Review: Still Singing ‘Yma o Hyd’ by Dafydd Iwan.
There must be times when Dafydd Iwan feels caught in the slip stream of his most famous song. ‘Yma o Hyd,’ written 40 years ago has taken him to Qatar where the song inspired the Welsh squad in the World Cup.
The nation-invigorating folk-anthem about the Welsh people and language has helped solidify the Red Wall of supporters and given the 80-year old singer-songwriter a new lease of life.
On the March night in 2022 when he sang in front of a capacity crowd in Cardiff he had no idea if Welsh FA chief Ian Gwyn Hughes’ idea would work, worrying that he might end up singing on his own.
It was all about adding to the home game advantage, using Iwan to inspire supporters and players alike. But when he sang into the mike and the tears rolled down his face, the fans all joined in, and did so with gusto.
Thus a song written in 1983 ‘suddenly came alive, and filled the City Stadium with the spirit and emotion of a reborn Cymru.’ It was litle wonder that the Welsh F.A. booked him again for the match against Ukraine.
This timely translation of Iwan’s autobiography appears as the defiant spirit of the song seems to be necessary in the country that has taken it firmly to heart.
‘Still Singing “Yma o Hyd”’ takes us back to a Brynaman childhood when rugby was Iwan’s first love and in summer the village played cricket, ‘that most English and most boring of games’ which had its full innings.
In 1955 his minister father accepted the position of Minister in a chapel in Llanuwchllyn, giving Dafydd Iwan an awareness of the breadth of the Welsh way of life in two area of the country a hundred miles apart as they left the ‘friendly warmth of the coal-mining culture’ for a ‘farming community rich in history.’
The trips to school in Bala in a single coach pulled by a train along the shore of Llyn Tegid were a daily delight, not least because of the lake’s dramatic changes of mood, from still mirror to stormy beauty.
It was on the shores of the lake, at the Urdd centre at Glan-llyn that Iwan learned a few guitar chords to entertain the campers.
To begin with, he adapted songs from the Burl Ives Song Book, giving Welsh words to simple strummed ditties such as ‘Froggy Went A-Courtin’’ and the Woody Guthrie classic ‘This Land is Your Land’ morphed into ‘Mae’n wlad i mi’ mapping out his beloved country from the summit of Yr Wyddfa to its beaches.
Soon he was using the power of songs in support of political campaigning, especially the efforts of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, that ‘Welsh manifestation of the Sixties protest generation.’
Television appearances led to recording his first EP in the Crynant Social Club, where they mainly adapted the American songboook before Iwan started to pen his own material even as invitations flowed in for him to entertain in disparate parts of Wales.
So successful was he that he bought an A35 van to get him to venues, although there was one snag: he didn’t have a driving licence, so his friends got to know Wales very well indeed, albeit at night.
The songs and the performances punctuate a productive life in other spheres. Iwan helped set up Cymdeithas Tai Gwynedd, an answer to the proliferation of second homes and weekend cottages.
They raised money from the public to buy terraced houses which were then renovated as homes for local people at affordable rents.
Today it has 30 such properties. In 1969 he and Huw Jones set up the Sain recording company, to help speed up the evolution of the Welsh recording scene and take advantage of the new technologies.
Sain would become a cornerstone of Welsh music industry, recording and releasing music from opera to rock and roll and developing a roster of artists such as Geraint Jarman, Bryn Terfel, Heather Jones and Meic Stephens.
There was also the political life, within Plaid Cymru – where he became its President – and as a Gwynedd councillor, where he had some rocky times, not least when divided opinion over education policies in the county led to his being personally vilified.
But life in general has its downs as well, so the book chronicles Iwan’s brief detention in Walton prison for non-payment of a TV licence as part of the campaign for a Welsh language TV channel : it transpired that he was released early because the rugby legend Ray Gravell had quietly paid the fine.
It also describes personal pain as he went through a divorce and societal anguish as Welsh industry and its attendant communities were dismantled by Margaret Thatcher.
And it’s against that sort of backdrop that we can begin to measure the defiance captured in the song which gives this book its title.
The crowning glory of what Iwan describes as the ‘Yma o Hyd’ saga is ‘that so many Welsh people, and others from outside of Wales, have been made aware of the true story of Welsh radicalism.’
This reviewer went to see Dafydd Iwan perform with ‘Ar Log’ a few weeks ago at the Earl Haig club in Cardiff.
It was hard to believe that here was an 80-year old on stage, a man ablaze with his conviction, belting out each syllable as if he was building a new nation out of words.
It’s that spirit which beacons out of his most famous song, hymning the resilience of an unbroken nation. It’s a beacon of optimism too, lit in the simplest of words:
Er dued y fagddu o’n cwmpas
Ry’n ni’n barod am doriad y wawr.
In spite of the darkness around us
We’re ready to greet a new dawn.
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