[Image: the valley of the Rhondda]
I’ve mentioned before that while writing Seems to Fit, I used a variety of musical playlists to put me in the proper frame of mind for a given chapter. The selections on the day’s playlist were among those which (so I imagined) would be favorites of the character most heavily featured in the section or chapter on which I was working at the time. Two characters, for instance, were World War II veterans, so (naturally) they listened regularly to Big Band/swing music… and so did I.
Actually, I took it further: one of the two preferred the smoooooth sound of Glenn Miller; the other, the more raucous Benny Goodman Orchestra. They argued about it periodically, one sarcastically, exasperatedly, and the other with gentle good humor.
Anyway, a handful of chapters scattered throughout recount the story of an eighteenth-century Welsh brewmaster named Emrys ap Rhys, and how he came to brew a particular ale which plays a significant part in S2F‘s storyline. Even Emrys had his own “My Music” sort of playlist, which may sound like a tall order… unless you know about the history of music in Wales.
Briefly, the Welsh love music, particularly choral music — and further particularly, choral music performed by men. The tradition goes back centuries, with much of the music composed and sung in the performers’ native Welsh language rather than English. As it happened, then, it wasn’t hard to build a good soundtrack for the Emrys chapters.
One tune in particular stands out.
“Cwm Rhondda” (Welsh for the Rhondda Valley, in South Wales — the Rhondda being a river there), like many tunes, isn’t in itself a song to be sung. It has no words of its own. Instead, the melody which goes by that name is used as a scaffold for the lyrics of a hymn: several hymns, in fact. Although the tune is sometimes described as the unofficial national anthem of Wales, the hymn has no lyrics of a typically national-anthemic sort. (Given the title, for instance, one might expect a praise song about Nature’s beauty on display in the countryside of South Wales.) Instead — at least in the versions I know of — the supplicant just asks God for help on his or her journeys through life and the world. Nowadays, the tune also underlies the chants of You’re not singing anymore! which erupt among Welsh fans, from time to time, when their football teams are on the field.*
(The specific circumstances calling forth this chant, apparently, are a form of Schadenfreude: delight in someone else’s troubles. If one’s culture encourages one to burst into song when things are going well, then a sudden turn in fortune tends to shut one up.)
My favorite writeup about “Cwm Rhondda” is the one on the h2g2 site. (This is the pre-Wikipedia and often much more informal online encyclopedia originally established by Douglas Adams as the Earthbound counterpart to the one described in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.) It’s tempting to quote the entire piece, but I’ll offer just this:
‘Cwm Rhondda’ is a belter of a hymn that defies one to sing it quietly… It is the very embodiment of hwyl, the Welsh love of homeland and of culture, and as such has come close to supplanting the official Welsh national anthem. This is especially the case at rugby ‘internationals’, where the faltering, bathetic, falsely-devout Land of My Fathers [JES: that’s the actual Welsh national anthem] is soon dispensed with in favour of something far more robust. England fans often respond with their own countermeasures, often the Negro spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, but soon buckle under the sonic onslaught of ‘huge gangs of tough, sinewy men… terrorising people with their close-harmony singing.’
[Below, click Play button to begin Cwm Rhondda. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 2:43 long.]
When the group hits and holds those high notes, it makes me wish I could join them in song. (Not a reaction I commonly have, which many people would consider a mercy of the gods deserving a hymn in its own right.)
Tracking down the lyrics to the above is complicated by my not recognizing spoken (let alone sung) Welsh. This page (about which I know pretty much nothing) suggests that it’s the hymn called “Lo, Between the Myrtles Standing,” which you can find in Welsh and English translation at Wikipedia.
(By the way, yes, I know: the tune “Cwm Rhondda” was actually composed in the early twentieth century, and thus would have been unknown to a real Emrys ap Rhys. So would his late-twentieth-century creator. :))
* Videos of these mass outbursts constitute almost an entire sub-genre… and given the context (cellphone and other handheld video cameras; the natural rowdiness of crowds at sporting events; mass quantities of brew), their quality is, well, all over the map.