The Folk Song Tradition in Wales

Story of Wales - Posted 06-03-2020

All peoples and all nations worldwide have a tradition of songs and tunes that mirror their culture, their character and their way of life. For this reason, it can be said that all those traditions are unique.

What makes the Welsh tradition unique, above all else, is the language of the songs themselves i.e. Welsh. Amongst the songs that can be described as ‘traditional’, at least 90% of them are Welsh, for the simple reason that they originate from a period in the history of Wales when the Welsh language was the principal language of the majority of the population – indeed very often, the one and only language.

For anyone examining Welsh folk songs for the first time, it will become obvious:
• that they have played a vital part in the culture of the Welsh people throughout the centuries;
• that they are numerous and diverse;
• that there is an astonishing variety of tunes, many of them exceptionally beautiful and memorable.

They can be roughly categorised as follows:

Love Songs

Love is the most popular theme of the Welsh folk songs. Meredydd Evans estimates that there are as many as 170 of them. A considerable proportion of those deal with rejection in love, and hence they are rather sad songs; some sing the praises of a loved one, others portray the trials and tribulations which obstruct the path of love immensely.
Examples: Y Gwydr Glas, Beth yw’r Haf i Mi?, Dacw ‘Nghariad i Lawr yn y Berllan, Cariad Cyntaf, Tra Bo Dau.

Lullabies (Hwiangerddi) and Children’s Songs

Throughout the centuries, mothers were all-important in the task of presenting songs to generations after generations of children. The literal meaning of ‘hwiangerdd’ is a song that lulls a child to sleep, and there are many examples of this type of song, but the word ‘hwiangerdd’ is also used in a wider sense to describe other simple songs for children.
Examples: Suo Gân, Si Hei Lwli ‘Mabi (hwiangerddi); Dacw Mam yn Dwad, Fuoch Chi Rioed yn Morio, Mi Welais Jac y Do.

Work Songs

The most notable songs in this category are the songs ‘Gyrru’r Ychen’ deriving from Glamorgan: songs encouraging oxen to keep working when ploughing. Some of these were collected and documented by Iolo Morgannwg:
Examples: Cân yr Ychen, I Ysgafnhau ein Gwaith.

Humorous Songs

In recent times in Eisteddfod competitions, there has been a tendency to give prominence to melancholic folk songs. But it is deemed that it was the jolly songs which were given priority at the old ‘nosweithiau llawen’ (happy evenings) and informal meetings. The clue is in the word ‘llawen’ – happy!
Examples: Cân Merthyr, Yr Hen Wyddeles, Mari’r Glwyseg, Ar y Ffordd Wrth Fynd i Lundain, Cân y Cwcwallt.

Wassail Songs

These are songs pertaining in particular to special occasions at different times of the year. The literal meaning of wassail is ‘Good Health’ and an important part of the ritual was a special drink which was shared from the wassail bowl. The term ‘canu gwasael’ (wassail singing or wassailing) was synonymous with a ritual where a small group of merrymakers would go from one house to another wishing the families good health and blessings in their lives – in the hope of obtaining a warm welcome and hospitality. The singing occurred in the open-air (although some of the rituals meant that some singers within the house would answer and challenge the singers who were outside). The terms ‘canu tan bared’ (singing beneath a wall) and ‘canu yn drws’ (singing at the door) is also a description of the custom. Wassailing is associated with the following rituals: Y Fari Lwyd, (The Grey Mare or Mary), Y Calennig, (Gifting on New Year’s Day) and Hela’r Dryw / Hunting the Wren (January), Gŵyl Fair / Mary’s Festival of the Candles, Shrove Tuesday (February/beginning of March), May Day, and also weddings. There are many ‘contesting songs’ – caneuon ymryson – (the ‘progressive songs’ where each verse has to be sung at a quicker pace than the previous one), that are associated in particular with Mary’s Festival.
Examples: Wel Dyma Ni’n Dwad, Hela’r Dryw, Cadi Ha, Mwynen Mai. (Caneuon cynyddol): Cyfri’r Geifr, Un o Fy Mrodyr I.


This is by far the most prolific category – approximately 4,000 of them in number with the majority from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Their topics were the events of the day: murders, uprisings such as the Tithe War, Rebecca Riots, storms and shipwrecks, the opening of new railway lines etc. Since these ballads were sung in the open air, at a fair or market, it was paramount that the ballad singer had a strong voice and a spectacular style, as his aim was to sell copies of the ballad to his audience.
Examples: Baled y Blotyn Du, Storm Fawr 1846, Llofruddiaeth Dafydd Lewis.

Maritime Songs

Welsh sea shanties are relatively few and far between but J Glyn Davies composed a wealth of maritime songs in the 1920s, and within a short space of time they were recognised as part of the folk tradition.

Examples: Sianti Gymraeg, Fflat Huw Puw, Llongau Caernarfon, Santiana

Canu Penillion – Penillion Singing

In recent times, the term ‘canu penillion’ was replaced by the term ‘cerdd dant’, (i.e the skilfulness of singing poetry to the accompaniment of set melodies played on the harp, in line with specific rules). These days, this skill has moved to a different direction from that of folk singing. Formerly, ‘canu penillion’ was the pleasurable pastime of the folk people: it was a spontaneous technique making significant use of ‘penillion telyn’ and light-hearted, informal verses and no one at that time would have contemplated putting ‘canu penillion’ and folk singing in separate categories.
Examples: simple four or six line verses on melodies such as Cader Idris, Llwyn Onn, Pen Rhaw.

The Plygain Tradition

This singing is of a religious nature, the type of singing associated with Christmas time and heard in plygain services in churches and chapels. It is more akin to folk and ballad singing than to hymn singing: natural, unassuming, untrained singing, always unaccompanied and more often than not in simple harmony. Many of the melodies onto which the words are set are folk tunes.

Examples: Ar Gyfer Heddiw’r Bore, Carol y Swper, Tramwywn, Ffarwel Ned Puw, Y Ceiliog Gwyn.

Of course, not every folk song falls neatly into the above categories. For example, Myn Mair, is a song sung in a vigil in the presence of a dead body. It is a prayer for the soul of the deceased person. The plea to the Virgin Mary at the end of each verse manifests that the song originates from the period before the Religious Revival when Wales was a Catholic country.

By today this collection of folk songs has been safeguarded but they could have easily been lost. Two bodies in particular were responsible for collecting and documenting the songs: Cymdeithas Alawon Gwerin Cymru, (the Welsh Folk-Song society), especially their early members at the beginning of the twentieth century, and Sain Ffagan Museum at a later date. As J. Lloyd Williams, one of the leaders of Cymdeithas Alawon Gwerin noted, “It was quite a feat for the old melodies to have survived through generations of neglect and a greater achievement still that they refused to die under the contempt and shame of the Religious Revival.”

Arfon Gwilym

[Note: In the modern world, the exact meaning of the word ‘ folk ’ varies greatly. This article in particular concentrates on the type of songs passed down orally from one generation to the next over a long period of time; the type of songs one could describe as ‘traditional’]

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