[Mae’r blog yma hefyd ar gael yn Gymraeg]
There’s a gospel influence on this new album, partly because of the contribution of two wonderful singers I’ve been working with recently – the Marshall sisters from Cardiff. But, in this blog, I’d like to concentrate on one particular song from the album (which is a firm favourite with myself and the band), which is the folk song Si hwi hwi – an example of a Welsh spiritual lullaby.
150 years ago this year, the American Civl War ended and, with it, the formal abolition of slavery in the United States. And there are many cultural connections between Wales and the abolitionist movement in America at the time – including a number of anti-slavery Welsh hymns, poems and songs. Si hwi hwi belongs to this honourable tradition.
The author of the lyrics is Rowland Walter, bardic name ‘Ionoron Glan Dwyryd’ – a quarryman and poet from the Blaenau Ffestiniog area in north Wales who emigrated to Vermont in America around 1853, and became active in the movement to abolish slavery.
The song is composed from the perspective of a mother singing her baby to sleep on the eve of being torn apart and ‘sold’ as slaves. There’s a clear tension between the beautiful, soothing melody and the dark, disturbing lyrics.
The recent history of the song is also important. As far as I can tell, the song has survived to this day thanks to the late Dr Meredydd Evans, or ‘Merêd’ as he was fondly known. Merêd was a singer, scholar, campaigner, and historian of Welsh folk music. Along with his wife, Phyllis Kinney, they published several important collections of folk songs over many years which has helped to preserve our musical heritage.
Merêd came from Tanygrisiau, Blaenau Ffestiniog – the same area as the composer of Si hwi hwi – and he remembers his mother singing the song to him as a child, as a lullaby to help him sleep.
A few decades later, in the 1950s, Merêd moved to America to study at Princeton, and he was invited to record a collection of Welsh folk songs for the Folkways label – a seminal record that was chosen as one of the New York Times’ records of the year in 1954.
Until that point, there was no written or audio record of the melody and lyrics together, so we can assume that the song would have disappeared had Merêd not recorded it. And that recording, in many ways, completes the circle – a century after Rowland Walter moved from Blaenau Ffestiniog to the United States and composed the song, Merêd made the same journey to record the song and to ensure it’s preservation. Merêd is as much a part of the song’s history as the composer himself.
In January this year I had a phone conversation with Merêd about Si hwi hwi. It was a fascinating discussion which lasted about an hour and a half – more or less talking about one song! Despite being 95 years old, his mind was razor sharp and his memory impeccable. It was with sadness that we heard of his passing over the weekend – we owe him a great deal, as a nation and as music lovers. But he has left us with a legacy of songs to treasure, to interpret, to re-define and, most importantly, to enjoy.
Here’s the magical Meredydd Evans singing Si hwi hwi.
Er cof annwyl iawn am Merêd.