> Shannon: Well, I told my son—he’s 10 years old—just the basic concept of what I thought the song was about. And I played it for him. He loved the swear word. It was beeped out, but he knew what the swear word was supposed to be, and he was very excited about that. But also he was also really taken with the poem, uh, from your father. And my son’s name is also Nigel. And so he liked that as well. So tell me about the inserting the poem there.
>> Angharad: Nigel Jenkins is my father. And was probably one of the great modern Welsh writers, really. But he passed away in 2014. So we were working on this, I think the following year. And I just wanted to celebrate his work. And we actually happen to have a recording of him reading the poem called The Creation.
( Music swells for “Creation” excerpt:
>> Nigel Jenkins:
‘She’s the finest,’ said God, ‘of all my creations
A land of quiet extraordinary charms
From her alpine peaks and salmon-packed streams
To her golden coast with its prosperous farms
‘Her people I have blessed with laverbread and cockles
Cwrw Felinfoel and great mineral wealth
They’ll be the wizards of rugby, singers and bards
And they’ll speak the language of heaven itself.’
>> Shannon: Those are just two stanza of Nigel Jenkins’ poem. And I’ve only stitched together pieces of Calan’s song. You gotta edit to keep things concise. Sorry. But it’s the punchline of her dad’s poem that Angharad loves the most.
>> Angharad: In the poem, God is having a conversation with the Archangel Gabriel about creating Wales. He’s gifting Wales all these wonderful things: beautiful mountains, rivers, wildlife, minerals, and great sports. But Archangel Gabriel says at the end—the punchline, which isn’t in the song, “Haven’t you somewhat overpaid them?” And God’s reply is, “No, not if you look at the neighbors I’ve made them!”
>> Shannon: Hahahaha!
>> Angharad: Which is a little dig at the relationship that Wales and England have. It’s all tongue in cheek really.
>> Shannon: Yeah. Well humor only works when there’s a real truth to it.
>> Angharad: Yes, yes!
[ Music: Ryan Jigs reprise ]
We’ve played in America quite a lot. And we always do like Irish festivals and Celtic festivals. But most people don’t know about Welsh music and language. I think they guess it’s maybe a part of Ireland or a part of England or something. But we’re a very small nation. And we’re very modest people, I think. So we’re not very good at, um, celebrating and publicizing what we do. I think that’s a general sort of quality of Welsh people.
>> Shannon: Well that’s all about to change with this episode of baby.
>> Angharad: Hahaha! Great.
>> Shannon: Well, this groundbreaking episode would not be possible without the support of listeners. Before I learn more about modern—and historic trends in Cymru, here’s my Nigel to thank this month’s sponsors.
>> Nigel Heaton: Thank you to the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, Brian Benscoter, Ian Bittle, Finian McCluskey, Joel DeLashmit, Jonathan Duvick, Gerry Corr, Mark Haynes, John Ploch, Chris Armstrong, Ken Doyle, Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Paul DeCamp, Suezen Brown, David Vaughan.
>> Shannon: Thanks a lot everybody! And if you’d like to help tell these Irish—and Welsh—music stories, just head to IrishMusicStories.org. And thank you.
So when I started playing Irish flute, it was pre YouTube. I backpacked around Clare and Galway with a tape recorder. I learned tons of tunes directly from other players, just going to music sessions. Sitting in, listening, playing the tunes I knew. Little by little, I learned. By going to sessions.
This wasn’t quite how Rhodri McDonagh or Ceri Rhys Matthews learned their tunes.
>> Rhodri: It’s not the same as Irish music. I mean, we don’t really have a massive session culture in the same way as Ireland. We have sessions. But they’re not nearly as ingrained really as they are in Ireland.
[ Music: “Kaingk Dafydd Broffwyd,” from Ffidil
Artist: Robert Evans (Crwth Chwethant) ]
>> Ceri: What you don’t get in Wales that you do get in Ireland is a critical mass of people now involved in what we’d call traditional music then. There’s reasons for that. Partly to do with the fact that Ireland became a nation state. So you got the new impetus in defining one’s nationality, as it were, through sports and music, of course. Everybody was taught it. That never happened here. In a funny way, the continuum carried on. Those that were doing it carried on. People were noted, and recorded, and were part of a living thing. But the lines were so thin by that point.
>> Shannon: One way to thicken the lines is to play Welsh tunes. And teach them to other people. When Rhodri began learning fiddle tunes, he didn’t encounter much Welsh music… at first.
He’d started his musical life on classical piano and guitar, and worked as a composer and production music guy. Some of the music in this episode is Rhodri’s work. Things changed when he moved to England.
>> Rhodri: Sheffield, by the way, in England—I don’t know if you know this but it has an amazing session scene. Like there’s Irish sessions everywhere. I just decided, right, I’m going to learn the fiddle. And take it from there.
>> Shannon: So during that time you’re living in Sheffield, you’re playing Irish tunes mostly.
>> Rhodri: Yeah. Yeah. So there’s loads of Irish tune sessions out there. And song sessions as well. Absolutely no Welsh tunes. Nothing. Um, so I kind of took it upon myself to be like the ambassador, really, for Welsh music in England.
>> Shannon: And where were you learning these Welsh tunes?
>> Rhodri: YouTube was a big help. And there was a Welsh fiddle tune book which I picked up first. And also there was also this dictionary of music from the 1800s, a really old kind of thing. And that was when I discovered that Deck the Halls is a Welsh tune as well.
[ Deck the Halls Quote ]
[Music: “Chwi Fechgyn Glan Ffri – Difyrrwch Gwyr y Bontnewydd,” from Ffidil
Artists: Bernard & Gerard Kilbride]
>> Rhodri: One of the big influential bits that sort of expanded the tune repertoire for everybody in Wales, I think, there was an album called Ffidil. You had academics like Stephen Rhys. And an amazing crwth player. And other fiddle players came together to produce this manifesto of like, right, this is Welsh fiddle music. And we’re gonna sort of start it again really.
>> Shannon: In fact, it was Ceri Rhys Matthews who produced this Welsh fiddle and crwth manifesto. Along with 20 other trad releases for the same small record label. He also put together a Welsh compilation for Smithsonian Folkways.
>> Ceri: Oh, and I had the energy in those days to be able to.. yeah, I possibly felt more politically inclined to be fly in a Welsh flag in those days. And saying well, why isn’t the stuff from here as well known and everything. And so that I did something practical about it then. And I’m glad I did all that. Um, but it’s for some younger kid to do now. Not for me. I got too much to learn. I’ve got other stuff I need to get better at, and learn, and find the bottom of. Hahaha!
[ Music: “Cicio’r Byd O Fy Mlaen,” from Interview Recording
Artist: Patrick Rimes ]
>> Shannon: That’s Patrick Rimes from his home in East London. Patrick is originally from Snowden in North Wales. That’s like a 40 minute drive to the Irish ferry.
>> Shannon: And that is a Welsh speaking enclave?
>> Patrick: Very Welsh speaking. Yeah. So, um, my mother is English. And she moved there 30 years ago at a time when it would have been socially impossible for her not to learn Welsh. So she’s now a fluent Welsh speaker as well. And I was brought up speaking English at home, which is why I’ve got this quite plummy, uh, BBC English accent. Well I’m quite a big believer in when you’re brought up bilingual that you, you sort of practice different characters. And you know, have different sort of sides of your personality in different languages. So my Welsh personality is definitely been kind of forged in the fires of school playground. I’m a lot more sort of, a lot more sweary and abrasive and Welsh than I am in English.
Shannon: It’s good to have a playground persona, too. It frees you up a little.
[ Music: “John’s Theme, from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Patrick: We’ve grown up speaking, communicating, engaging with this language. And it’s just sort of the most natural thing in the world to perform the music in the language that it was conceived. Um. There is somehow this kind of pressure, which I think is kind of self-generated we fulfill this, this need to translate, to try to make things more, uh..
>> Shannon: Accessible?
>> Patrick: Accessible is the word. Which I think is probably a bit unnecessary. I mean, the world music industry is full of people who are very successful in performing in minority languages. And so I think we probably need to, um, develop a bit of a thicker skin and just get on with it.
[ Music: “Clychau Aberdyfi,” from Tŷ Ein Tadau
Artist: VRï ]
>> Shannon: So this song, C-L-Y-C-H-A-U
>> Patrick: Yeah, Clychau Aberdyfi.
>> Shannon: Can you tell me what that’s about?
>> Patrick: It’s actually two songs squeezed together. So it’s all about the man who’s sort of standing in the middle of a Glamorganshire in south Wales, and just sort of listening the peels of bells in all the nearby villages.
( music swells )
And there’s an equivalent song in the English tradition, Oranges and Lemons. Exactly the same. Describing all of the different bells and the different churches all around.
>> Patrick: I was very lucky that I happened to grow up in, I suppose, what would pass for a hotspot of traditional music. My two good friends in the class w didn’t really have any particular musical aspirations at that time, but we were just kind of down for anything. And when somebody asked, you know, who wants violin lessons next term we thought, yeah, sounds all right. You know, this is an excuse to get out of class.
[ Music: “Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust 2016,” from Soundtrack
Artist: Rhodri McDonagh ]
And so we all started having these, uh, very rudimentary violin lessons. You know, little G and D March and all that stuff. After a couple of months, I was invited quite randomly to a workshop which was being run by the traditional instrument society in Bangor. I didn’t really know what to expect. I had no concept of, uh, Wales having its own music tradition at that point. And we got taken along. And then when it transpired that these things usually culminated in a session in the pub in the evening, I was absolutely sold. To be taken into this like loud, smelly, smoky place with, you know, 20 people all sat around playing tunes, I think I was just completely hooked.
Luckily my mum was enthusiastic enough to keep taking me to this monthly session then in Vanguard. So in relation to the rest of Wales, that was absolutely unheard of, you know. I don’t think there would be regular sessions to go to hardly anywhere, I don’t think. But we were lucky that, um, there was just a critical mass of people in Bangor at the time. The Irish session happened once a week. The Welsh session was every second Monday of the month in the Nelson pub in Bangor. And, yeah, my mum just took me every month. Without realizing it, suddenly you turn around after six months and you realize that you’ve just absorbed this huge repertoire by osmosis.
>> Shannon: Patrick also took up the viola, pipes, piano. And like everybody in this episode—and like everybody in Wales—he sings. The church has certainly had a hand in that.
>> Patrick: Yeah absolutely. I mean it’s maybe had a detrimental effect on certain aspects of Welsh musical culture. I mean it’s been a huge driver for, you know, community singing. You know we like to sort of throw around the phrase “the land of song. “ But it is, you know, it’s true. I mean the Welsh culture revolves a lot around singing. And you know, particularly singing in harmony as well. Which I hadn’t really realized was such an unusual thing. And that has to be down to that culture of hymn singing from such a young age.
[ Music: “Calon Lân,” from Gwlad! Gwlad! – The Sound of Welsh Rugby
Artist: Corau Meibion Cymru ]
[ Music: “Crug y Bar,” from Tŷ Ein Tadau
Artist: VRï ]
>> Shannon: How much is like your Welshness or Welsh music at the heart of all of this. And how much is just being a musician?
>> Patrick: That’s a really interesting question. And it’s one that I’ve been sort of wrestling with quite a lot. I’ve been composing quite a lot of original music, um, over the lockdown. Some of it, um, stylistically kind of aligned with the tradition, but also, you know, not. And also music that’s born out of the Western Classical Tradition. But still, I mean, I think, you know, if you, if you cut me, I would probably bleed traditional music more than anything.
>> Shannon: Mm. These questions asked by the American who plays Irish music. I love this line, “if you cut me, I probably do bleed mostly traditional… plasma!” But haha, um, yeah. But experimenting, always experimenting. And always kind of freed. I’m never going to please everybody or anybody anyway. So in a way I’m kind of liberated.
>> Patrick: Hmm. Yeah. And I think that’s, it’s been a, quite an interesting journey trying to come to terms with playing a number of different genres of music, and all of them sort of fare hilariously unfashionable. Probably would have been uncool about a hundred years ago, let alone today.
>> Shannon: There you are!
>> Patrick: That’s, that’s my, that’s my voice. Haha! It’s time to just up, it’s time to come to terms with it.
[ Music: “Fitz,” from Fitz – Single
Artist: Avanc ]
>> Shannon: When he’s not working on all these dynamic—if ‘unfashionable’—performance projects, Patrick also coaches Avanc. That’s Wales’s first National Youth Folk Ensemble. Rhodri played with the group til he aged out.
>> Rhodri: Basically I joined it just before COVID hit. And we had a great rehearsal up in north Wales. And it was amazing. And then the pandemic happened. It was like, right, this is my year to be part of this big band. And a global pandemic got in the way.
( music swells )
Ceri: In this funny year and a half of not playing with anybody, you start forgetting tunes because you’re not sharing them with people. And you can imagine how that on a larger scale has a more catastrophic effect, if you like. And if there’s only one harp player for like a hundred miles in 1920, then that person is going to start forgetting things and start changing things, you know? And it’s not a music of the people anymore. It’s a music of a creative individual, again, at that point.
[ Music: “Cofio,” from Llinyn Arian
Composer: Angharad Jenkins & Delyth Jenkins
Artist: Delyth & Angharad ]
In Ireland, it seems to me that it’s always, always, always about people. And that just melts me, you know. Whereas here, I’m not carrying other people, I’m carrying place somehow. And I don’t mean Wales. I’m not carrying Wales. But I’m carrying place somehow and not people. And it’s kind of lonely in that respect, you know? It’s a lonely activity. Because I don’t think it would work. Because it’s a different place. It’s in a different history. It’s a different collective experience.
That Irish thing of camaraderie and intimacy with musicians and listeners. I just don’t get that here. But if somebody comes to the house and I play for them, they don’t know what they’re listening to. But they respond in a deeply intuitive, open way. In a nonverbal way, they connect just as much.
>> Shannon: And they’re only a ferry ride away from Ireland, just four hours from the cows at O’Leary’s farm.
>> Shannon: I mean, do you think that maybe the cows could help bring everybody together?
>> Rhodri: Definitely, more parts of the country.
>> Shannon: Yeah, yeah. Maybe they could help carry the tradition a little bit. Or at least carry the instruments.
>> Rhodri: Definitely. Oh, bless them
>> Shannon: Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. For playlists, transcripts, links to videos, companion essays, and to contribute to this project, please head to IrishMusicStories.org. – IMS runs on listener support and interest. And I’m so grateful for your time and interest in these Irish Music Stories.
Special thanks this month to Paul McEvoy, who taught me about cattle: that all ‘cows’ are females who have had at least one calf. Females without offspring are called heifers. And males are either bulls, or steers if they’re castrated. Any type of cattle (male castrated, female, or even uncastrated bulls) can be trained to work as oxen. Thanks, always, to Matt Heaton for script editing and additional sound design. And thank you, Nigel, for acknowledging our sponsors. Thanks again to Rhodri McDonagh for getting me started on this project, and for sharing sublime production music.
Episode guests in order of appearance
Piano and fiddle player who produced Welsh Trad Music: a beginner’s guide
Artist and musician who plays traditional and original music from south and west Wales
Fiddle player, singer and educator who performs with Calan, DnA, and other groups
Multi-instrumentalist and composer who performs with Calan, VRï, and who coaches trad youth ensemble Avanc