Over the years the Screen and Sound Archive at the National Library of Wales have worked hard to ensure that all genres of music in Wales are represented in our collections. Here Dan Griffiths tells us about some of the Black Music held in our collections:
One of the most famous Welshmen of the 20th century, Dylan Thomas, was born on this day in 1914. As today would have been his 107th birthday, I thought I’d delve into the Library’s collection of electronic resources to see what I could find about one of our most important poets.
Where best to start than this comprehensive entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. This gives an insight into his upbringing and education, and discusses his development as a poet, his rise to fame and his notorious behaviour which led to his untimely death at the age of 39: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/36471
Under Milk Wood is probably Thomas’ most famous work, originally conceived as a play for radio. Shortly after its premiere on BBC Radio, it won the Prix Italia best for literary/dramatic programme. Due to its huge success, it was quickly adapted for stage and screen. This article from Critical Studies in Television (Sage Journals) analyses the transformation into these physical mediums, and whether they were as successful: https://doi.org/10.7227/CST.9.3.8
Following on from this article, I found a gushing Daily Mail review of the first complete UK performance of Under Milk Wood, held at London’s Old Vic in 1954. In the review, found in Gale Primary Sources, the reviewer states that he found the play in print to be an “unwieldy mass of adjectives”. It’s clear that the cast, which included his compatriot Richard Burton and Dame Sybil Thorndike, helped raise the play to another level. “On the stage, the magic of these eight voices set the ears ablaze with his verbal fireworks.” A gust of Wicked Welsh fun indeed!! https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/EE1864227004/DMHA?u=nlw_ttda&sid=bookmark-DMHA&xid=98dcf147
Billy Boston is one of the most talented and successful Welsh rugby players of all time, yet for many years his achievements were hardly recognised in Wales. His career is a great sporting story, and one that deserves to be told.
Billy was born in Butetown, Cardiff, in 1934, and became a rugby star in the 1950s and 1960s. His mother came from Cardiff’s Irish community, and his father was a black merchant seaman from Sierra Leone. As a boy, Billy played Rugby Union for Cardiff Internationals Athletic Club (CIACS), a club that reflected the multiracial nature of the Cardiff docklands. He was an exceptionally talented winger, with great speed, strength, balance and footballing intelligence, as well as a devastating sidestep. Billy played for Wales at Youth level, but his dream was to play for Cardiff, and perhaps one day for Wales. There was no doubt that he was good enough.
Billy never got the opportunity to fulfil his dream of playing for his beloved Cardiff RFC; the same was true of Johnny Freeman and Colin Dixon, other black players who went on from CIACS to have very successful careers in Rugby League. Further, no black player was selected to represent Wales at full international level in Rugby Union until the 1980s.
A bitter division had grown up between Rugby Union and Rugby League after they had split in 1895 – Union was an amateur game, while League was professional. Professionalism was banned in Union, and players who went to the north of England to play League – or who even spoke to a League scout – were ostracised. Union was strictly amateur, and the hypocrisy and the stigma remained until the game became professional in 1995. However, generations of Welsh rugby players – many of them black – found employment in Rugby League, especially at times when Wales was struggling economically.
When he was approached by the Rugby League club Wigan in 1953, Billy Boston did not want to go north and his mother refused their £1,000 offer. Billy would sign for £3,000 and no less. The Bostons hoped and expected this to put Wigan off, but the club was prepared to pay exceptional money for an exceptional player, and so the 19-year old Billy signed a League contract. Having done so, he knew that his dream of playing Union for Cardiff and Wales could never be realised. That night, he wept and could not sleep.
Billy made an immediate impact at Wigan, and became a League legend during his career there, which ended in 1968. He played wing, but unusually he could play centre or fly half just as well. He became less agile towards the end his career, but he kept his pace and developed his size and muscle and a powerful hand-off. He was the complete Rugby League threequarter, and he was often unstoppable.
The year after he signed for Wigan, he was selected to represent Great Britain, and his career statistics speak for themselves: a club record of 478 tries in 487 appearances (110 more than any other Wigan player in history); numerous domestic trophies; 30 international tries in 31 Test matches; a Great Britain tour record for tries scored in Australia; the first GB player to score 4 tries in a match against New Zealand; and a World Cup win in 1960. By the time he retired from Rugby League in 1970, Billy had scored 572 career tries in 562 appearances – only the winger Brian Bevan from Australia has ever scored more.
The people of Wigan embraced Billy as one of their own, not just because of his success on the field but because he was a team player who was both humble and approachable. Billy felt at home in Wigan, and ran a pub near the club ground when his playing days were over; he never came back to live in Wales. The population of Wigan was almost entirely white, but the rugby club had long been cosmopolitan and multiracial in outlook, as had Rugby League in general, and players came in from all over the world. Unfortunately, however, Billy did still experience racial discrimination, most notably when Great Britain played several matches in South Africa after the 1957 World Cup. The South Africans told Billy – who was already unwilling to take part in this leg of the tour because of apartheid, and was now carrying an injury – that his skin colour meant that he could not stay in the same hotel as the rest of the squad, and that he could not visit their hotel or play in any of the games. Billy rejected these terms. The GB team went to South Africa without him.
Ever since his early days at Wigan, Billy Boston has been revered in Rugby League. There are statues of him at Wembley and in Wigan, where one of the club’s stands is named after him, and he was one of the original members of both the Rugby League Hall of Fame and the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame. The city of Cardiff is also now recognising Billy’s achievements, and fortunately this has occurred during his lifetime. In December 2020, it was announced that there will be a statue depicting Billy Boston and two other Rugby League legends who came from the Cardiff docks area, Clive Sullivan and Gus Risman.
The Union game, however, has been very slow to recognise many of the Welsh players who have achieved great things in Rugby League. They include some of the greatest players in either code, but while their achievements in Rugby League are celebrated in the north of England, this has usually not been the case in Wales. They are forgotten heroes of Welsh rugby.
Although the story of Billy Boston and others can be discovered here in the Library using collections such as our, printed books and newspaper collections or some of the External E-resources that we subscribe to, we’re keen to develop collections relating to areas of Welsh life that are of national importance but have nevertheless been under represented, whether they relate to race, Rugby League or anything else. If you are able to help us with this, please get in touch.
I will put my hand up right away and say that realistically, I bit off more than I could chew with this blog, mostly because I am an entry level Welsh learner, and these sound files, owing somewhat to their complexity and distortion from the digitisation process, require a more fluent speaker.
However, the process of listening to the sound files, which formed part of the adjudication process of the awdl [ode] competition at the 1949 National Eisteddfod in Dolgellau, was a good exercise for my brain. I also found listening to Sir Thomas Herbert Parry-Williams’ voice mesmerising; the words which I did understand painted a picture of his lack of enthusiasm with most of the candidates.
According to historian, Jan Morris, one of the most important events at the Eisteddfod is the ‘chairing of the bard’ – this honour is bestowed on the person who has written the best awdl, in strict meter, based on a theme set by the judges. In 1949, the theme was Y Graig [the rock]; the winning entry, according to the adjudication notes held at the National Library of Wales archives, was titled Coed y Gell which forms the basis for the second sound file in this collection.
‘TH Parry-Williams, number 11/41 from the National Library collection by Julian Sheppard’
Parry-Williams’ disappointment is reflected in his written introduction:
O’r ugain cynnig a ddebynwyd eleni nid oes ond rhyw hanner dwsin “o fewn terfynau gobaith”. Y mae gweddill yr ymgeiswyr i gyd ond un (sef Herbert sydd heb lunio awdl) wedi cynganeddu eu deunydd yn ddygn, ond nid oes ar eu gwaith raen digon gorffenedig i obeithio llwyddo mewn cystadleuaeth fel hon. (Parry-Williams, 1949, p.63)
Parry-Williams opinion that of the twenty entries received in 1949, only six had any redeemable merit “within the bounds of hope”. When the entrants became angry with his judgement, he maintained that their work was not of sufficient standard to succeed in a competition like the Eisteddfod. In fact, he wrote that his complaint is an old complaint – the competitors “mess up” so much that it’s hard to say anything useful about the entries.
In both sound files, Parry-Williams has a measured oration style which switches between his opinion and his recitation of parts of the entries. At the beginning of file one, he announces an entrant – Mr Pwyl, with presumably his address. I feel like an archaeologist, floundering to make sense of a language, knowing that I run the risk of misinterpretation and much of the first sound file for me, is obscure.
With the help of the printed adjudication notes, I muddle through. Early on, there is a reference to an ode title: Glan yr Afon [Riverside] – which points me to a section in the notes where Parry-Williams includes it in a party of five candidates, seen to be at the bottom of the top ten! He deems this poem elegant, but somewhat monotonous; having written the ode on the basis of Crist yn Graig [Christ is a rock], Parry-Williams opines that it is difficult to bring new life to an old theme, and criticises the poet for preaching from the Gospels, and waffling on the way to making a point. However, Parry-Williams appreciates the performer’s pleasantly clear, sweet singing style and encourages them to raise their tone up more before “mynd dow-dow yn dawel i’r diwedd”. (Parry-Williams, 1949, p.67)
At the end of sound file one, to the backdrop of whistling from the Dolgellau train, Parry-Williams mentions Y Graig Gibraltar [Rock of Gibraltar]. This is the subject of the ode titled Uwch y Lli, sung in three parts: Gwyryfdod [Virginity], Gwae [Woe], and Gobaith [Hope]. The singer is apparently a bit cumbersome and jerky, but not without the ability to draw a sense of place. In the notes, Parry-Williams illustrates this by including two verses; unfortunately, he does not read them in the recording, so we cannot listen to them here.
Sound file one seems to finish on a happier note, or at least Parry-Williams pauses, and the tone of his voice becomes lighter, less lecturer, more encouraging.
There is a false start to sound file two, but Parry-Williams recites a verse from the winning poem Coed y Gell in a beautiful singsong style and these match a transcription in his notes:
Druan o’r haf a’i feddal betalau Rhyw ias ddiaros yw hedd ei oriau. Dihuno gwig a mynd a wna’i gogau; Gwywa, a bidd doreithiog y beddau.
Towards the end of this file, Parry-Williams changes tone of voice again and the word ‘foundation’ (sylfaen) occurs several times. He makes the audience chuckle a bit and ends his speech to thunderous applause.
It is a shame that the adjudication notes held in the archives do not match the sound files exactly, rather they appear to have been written as an essay after the fact. Apart from making my life easier in terms of transcribing the files (which I was unable to do), it might have made more sense of my assumption that the competitors’ interpretations of Y Graig include such geographical references as Gilbraltar, Ayers Rock, Clogwyn (near Caernarfon), Derwydd (near Ammanford), as well as a confusing discussion about whether various rocks, including Carreg y Drewi, are linked to Newport.
‘Sir T.H. Parry Williams plaque on North Road, Aberystwyth’
Sir Thomas Parry-Williams was a famous poet and scholar himself. He died in Aberystwth in 1975, at his home on North Road, after living a very full but slightly introverted life. He published Ugain o Gerddi [20 Poems] the same year he adjudicated the awdl competition. Some of his poems are about his own “transcendental view of life, especially in relation to the landscape of Snowdonia”. (Price, 2014) Perhaps this is why he was so parsimonious with his praise at the 1949 Dolgellau Eisteddfod.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement, an influential pressure group whose members campaigned vigorously across Wales for an end to racism and the apartheid system in South Africa. The group was originally a regional branch of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) but separated in 1981 adopting the name ‘The Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement (WAAM).’
Local groups and branches supporting the AAM had been active in Wales, based primarily in Cardiff, Newport and Swansea. They realised greater support could be achieved with a clear Welsh identity. The newly-formed group was active throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, campaigning for international action to help bring apartheid to an end.
In 2008, the archives of WAAM were deposited here through Hanef Bhamjee, one of its founding members and long-term Secretary. These extensive records reflect the Movement’s aims, aspirations and activities. They include records of the group’s committees, correspondence with companies, public officials, politicians and individuals reflecting all aspects of WAAM’s activities. There is also a fascinating collection of newsletters, publicity material and ephemera, much of it unique.
The bulk of material documents WAAM’s campaigning activities. These campaigns included opposing rugby and cricket tours of South Africa, UK trade with South Africa and an end to nuclear and military collaboration. Sustained campaigning was conducted for the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners and included in the collection is the printed Order of Ceremony when Mandela was made Freeman of the Borough of Islwyn in 1986.
WAAM was dissolved in1994 following the first democratic elections in South Africa and its assets were transferred to ACTSA Wales, which continues to campaign and work for peace and democracy in Southern Africa.
The Library recently acquired the papers of W. Macqueen-Pope (Popie) which relate to ‘Ivor: The Story of an Achievement‘, his biography of Ivor Novello, published by W. H. Allen, 1951. This important group of papers gives and insight into the life and popularity of the Welsh actor and composer Ivor Novello (1893-1951) who became one of the most popular entertainers of the first half of the 20th century. The papers include correspondence between Ivor Novello and Macqueen-Pope, but mainly comprise eulogies and reminiscences, from actors, socialites and those working in the arts, following Ivor’s death in 1951. Evidence of Novello’s popularity can be found amongst the letters sent to by Macqueen-Pope of those expressing an interest in an ‘Ivor Novello Fellowship’.
Items on display in our current exhibition (2021) include correspondence (W. Macqueen-Pope file 1), financial papers (file 12/1) and signed programme (file 13); and a signed publicity photograph (NLW Ex 2980). The papers compliment other items relating to Ivor Novello and his mother, the singer, teacher and conductor Clara Novello Davies (1861-1943) in the Library’s collections.
Here is a list of the main collections of material relating to Ivor Novello at the National Library. Further information on our archives catalogue here https://archives.library.wales/
NLW MS 23204D.
Ivor Novello papers, 1932-1983. Papers relating to David Ivor Davies (Ivor Novello, 1893-1951), composer, actor and playwright, comprising an autograph extract from his play I Lived With You (London, 1932) (ff. 1-6); letters, 1979-1982, from associates of Ivor Novello, …. photographs of the Welsh National Opera’s production of ‘Dear Ivor’, 1983 (ff. 23-4); together with a copy of a memorial tribute to Ivor Novello and theatre programmes, 1933-45, of productions of his works.
NLW MS 23696E.
Ivor Novello letters, 1908-1955 (mostly 1938-1955) Seven letters and two telegrams, 1939-1950, from the composer, actor and playwright, Ivor Novello, to Dorothy and Evelyn Wright, containing mainly personal news (ff. 1-13); together with additional personal papers, 1908-1955, compiled by the Wrights, including twelve letters to them from Lloyd Williams, Novello’s secretary, [?1940]-[?1944] (ff. 5, 14-19 verso), actors Peter Graves, 1951-1955 (ff. 22-24 verso), Leslie Henson, 1942 (f. 25), and Barry Sinclair, 1943 (f. 26), and Neville Chamberlain, 1938 (ff. 20-21); also included are a memorial tribute to Ivor Novello, 1951 (ff. 27-28 verso), photographs of him and his associates, [1910s]-[1940s] (ff. 29-34), and press cuttings, 1939-1951 (ff. 39-46). The collection contains references to theatrical productions at Johannesburg, 1947 (f. 8), the Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth,  (f. 14), the Palace Theatre, Manchester, [?1941] (f. 15), and the Adelphi Theatre, London, 1943 (f. 18).
NLW MS 24041D. Angus McBean, photographer Studio visitors book, 1949-1968, 1987 includes songwriter Ivor Novello (f. 11).
Dr Terence Rees Papers P3/4. Also P3/10 . Scrapbook, press cuttings, programmes and periodicals, 1925-1988, relating to the life and work of Ivor Novello. Also an obituary.
D. R. Davies Collection (Aberdare) of Drama . Scrap Books, 3/1, 52, 27/2 and 4/3 . Contains articles on Ivor Novello and his mother, Madame Clara Novello Davies.
Maxwell Fraser Papers, H/24. (and O/129). Volume of cuttings re Ivor Novello, 1944-70. And a paragraph on Ivor Novello.
Selwyn Jones Papers 2. Biographical material relating to Welsh musicians, including Ivor Novello .
NLW ex 2404. Papers relating to Ivor Novello, and his funeral 1951-2004.
NLW ex 2540. Madam Esther Cooper-Jones papers, 1911-2005, including certificates and concert programmes, biographical material, letters from Clara Novello Davies, her tutor, and newspaper cuttings relating to her son Ivor Novello.
Welsh National Opera Records, P1/29. And P2/47. ‘Dear Ivor’ production, 1982-1983.
Portraits: The portrait of Ivor Novello by Margaret Lindsay Williams 1888-1960 is displayed in our current exhibition Framed works of art collection MY20 and there is another Oil on canvas 1924 by Emile Vere Smith Framed works collection CD01.
The Conservatives have been Wales’ second largest party for most of the last century, whether measured by share of the vote, the number of MPs elected and latterly the number of Assembly Members or Members of the Senedd. While exact figures are not easy to come by, it’s also likely that they would have been the second largest party in terms of grassroots members.
The Conservative Party in Wales has however, arguably been the subject of less study than Labour, the Liberals and Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, especially in the case of the members and grassroots activists who pounded the pavements, stuffed envelopes and raised funds to fight elections. This group was the subject of a fascinating online session given by Dr Sam Blaxland, lecturer, historian and member of the Welsh Political Archive’s advisory committee.
Sam has spent many hours researching the records of local Conservative associations in Wales to understand the foot soldiers of the Conservative Party in Wales at the National Library of Wales and gave a fascinating insight into the sometimes stereotypical and sometimes surprising attitudes of the party members. These ranged from mixed views on race, traditional attitudes on law and order to quite surprising views on Sunday trading.
While association records contained details for discussions on policy, there was also a surprising amount relating to fund raising and social activities. As well as organising fetes, carnivals and balls, local associations such as the Monmouth Unionist Association arranged trips to places as far afield as London, Spain and the Netherlands. It was also interesting to see the prominent role played by women in at grassroots level.
We had an interesting discussion with questions and comments by members of the audience and touched on a number of issues around the changing way people have engaged with politics, the demographics of Conservative support and the role that oral history projects can play in filling in the gaps in official records.
This year marks the centenary of the publication by J. Gwenogvryn Evans of his monochrome facsimile of the contents of the Black Book of Chirk (notwithstanding the 1909 imprinted on the title-page!). Through the generosity of a patron, and to mark the occasion, the National Library has published new digital images of the manuscript on our website.
This manuscript – Peniarth 29 – was once believed to be the earliest written in Welsh. Today, it is regarded as among the earliest, sharing a birthdate, as it were, with another Black Book, the rather more famous one from Carmarthen. Both were produced in the mid-thirteenth century, one in the South, and the other in North Wales.
The Chirk manuscript was written in Welsh, on parchment, by six scribes, in regular and professional style, although their familiarity with written Welsh may not have been fluent.
The volume contains legal texts relating to the king and his court, according to the ‘Venedotian’ or ‘Iorwerth’ code, associated with Gwynedd. The ‘king’ is a native ruler, one such as the young Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, known as ‘the last native Prince of Wales’, whose influence was becoming apparent at the time when the manuscript was written. Following the Law of the Court (reminiscent of those fine images in Peniarth 28, a contemporary Latin law manuscript), the scribes record laws that were relevant to ordinary inhabitants, including elements such as the values of wild and tame animals. A summary, text and translation is available on the Cyfraith Hywel website.
The manuscript also contains non-legal additions, such as proverbs, and Dafydd Benfras’s elegy on the death of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great) in 1240, harking back perhaps to the ‘golden age’ of native law in the Gwynedd tradition.
But why is the volume associated with Chirk, in Denbighshire? The contents suggest affiliation with medieval North Wales, and by 1615, it was owned by John Edwards of Plas Newydd, Chirk, a scholar and recusant who lost many belongings by sequestration before his death in 1625. Llanstephan MS 68 is a copy of the manuscript, made by Francis Tate whilst the Black Book was owned by Edwards. Subsequently, probably via John Jones of Gellilyfdy, it became part of Robert Vaughan’s library at Hengwrt, and on the upper part of page 114 is part of his ornate inscription identifying the work as ‘Y llyfr du or Waun’ (the Black Book of Chirk).
The original black covers are long gone, but the remains of the binding leaves survive at the end of the manuscript.
In September 2000, the Library opened an exhibition to mark the 600th anniversary of Owain Glyn Dŵr’s proclamation as prince of Wales and the beginning of his rebellion against Henry IV and the English crown. Now, in 2021, it is 600 years since the last act of that rebellion: the acceptance of a royal pardon from Henry V by Owain’s son, Maredudd, in 1421.
Not much is known of Maredudd’s life. He is said to have been one of six sons of Owain (Peniarth MS 59), all of whom fought in the rebellion (NLW MS 2021B [Panton MS 53]), and Maredudd emerged as the main leader of the revolt from 1412. Support was now waning, however, and successes were few. In the years that followed, Maredudd and his father were reduced to living on the run in remote forests and moorlands, according to the chronicler Adam of Usk, and their prospects appeared bleak. Maredudd’s mother, Margaret Hanmer, his brother Gruffudd and his sister Catrin – Owain’s wife and children – had all been captured by royal forces and kept as hostages for several years, and they had then been left to die of starvation in custody when they were no longer considered useful. Nothing is known of the other brothers, except that they all seem to have died before Owain himself.
Owain was offered a royal pardon in 1415, but did not accept it, and he was not mentioned when further pardons were offered to Maredudd in 1416 and 1417. It appears that Owain had died in the meantime. Maredudd rejected the pardons offered to him and continued to hold out in Meirionnydd and Arfon, seeking help from the Scots and fugitive English Lollards as well as Welsh rebels. This revival of the revolt is likely to have been connected with French scheming against the English at the Council of Constance, but it did not last. By 1421, Maredudd had run out of options. He was offered a pardon in April of that year and accepted it, very likely because his supporters had had enough. The rebellion always depended upon local communities, officials and clerics as much as upon great landlords and military leaders, and all of these groups were involved in taking important decisions. In order to ease the final reconciliation, Maredudd’s pardon stated that he had not followed his father’s malice after Owain’s death, but had dwelt peaceably among the king’s subjects. In truth, the Welsh rebellion had lasted more than 20 years.
Maredudd’s pardon is not in the Library’s collections – it is kept with the Crown Patent Rolls at The National Archives in London (C 66, 9 Hen. V) – but there are a number of other pardons from the revolt in our collections, and they illustrate some of the complex story of the period (Gogerddan Estate Records JAA1/7; Chirk Castle F 9877; Elwes Papers 68; Wynnstay (1945 deposit) GX3, GX4, GX5, GX6 and GX8; Bettisfield Estate Records 202; Penrice and Margam Estate Records 243). Throughout the revolt, many of the rebels’ decisions were driven by local considerations rather than the national picture, and many Welshmen found it expedient to submit or change sides when circumstances required it. In some cases, rebels submitted at times when Glyn Dŵr controlled almost the whole of Wales, or within months of the Pennal letter which outlined his vision of an independent Wales, while others held out as late as 1420. Their motivations are often not clear to us, but this is gradually changing as historians delve deeper into the complex local networks of loyalties, rivalries and personal and community interests. There were major royal campaigns in 1403, and the rebellion suffered regular and significant military reverses from 1405 onwards, but this rarely tells the whole story behind Welsh submissions. Self-interest was often a key factor. While it was always made clear to the rebels that their rebellion had been treasonous, most of them were reinstated to their former status and possessions. At Cydweli in 1413, Henry Dwn took this a step further by taking advantage of his restoration as a royal official to fine his tenants for failing to support him while he had been in rebellion.
By 1413, Henry V was keen to offer pardons in Wales so that he could concentrate on his war in France. Many former rebels fought alongside him at Agincourt, including another Maredudd ab Owain who had been sheriff of Cardiganshire and had also held Aberystwyth for Glyn Dŵr. One man who was not among them was Maredudd ab Owain ap Gruffudd – the son of Glyn Dŵr. We do not know what became of him after he was pardoned in 1421.
The granting of pardons was one of the clearest assertions of royal authority and power, and as such it was treated with the utmost solemnity. The king’s administration was beginning to record many of its activities in vernacular English by the early fifteenth century, but all of the pardons in our collections were written in Latin.
The Library has a large collection of popular and academic books about Owain and his revolt, with significant recent additions including Dyddiau olaf Owain Glyndŵr by Professor Gruffydd Aled Williams (2015) and The rise and fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr: England, France and the Welsh Rebellion in the Lste Middle Ages by Gideon Brough (2017). There is still much that we do not know about the revolt, but many of the answers may lie in libraries and archives throughout Britain and Europe, not least within our own collections, especially our manuscripts of Welsh poetry.
In the same way that, for some, a picture paints a thousand words, it’s music, that for me is the conduit that transports me to other places, other times and other lives.
Whilst cataloguing the audio recordings of the Tiger Bay Collection from the Butetown History and Arts Centre oral history project I was lucky enough to stumble across a recording of Tiger Bay local and renowned jazz guitarist Victor Parker. The occasion was Victor’s birthday sometime in the mid-seventies (although his age and the actual date have been lost somewhere along the way). On the recording Victor and his band are found whiling away the afternoon in The Quebec Hotel on Bute Street, treating the assembled drinkers, dancers, singers and swooners to a free and easy, laid back run through their repertoire of jazz standards, blues and modern folk. It’s far from an organised, structured concert, the lengthy gaps between numbers see to that, but this relaxed format allows us to eavesdrop of the chatter of the crowd. The laughter, the snippets of gossip and fragments of tales, the layers upon layers of indistinct chat all make for one of the most evocative recordings that I have encountered throughout the whole collection.
Original Shelf Mark Identifier: 101-0021-024 : Catalogue Number: UNLW023/605 in Tiger Bay ‘Lectures and Events’ collection
Granted, this didn’t give us any hard and fast information, there were no detailed descriptions, stories or recollections that we may usually look for in a valuable oral history archive, it is without doubt that any factual, reasoned debate or discussion was the last thing on the minds of the attendees. However, it did offer us something different, something that an interview or a vox-pop never could. The hour and a half of this recording captures and evokes all kinds of imagery, memory and feeling. I’m old enough to remember the 1970s, and I am also able to remember afternoons just like the one captured here (albeit in my case it would have been traditional Irish folk music in a Mancunian shebeen) – but if I close my eyes and listen, I can still feel that 70s afternoon filling my senses. The scratchy polyester itch of my shirt collar, a thick fog of cigarette smoke stinging my eyes, the acrid breath of a companion who had maybe drunk a little too much, and then that clear easing of tensions as people drank, relaxed, danced and sang along to the vibrant, seductive rhythms of the band in the corner of the room. It all seems a lifetime ago, but this recording transports me right back to those heady days in an instant.
Image: from Tiger Bay – Victor Parker YouTube
That is the beauty of oral histories, and in particular audio archives; the written word may well provide a clear, distinct understanding, a route through imagination to empathy, but recordings like this will, for many spark memories of times long gone, and bring them all back, so vividly, in an instant.
A structured interview will often be interesting, important and offer a whole range of vital information that could otherwise have been lost with the passing of time, but a recording like this, which goes such a long way to evoking imagery and prompting memory is unparalleled. To me, above and beyond any number of structured discussions, this recording tells us as much, and maybe even more about how the community in 1970s Tiger Bay filled their leisure time and let down their hair.
John McMahon, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Cataloguer
A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.
Due to the more personal nature of blogs it is the Library's policy to publish postings in the original language only. An equal number of blog posts are published in both Welsh and English, but they are not the same postings. For a translation of the blog readers may wish to try facilities such as Google Translate.