Review: A Nation of Singing Birds is an engaging and entertaining history of the Welsh proclivity for song
This jauntily written account of the Welsh proclivity for song and for singing spans a period from the earliest hymns of the Reformation to the rugby pitch-side renditions of Max Boyce’s ‘Hymns and Arias.’ At the end of a concert in the 1980s by Rhondda’s peerless Pendyrus Male Voice Choir its conductor Glynne Jones said: “This is who were are.” And of course there have been times when the Welsh have been almost defined by their love of communal singing, not least the religious revival of 1905 when people broke into song spontaneously.
Rees describes a moment when someone started singing a hymn in the smoke-room at University College of North Wales in Bangor and was soon joined some fifty others, with one hymn seguing into another seamlessly in a session that went on for hours. There were similar outbreaks throughout the land and it was often the case that there was singing in the streets.
And of course the Welsh liked a good sermon and a long one, too. Daniel Rowland, one of the Methodist ministers who roused people during The Great Awakening could riff his way through a six hour long oration, without a break, “to a spell-bound multitude.” Sometimes the crowds would start a prolonged session of rhythmic jumping and “jumpers would move en masse to and from meetings, rather as medieval flagellants moved from town to town, beating themselves.” These were such extreme reactions that some of the successful itinerants preachers such as John Wesley were accused of giving the jumpers halicababum, a dried herb to send them into such frenzy while others levelled accusations that these were people possessed, or mad.
One historian referred to all this as ‘religious terrorism’ and could not conceive of a system ‘more fitted to unhinge a tottering intellect and to darken and embitter a sensitive nature.’ Of course such attacks warranted spirited defences, such as hymn-writer supreme William Williams, Pantycelyn who argued that singing, dancing and leaping were all manifestations of a ‘fervent love within.’
As Nonconformity turned the flame of the spirit into wildfire in the last quarter of the nineteenth century the enthusiasm for hymn and congregational singing was unsurpassed. Congregations themselves grew in number, from just over a 100 in 1742 to 3,000 by 1861, while charismatic ministers such as Christmas Evans achieved rock star status. And they had crowds to match: a Methodist quarterly meeting in Bangor during the 1859 revival attracted no fewer than 50,000 faithful attendees, who gathered at six in the morning and stayed there well into the night.
The preachers declaimed their sermons in a musical manner, letting the ‘hwyl’ take them as they chanted out the words which could ‘descend on the congregation like the fall of Niagara, invincible..’. Meanwhile communal singing was helped by the invention of the tonic sol-fa, a system of notation which allowed people to learn music without being to read it which soon spread throughout the English-speaking world. Soon choirs on both sides of the Atlantic were tackling big works by Bach and Haydn. Indeed, Joseph Parry, the greatest of the nineteenth-century Welsh composers nodded to this musical lineage by naming two of his sons Joseph Haydn and Daniel Mendelssohn, while forenames such as Handel became very popular in Wales.
Welsh emigrants to the United States showed a matching enthusiasm for choirs and singing, with eisteddfodau sharpening a competitive edge to it all. During Philadelphia’s 1882 bicentennial celebrations five choirs, each 300 members strong, slugged it out for hours, albeit peaceably, unlike the fist fight outside a similar competition at the Welsh church in Pittston, Pennsylvania. The Welsh who had come to this new world to hew coal, make iron and split slate brought with them such institutions as the ‘cymanfa ganu,’ which could be huge hymn-singing meetings attended by thousands.
These religious and cultural acts of expressions helped counterbalance the other side of Welsh emigrant life, such as the fighting and the gambling involving pugilists such as Dai Bright who ‘fought eighty-seven rounds in the snow in Wilkes-Barre one Christmas morning.’ And there was even a disreputable side to choral contests, with side-bets at eisteddfodau not being uncommon. Meanwhile new religious groups such as the Mormons, established hugely successful choirs such as the Mormon Tabernacle, often led by, you guessed it, Welshmen.
This engaging and entertaining history ranges widely, taking in the smallest hymn books in the world – two inches long and designed to be hidden in women’s gloves at a time when Catholic authorities in Europe considered hymns to be heretical – to the effect the Welsh national anthem had on New Zealand rugby captain Dave Gallaher. He described it as the ‘most impressive incident’ he’d witnessed on a football field and thought it added a ‘semi-religious solemnity’ to the match between the All Blacks and Wales.
Although the book ends with an update on the modern-day choirs which struggle to recruit new and younger members it’s a compelling transatlantic tale of the Welsh finding expression in song and good company in their fellow singers.
One of the most lingering images is that of the underground chapel, where coal-miners would gather to sing, raising their lamps at the end of a service deep in the earth, the sound of the voices in the ‘echoing chambers adding a touch of froideur to the occasion.’ ‘A Nation of Singing Birds’ is chock full of such images and well-told stories about communities lifting up their collective voices to sing with all fervour, to fully express themselves.
A Nation of Singing Birds is published by Y Lolfa and can be purchased here.