This post is a part of the Story of Wales series, which looks at different aspects of Welsh history, and how today’s Wales remembers, and shapes it. Subscribe to the blog on the right to ensure you don’t miss any posts.
Wales is often described as the country of song. But where did our musical tradition begin, and how did it develop?
Our new exhibition Record: Folk, Protest and Pop’ explores the musical tradition of Wales throughout the centuries – from the crwth to Catatonia – using various items from The Welsh Music Archive and Screen and Sound Archive.
Nia Mai Daniel from the Welsh Music Archive tells us more …
Although Wales is known as ‘The Land of Song’, we don’t have a great memory of early musical works. The folk tradition is an oral tradition, with harpists and balladeers travelling around the country, entertaining people in markets and public houses, and committing the melodies to memory.
By the eighteenth century folk melodies were recorded on paper, and many notable collectors compiled these at a later date; it is thanks to the tireless work of individuals such as Nansi Richards, J Lloyd Williams and Meredydd Evans that our folk tradition was saved and protected.
The establishment of the Welsh Folk Song Society in 1906 and the revival in the folk tradition in the 1970s, when folk singing coexisted with popular music, have also contributed to preserving the tradition.
One of the main figures in the evolution of music in Wales was Meredydd Evans, or Merêd, who spent his life contributing to Welsh life and culture as a collector, historian, musician, editor, nationalist and passionate campaigner for the Welsh language.
Merêd and his wife Phyllis Kinney collected songs which had been in danger of disappearing, and believed that the tradition could not grow and adapt without giving life to these songs which he discovered in old manuscripts and musical scores.
As well as his work as a collector, Merêd was also a gifted performer, recording an important collection of songs for the Folkway Records label in New York in 1954. For a decade from 1963 he was head of BBC Wales’ light entertainment, where he worked tirelessly to create popular Welsh light entertainment programmes.
“It’s about time we have more extreme singing in Wales today, more screams and wild drums…” were the words of a member of the first Welsh rock band, Y Blew, which formed in 1967.
The Wales of the 60s and 70s was a country that saw political agitation as well as musical ferment. Folk and pop music became tremendously popular, and the first Welsh language record label, Sain, was established in 1969. But what pushed Welsh music onwards was the ‘protest’ song. Rather than composing love songs, these young Welsh artists would take their guitars to the local pub and sing satirical and political songs.
By the 1980s a new group of bands and record labels emerged, ones that created a very different sound compared to the pop music usually heard from the country’s stages and radio waves. Groups such as Anhrefn, Datblygu, Llwybr Llaethog and Y Cyrff were experimental and revolutionary.
During the 1990s many Welsh language groups and individuals started to produce work in English as well as in Welsh such as Catatonia, Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. The breakthrough into the English language music scene led to a growing interest in Welsh language culture and music across the world.
By the late 1990s and early twenty-first century the Welsh language was expressed through a variety of styles, from hip hop, reggae and ska, and returning back to its traditional folk roots.
Today, the music scene in Wales is alive and well, with an abundance of talented artists writing, recording and performing in Welsh, and more independent record labels than ever before working to release Welsh records.
For more information about our RECORD: Folk, Protest & Pop Exhibition (22 June 2019 – 1 February 2020)
This post is also available in: Welsh