Dafydd Iwan: How a folk hero became a Welsh football icon
Musician, campaigner, activist, record label owner, politician, architect. Dafydd Iwan is a Welsh icon.
Synonymous with everything that is positive about Wales at the moment, he has won the hearts of every Welsh football fan. They will forever remember the sight of the 78-year-old on the Cardiff City Stadium pitch, soaked to the bone by the Welsh rain and his own tears, bellowing out his iconic anthem Yma o Hyd, with backing vocals from the Red Wall and Gareth Bale and co.
Beating Ukraine to reach the World Cup Finals in Qatar ended a painful 64 year wait for Wales. It has invigorated the country, a country that will now be represented with pride and passion on the world stage. It is something that the musician thinks is “incredible, just incredible.”
Born in Brynamman in 1943, Iwan was interested in literature and politics from a young age.
“I grew up in the western fringes of the south Wales coalfield in a welsh speaking, coal mining, rugby playing village,” he recalls. “In fact, football, although being the prevailing thing in my life these days, was not a part of my experience then. My father was a preacher and when I was 12 we moved to Llanuwchllyn near Bala. In Llanuwchllyn, rugby didn’t really exist, football was king.”
The young Iwan had initially taken up singing and participating in Eisteddfods and other events in Brynamman.
“When I moved to Llanuwchllyn, I started writing some poetry and lyrics,” he says. “Then when I went to university in Aberystwyth (Iwan studied architecture and later became a founder of Cymdeithas Tai Gwynedd/Gwynedd Housing Association. He was involved in other projects to provide homes for the local population in north-west Wales), I picked up the guitar as a kind of accompaniment to singing at social evenings and that sort of thing.”
Influenced by Welsh folk and hymn singing, Iwan also loved American singer-songwriters like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. The latter in particular inspiring the young Welshman’s passion for activism and politics.
“Pete Seeger was a role model as far as using songs to support campaigns like the civil rights movement in America. He was using his songs as a commentary of what was happening. He would bring his audience into everything and say ‘We’ll see you in Alabama next Saturday’ or whatever, encouraging them to support these movements.
“His LP at Carnegie Hall is a classic of that genre. I suppose I was influenced by that, using songs as a means of putting a message across, getting a story across, and commenting of what was happening in the day. I loved songs that had a political nature. So, I started writing songs about my feelings for Wales and the Welsh language and what was happening in Wales.”
Iwan founded the record label Sain Recordiau in 1969 and says although he has now handed over the studio to “younger musicians and engineers”, he is still a Director of the company and likes to “keep an eye out and put my two pennies’ worth in now and again.”
President of Plaid Cymru until 2010, the immutable Iwan has always believed in and fought for independence for Wales.
“I’ve always been a nationalist in the sense that I have always seen the sense of having a government for Wales, and that has carried on. Gladly, things have moved in that direction with things like the Senedd and that sort of thing.
“I’ve kept singing about what I feel strongly about all these years. But it’s also a form of entertainment. You know, you can’t go around singing protest songs and songs with heavy political messages all the time, you have to mix it up, always with humour and sometimes with lighter songs.”
The Welsh Victor Jara
The parallels with the Chilean poet, singer, socialist and political activist Victor Jara are palpable. Jara, who was recently the subject of a concept album (Even in Exile) by Manic Street Preachers singer James Dean Bradfield and poet Patrick Jones, is someone who Iwan clearly identifies with.
“I was sent a book by Joan Jara, his wife and widow. It’s a tremendous book that influenced me greatly. I wrote a song about Victor Jara (Cân Victor Jara/The Song of Victor Jara). I would sing some of his songs too. My song was about his last days in the stadium in Santiago. Of course, he was tortured and killed there by the soldiers of Pinochet.
“I did a podcast with James Dean Bradfield about political songs and about Victor Jara. James sent me a copy of his album. I’m a great fan of his. He’s one of the few people that sings songs with a message these days.”
Iwan is an internationalist. It never ceases to amaze him how music and language can cross global barriers and bring people together.
“One of the most memorable experiences I had with that song was when I went to Patagonia,” he remembers. “You know it’s a Welsh-speaking colony of sorts in Argentina. We were on the Chilean side of Patagonia and there was a man there of Chilean descent who had translated my song about Victor Jara into Spanish. He sang it in Spanish, and I was overwhelmed.”
The musician beams with pride when telling another story of how his Welsh language songs have resonated across the world, despite the linguistic differences.
“It is amazing how songs can travel,” he says. “Songs have always travelled with me, even though I always sing in Welsh. I wrote a song about Óscar Romero, the El Salvadorian Archbishop who was assassinated by government forces. I was singing that once on a trip to Milwaukee for the Festival of Wales.
“A gentleman came out of the darkness at the end of the concert and told me he was one of the people who had to flee El Salvador because of the murder squads of the government there. He had tears in his eyes. Although he didn’t understand all of the words, he knew that I was obviously singing in praise of Óscar Romero.”
Iwan has always been a staunch defender and promoter of the Welsh language, so much so that he spent three weeks in prison in 1970 in his quest for the language to be recognised and protected.
“The end of 60’s and early 70’s were quite exciting times,” he recalls. “I was leader of the Welsh Language Society then, so I wasn’t always popular (laughs). It’s a funny thing to say but we were a happy bunch of campaigners, and there were thousands of us.
“When we decided that the government was not moving at all on Welsh road signs, we decided to paint them ourselves; of course, all hell broke loose.
“I was fined, along with many other people. I didn’t pay the fine, so I was imprisoned. A lot of us went to prison. It’s quite a tale of recent Welsh history that hundreds of people went to jail because of their support for the Welsh language. It wasn’t fully reported properly at the time, certainly outside of Wales. Nobody realised it was happening.”
He wrote the song ‘Peintio’r Byd yn Wyrdd’ (‘Painting the World Green’) about his road sign escapades, and is proud of the part that he has played in the preservation of the language and how it continues to flourish.
“It was a period of great upheaval that resulted in welsh on road signs, Welsh on forms, Welsh in courts of law,” he says. “But most important of all, there was a huge growth in Welsh medium education, television, radio, records and shops. Looking back at that period it was so exciting. It was a time when feelings ran high. A lot of families fell out over it.
“The investiture was thrown into the mix too – we had a bit of fun with that as well (laughs). But although we enjoyed ourselves, we were always serious minded. We knew we had a just cause; if the Welsh language was to survive, we would have to have it officially recognised and officially used, as well as used in everyday life, of course.”
He says that although the digitised world has many negatives, it has helped to support and promote minority languages around the world. Wales is now a global nation, with a language that has a global reach.
“I am more positive now about the language than I have ever been really,” he smiles. “All minority languages throughout the world are facing the same difficulties and same problems. But now there is the global village, the global effect of digital technology. The digital revolution is a two-edged revolution, as it were. I mean, record companies have been put to rest in many cases because it has destroyed record sales and CD sales.
“On the other hand, it has opened the world to the music of Wales and other small nations. There are more people all over the world listening to Welsh language music now than ever before. Of course, the home market has changed, but quite a few Welsh language songs have had millions of plays on various digital platforms now. And it has had to happen. The Welsh language had to adapt to the new world and modern technology.
“The number of welsh language rock groups is quite phenomenal. There was a time when I thought that after Catatonia and Super Furry Animals, every Welsh band would cross over to sing in English. And although many of them do sing in English as well, the number singing in Welsh is quite amazing.”
Welsh independence and the notion of ‘Britishness’
Welsh independence has always been high on the agenda for the lifelong activist. It is an outward looking form of independence, one that he thinks is becoming more realistically attainable.
“Britishness is in the process of being redefined and part of that is the growth of Scottish Independence and I believe Welsh independence – probably the unification of Ireland as well,” he muses. “There will then need to be development at the British-Irish Council to outline a way of working together as independent entities.”
Following Brexit and Boris Johnson’s controversial and divisive government, Iwan believes that change is imminent.
“I think independence is inevitable. I mean, we’ve got a pretty bad government in London at the moment that seem to be doing everything wrong. I was totally against Brexit for a start and it is not going well. I’m surprised they say ‘We got Brexit done’ when it’s a bloody disaster. We haven’t seen the worst of it yet either.
“And what they are going to do with the Northern Ireland protocol I don’t know. I think the mess they are making of things is accelerating people’s opinions regarding ‘we could do better ourselves’.
Iwan says it is not a nationalistic and jingoistic approach to independence, but about positivity, heritage, culture and internationalism.
“It’s a question of working together, it’s not an isolationist thing. It’s about getting our own house in order and then cooperating with other countries. Whether it will be full independence is another matter, but we will move quite a way towards it in the next few years.
“I think Boris Johnson has just accelerated that trend, just as Margaret Thatcher did. We failed dismally in the 1979 referendum, but by 1997 we had been through the Thatcher era and that changed a lot of attitudes, so then we won the second referendum. Every vote since then has asked for more powers.
“I’m quite optimistic that we are moving in the right direction. I think that the cooperation between Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party is good, in that it will solidify the non-Tory elements in Welsh politics and move things along a lot quicker.”
Iwan knows that things are far from perfect in Wales. There is a lot of change needed internally in the aim for a fair and independent nation.
“I feel very strongly that we have to take decentralisation seriously,” he says. “We are concentrating far too much in the south-east at the moment. We have to take devolution a step further in the sense that we bring power to communities throughout Wales, not just in Cardiff. I fear that the trend to link Cardiff and Bristol, and Wrexham and north-east Wales with Merseyside, is a deliberate attempt to try and nullify Welsh nationalism.
“A lot of money has been put into it, but I think we can survive that. However, it is important that we work in the west here, and that the county councils in the west work together to some extent, but we need to invest more in that.
“We need to keep young people in rural and western areas and in the valleys, so we can have a more diverse and not such a concentrated pattern of development as in England.”
Socialism, equality, and change, some of Iwan’s greatest beliefs, are imperative for a successful and prosperous Wales.
“The nature of society is so important,” he states. “We need to be outward looking and believe in the equality of choice, chance, opportunities, and of course we must fight all forms of racism. There is always a danger of course that our fight for keeping Wales welsh can turn into an anti-English thing.
“There are certain elements in housing at the moment for example – we have to be determined and hard-nosed about it. We just can’t let the present trend of houses going on the market as second homes continue.
“We’ve started taking that seriously thankfully, to provide homes for local people. I think that diversity and decentralising the economy is so important. The other thing of course is the future of agriculture.
“Family farms are keeping the welsh language alive in so many communities, but farming also has to change. Farmers should be seen as historians of the landscape and the environment, not as the enemies of the environment. That is the big challenge facing agriculture.”
Yma o Hyd, Welsh football and the World Cup
The resurrection of Yma o Hyd, Iwan’s folk anthem about the Welsh people and language, has reinvigorated a nation. The Red Wall belting out ‘Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth, Ry’n ni yma o hyd’ (‘Despite everyone and everything, we are still here’) is something that Iwan still can’t quite believe is happening.
“I never thought in a million years that 40 years later, Yma o Hyd would have the effect it has,” he beams. “I only ever thought about my next concert. I wrote the song and a few others for a tour we did with Ar Log (Welsh folk band).
“It was written deliberately to raise spirits to finish off the night at shows after the 1979 referendum (Welsh devolution referendum) that had failed miserably. They (Ar Log) arranged and produced the record, so although I wrote the words and music, their arrangement is the one that caught on. I owe a debt to Ar Log. Occasionally we meet up and we still play together.”
Iwan believes what the fans and the FAW have created is something unique and to be cherished.
“What is interesting with Yma o Hyd and the football thing is that so many English supporters have said to me ‘I wish we had that level of cohesiveness and passion for our game in England as you have in Wales.’ We are a smaller entity, but they see it as a great asset.
“One of the backroom staff in the stadium was telling me ‘just go back five years – we were concentrating on keeping the Cardiff and Swansea fans apart, trying to avoid fights and get them on separate buses, now there is none of that. Everybody comes to support Wales and they support together.
“The whole thing about the football slogan ‘Together Stronger’ has really worked. It has worked from the football point of view and the fans point of view.”
He is happy that the rise of the song has been dictated by the supporters.
“They’ve adopted the song, they’ve learnt it – and wow, how they sing it!” he smiles. “The anthem too. It is a tremendous asset to the football.”
When quizzed about the possibility of Yma o Hyd superseding the anthem, Iwan is coy.
“The anthem, with all due respect, is not all that strong on the words and it is a bit sentimental, it was written in the Victorian era after all,” he says. “It’s a great anthem though and they sing it very well. But I think the words of Yma o Hyd are perhaps more coherent and relevant to today’s situation.
“It’s not an attack on anything, it’s just saying that you’ve done your bit, you’ve done your worst, but we are still here, but now it is up to us to carry on. That positive message I wanted to come across in the ’80s is still relevant, if not more relevant today.”
He has high praise for the work done behind the scenes at the FAW, something that is not going unnoticed with fans.
“People like Ian Gwyn Hughes have done tremendous work behind the scenes. Not as a gimmick, not as a flash in the pan, but as a strategy of defining Welshness in the broadest term possible, but with the Welsh language always there and an awareness of history of culture.
“Obviously, the team is buying into it too. They are playing for more than the shirt; they are playing for Wales and the people of Wales. This is a tremendous contribution and we have got to learn from this. The rugby world must learn from what the FAW are doing. I pay great tribute to people like Ian Gwyn Hughes and the work they are doing.”
Wales v Ukraine
Following the success of his performance before the Austria game, the musician was invited back to sing before the all-important play-off final against the Ukraine.
“When they asked me to sing the first time in March I was quite taken aback and nervous, but it was tremendous, but this one…I was a bit nervous before the Ukraine game,” he reveals. “I thought that lightning couldn’t strike twice, you know, but it worked. The singing was even better, there were more people involved.
“The spirit, despite the rain, was tremendous. There are a lot of references in the song about dark clouds and them doing their worst above us, but we will survive. I think I looked up at the skies at one point and thought this is quite apt.”
Iwan is keen to give plaudits to Dave Driscoll (the FAW’s match day producer), who has been responsible for some of the entertainment and recordings at the games.
“He is a great chap who has a lot of experience in promoting rock concerts and that sort of thing,” he says. “For instance, they have got a great recording of the crowd singing Yma o Hyd. The way they do that is by having mics right around the stadium to record it. It is not an accident, it is very deliberate and carefully planned. They mix it afterwards.
“When they playback the videos with the soundtrack it is of such excellent quality. They look after a lot of aspects like that and that should be a lesson to other sectors of the way to go about it. I applaud them. I am so proud to be a part of it.”
There was no plan to sing on the pitch after the match, but it is an experience Iwan would not change for the world.
“The only thing Dave had told me is that they might have a party later on if they win, so would I be prepared to sing; I said I don’t really have a choice!” he laughs. “But then of course they decided after their victory they wanted me to come down to the field and sing again. It worked and the team joined in. It was just unbelievable.
“Then I had a chance to go to Gareth Bale and shake his hand. It might have looked like it was planned, but it wasn’t. It was all spontaneous and genuine. It seemed such a natural thing to do when I saw him there with his family. I thought ‘oh I’ll go over to him whilst I’m still singing and shake his hand’ and it was brilliant, just brilliant.”
Following Wales’ and the songs success, fans started a campaign to get it to number one. Not for the first time.
“Yeah, it’s great, but it has been there before,” he says. “A few years back Yes Cymru supporters decided ‘let’s have Dafydd Iwan at number 1’ just as a kind of fillip, and it worked. I think it is number one in the iTunes and Amazon chart and has had a lot of plays on Spotify. A lot of people have really taken to it and I don’t fully understand why. There is obviously something in this song that appeals to people.
“I had a message this morning from an Italian journalist who works in London who said, ‘I was at the game and I’ve never heard anything like it.’ People just seem to react to the song, especially when the crowd sing it. So, I struck lucky there!”
Not one to stray from his beliefs and activism, Iwan says that he won’t be going to Qatar in November.
“I mean, apart from the ethical questions, and there are several, I don’t usually travel to away games of this nature, so no, I won’t be going, but I’ll be supporting from home. Of course, in a place like Qatar they will play both anthems, but there won’t be any chance to have a round of Yma o Hyd I’m sure. But the travelling fans will probably sing it – and I’ll be listening.”
Dafydd Iwan is part of Welsh history. He is playing a huge part in the present and future of Wales. He is part of our DNA. Superlative and hyperbolic praise is often thrown around too freely, particularly the word legend.
When this is put to the man from Brynamman, he predictably laughs and shrugs off the praise. “Well I am old enough to be a legend.”
Despite everyone and everything, Dafydd Iwan is still here, doing what he does best.
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