Progress and tradition: listening to the singing of the Welsh c.1870 to c.1920

Helen Barlow

Helen Barlow is a Research Associate in the Music Department of The Open University and a member of the Listening Experience Database Project Team. While her academic background was originally in literature and art history, her research interests have since expanded to include music iconography, and the social and cultural history of music in nineteenth-century Britain, and Wales in particular. Her publications include Music and the British Military in the Long Nineteenth-Century (Oxford University Press, 2013), co-written with Trevor Herbert.


Wales in the period c.1870 to c.1920 was home to massive heavy industry, accompanied by a huge upsurge of population and the growth of large and thriving towns. Many Welsh people saw it as a time of unparalleled national progress. It was also a period of ascendancy for the Liberal Party, in Britain generally, but nowhere more so than in Wales, where the Welsh Liberals articulated a vision of the potential of Wales as a progressive, modern nation. Welsh music and the supposed musicality of the Welsh became part of a discourse about progress, cultural achievement and the promise of future greatness. Choral and congregational singing, which flourished in the buoyant chapel culture of the expanding towns and villages, was often cited as evidence not just of innate Welsh musicality but also of cultural development. But most intriguing is the apparently contradictory belief, articulated particularly by the newly-founded Welsh Folk-Song Society (WFSS), that Welsh traditional song could be harnessed to the cause of progress. How did Welsh people understand Welsh singing in this period? What did it mean to them? What did listeners think they were hearing – the voice of progress, or the voice of tradition?


This chapter comes out of the work of the Listening Experience Database (LED) project, and specifically a phase of that project which took as its focus ‘Listening and British cultures: listeners’ responses to music in Britain, c.1700–2018’. As David Rowland explains in the Introduction to this collection, the project’s main concern lies in uncovering the voices of historical ‘ordinary listeners’ – in other words, people who have not typically been in the foreground of music history – conveying their experience of listening to music in their everyday lives. Within that overarching framework, this chapter pursues a number of themes, some related to Welsh history and Welsh music, others to the broader methodological concerns of the project.

Underpinning my approach is an interest in the ways in which the myth of Wales as a specially musical nation has been expressed and used historically, by both Welsh and non-Welsh listeners. This chapter looks specifically at the reactions of listeners to Welsh singing practices in the period from about 1870 until just after the First World War. In so doing, it illustrates how the accounts of listeners can illuminate the politicisation of musical practices, locating them in this instance within the historical context of a period of economic buoyancy and cultural confidence in Wales, unparalleled either before or, arguably, since. It considers the ways in which these practices were marshalled as evidence of that optimistic, progressive national mood.

The initial signs of this interpretation of the significance of Welsh singing emerge in commentary on Welsh choirs and congregational hymn-singing, so it is to this world that the chapter turns first. We then move on to a musical world perhaps less well known outside Wales – the world of Welsh traditional music, and specifically the mission of the Welsh Folk-Song Society (Cymdeithas Alawon Gwerin Cymru), which was founded precisely during this period, in the firm, if apparently contradictory, belief that the collection and performance of Welsh traditional music had a vital role to play in the development of a modern Welsh nation.

The LED project stresses the importance of close reading of the language used by listeners to describe their experiences of music, and accordingly in this chapter I am concerned particularly with the language that people used to articulate what they felt they were hearing when they listened to Welsh singing. The language of newspapers, periodicals and speeches of the period gives an insight into public discourse on Welsh singing and its place and significance in a modern Wales, but to try to find the voices of ordinary listeners expressing a personal response to music, the chapter turns to the evidence of oral history. In so doing, it seeks to illustrate a broader point about the gap that may be found between public discourse about the purpose of music and personal experience of it.

A progressive nation

…[I]n their love of music, poetry, and culture, for every man, the Celt stands pre-eminent. Throughout the length and breadth of Wales the holidays are consecrated to the enjoyment of music, poetry and literature by all the people, by all the workers, by the poor…. This is a force in the making of Britain… And [the Celt] will yet have much to say and do in the re-making of Britain. 1[1] Annie J. Ellis (ed.), <em>Speeches and Addresses by the Late Thomas E. Ellis, M.P.</em> (Wrexham: Hughes and Son, 1912), pp. 114–115.

This resounding declaration was made by the charismatic Welsh Liberal MP Tom Ellis (1859–1899), in an address entitled ’The Influence of the Celt in the Making of Britain’, which he gave in 1889 to the Welsh community in Manchester. In it, he characterised Welsh musicality (alongside poetry and culture generally) as not just a long-established national tradition but also a force, an active and indeed democratic element (‘for every man’, ‘by all the people’) in the shaping and development of Britain as a whole, into the future. Quite how music was to have this effect, Ellis didn’t spell out, but that is not unusual in this kind of romantic, visionary discourse about the potential of Wales at this time.

The period from about 1870 through the First World War was one of unprecedented cultural and national confidence in Wales. Industrial Wales – particularly the south Wales valleys – experienced a massive influx of population, including significant numbers from rural Wales, along with the growth of large and thriving towns. Alongside this, religious revivals in 1840 and 1859 (there was to be another in 1904) fed a buoyant Nonconformist religious culture. New chapels proliferated, 2[2] Christopher B. Turner, ‘The Nonconformist Response’, in Trevor Herbert and Gareth Elwyn Jones (eds), <em>People and Protest: Wales 1815</em>–<em>1880</em>, Welsh History and its Sources series (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1988), p. 74. Turner also provides evidence from the 1851 Religious Census of the scale of Nonconformist worship in Wales and of the accompanying rates of chapel building. and in 1851, when the religious census was taken, it was found that, of those attending a place of worship in Wales on census Sunday, more than 80% had gone to a Nonconformist chapel, not to an Anglican church.

A quarter of a century later, statistics confirmed a very similar picture: in 1905, of the two in five people in Wales who were members of a religious denomination, 25.9% were Anglicans, and nearly 75% were Nonconformists. 3[3] R. Tudur Jones, <em>Faith and the Crisis of a Nation: Wales 1890</em>–<em>1914</em>, trans. Sylvia Prys Jones, ed. Robert Pope (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2004), pp. 10–11. The statistics were gathered for the Commission looking into the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales, which published its report, <em>The Royal Commission on the Church of England and Other Religious Bodies in Wales and Monmouthshire</em>, in 1910, euphemistically omitting the word ‘disestablishment’ from the title. These were figures that rendered more than a little hollow the official position of the Anglican Church, or Church of England, as the established or state church of Wales.

The religious statistics also had profound political implications, which R. Tudur Jones summarises succinctly:

[The growth of Nonconformity] created an opportunity for common folk to organize their religious life in an unprecedented way. The [Nonconformist] churches nurtured for themselves many thousands of leaders from among people who throughout the centuries had been voiceless and powerless… This development was revolutionary, to say the least. Now the former leaders of society, the [Tory] squire and [Anglican] parson, were forced to share their kingdom with new princes who had risen from the land. 4[4] Jones, <em>Faith and the Crisis of a Nation</em>, pp. 38–39.

To dissent in religious terms from the Anglican Tory hegemony that had prevailed for centuries in Wales did not necessarily also imply a particularly radical political position – indeed, Nonconformity was generally ‘a conservative force in society’ in Wales. 5[5] Ieuan Gwynedd Jones, ‘Religion and society in the first half of the nineteenth century’, in <em>Explorations and Explanations: Essays in the Social History of Victorian Wales</em> (Llandysul: Gwasg Gomer, 1981), pp. 228–235; see also Turner, ‘Nonconformist response’. Rather, Welsh Nonconformists found their political home in the only other British parliamentary party of the time, the Liberal Party. During the second half of the nineteenth century, not only the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884, but also significant local government reorganisation, saw the traditional Welsh Tory authority of ‘squire and parson’ displaced by a Liberal, Nonconformist ascendancy under which more people lower down the social scale were politically engaged and had more self-determination – and they were well-versed in democratic modes of participation (broadly speaking), having learned them through the organisation and governance of their chapels.

Liberalism became the political voice of the ‘common folk’ of Wales, and they returned Welsh Liberal MPs to Westminster in numbers that far outweighed the Welsh Tories who had historically dominated there, creating an influential and challenging presence which congregated around the charismatic figures of David Lloyd George (1864–1945) and, until his premature death in 1899, Tom Ellis. The spearhead of the Welsh Liberals’ demand for reform was, unsurprisingly, the call for disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales.

Despite the buoyant national mood, the period was certainly also one of significant industrial and political unrest, and I have written elsewhere about the deployment of the idea of Welsh musicality as a counterweight to fears of Welsh militancy. 6[6] <strong>(Add reference to 19thCMR article – not yet available)</strong> But to many it was indeed pre-eminently a period of unprecedented progress, marked by vigorous campaigning, principally but not exclusively by Welsh Liberals, for the foundation of national institutions as evidence of a disinctive and mature culture – in particular, a national university, a national museum and a national library. There was, in effect, a national conversation – and not only in Liberal discourse – that revolved around the idea of progress and Wales as a modern, progressive nation.

This was the backdrop to Welsh cultural life. A populist musical culture of congregational and choral-singing flourished, rooted in the thriving chapels, and the first decade of the twentieth century saw the foundation of the Welsh Folk-Song Society, its mission being to preserve the traditional songs that it was feared would be lost, as people born in rural Wales migrated to industrial Wales and lost touch with their rural culture. Both choral-singing and the performance of folk song were fostered by competition in the National Eisteddfod, which had come into being as a national rather than simply a local institution in 1861 – another example of the preoccupation of the times with the establishment of national cultural institutions.

Music and the much-vaunted musicality of the Welsh were harnessed to the cause of progress. It became commonplace to characterise music not merely as a national talent or a source of national pride, but as an active means of developing a progressive Welsh identity with a contribution to make to modern Britain, very much in the spirit of Ellis’s sense of music as an active cultural force. A frequent caveat among professional Welsh musicians and music journalists was that a truly sophisticated and progressive nation would be developing an instrumental, orchestral tradition as well as a vocal one. But that is not the focus of this essay. My interest here is in what people said and wrote about the Welsh music they did hear, rather than what some thought was missing.

‘A new epoch’: the Côr Mawr and the cymanfa ganu

The famous Côr Mawr victories at the Crystal Palace in the summers of 1872 and 1873 are an early illustration of the tendency to interpret Welsh musicality as a measure of Welsh cultural progress. In those two summers, a choral competition was organised at the Crystal Palace in London, as part of a British ‘National Music Meeting’. Being well-versed in the culture of the Eisteddfod, for the Welsh the idea of choral competition was a familiar one, and they needed no persuasion to enter. The choir of 1872 numbered more than 450 voices, and was called the South Wales Choral Union but more popularly known in Welsh as the Côr Mawr (the Great Choir). 7[7] See Trevor Herbert, ‘Popular nationalism: Griffith Rhys Jones (‘Caradog’) and the Welsh choral tradition’, in Christine Bashford and Leanne Langley (eds), <em>Music and British Culture, 1785</em>–<em>1914</em> (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 255–274. It was conducted by Griffith Rhys Jones (1834–1897), better known by the nickname Caradog, a gifted musician who had been an apprentice blacksmith. In both years the Côr Mawr won the Crystal Palace competition – although little was said about the fact that it was the only choir competing in 1872, and had only one competitor in 1873.

The periodical Y Cerddor Cymreig (The Welsh Musician) reported at length on the winning performances, and in 1872 felt moved to add:

We are grateful to the South Wales Choir for opening the eyes of our neighbours, yes, and of many of our fellow countrymen too…. The English nation has been used to think lowly and speak contemptuously of the Welsh… This choir proved that here is life, here is ability, and here is achievement; and the Welsh in Wales are not to be despised anymore…. Once one of our talented sons or daughters goes to live in England, or expresses their thoughts in the English language, [to the English] they become English, and the Englishman insists that they don’t belong to us. They trample on us in Wales, and plunder what belongs to us in England. But another era has begun: and the victory of the Welsh Choir will have no small effect in raising the Welshman in his own country in the sight of the world.

Yr ydym yn ddiolchgar i Gor y Deheudir am agorwyd llygaid ein cymydogion, ie, a llawer o’n cydwladwyr hefyd…. Y mae corph cenedl y Saeson wedi arfer meddwl yn isel a siarad yn ddiystyrllyd am y Cymry…. Profodd y cor hwn fod yma fywyd, fod yma allu, a bod yma waith; ac nad ydyw y Cymry yng Nghymru i’w dirmygu mwyach…. Unwaith yr a un o’n meibion neu ein merched galluog i drigo i Loegr, neu i roddi allan ei feddyliau yn yr iaith Saesneg, y mae yn myned yn Sais, a thaera y Saeson mae nid ein heiddo ni yndynt. Sathrant arnom yn Nghymru, ac ysbeiliant ni o’n heiddo yn Lloegr. Ond y mae cyfnod arall wedi dechreu: ac nid ychydig fydd effaith buddugoliaeth y Cor Cymreig tuag at godi y Cymro yn ei wlad ei hun yn ngolwg y byd. 8[8] <em>Y Cerddor Cymreig</em>, Rhif 138, 1 Awst 1872, p. 59. Author’s translation.

Perhaps it seems excessive to hang a new era on a prize won in a choral competition, but the sense of historical and current grievance is impassioned and unmistakeable. Wales, the writer insists, has been exploited by the English for its industrial potential, and any achievement by Welsh people is recognised only in those who leave Wales for England, where they are appropriated as English. Welsh culture in and of itself (‘the Welshman in his own country’) has no merit in English eyes. So for the Welsh to triumph on an English stage as the Côr Mawr had just done was heralded as a cultural and indeed moral victory, and as the writer has it, the dawn of a new era: a sign that, through cultural achievement, Wales was establishing its identity among other modern nations.

Similarly, in a report of a Côr Mawr rehearsal at Aberdare in 1873, written for the Conservative Cardiff newspaper the Western Mail, the prominent journalist ‘Morien’ (Owen Morgan) stresses the wider cultural promise – on a ‘world’ stage – represented by the advance in musical knowledge and achievement embodied in the Côr Mawr:

A great many in the throng had music books in their hands and were following the singing, indicating how great a knowledge of music has extended among all classes in Wales. It was most interesting to watch ladies of aristocratic bearing, poring over the same kind of books as were in the horny hands of miners. It made me proud of the little old nationality which has produced such people. The world is justified in anticipating in the future great results from this little nation among the mountains. Its knowledge of music must exercise a vast influence on the people in stimulating them to other branches of mental superiority. 9[9] Morien, ‘The South Wales Choir Rehearsal: Aberdare’, <em>Western Mail</em>, 7 July 1873.

The idea that the choral and congregational singing of the Welsh could be interpreted as an expression of cultural aspiration and progress crops up repeatedly in this period. We find similar language in accounts of that most Welsh of singing events, the annual cymanfa ganu or hymn-singing assembly – a product of the proliferating chapel culture, and the place where almost all of the Côr Mawr singers would have cut their musical teeth. As described by Moses Owen Jones, a greatly respected choral conductor of the period:

It commences, as a rule, with a children’s service in the morning, when light and suitable tunes are sung and the catechism gone through….

The afternoon and evening meetings are devoted to adults. A number of congregational tunes are sung at each meeting, interspersed with anthems, chants and choruses. The choir, which is made of those of the several chapels in the Union, ranges from 300 to 800, according to the population of the district, and, after a thorough training, the singing, which is always devotional, is often very majestic and highly impressive….

Strangers labour under the impression that the best Welsh singing is to be heard at the National Eisteddfod. Picked choirs sing there, but the masses are to be heard at the Cymanfa Ganu, and anyone who would make himself acquainted with the musical life of Wales should visit some of our popular Cymanfaoedd. 10[10] Moses Owen Jones, ‘The culture of music amongst the masses in Wales’, in T. Stephens (ed.), <em>Wales To-day and To-morrow</em> (Cardiff, 1907), p. 334., accessed 30 July 2018.

In 1875, several newspapers published reports of a cymanfa ganu held in Penygraig in the Rhondda, and here again we find the idea that the singing in some sense represented a milestone in the upward progress of Welsh musical culture:

[The chairman] repeatedly complimented the singers upon the feeling they displayed, and the singing appeared to make a deep impression upon all present. The reverend chairman stated that he had never attended meetings of this kind where the audience entered more thoroughly ‘through the letter to the spirit’ of what they sang. The great feature of these meetings was anthem singing and Psalm chanting. The rendering of the Psalms by the choirs was simply grand beyond description. There may have been room for technical [sic], but the volume for melody was superb…. [He] said they were now entering upon a new epoch in Welsh music…. 11[11] <em>Western Mail</em>, 6 May 1975, quoted in Tom Jones, ‘Hanes Cymanfa Ganu Dosbarth Canol Rhondda’, published in <em>Y Darian</em>, 19 December 1929,, accessed 30 July 2018.

The cymanfa ganu literally became a national institution in its own right when the National Cymanfa Ganu was constituted in 1916 at the National Eisteddfod. In typically populist, crowd-pleasing style, Lloyd George, who was by then Prime Minister, and who made a point of always attending the National Eisteddfod, described the singing of ‘the old tunes’ at the 1917 National Cymanfa as ‘full of life and vigour and outpouring the beautiful hopes and aspirations and faith of the Welsh people’. 12[12] ‘Prime Minister’s Day Out: Mr. Lloyd George at National Gymanfa’, <em>Cambria Daily Leader</em>, 8 September 1917. It is notable that his first instinct is to link the cymanfa singing with what can readily be interpreted as political preoccupations – cultural aspiration and progress – and only then with religion and faith.

‘The real power of the Folk-song’: the foundation of the Welsh Folk-Song Society

The cymanfa and mass choral and congregational singing were relatively recent developments in Welsh music culture. Harnessing a much older musical tradition to the cause of progress seems on the surface to be something of a contradiction in terms, but that is what happened with Welsh traditional music or folk song in this period. The Welsh were not the only people to look to folk culture for the basis of a national identity – this was already well established in many European countries. The Folk Song Society had been founded as a pan-British endeavour in 1898, though its Irish members seceded to form their own society in 1904. 13[13] Alfred Perceval Graves explained the split in the context of the debate over Home Rule for Ireland: ‘Ireland, with its Home Rule tendencies, felt, however, that her own folk song affairs needed special treatment, and an Irish Folk Song Society has been started…’. (Graves, ‘Folk Song: An address delivered before the Cymmrodorion Section of the Welsh National Eisteddfod of 1906 at Carnarvon, and brought up to date’, in <em>Irish Literary and Musical Studies</em> (London: Elkin Matthews, 1913), p. 176.

Alfred Perceval Graves (1846–1931), 14[14] Graves was a poet and civil servant, and the father of the First World War poet Robert Graves. His autobiography <em>To Return to All That</em> (1930) was written as a riposte to his son’s ungenerous treatment of the family in <em>Goodbye to All That</em> (1929). an Irishman, and a founder member of both the Folk Song Society and the Irish Folk Song Society, may also be said to have planted the seed of the Welsh Folk-Song Society, having been charged by the Folk Song Society (presumably on the basis of his existing Welsh connections) 15[15] Graves had a great interest in Welsh poetry and culture, and owned a holiday home in Harlech, where he lived permanently after his retirement in 1919. He gives a brief account of much of this in his autobiography <em>To Return to All That </em>(London: Jonathan Cape, 1930), pp. 280–284. His daughter Rosaleen shared his enthusiasm from childhood onwards. She reported for both the <em>Musical Times</em> and <em>Welsh Outlook</em> on the folk song sessions at ‘The Celtic Congress in the Isle of Man’ in 1921 (see <em>Welsh Outlook</em>, 8 (1921), p. 185, and <em>Musical Times</em>, 62/942 (1 August 1921), pp. 583–584); and her brother Robert remembered going with her on folk song collecting trips near Harlech when they were children, as well as joining John Lloyd Williams on coastal walks (see ‘Where the crakeberries grow – Robert Graves gives an account of himself to Leslie Norris’, <em>The Listener</em>, 28 May 1970, pp. 715–716). with trying ‘to capture a strong Welsh contingent’. 16[16] Graves, <em>To Return</em>, p. 267. As Graves knew, Welsh traditional music was already an interest at Bangor’s University College through the activities of its Director of Music, John Lloyd Williams, and the support of the College’s Irish Principal, Harry Reichel. Lloyd Williams was appointed to the College as a botany lecturer in 1897, but he was also an amateur musician and choral conductor, and as such was invited to take on the voluntary music directorship.

In his ‘History of the Welsh Folk-Song Society’, written for the Society’s journal, Lloyd Williams describes how he suggested to Reichel ‘the desirability of confining the music sung at important College functions to arrangements of Welsh National Melodies’. 17[17] John Lloyd Williams, ‘The history of the Welsh Folk-Song Society’, <em>Journal of the Welsh Folk-Song Society</em>, 3/2 (1934), p. 89. However, he found the published eighteenth- and nineteenth-century collections flawed in several respects. Having largely been arranged for performance on the harp in fashionable salons and concerts, they were ‘distinctly diatonic, modern in tonality’ and ‘nearly all without words’. 18[18] Lloyd Williams, ‘History’, pp. 89–90. One solution was to select some of the melodies and have words written for them (Alfred Graves was one of the poets to whom he turned). This proved successful in so far as the songs were well received by audiences. But the fact that they lacked their original words continued to trouble him. Then he tried another experiment – he arranged for the College choir a folk song he had noted down years before, while listening to his wife and her sister singing it – ‘Tra Bo Dau’ (‘While there are two’). Its success encouraged him to try more of these ‘songs of the people’ (as he described them), 19[19] Lloyd Williams, ‘History’, p. 91. and to form a choir specifically for their performance, ‘Y Canorion’ (‘The Singers’).

All this activity must have happened between 1897 when he began his career at Bangor and 1906 when the Society was founded, and it was this work – and in particular, a specific performance at a College garden party – that he claims first opened his eyes to the ‘real power of the Folk-Song’:

The first Society that was ever formed with the prime object of collecting and singing Welsh Folk-songs was a small Society of Students at the Bangor University College… The little group of Students called themselves ‘Y CANORION’… At that time our professional Welsh musicians pooh-poohed the whole thing. It was said and written that all important Welsh airs were already known, and that in any case the chief interest of Folk Music was antiquarian. If I may make a personal confession – it was in one of these College functions held in the grounds of the old College that I first fully realised the significance of the work in which we were engaged. A Brass Band was playing in the grounds, but as is usual in such places, conversation filled the air. Our small group of ‘CANORION’ assembled quietly under a tree and started singing. There was a sudden hush. The guests drew nearer. Tune after tune were sung; and it was with difficulty that we were allowed to leave off. Then it was that the real power of the Folk-song first revealed itself to me. 20[20] John Lloyd Williams, ‘The Welsh Folk-Song Society’, <em>Y Cerddor</em>, Medi (September) 1931, p. 314, quoted in Phyllis Kinney, <em>Welsh Traditional Music</em> (Cardiff: University of Wales Press: 2011), p. 205.

Far from being an antiquarian preoccupation, he saw that folk songs had the capacity to make a connection with both singers and listeners now, in the present day – a capacity which he put down to their ‘vocal origin… spontanteity and … preoccupation with words’. 21[21] Lloyd Williams, ‘History’, p. 91.

Thus Graves’s overtures on behalf of the Folk Song Society certainly fell on fertile ground, but they actually resulted in a decision – with which Graves himself seems to have been entirely sympathetic – to establish a specifically Welsh society. It was launched at the 1906 Caernarfon Eisteddfod, and Lloyd Williams was its editor and guiding light until his death in 1945.

Lloyd Williams had first-hand knowledge not only of the Welsh folk song tradition but also of its vulnerability. In a note in the Journal of the Welsh Folk-Song Society, he remembered the abrupt end of his father’s career as a local ballad singer:

When I was about five years old, my father used to sing in the public-houses to the accompaniment of Ifan y Gorlan’s harp-playing. Soon after, he joined the Calvinistic Methodists and gave up the drink and the old songs. My mother burnt all the printed ballads in the house; and it was only with the greatest difficulty that father could be persuaded to sing to us, even the most innocuous of the old ballads. 22[22] John Lloyd Williams, editorial note to the song ‘Crefydd Sionto’ (Sionto’s Religion), in <em>Journal of the Welsh Folk Song Society</em>, 4/1 (1948), p. 14.

He tells the story at greater length in his autobiography, linking it specifically to the impact of the 1859 religious revival and its associated temperance campaign. Traditional music was tainted by association with the inns in which it was played and sung, and the drinking that inevitably accompanied it, and his mother’s act of destruction was far from an unusual one. An almost identical incident is recounted of a ballad singer called Joseff Rees who ‘sang ballads until 1903 until the revival came. [Then] he burnt the ballads…’ (‘Odd e’n canu baledi nes 1903 nes i’r diwygiad ddod. Fe llosgodd y baledi…’). 23[23] St Fagans National History Museum, Cardiff, transcript of oral history recording, tape 7520, David Griffiths. Author’s translation. A number of Welsh Folk-Song Society members set out to collect songs (particularly the less well-known and unpublished ones) by recording them being sung by those who remembered them, but found that it was common for elderly people to refuse to acknowledge that they had ever even heard ‘the old songs’. On her collecting trips in the early years of the twentieth century, for example, Ruth Herbert Lewis encountered ‘a pious old man’ who insisted he ‘could only remember hymns’, and an old man ‘much to [sic] respectable to “canu maswedd” [sing rude songs]’. 24[24] Kitty Idwal Jones, ‘Adventures in Folk-Song Collecting’, <em>Welsh Music/Cerddoriaeth Cymru</em>, 5/5 (Spring/Gwanwyn 1977), p. 45 and 47.

While Nonconformity fostered a thriving mass culture of religious singing, its impact on the traditional, secular songs was little short of disastrous. It bred a real and widespread belief that the traditional music was sinful and specifically that it would draw sober, God-fearing people under the influence of alcohol. Years after the event, Lloyd Williams’s mother, seeing that her husband did not in fact stray from the path of sobriety and that her sons were growing up to be studious young men interested in their traditions and culture, told him ‘many times how much she regretted the burning’ (‘Pan welodd fy mam mor sicr ydoedd troediad fy nhad ar y llwybr newydd, a gweld hefyd ei meibion yn tyfu i fyny’n ddarllengar, dywedodd wrthyf lawer gwaith faint ei hedifeirwch am y llosgi.’). Poignantly he adds:

…when my eyes were opened to the interest of the old songs, my father had left us, and his abundance of songs was lost.

…pan agorwyd fy llygaid i ddiddordeb yr hen ganu, yr oedd fy nhad wedi ein gadael, a’i doreth caneuon ar goll. 25[25] John Lloyd Williams, <em>Atgofion Tri Chwarter Canrif</em>, Cyf. 1 (Y Clwb Llyfrau Cymraeg, 1941), p. 25. Author’s translation.

Little wonder then, that for Lloyd Williams the work of the Society was much more than mere antiquarian curiosity, but rather the rescue of a strand of Welsh cultural identity that had been vital and vibrant within living memory and in his own family and community. Amidst all the enormous endeavour he put into the Welsh Folk-Song Society and all the influence he had on it, this belief in traditional song as a living force that resonated in ordinary people’s experience was arguably his most significant and distinctive contribution.

The Welsh Folk-Song Society was embedded in the cultural nationalism of the Welsh Liberals, and reflected their progressive agenda. The Welsh Liberal network that underpinned the Society is not hard to uncover. To name just some of the most obvious figures, one of Lloyd Williams’s most important early colleagues was Ruth Herbert Lewis, a significant collector of Welsh folk songs 26[26] She published <em>Folk Songs Collected in Flintshire and The Vale of Clwyd</em> (Wrexham, 1914) and <em>Welsh Folk Songs</em> (Wrexham, 1834). See also E. Wyn James, ‘An ‘English’ Lady among Welsh Folk: Ruth Herbert Lewis and the Welsh Folk-Song Society’, in Ian Russell and David Atkinson (eds), <em>Folk-Song: Tradition, Revival, and Re-Creation </em>(Aberdeen: The Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen, 2004), pp. 266–283,, accessed 13 November 2018. and married to the Welsh Liberal MP, John Herbert Lewis. 27[27] See Kitty Idwal Jones, <em>Syr Herbert Lewis</em> (Caerdydd: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1958). John Herbert Lewis was instrumental in the campaigns for a national university, library and museum, and a close colleague of Tom Ellis and Lloyd George. The Ellises and the Herbert Lewises were particularly good friends, and after Tom’s death ‘the friendship between Ruth Lewis and Annie Ellis [Tom’s widow] became a close one’, with the two women going out together on folk song collecting trips. 28[28] Kitty Idwal Jones, ‘Adventures’, p. 33 and pp. 43–52. The membership list of the Welsh Folk-Song Society is full of their Liberal friends and colleagues, with Lloyd George listed as a Vice President.

John Lloyd Williams was himself on friendly terms with Lloyd George, perhaps through their participation in local chapel activities in Cricieth, 29[29] Lloyd George was brought up around Cricieth (in the village of Llanystumdwy), and maintained a family home there. Lloyd Williams may also have been living there at this time – some of his correspondence from this period bears the address ‘Ty Mawr, Criccieth’; certainly his notebooks and journals show that he was at the very least a frequent visitor to Cricieth. and Lloyd George apparently considered that he owed much of his charismatic trademark oratory to Lloyd Williams’s skills as a singing teacher, if Lloyd Williams’s journal for Sunday 26 December 1909 is to be believed:

Ev[ening] to Seion [Chapel]… sing nicely except the men who are very poor. Lloyd George sits the whole time on the steps of the pulpit – Megan [Lloyd George, his daughter] before his knees.

Up w. Ll. G. to his new house to supper….

[He describes their conversation over supper, then starts to quote Lloyd George:]

Importance of voice in speaking. ‘Bonar Law and I are g[rea]t friends and he always tells me that I have an unfair advantage…in my voice – but many of them never study voice prod[uctio]n – I owe most to you for showing me the importance of voice prod[uctio]n… Tom Ellis had a very limited range – only 2 or 3 notes but he used them in a very effective manner…’ 30[30] National Library of Wales, Dr J. Lloyd Williams Papers, MB1/16 (iii), 9v.

Lloyd Williams is not explicit about his own political persuasion, but he clearly had connections with prominent Welsh Liberals and shared his interest in and knowledge of folk songs with them – as a journal entry for 1 September 1913 notes, ‘Lloyd George and I had a short talk ab[ou]t F[olk] S[ong]s. He wanted me to get two songs sung to him week last Sunday…’. 31[31] National Library of Wales, Dr J. Lloyd Williams Papers, MB3/1 (ii – a & b).

‘The upward progress of a country’: John Lloyd Williams’s philosophy for the Welsh Folk-Song Society

In the first volume of the Society’s journal, Lloyd Williams set out a philosophy which saw Welsh folk song not just as part of the nation’s heritage but as a constituent of a distinctive and modern Welsh cultural identity, and went yet further in presenting it as a contribution to a wider British and even world musical culture. In essence, he argued that folk song was not a nostalgic but a progressive musical and cultural practice:

We maintain that folk-songs form a valuable national asset, and that it would be madness to ignore them – folk-music is one of many factors which help in a nation’s development.

… In spite of the clever English critic and his Welsh followers, I believe there are great possibilities in Welsh folk-song from a national point of view… May the day soon come when a Welshman, well equipped with all the resources of modern technique will also have drunk deep of the spirit of its literature and of its national songs, until his own personality and genius discovers to the world some new aspect of music that will both advance the credit of our little nation, and contribute to the development of the world’s music. 32[32] John Lloyd Williams, ‘A Review of the Society’s Musical Work’, <em>Journal of the Welsh Folk-Song Society</em>, 1/4 (1912), pp. 154–155.

He also positioned the Welsh Folk-Song Society in the context of the other recently established national cultural institutions, pointing out that the Society had a comparable mission to that of the National Library and National Museum, and suggesting that it offered invaluable source material to the students and academics of the Welsh university colleges – not only historians, but also anthropologists and psychologists:

But what of the value of these songs?… We have now in our Welsh Library and our Welsh Museum the opportunity of collecting and preserving everything that pertains to the life of the past – old implements, vessels, articles of furniture and clothing, and old MSS. of every kind. Are the old songs of the people of less importance than their old drinking cups?…

Our Colleges are now turning out young people trained in scientific methods of study – who are closely investigating the history of our people and language from different points of view. We are providing rich material for him who will undertake to unravel the ethnology, the history, and the psychology wrapped up in these rescued songs. 33[33] Lloyd Williams, ‘A Review’, p. 151.

It is interesting to set the founding philosophy of the Welsh Folk-Song Society alongside the ways in which some key English contemporaries conceptualised folk song. 34[34] I am grateful to Stephen Rees of Bangor University for suggesting this as a line worth pursuing. The comparison with the English perspective is indeed instructive. The position of the Irish Folk Song Society is less obvious – certainly their early journals offer little in the way of a ‘mission statement’. Perhaps, given the much better-established nature of folk song and folk lore collection in Ireland than in England and Wales, little need for one was felt. The Scots appear to have been content to pursue their interests within the bounds of the Folk Song Society, which had been conceived as a pan-British institution. The idea that it could form the basis of a new national school of composition was something that the Welsh and English had in common, but in other ways their preoccupations differed. For the English, the ‘threat’ posed by the music hall was a powerful factor. In his ‘Inaugural Address’ to the Folk Song Society, Hubert Parry (one of its Vice Presidents) explicitly presented folk song as an antidote to the vulgarity of the urban, capitalist popular culture of the music hall, which he described in rather startlingly apocalyptic terms:

… this enemy is one of the most repulsive and most insidious [in]… the outer circumference of our terribly overgrown towns where the jerry-builder holds sway; where one sees all around the tawdriness of sham jewellery and shoddy clothes, pawnshops and flaming gin-palaces. 35[35] Hubert Parry, ‘Inaugural Address’, <em>Journal of the Folk-Song Society</em>, 1/1 (1899), p. 1.

By contrast, ‘the old folk-music is among the purest products of the human mind [because it] grew in the hearts of the people before they devoted themselves so assiduously to the making of quick returns’. 36[36] Parry, ‘Inaugural Address’, p. 2.

In the course of a more extended and complex argument, Cecil Sharp makes the same point in his influential book, English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions (1907):

… good music purifies, just as bad music vulgarizes… [T]he mind that has been fed upon the pure melody of the folk will instinctively detect the poverty-stricken tunes of the music-hall, and refuse to be captivated by their superficial attractiveness…. [Folk songs will] effect an improvement in the musical taste of the people, and… refine and strengthen the national character. 37[37] Cecil Sharp, <em>English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions</em> (London: Simpkin & Co., Ltd; Novello & Co., Ltd; Taunton: Barnicott & Pearce, Athenaeum Press, 1907), p. 135.

There was a paternalistic slant to the English vision, 38[38] Ralph Vaughan Williams is another figure whose ideas about English folk song might be expected to be quoted here, but his writings on the subject come from a composer’s perspective and are notably free of the kind of moralising of both Parry and Sharp. A useful selection is given in David Manning (ed.), <em>Vaughan Williams on Music</em> (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). according to which, folk song was a product of ‘unsophisticated humanity’ with the power to remedy ‘the sordid vulgarity of our great city-populations’ as Parry put it 39[39] Parry, ‘Inaugural Address’, p. 3. or, in Sharp’s terms, while it might be appreciated by ‘cultivated people’, it also had the merit of appealing to and educating ‘the uncritical’, and ‘will do incalculable good in civilizing the masses’. 40[40] Sharp, <em>English Folk-Song</em>, p. 137. Sharp also saw folk song as a means of ‘stimulating the feeling of patriotism’, and by this he meant very specifically English patriotism. English education was, he said, ‘too cosmopolitan’ and bred ‘citizens of the world rather than Englishmen. And it is Englishmen, English citizens, that we want’. 41[41] Sharp, <em>English Folk-Song</em>, pp. 135–136.

Seen in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that the Welsh had certain reservations about Cecil Sharp. 42[42] In fact Sharp was also something of a thorn in the side of his English colleagues. Hubert Parry had his differences with Sharp at an earlier period when both were involved with the running of the Finsbury Choral Association (see <em>Oxford Dictionary of National Biography</em>, <a href=""></a>, accessed 14 September 2018), and Vaughan Williams noted in his 1937 <em>Dictionary of National Biography</em> entry on Sharp that ‘his ideas were not always cordially welcomed’ by his FSS colleagues; entry reprinted in Manning, <em>Vaughan Williams on Music</em>, p. 238. The working relationships of the folk song collectors of the four British nations were generally close and collaborative, as the mutual contributions to their various journals reveal,43[43] Indeed, these relationships and cross-currents often predate the foundation of the folk song societies. In mid-nineteenth century Welsh/Irish circles, for example, the Third Earl of Dunraven is a pivotal figure. Owning land in both Ireland and south Wales, he enjoyed friendships and shared intellectual interests with the Graves family on the Irish side, and with the important folk song collector Maria Jane Williams and her family on the Welsh side. See Graves, <em>To Return</em>, p. 83, and Elizabeth Belcham, <em>About Aberpergwm: The Home of the Williams Family in the Vale of Neath, Glamorgan</em> (Aberpergwm: Heritage Ventures, 1992), pp. 58–59. but Lloyd Williams thought Sharp proprietorial and domineering in his attitude to the study of folk song, and noted in his journal for 24 October 1909:

Mrs D [Mary Davies, then secretary of the Welsh Folk-Song Society and a noted singer] interviewed C. Sharp. (No one likes him – he is dictatorial and headlong.) Dictated to her – told her that if she wanted to know about Welsh ballads to go to Wynne Jones Carnarvon [!] His astonishment when Mrs D had gone to discover she was ‘the singer’. 44[44] National Library of Wales, Dr J. Lloyd Williams Papers, MB3/1.

Like Sharp, Lloyd Williams emphasised the utility of folk songs in developing musical taste, and regarded them as a means of nurturing patriotism, but for the latter, patriotism in the British context was ‘the sum of the local patriotisms within it’ and was rooted in ‘the love of family’. 45[45] John Lloyd Williams, ‘Introduction’, <em>Alawon Gwerin Cymru: Welsh Folk Songs Arranged for Schools</em>, vol. 1, p. xii. He also took a distinctive path in his vision of Welsh folk song as Wales’s contribution to what he called the ‘culture fund’ of Britain. 46[46] Lloyd Williams, ‘Introduction’, p. xi. That contribution would, he felt, stamp the ‘individuality’ of Wales on that general culture, by which he surely meant that it would establish a cultural identity distinct from and equal to that of England, and in so doing would contribute to ‘the upward progress of a country’. 47[47] Lloyd Williams, ‘Introduction’, p. xi. By ‘a country’, he probably meant Wales – but it is possible to interpret this as a suggestion that a ‘culture fund’ in which the four nations were established as equals would be progressive for Britain as a whole.

It was widely seen as important that folk song should be instilled into the young and should form part of the school curriculum, and both Sharp and Lloyd Williams arranged and published folk songs for schools. 48[48] The links between the folk song societies and educationists are notable and would merit further study – Graves, for example, spent a considerable portion of his career as an inspector of schools. Sharp insisted that:

Educationalists are agreed that the inclusion of music in the curriculum of the elementary school will not only tend to cultivate a taste for music, but will also, by exciting and training the imagination, react beneficially upon character…. [And since] folk-music came first and provided the foundations upon which the superstructure of art-music was subsequently reared… folk-music is clearly the best and most natural basis upon which to found a musical education. 49[49] Sharp, <em>English Folk-Song</em>, pp. 134–135.

Lloyd Williams was in sympathy with the musical aspects of this – folk music as the basis of a musical education and a means of cultivating musical taste – but the idea that it might have an impact on ‘character’ is notably lacking from his thinking. Folk song is never regarded by him as a means of educating the uncultivated ‘masses’; for him, these are the ‘songs of the people’, and an expression of a living cultural identity with a positive contribution to make to the modern world.

Lloyd Williams’s vision found sympathetic minds in government circles. The place of folk song in the curriculum acquired particular relevance in Wales against a backdrop of concern that education, which was delivered through the medium of English, was ‘betraying the linguistic, cultural and social needs of Wales’. 50[50] Gareth Elwyn Jones, ‘Wales 1880–1914’, in Trevor Herbert and Gareth Elwyn Jones (eds), <em>Wales 1880</em>–<em>1914</em>, Welsh History and its Sources series (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1988), p. 8. The Liberal Government of 1906–1915 moved early on to create a Welsh Department within the Board of Education, and in 1907 Alfred T. Davies, another close associate of John Herbert Lewis, 51[51] They had started out as partners in a firm of solicitors in Liverpool (see Idwal Jones, <em>Syr Herbert Lewis</em>, p. 17), and were both involved in the administration of education at county level in north east Wales. became its first Permanent Secretary (a post which he held until 1925). In 1913, we find him writing to Mary Davies in the following terms:

I am sorry I cannot be present at the Annual Meeting, to-morrow, of Cymdeithas Alawon Gwerin Cymru [the Welsh Folk-Song Society]… [I]f I may venture on a suggestion it would be to concentrate more effort during the coming year on cultivating Folk-Songs among the children. It is with them that all hope for the perpetuation of these national melodies lies. Unless Welsh Folk-Songs are sung on the hearth, in the school, in the smithy and on the mountain side, as the kine are being brought home, and the children are being nursed, they will not really flourish but only have that exotic existence which is, after all, but the prelude to their ultimate disappearance….

Are the Council quite sure that they have yet done all that is necessary (1) to enable every Head Teacher in Wales to put on the Requisition List for his or her school a thoroughly well-edited and standard edition of the best Welsh Folk-Songs and (2) to enable school teachers, in every county, to learn how these songs should be rendered?… 52[52] National Library of Wales, WFSS/CAGC Correspondence 1905–1939, B1, Ffeil 1, Bundle 1905–1914.

His imagined listening scenarios – ‘on the hearth, in the school, in the smithy and on the mountain side, as the kine are being brought home, and the children are being nursed’ – derive from the same strain of romantic cultural nationalism as Ellis’s vision of music as a ‘force in the making of Britain’. The romanticism is tempered, however – on one level by the practical concern of the civil servant with schoolbook requisition lists and standard editions, but more profoundly by his sense that folk songs were not – or should not be – ‘exotic’ or antiquarian, but retained their relevance to daily life.

‘My mother used to sing us to sleep with that song’: listening to traditional songs

At the risk of over-stretching the point, what the Welsh Folk-Song Society and its supporters often seemed to think they heard in Welsh folk song was as much the voice of the future as the voice of the past. This may not be quite how ‘ordinary listeners’ heard it, and I want finally to look at some of those more instinctive, less conceptualised or less politicised reactions.

In 1923, Grace Gwyneddon Davies (1879–1944), a singer and collector of Welsh folk songs, 53[53] She published two volumes of Anglesey folk songs, <em>Alawon Gwerin Môn</em> (vol. 1 published Caernarfon 1914, new edition published Wrexham 1923, and vol. 2, Wrexham 1924). travelled for three months in the USA and Canada, giving talks about the Society’s work to expatriate Welsh communities in Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, among a number of others. 54[54] Wyn Thomas, <em>Meistres ‘Graianfryn’ a Cherddoriaeth frodorol yng Nghymru</em> (Cymdeithas Alawon Gwerin Cymru, 1999), p. 9. She reported back to her colleagues:

I do not know that the truth of the old adage, Goreu Cymro, Cymro oddicartref [the best Welshman is an expatriate Welshman], ever came home to me more forcibly than during the three months in which my husband and I were touring America… [W]e took the opportunity of meeting our fellow-countrymen at different points on our journey, to tell them of the work of the W.F.S.S., and to let them hear some of our finds. Those meetings will always stand out in my memory as a touching proof of the deep and abiding love of the Welshman for his own country. They were usually opened by the singing of ‘My Country, ‘tis of Thee,’ but they always ended with ‘Hen Wlad fy Nhadau,’ and their loyalty to the one was as unmistakeable as their hiraeth [longing] for the other. Perhaps it was because we carried them right back into the old days. They did not know that my singing of these old songs was going to revive memories of childhood, of loved parents and of localities endeared to them, and those memories moved them over and over again to tears.

They listened with the greatest interest to what we had to say about the songs, and picked up the airs quickly, joining in the singing with a heartiness that added more than a little to the success and homeliness of the meetings…. [The songs] were familiar to many, as one could easily see by the way their faces lit up and their heads moved to the lilt of the song; and after the meeting was over they would come to tell us where they had heard them. ‘I come from Llanrhystyd; my mother used to sing us to sleep with that song;’ or ‘My father sang Dibyn a Dobyn, but he used to say: ‘A ddoi di’r coed? meddai Richie pen Stryd,’ [‘Are you coming to the wood? said Richie pen Stryd’] and not ‘A ddoi di’r coed? meddai cwbl i gyd.’ [‘Are you coming to the wood? said everybody.’] 55[55] National Library of Wales, Kitty Idwal Jones Papers, 15, Welsh Folk-Song Society, Seventeenth Annual Report, June 1924–June 1926. Author’s translations.

Lloyd Williams had inculcated in the Society the belief that folk songs had the power to resonate with the experiences of ordinary people, and Grace Gwyneddon Davies’s account provides valuable evidence of their actual impact. It is, of course, a second-hand account and one could argue that, in any case, an audience of expatriate Welsh people was always likely to respond emotionally to music that took them back to their Welsh childhoods. However, there are some corroborating first-hand accounts that tend to confirm that their reaction was not simply prompted by expatriate sentimentality.

The National History Museum in Cardiff holds an important collection of oral history interviews, conducted largely in the 1960s to capture the memories of people who had been children in Wales at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Many of these focused on traditional music, and the interviewers invariably asked their subjects, ‘Where did you hear this song?’ or ‘Who did you learn it from?’ – and the answers, though almost always brief and factual, often give a glimpse of an emotional reaction, because usually the songs were learned from close relatives.

The following are a brief sample of many similar testimonies. Evan Evans (born 1877, Denbighshire) learned ‘lots’ of carols from his aunt, who learned them from her father, ‘a great carol singer’ (‘carolwr mawr’). Wallis Evans (born 1910, Aberdare) recalled hearing ‘Dydd Llun, Dydd Mawrth, Dydd Mercher’ (‘Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday’), now a standard of Welsh folk song, ‘in Aberdare from my father at home… when I was a small child… about six or seven years old’, (‘yn Aberdâr o ‘Nhad gartref… yn blentyn bach… rhyw chwech neu saith’). (A recording of another interviewee, E. Thomas Evans, singing a version of ‘Dydd Llun, Dydd Mawrth, Dydd Mercher’ can be heard on the Museum’s website, along with a number of other songs recorded in the course of the oral history project.) Jane Owen (born 1879, Port Talbot) remembered her father singing ‘Bore fory coda i’n fore’ (‘Tomorrow morning I will get up early’) to the children ‘when they were little’. Maud Ellen Davies (born 1894, Cardiganshire) recalled ‘hearing Nana singing this when I was a child…in Rhydlewis’ (‘…clywed Mamgu yn ei chanu amser o’n i’n plentyn…yn Rhydlewis’); and David Miles (born 1913, Pembrokeshire) ‘heard my Grandad singing [‘Ceiliog Beti’ (‘Beti’s cockerel’)] … at home when we lived in Croesgoch’ (‘clywa’ ‘Nhadcu yn ei chanu… gartref pan ni’n byw yn Croesgoch’). Arthur Stanley Parry (born 1896, Carmarthenshire) remembered his mother singing the lullaby ‘Hei lwli, babi’, ‘to sing my little sisters to sleep’ (‘i ganu fy chwiorydd bach i gysgu’). Typically, these responses offer a memory of the person and often the place brought to mind by the act of remembering the song. 56[56] St Fagans National History Museum, oral history recordings, tape numbers, in order, 396, 463, 499, 564, 610, 1001. Author’s transcriptions and translations.

One account gives us a more specific and detailed memory. Owen Morgan (born 1887, Anglesey) remembered how his grandmother would sing an ‘action song’ to him, ‘Gyrru, gyrru, gyrru i Gaer’ (‘Drive, drive, drive to Chester’), bouncing him up and down to mimic the rhythm of the horse and cart:

… and of course nana would lift me up and down while singing that one – ‘gyrru, gyrru, gyrru i Gaer’.

(…a wrth gwrs fydda nain ‘n nghodi fi i fyny ag i lawr wrth ganu honna’n te – ‘gyrru, gyrru, gyrru i Gaer.’) 57[57] St Fagans National History Museum, oral history transcripts, tape 69. Author’s translation.

These are, of course, no more than snippets – none of the interviewees elaborates on the emotions and memories these songs evoked – and this points to some of the drawbacks of oral history evidence, and more broadly to the difficulties of finding the evidence of ‘ordinary voices’. The interviews were of course recorded many decades after the remembered events, and memories are patchy and unreliable. Furthermore, like any oral history project, there is an underlying rationale that shapes the interviews and leads to the inclusion of some topics and the exclusion of others: in this case, the collection was created particularly to capture memories of Welsh rural traditions and practices that it was feared would be lost as a consequence of industrialisation. Thus, though the learning of songs and hymns from older relatives features strongly in the interviews, the emphasis is on the words and melodies, and on recording when and in what part of Wales they were sung. The emotional significance of the music per se is not generally pursued with the interviewees. Nonetheless, these memories of children being sung to sleep and grandmothers dancing grandchildren up and down on their laps are surely full of emotional meaning – flashes of insight cast by music into people’s childhood experience.


In the late nineteenth century and the first couple of decades of the twentieth, the propensity for hitching Welsh musical achievement to the wagon of national progress was strong. The first signs can be detected in the often overstated reactions of listeners to Welsh choral and congregational singing, with all it could be said to imply about the social respectability, piety, (musical) literacy and intellectual aspiration of the masses. While choirs and cymanfoedd ganu were to be found all over Wales in both rural and industrial communities, these were singing practices that were crucially linked to industrial expansion and the burgeoning chapel congregations it bred. As such, they were readily linked in people’s perceptions with what was for many (though not all) an optimistic period of economic prosperity and cultural development, which, as Morien put it, justified the world in anticipating ‘in the future great results from this little nation among the mountains’. 58[58] Morien, ‘The South Wales Choir Rehearsal: Aberdare’, <em>Western Mail</em>, 7 July 1873.

Traditional song seems at first glance to be a less easy fit within a discourse about national progress, and it seems doubtful that many of those ‘ordinary listeners’ had conceptualised the songs of their childhoods as part of such a discourse. It is, however, exactly in terms of the connection with family and community, with the human, the emotional and the personal, that John Lloyd Williams understood and articulated the underpinning vitality of traditional music, and its potential to contribute to ‘the upward progress of a country’. Nonetheless, the reactions of ordinary listeners, in their focus on past experience, express something more like a sense of tradition, certainly very distant from the way in which Welsh music was brought into a wider cultural and political discourse about a vision for a nation by the politicians, journalists and scholars. Thus, while the public discourse about music in Wales in this period is clear from, among other sources, newspaper and periodical articles, oral history evidence gives us another set of voices that speak of everyday encounters with music, and in so doing, point to a notable gap between that ‘national conversation’ about music and ‘ordinary’ people’s personal experience of it.

Select bibliography

Graves, Alfred Perceval. ‘Folk Song: An address delivered before the Cymmrodorion Section of the Welsh National Eisteddfod of 1906 at Carnarvon, and brought up to date’, in Irish Literary and Musical Studies. London: Elkin Matthews, 1913, pp. 175–190.

Herbert, Trevor, and Jones, Gareth Elwyn (eds). People and Protest: Wales 18151880, Welsh History and its Sources series. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1988.

Herbert, Trevor, and Jones, Gareth Elwyn (eds). Wales 18801914, Welsh History and its Sources series. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1988.

James, E. Wyn. ‘An “English” Lady among Welsh Folk: Ruth Herbert Lewis and the Welsh Folk-Song Society’, in Ian Russell and David Atkinson (eds), Folk-Song: Tradition, Revival, and Re-Creation. Aberdeen: The Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen, 2004, pp. 266–283,, accessed 12 February 2019.

Jones, Kitty Idwal. ‘Adventures in Folk-Song Collecting’, Welsh Music/Cerddoriaeth Cymru, 5/5, Spring/Gwanwyn 1977, pp. 35–52.

Kinney, Phyllis. Welsh Traditional Music. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011.

Morgan, Kenneth O. Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 18801980. New York: Oxford University Press; Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1981.

Sharp, Cecil. English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions. London: Simpkin & Co., Ltd; Novello & Co., Ltd; Taunton: Barnicott & Pearce, Athenaeum Press, 1907.

Williams, John Lloyd. ‘The History of the Welsh Folk-Song Society’, Journal of the Welsh Folk-Song Society, 3/2 (1934), pp. 89–102 and 146–157.

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View the online publication details 59[59] <em>The Experience of Listening to Music: Methodologies, Identities, Histories</em> has been Open Access funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), grant AH/J013986/1, The collection has been peer reviewed, edited by David Rowland and Helen Barlow, and subsequently prepared for online publication by the Knowledge Media Institute (KMi) of The Open University. Published by: The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA.  Copyright © The Open University. First published: July 2019. ISBN: 9781473028647. PDFs displaying some of the content from the online collection are available from <a href=""></a> You can experience the online publication as it was originally designed at <a href=""></a> View copyright information relating to the publication here: <a href=""></a> 

Download: Progress and tradition: listening to the singing of the Welsh c.1870 to c.1920

The historical influence of white listeners’ aural perspectives on African American hollers

Lorenzo Vanelli

Lorenzo Vanelli is a PhD student at the University of Bologna, Italy. His research focuses on the African American holler tradition in the Jim Crow era, in order to propose a definition of the techniques and complexities of the genre while accounting for the opacity of the available resources. In 2016 and 2017 he worked as a researcher in Morocco on Gnawa music, as part of the DRUM project, co-ordinated by Professor Domenico Staiti. In 2018 he worked as a visiting scholar at the University of Columbia, New York, on the historical and contemporary relationships between music and the US prison system.


The history of the documentation of African American hollers, a genre of songs used until the 1960s, comprises complex and unbalanced power relationships between performers and listeners. It is possible to outline some information about these relationships by studying the documentation produced by the listeners, comprising their personal account of the situation that led to the listening experience itself. These relationships shaped the first accounts of the genre, which in turn informed the projects that later researchers developed to record these holler traditions, and supported narratives about the songs and performers. The outcome was that white listeners’ aural perspectives on African American hollers produced generic and problematic discussions and limited diversity in the archived materials, thus hindering our ability today to look back and try to challenge the narratives on the genre.


Hollers were a genre of solo-singing renditions of short poetic compositions, sung only by African American men and women in the south of the United States until the middle of the last century. Two examples which demonstrate in their differences of style and content how wide the spectrum of hollers can be are Henry Ratcliff, (Look for me in) Louisiana (1959), 60[60] Alan Lomax Archives, NYC, catalogued as T883, Track 8. and Stewart W.D. ‘Bama’, Levee camp Holler (1947). 61[61] Alan Lomax Archives, NYC, catalogued as T803, Track 3. (Many more recordings of hollers, along with their reference information, are freely available on the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) website.) 62[62] All three links in this section to the ACE website were last accessed on 6 April 2019. Musicologists have mainly considered these songs as examples of musical antecedents of the blues or suggested comparisons with African music practices. None of the hypotheses proposed on the subject have been proved yet: researchers documented hollers only after the birth of the blues, 63[63] The currently available documentation on hollers was produced through different means and in different formats: through the production of an audio recording, through lyrics transcription in notation, by taking some personal notes about the interaction with the singers, by taking pictures of the singers, or a combination of these methods. and the opacity of information (or lack thereof) about African Americans’ private or secular music practices during slavery makes it impossible to trace their legacy with precision to Africa. A way to address the subject could be to go through comparative studies between hollers and specific musical traditions from areas involved in the slave trade in Africa, but we would still first need a deeper understanding of how hollers were composed. What techniques did the singers apply? How did the techniques complement each other? What kind of music materials were used and/or produced in the process? Until we achieve a step forward in the musical analysis of the holler genre per se, any kind of comparative discourse is based on nothing more than supposition.

Today, post-modern musicological perspectives on hollers have gone as far as viewing them not as a genre that we could distinguish from others based on a precise definition, but as a generic sum of disconnected practices, from which musicians ‘borrowed’ techniques to enhance their style. The very existence of a genre is questioned without even starting a deeper discussion about the documentation sources.

These perspectives (the discussions about their relation to Africa or to the blues, and the dismissal of hollers as a genre) derive from the institutionalisation of observations made by white listeners and are based on faulty listening practices. Some of the earliest imperfect listening experiences of hollers became canonical after scholars repeatedly quoted them to support their discourse on African American music. These listening experiences then also became preconceptions that guided the hands of the researchers who collected documentation on hollers. This, in turn, reinforced the preconceptions themselves and negatively affected our ability (or capability) to open a proper discussion on the matter. 64[64] My argument takes inspiration from the work of critical race studies scholars, including Aaron N. Oforlea, Shobana Shankar, Tamara Lizette Brown and Baruti N. Kopano among others, who have shed light on the misrepresentation of African Americans’ cultural production in the work of white academics.

One exemplar case: the legacy of Charles Peabody’s observations in 1903

One of the most quoted earlier sources referenced in hollers literature is a brief article written by Charles Peabody in 1903. A professional archaeologist, during the first years of the century Peabody was working on an excavation project of a mound in Coahoma Country, in the northern region of Mississippi, with the aid of local African American workers who dug up the terrain and moved debris from the site with mules and carts. Although busy in their archaeological work, Peabody and his fellow researchers took some interest in the work and leisure songs of ‘the true sons of the torrid zones’ as they ‘had some opportunity to observe the Negroes and their way at close range.’65[65] Peabody, 1903, p. 148. In the course of his amused observations, the author jotted down ‘notes, suggestions for future study in classification, and incidents of interest in the recollecting, possibly in the telling’ of the African American workers’ songs. Peabody classified the music he heard under:

three heads: the songs sung by our men when at work digging or wheeling on the mound, unaccompanied; the songs of the same men at quarters or on the march, with guitar accompaniment; and the songs, unaccompanied, of the indigenous Negroes, – indigenous opposed to our men imported from Clarksdale, fifteen miles distant. 66[66] Peabody, 1903, p. 148.

The part of the article that is most quoted in relation to hollers is a passage where Peabody gives us information regarding the ‘autochthonous music’:

Our best model for the study of this was a diligent Negro living near called by our men ‘Five Dollars’ (suggestive of craps), and by us ‘Haman’s Man,’ from his persistent following from sunrise to sunset of the mule of that name. 67[67] Peabody, 1903 p. 151.

Passing over the racist and objectifying overtones in Peabody’s use of language, the description of Five Dollars’ music has been quoted as direct and reliable information about holler practices. Although he clarified that it was ‘hard to give an exact account’ of the intricacies of the music, Peabody affirmed that:

directions intoned to [the mule] melted into strains of apparently genuine African music, sometimes with words, sometimes without. Long phrases there were without apparent measured rhythm, singularly hard to copy in notes. When such sung by him and by others could be reduced to form, a few motives were made to appear, and these copied out were usually quite simple, based for the most part on the major or minor triad. 68[68] Peabody, 1903, p. 151.

After some samples of those ‘hymns’ transcribed in notation, he added:

the best single recollection I have of this music is one evening when a negress was singing her baby to sleep in her cabin just above our tents. [..] Her song was to me quite impossible to copy, weird in interval and strange in rhythm, peculiarly beautiful. 69[69] Peabody, 1903, p. 152.

Here we have, in one single take, and in the first published and most quoted listening experience of hollers, all the problems that afflicted the scholarly view on the subject. The author suggests a generic reference to Africa, recognises his inability to give an account of the complex time, intonation and structural formulas used to control the performance, attempts nevertheless to reduce that complexity to notated transcription, and ends up exoticising the singers. Above all, the author is convinced of being able to penetrate African Americans’ opaque expression during the Jim Crow Years 70[70] The Jim Crow Era goes approximately from the Civil War, when slavery was abolished, to the period after the Second World War, when the Civil Rights movements were able to put an end to segregation. This period was characterised by the construction of a layered system of racist and unequal laws that greatly disfavoured African Americans and promoted or permitted physical and psychological violence against them. This historical period is named after Jim Crow, a fictional character at the centre of many minstrel show stories and songs, and characterised as the sum of many of the racist assumptions against African Americans. For more information on the complexities of this period, a good starting point is Blackmon (2008). by ‘observation’, and of his entitlement to represent it.

The legacy of this short article is evident in the scholarly view on the hollers. 71[71] For more information, see Vanelli, 2018. One example of this legacy can be read in the way Alan Lomax wrote, while redacting a few pages as a reference manual for the researchers who would accompany him in the 1941 and 1942 field recording trip with Fisk University: 72[72] The vademecum prepared by Lomax for the Fisk University researchers can be found in the <i style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Fisk University Mississippi Delta Collection</i>, folder 2, archived at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.


2. Work Songs

a. rhythmic songs of the road gang, chain gang from Parchman [prison], etc.

b. rhythmic songs of the older generation such as paddling, ax cutting, cotton picking, corn husking, etc.

c. railroad section gang, and extra gang songs.

d. Levee camp songs, corn songs, mule-skinning songs, etc. (These songs are generally in the form of moans, are very free rhythmically, as opposed to the above)

At the time hollers were not referred to by one single word, and taken broadly they are referred to in the point (d). As we can see, even if Alan Lomax had heard hollers before (as he surely did when he accompanied his father, the folklorist John Lomax, during a research trip to the southern states in 1939), he still categorized them as rhythmically free, which is technically a non-definition that stems from the inability of the researcher to give an account of the complex rhythm used to structure the flow of hollers. This, in turn, reflects the continuity with Peabody’s observations: they were both putting their own categorizing perspective on the genre without having understood it.

Another more recent and direct example of how Peabody’s article became well known in the field of African American music studies can be found in Africa and the Blues by Gerhard Kubik:

[..] secular song forms, hollers and lullabies ‘weird in intervals and strange in rhythm’ (as stated by Harvard archaeologist Charles Peabody in 1903), whose melodic materials eventually contributed to the genesis of the blues. 73[73] Kubik, 1999, p. 103.

Interestingly enough, it seems that the scholars who referred to this article as documentation on hollers failed to notice the part where the author gave some real and reliable information on a song form that the singers themselves will later define as part of the holler genre. In the article (Peabody, 1903, p. 149) the author goes on a long digression on the ‘distichs and improvisations in rhythm more or less phrased sung to an intoning more or less approaching melody’. The evident inability of the author to get the pulse of the music he was listening to is again evident, but the lyrics of the extemporaneous renditions of short poetic forms quoted here by Peabody return often in later documentation on hollers, and their poetic structure suggests closeness, if not identity, with the holler tradition. It should not be particularly surprising that later scholars blatantly missed this passage, as the analysis of hollers has relied mainly on bibliographical references rather than on the study of the available documentation, where this connection would become clear.

An ‘accurate picture’ of African American folklore

A number of folklorists combed the southern states between the two world wars and up until the sixties, looking for traditional music forms to record and archive. Howard Odum in the 1910s, Lawrence Gellert from the twenties to the forties, David Cohn in the twenties, John Lomax until the end of the thirties, his son Alan taking up after him, Herbert Halpert in the thirties, Harry Oster and Harold Courlander in the fifties and Bruce Jackson in the sixties: with different methods but similar objectives, all of these researchers collected a wealth of documentation on African American music, including hollers. Their work and the archived materials they produced stand today as both monumental and problematic. Monumental, because the amount and variety of music samples they collected is a testament to the depth and complexity of the history of African American music. Problematic, because the methods and epistemologies that guided their research often failed to recognise the layers of opacity that marked negotiations across the race lines in the segregated Jim Crow south. These white researchers often worked with the singers as if complete and objective understanding was achievable, where instead the conditions of the exchange hindered both the capacity of the singers to expose their perspective, and the ability of the interviewers to grasp it. 74[74] On this subject see, for example, Oforlea, 2012.

One of the many facets of this unbalanced negotiation between white researchers and African American singers was the ability of the former to choose when, where and what to document as relevant about the music practices of the latter. One of the things that all these research projects have in common is that they were at least partially conducted inside southern prisons. The motivation for looking for folklore materials inside institutions of violent oppression was first expressed by Odum (1926, pp. 7173), who wrote:

if one wishes to obtain anything like an accurate picture of the workaday Negro he will surely find his best setting in the chain gang, prison, or in the situation of the ever-fleeing fugitive [..] For these prison and road songs, policeman and sheriff epics, jail and chain gang ballads constitute an eloquent cross-section of the whole field of Negro songs.

This quote clearly demonstrates how the researchers were working towards an impossibly objective description of hollers. Their objectifying approach is explicit in the choice of words about the ‘accurate picture’ and the ‘eloquent cross-section’, and hints at the reason behind the researchers’ decision to look for music inside prisons: to gain access to what they saw as untapped treasure troves of folklore classics.

On top of the choice of location for the research, once in contact with the singers, the politics that guided the hands of the researchers in choosing when to turn on the recording machine were based on their take on what they believed to be representative of the subject of music folklore. From this point of view, the composition and variety of the archived materials is tied to the selectiveness of their research practices, based on their pre-formed conceptualisation of the materials.

An important source of information on the subject is the Southern Recording Trip Fieldnotes, 75[75] The <i style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Southern Recording Trip Fieldnotes</i> are freely accessible on the website of the Library of Congress, at the address (last consulted 30 September 2018), <span class="MsoHyperlink"><a href=""></a></span> written by John Lomax and colleagues during their 1939 research in the southern states. These field notes tell the story of the difficulties of the research, the complexities of the relationship between the researchers, the singers, and the institutions that supported or limited the development of the research project, and also of the choices that they had to make during the selection and collection of folklore documentation in general, and hollers in particular. The Fieldnotes are then a fundamental document on the methodology of the researcher and his associates, containing summaries of the daily activities, references to places visited, to the individuals encountered, the settings behind the recordings, and the exchanges with the singers. They are also an extremely valuable source of information on hollers recordings, as Lomax has been the researcher who recorded the highest number of this genre of songs.

John Lomax’s Fieldnotes: choosy habits, power relationships, opaque negotiations

Reading the Fieldnotes, two elements stand out and help us get a better sense of the research dynamics that informed the production of John Lomax’s collection.

The first one is the selectiveness applied by Lomax. He was strictly interested in folkloric materials: the older, the better. He clearly communicated it with his interlocutors:

[April 1517, West Columbia and Clemens State Farm, Brazoria Country, Texas]: After suggestions from Mr. Lomax as to what kind of music he wished to record, musicians and singers volunteered or were pushed forward by their companions

[April 23, Ramsey State Farm, Otey, Texas]: This trip was fruitless. The old crowd had scattered, the new boys sang less fewer of the old songs and in performance imitated radio artists. We did not set up the machine. We found about the same situation in Darrington Farm some thirty miles away, few singers and these not interested in old songs or the old manner of singing.

[..] Iron Head broke into a group’s singing of some popular music-hall ditty, ‘No he don’t want that kind o’ stuff. This kindly what he’s after’, and he started off on an old-time spiritual.

[May 2021, Cummins State Farm, near Varner, Arkansas]: Through the bars, Mr. Lomax explained to the boys the purpose of his trip and what kind of songs he wished to record. He asked for volunteers. After several rejections, a big fellow timidly offered a children’s song, which proved good enough to start on anyway.

[..] a big fellow, one of the quartet who had sung a lined hymn, offered to sing John Henry hesitatingly ‘I don’t reckon you’d want John Henry, would you? I guess you already got that.’ Mr. Lomax asked for a sample of his version; this head-rider, Arthur Bell, had sung only three lines [..] when Mr. Lomax called excitedly, ‘Wait there! Get you a hammer ready, and start back at the beginning.’ Obediently and quietly, Arthur picked up a ‘billy’, [..] tried it out on the barrack bars, nodded, and at Mr. Lomax’s ‘Ready’, started in again [..] an interesting version of John Henry, which appears in full in Our Singing Country.

[May 2325, State Farms, Parchman, Mississippi]: They were all more willing, but they had very few interesting songs of which we did not already have more interesting versions.

These notes show how John Lomax operated in the field by selecting the materials to record based on his decision of whether or not they fitted his idea of ‘old’ materials. The facts that he was an experienced researcher with years of practice in the field, and that producing a recording was a complicated and taxing task, do not change the results: the composition of the content of the archive illuminates Lomax’s own projection on the subjects, but does not coincide with the totality of expressive traditions he encountered. It is also important to note how the musicians he interviewed reacted to the researcher’s disposition, sometimes by themselves selecting what to offer for recording to appeal to Lomax’s interests. This relationship created a double layer of opacity in the materials produced: one constructed by the researcher’s gaze, which rested only on the objects that interested him, and the other put up by the singers, who offered to that gaze only a portion of their knowledge.

The Fieldnotes give us also an idea of how the relationships with the authorities shaped the context of Lomax’s research. John Lomax was already a well-known researcher in the field of music folklore when he embarked on the ’39 trip: just to give an example, President Theodore Roosevelt himself had only words of praise for him when he wrote the introduction to his book Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads from 1910. When he embarked on the research trip, he was backed up by the Library of Congress, commissioning the recordings for the archives, and had political contacts all over the south. Lomax also clearly benefitted from being a white man from Texas, as shown in his ability to have pleasant exchanges with authorities and move without many constraints through the southern states at the height of the Jim Crow era:

[May 2021, Cummins State Farm, near Varner, Arkansas]: Mr. Lomax’s conference with the office was only long enough to explain his mission, and present his letter of introduction from the Governor of Texas, get permission to proceed and get necessary information about the location of camps and the names of some of the captains. Captain Acklin, who, it seems was in general charge of the Negro farm workers, offered us a bed for the night and breakfast. We went at once to Camp #6, [..] There we found Captain Allen in charge, who [..] recognized Mr. Lomax at once. Cap’n Allen had formerly been in charge of a camp near Little Rock where Mr. Lomax had recorded previously. [..] On this occasion Captain Allen seemed glad to see somebody from Texas and his family also seemed glad of a diversion.

[May 21, Cummins State Farm Negro Women’s Camp]: After lunch in the home of Captain Miller, [..] we returned to Camp #1 [..] Midafternoon we packed up to move on; finding Supt. Reed at home, we received his permission to interview the Negro women who were housed in the rear of the superintendent’s residence under the supervision of Mrs. Reed.

[May 22 State Farm, Camp #9, near Arkansas City, Arkansas]: Captain Burt Clayton, in charge of the camp and his wife were very gracious, inviting us to dinner and extending the noon rest period so that the boys might sing for Mr. Lomax.

The benefits granted to Lomax by his skin colour and southern upbringing had the secondary effect of automatically building a stronger connection between him and the authorities, which had repercussions on how the research was framed and conducted. The relationship with the authorities did not stop at the request of permission to interview the prisoners or at the eventual security and logistics support: many ‘captains’ 76[76] In this context ‘captain’ and ‘boss’ were the informal titles given to the guards and supervisors by the singers. It should be noted that the use of these generic words instead of identifiable names when referring to the guards was one of the methods that the singers could resort to when they wanted to avoiding being held accountable for what they sung. participated actively by pointing out camps 77[77] In US prisons the population is normally split into different areas or buildings, which in the case of State Farms were often called ‘camps’. or specific individuals whom the researcher should interview for songs, and were often present during the recording sessions:

[April 23, Ramsey State Farm, Otey, Texas]: we drove to the Central State Farm near Sugarland. The Captain had a good dinner served us and assisted Mr. Lomax in trying to locate singers. [..] Our next stop was at Camp Four of the Ramsey State Farm [..] With the help of the Captain and some of his guards we located some singers, who were admitted one by one or by small groups into a small office where the recording machine was set up. One of these groups included Columbus Christopher, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, who sang for us under guard, behind three sets of locks.

[May 2021, Cummins State Farm, near Varner, Arkansas]: After a bountiful supper we, the Lomaxes, the Allens and some guests adjourned to the Negro barracks. By the aid of kerosene lamps and flash-lights we set up the machine. [..]The Captain had been generous in letting us stay past nine o’clock. It was Saturday night and the boys could catch up with their sleep the next day.

[May 21, Cummins State Farm, Camp #1, Verner, Arkansas]: Sunday, we talked to Captain Miller who had charge of the Negro barracks of Camp #1 nearby. Trusties sat on guard with guns ready in case of a break. Other trusties helped get the men together. [..]The boys seemed fond of their immediate supervisor, Captain Miller, and requested that we let him have a six-inch record of their songs of his choosing. The sons of Capt. Acklin and of Capt. Miller were interested spectators.

We have no way to assess to what extent the intervention or physical presence of the authorities in charge of the very institutions responsible for the imprisonment of the singers influenced the negotiation that occurred during the recordings. Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that the impact was relevant. The singers might have actively refrained from singing about certain topics, as all the parties involved knew that the recordings would then go to Washington D.C. to be archived as a lasting representation of the prison institution. At the same time, when the authorities referred individuals or groups to the researchers, they automatically obliged them to record something. Some of the singers were physically brought to Lomax in chains. The singers were then stuck in a tight spot, between the risk of being held accountable for what they sung, and the inability to withdraw from singing. No wonder then that Lomax sometimes thought that the ‘Singers were not plentiful or enthusiastic’. 78[78] From <em>Fieldnotes</em>, May 23<em>–</em>25, State Farms, Parchman, Mississippi.

From this point of view, even if Lomax’s connections helped him get around and make contact with the singers, at the same time they hindered the ability of the musicians to have a meaningful interaction with him. It should come as no surprise then that, even after having repeatedly visited a number of southern prisons, parts of a system that Blackmon defined as ‘Slavery by another name’ (2008), Lomax came back with the conviction that ‘no instance of physical brutality in all my experiences have come under my personal notice’, except for the incident that, to be fair, he condemned, where the singers were brought to him for the interview chained together with others.79[79] From the <i style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Letter to the Governor Burnet R. Maybank</i>, contained in the <i style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Fieldnotes</i>

The politics of archived knowledge

The case of the research by John Lomax tells us something about the way our understanding of spirituals, worksongs and hollers is shaped by the politics that informed the production of the documentation. On those recordings subsequent narratives, musicological and non-musicological, were and are built. None of the complexities of the exchange that happened between the researcher and the singers is evident in the recording. Still, they are there: in the opacity of the content, and in the way the documents, although produced in a complicated context of unequal negotiation, are meant to represent the singers and their art.

The documentation carries the burden of the Jim Crow context in the relationship of power that presided over its creation, but also of Lomax’s listening habits. He was ultimately the one who decided whether to record a song, and he did so by relying on his experience. In the act of choosing what was more appropriate to be documented, he unwittingly operated like a censor. The effects of this selectiveness transferred over to the composition of the archived materials, and from there to the academic studies that relied on that documentation as sources for proposing narratives on African American music.

In relation to the study of the hollers genre, this had two major impacts. The first is about the variety of the songs collected. From the fragments of information in the Fieldnotes we get to know that Lomax preferred not to record a song twice unless there were major changes in the lyrics. But what if there were major changes in the music techniques implied? Or even minor changes? The elaboration of the details of a performance is one of the most important elements in popular music, as it shows the singer’s competences and preferences, while pointing out the eventual spaces for idiolect expression within a recognisable tradition. In my research on the subject I was able to locate 112 recordings of hollers, and they are all different: no second version of the same one by another singer.

In a similar way, the preference of the researchers to collect only materials previously unrecorded limited the opportunity to have different takes of the same song by the same singer. Of the 112 hollers recordings that I located, only eight of them have been recorded in more than one version. This means that for the other 104 we only have access to one, very brief sample (the average duration of hollers recordings is around two minutes), thus limiting our ability to get deeper into the analysis of the music techniques used by the singers.

The second fundamental element is a matter of the politics of representation. Even if the connection has never been explained in full detail, scholars referred to the holler genre, alongside worksongs and spirituals, as some of the components that gave birth to the blues, one of the most well-known American music genres worldwide. By force of iterated references, hollers achieved a relative relevance in the history of the development of African American music. As I was collecting and analysing the available recordings to suggest a better description of the technical features of the genre, the opacity of the documentation and the story of how the recordings were produced constantly reminded me of the issues that could arise from scholarly mis-representation. If the objective of my work was to bring back into focus the hollers’ singers and the complexity of their art, the ideal result would be that their names could finally achieve some deserved level of recognition for the historical relevance of their cultural production.

After two years of research on the subject I started to notice something odd about the materials that I had found: all the singers were men. Then I stumbled across a recording of a holler by Mattie May Thomas, an African American woman. I believe that the process of how I came to realise the existence of women’s hollers is quite telling in itself. At that point in my research, I had already consulted the archives for recordings directly referenced, tagged or named as hollers. This had given me some numerically relevant results, but no sign of holler practices by women. The recording I found was instead in a randomly generated compilation of ‘prison blues songs’ on Spotify, and the song Dangerous Blues by Mattie May Thomas, 80[80] The recording was made in 1939 in Parchman Farm by John Lomax and is archived at the Library of Congress as AFS 3082 A3. was clearly a holler. By following the categorisation system used by others to archive materials I had missed recordings that had not been archived as hollers because they weren’t recognised as part of the genre. After all, a proper definition of what a holler is has yet to be fully discussed.

In an article from 2013 Shobana Shankar wrote:

The fact that these women have remained largely invisible, despite their public performances for men who became eminent figures in musicology, suggests a great deal about layers of inequality and silences – racial and gendered – in the very projects that aimed to reveal and record the Delta Blues. 81[81] Shankar, 2013, p. 184.

This newfound notion prompted me to look back in the archives, this time listening one by one to all the recordings produced in those years by the researchers. 82[82] The new streaming techniques to access recorded materials implemented by the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress made this operation incredibly fast and effective, and I am grateful for the Center’s support of my inquiry. The results were relevant: the number of hollers recordings I could refer to became three times bigger, and I started to find other documents by African American women.

I believe that the problem in this case was that when the documentation was archived, the hollers genre was defined as something related to the origins of the blues, and the listening habits of the archivists prompted them to place the women’s production in the generic category of ‘blues’ recordings, failing to recognise them as examples of a distinct music form. Again, in the words of Shankar (2013, p. 184), ‘Scholars of music understand well the gendering of blues as masculine’, and this led to the failure to recognise the women’s production as samples of a genre that was thought of as being at the origins of the blues.

My second look at the archived materials also gave two other relevant results. The first result is about the complexity of the women’s musical production. As I was working on an interpretation of the techniques and features that could distinguish hollers production from contiguous music forms, I was well aware that the classification I was going to suggest, if taken in a normative way, could prompt subjective distinctions between practices that were instead fluidly interconnected. For this reason I constantly strove to highlight the recordings that would fall on the borders of my own definition: songs where the singers expressed lyrical content forms and used techniques mainly found in hollers, but mixed and matched materials and methods from other genres too. These recordings are extremely valuable because they demonstrate the vitality of the genre and the ability of the singers to find new and different uses for hollers techniques.

Quite tellingly, the number of recordings by African American women that fell on the borders of the classification I was proposing outnumbered by three to one those that my definition would outline as hollers in a more strict and traditional sense, leading me to agree with Shankar’s observation (2013, p. 198) that in ‘Parchman women’s music [..] diversity defied easy simplification’. This is even acknowledged in John Lomax’s Fieldnotes:

[May 21, Cummins State Farm, Negro Women’s Camp]: Some of the songs offered, we felt sure, came from the radio or from the phonograph, but in most cases these girls had changed them and improvised them to suit their own fancy and to make them their own.

The second result of my deeper look at the archived materials was in terms of the different proportion of hollers recordings by women and by men. Of the 112 documents of hollers that represent the genre in its stricter sense, only six are from women. 83[83] In this count I am considering multiple versions of the same holler as one item.

This proportion of course is not caused by women’s inability to produce hollers. On the contrary, the most complex holler recording I found was by a woman, Bessie Tucker, who in 1928 and 1929 recorded in various sessions a number of songs which are all based on the same music structure, with the same materials and techniques, but different lyrical subjects. If we consider these recordings as one single holler conjugated into different versions to express different topics, Tucker’s holler is three times longer than the second longest recording of a holler that I found, and 21 times the average duration of the other recordings.

So why is the number of documents by women so thin? I believe the answer to lie in the perspectives that guided the researchers to look for folklore materials mainly inside prisons and levee camps. The prison population in the southern states was for the greatest part composed of men:

The biennial prison report for 1935 noted that the prison’s entire population nearly turned completely over every two years. Out of nearly 3,500 prisoners at Parchman in 1935, just 26 were women. During the Depression years, the women prisoners numbered between 20 and 60, a fraction of the total, which rose from about 3,000 to as many as 6,000. 84[84] Shankar, 2013, p. 188.

In the context of these figures, the proportion of six to 106 hollers by women and men is a few times higher than that of the proportion of men to women in the prison population. If we take into account also the number of documents that fall on the borders of the genre, women were able to produce proportionally much more documentation than men about the holler genre. But, because the researchers focused mainly on the prison context, where men vastly outnumbered women, or, as Shankar expressively puts it (2013, p. 198), because of the ‘love affair that had emerged between the down-and-out male prisoner and the musicologists’, the composition of the archives regarding the hollers genre suffers in diversity, greatly limiting our ability today to properly assess women’s contribution to the history of African American music.


Holler literature has suffered from the continuous reference to earlier listening experiences that were not based on, or expressed with, scientifically acceptable methods. The repeated reference to these experiences reinforced their value in the academic field, until they became canonical as part of the accepted view of the genre’s forms and practices, even against the evidences of later holler direct documentation.

These perspectives also had an influence in shaping the aural expectations of the researchers who produced documentation on hollers, guiding their choices in the selection of the materials as well as in the choice of the places to look for this and other traditional genres. As the reports from John Lomax’s Fieldnotes show, the political, social and historical context within which the researchers worked had a vast impact on the unbalanced negotiation between them and the singers whose music production they wanted to portray with their research. These reports, detailing the issues of power relationships and suggesting the layers of opacity in the singers’ performances, give us fundamental information to interpret how the researchers came to experience what the singers decided to offer them when they were obliged to, and what they decided to take away from it. This information also make us aware of how these power relationships continued to influence the narratives around the holler genre, the singers, and the history of African American music in general.

Select bibliography

Blackmon, Douglas. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War Two. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

Kubik, Gerhard. Africa and the Blues. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

Lomax, John. Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads. New York: Sturgis & Walton, 1910.

Odum, Howard Washington. Negro Workaday Songs. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1926.

Oforlea, Aaron. ‘[Un]veiling the White Gaze: Revealing Self and Other in The Land Where the Blues Began’, Western Journal of Black Studies, 36(4), 2012.

Peabody, Charles. ‘Notes on Negro Music’, Journal of American Folk-lore, 16, 1903.

Shankar, Shobana. ‘Parchman Women Write the Blues? What Became of Black Women’s Prison Music in Mississippi in the 1930s’, American Music, 31(2), 2013.

Vanelli, Lorenzo. ‘Between the Blues and Africa: transformation of narratives about African-American Hollers’, Sound Ethnographies, 1(1), 2018.

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View the online publication details 85[85] <em>The Experience of Listening to Music: Methodologies, Identities, Histories</em> has been Open Access funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), grant AH/J013986/1, The collection has been peer reviewed, edited by David Rowland and Helen Barlow, and subsequently prepared for online publication by the Knowledge Media Institute (KMi) of The Open University. Published by: The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA.  Copyright © The Open University. First published: July 2019. ISBN: 9781473028647. PDFs displaying some of the content from the online collection are available from <a href=""></a> You can experience the online publication as it was originally designed at <a href=""></a> View copyright information relating to the publication here: <a href=""></a> 

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