Critical Musicology Journal

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Beyond The Transatlantic Model: A Look at Popular Music as if Small Societies Mattered

Meic Llewellyn


1: Histories

Early attempts to understand popular music concentrated almost exclusively on the American scene. For Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, European-born Marxists whose engagement with this subject began in the 1940s, the hits of Tin Pan Alley demanded analysis as part of the cultural hegemony achieved by the ruling classes, through the manipulation of meaning in all the rapidly developing forms of mass communication (Adorno, 1941, 1948, 1976; Benjamin, 1977). The primacy of American forms on radio and record at this time was pronounced, but it seems unfortunate nevertheless that Adorno, in particular, concentrated his gaze exclusively on the most commercial forms of mainstream pop, and made little effort to consider counter-cultural developments even within the USA, such as blues, jazz and gospel. Although he was writing into the sixties, the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll and the proliferation of forms that it gave rise to seem not to have affected him, nor did he pay any attention to the rapid development of radically different popular musics outside the USA, such as Calypso, for example, in Trinidad, or the influential dance musics of Latin America. The rigorous cutting edge of Western Marxist analysis, the austerity and clarity of its vision, and the new framework it offered in understanding the control and manipulation of meaning in advanced capitalist societies still has much to offer, but the tendency to regard popular music as an exclusively American form, and as monolithic and undifferentiated, was already being established.

Despite Adorno’s description of so-called high and low culture as ‘torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they no longer add up’ (Bloch et al, 1977, p.123), his virtual deification of Beethoven and his perception of inaccessible avant-garde artists such as Schoenberg as the only modern musicians able to frame oppositional statements (Adorno, 1973, p.28) reveal the elitist terms of cultural reference he brought to his analysis. Ironically, there are times when his sweeping rejection of mass culture brings him close to the Americophobic stance of elitist, canonist, European writers like Leavis and Holbrook (1941, p.301-325). Walter Benjamin, more open to the creative potential of the new technologies, drew attention to the potential of mass communications to drive forms and set agendas, and to alter our perceptions and cultural expectations (Benjamin, 1935). He described the alienation and openness to manipulation, both of performers and mass audiences in advanced urban economies, but his emphasis on the raw power of commercial and technological forces within the centres of consumer capitalism tended to obscure the opportunities that existed elsewhere for autonomy, negotiation and dissent, and to marginalise different equations elsewhere.

For Greil Marcus (1975) and Peter Guralnik (1971 & 1992), whose criticism grew out of their own love of and close involvement in the exploding rhythm ‘n’ blues and rock ‘n’ roll scenes of East-Coast USA in the early sixties, their own scene was ‘where it was at’, and it must have seemed natural to concentrate their analysis on the excitement and turbulence around them, but the result was once again to marginalise contemporary developments in Europe, for example, or the Caribbean. The ‘retribalisation’ of Marshall McLuhan’s global village (McLuhan, 1989), with its immediacy of contact and exchange and its shared subjectivities, implies a homogeneous culture and common language; presumably, the contraction of the globe through electronic communications will have shrunk distinct smaller societies into oblivion. This implicit assumption is understated, but then as Russell Ferguson notes, ‘in our society dominant discourse never tries to speak its own name. Its authority is based on the absence of the various groups defined as “other”... and routinely denied power’ (Ferguson, 1990, p.11).  All too often, though, even current approaches to popular music take little or no account of its roles in cultures other than the Anglo-American, and assume that statements about what is increasingly (and in my view dangerously) defined as the global can be applied to the local, in the lack of ‘any overt acknowledgement of the specificity of the dominant culture, which is simply assumed to be the all-encompassing norm. This is the basis of its power’ (ibid.).

Simon Frith, in critiquing what he sees as a misleadingly Romantic tendency in Guralnik, asserts that rock music is not ‘a folk or community music of teenagers and youths, but a popular leisure activity provided for them’.  He also maintains that suggestions of commonality between performers and audiences are an illusion, as successful rock musicians ‘enjoy highly artificial life styles and production situations’ and are ‘detached from the class backgrounds of their fans’. Further, he maintains that rock functions essentially as an entertainment industry, with standard capitalist forms of labour, investment and returns (Frith, 1982, pp.8 & 83). This approach has been supported by Karl Negus, who has argued from research in the USA that smaller and nominally ‘independent’ record labels are increasingly and inextricably linked into the organisational patterns and the objectives of the majors (Negus, 1992, pp.16-18) and by Miege and Garnham who insist on an analysis of ‘cultural products’ as ‘high risk commodities’, which their producers seek to exploit as rapidly and ruthlessly as possible, reducing risks of any kind, even when this means the rejection of potentially valuable and novel talent and material (Garnham, 1990, p.161).

Even within the context of ‘transatlantic rock’, some of these statements seem dangerously sweeping, creating binary oppositions out of continua. In my own experience of concerts of popular anarchist and traveller bands such as The New Model Army and The Levellers in Britain, the areas of commonality were extensive, and evidenced in the writing of Jools and Justin as in the assumptions and feelings of their audiences. Applied to the situation in Welsh-speaking Wales, a society whose popular music I propose to use here as an example of small societies in general whose musical forms and practices may be different to those identified in ‘The Transatlantic Model’, these assertions are not only incorrect, they are inappropriate. I use the phrases ‘Welsh-speaking Wales’ or ‘y Fro Gymraeg’ to denote those elements of Welsh society (approximately half a million of a total population of three million, and mainly, though not exclusively, living in the less industrialised West and North of the country) whose mode of everyday communication is largely through the Welsh language, and whose cultural transactions take place primarily through forms and institutions specific to that language.

The British cultural sociologists of the eighties, among them Hebdige and Hall, drew attention to the active use of media texts by young audiences, and the potential for the creation of sub-cultural and counter-cultural identities (Hebdige, 1979; Hall and Jefferson, 1976). They perceived the roles music and its associated forms could play in the cementing of social ties, the bolstering of self-esteem, and the securing of mutual warmth and belonging among audiences.  Although much influenced by study of the punk movement in Britain, their foregrounding of the importance of style, and concepts of self-ascribed deviance, are clearly helpful when looking at other distinct youth groups such as travellers, goths and ravers. It is important to bear in mind, though, that like punk, these are all subcultures of late capitalist urban society, a way of life in which social fragmentation and in particular youth alienation is widespread, and that such observations cannot be applied with equal validity to all cultures, as reference to our case study will demonstrate.

The Welsh language as a vehicle of everyday communication, with the mass of cultural and historical references such intercourse involves, is largely a language nowadays of the countryside and the smaller towns; despite recent gains, reflected in the 1981 and 1991 censuses, the cities and conurbations of the south and the north-east are still largely Anglophone. Y Fro Cymraeg is certainly not without modern social problems, large-scale in-migration not the least of them (Cloke, Goodwin & Milbourne 1997, pp.15-30), but it is nevertheless a comparatively cohesive society; that this is recognised and applauded by many young people inside it is demonstrated in work by Edwards (1989, pp.20-34) and Bellin (1989, pp.77-98). This sense of cohesion and unity is largely reflected in the music; its dominant ideology for thirty years has been one of affirmation. Within that framework, there is scope for diversity and criticism, but the political radicalism of much of the music exists alongside a cultural and social conservatism; rather than securing cultures of deviance, the tendency is towards the strengthening of prescribed values and relationships against external influences perceived as materialist and intrusive. ‘Alternative’ bands such as Hen Wlad fy Mamau, Anrhefn and Datblygu are as militant in support of a perceived Welsh way of life as Dafydd Iwan or Meic Stevens.

2: Within y Fro Cymraeg

In y Fro Cymraeg - the Welsh-language community - the most effective and widespread agency for promoting live music is y Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society), a non-profit-making organisation of highly motivated activists. The largest and busiest of several independent recording studios is Recordiau Sain, originally largely financed by Dafydd Iwan, the first musician within the Welsh rock scene to achieve real prominence, out of the profits of his albums and tours, and housed in the renovated buildings of an obsolete military camp. Admittedly, creative artists of all types are often less conventional than the rest of us in one way or another, but as Dafydd Iwan himself put it, ‘There are no stars in Wales’; the audience is too small, the society too cohesive, the financial rewards too minimal, to allow the phenomenon to take root (interview with the author, 1995).

Only one of all the currently (1998) popular Welsh-language bands can afford to be full-time, because in their case they divide their time and talents between Wales and the equally lively music scene in Brittany. Links between Welsh-language labels and the majors are very few, as their chosen role is to address a Welsh-speaking audience, while the majors have little interest in foreign or ‘minority’ language singers. Welsh performers wishing to strut the world or even the British stage almost inevitably, like The Super Furry Animals or Catatonia, have to change their primary medium of performance and sign to an international label. In the increasingly hi-tech and competitive environment of recording and distribution, labels like Sain and Crai have made efforts to retain an interest in the work of performers who have ‘gone global’, as for example in the mutual loyalty shown by Sain and the opera-singer Bryn Terfel, and to develop franchising relationships overseas, but their structures and intentions are co-operative and evangelising more than they are commercial.

Much has been made, in the period since the devolution referendum, of the ‘Two Wales’ scenario (the rural areas of the north and west and the valleys combined in support of devolution, while the east and south-east were generally opposed) but the situation on the ground is more complex than such simple map-making suggests. My own town of Machynlleth recorded one of the highest ‘yes’ votes in Wales, and yet is represented by the media as part of a Powys opposed to the Senedd (national assembly). There were more ‘yes’ votes in Monmouthshire than in Carmarthen, although Carmarthen people are rightly proud of their role in casting the die for the project’s approval; Ynys Môn (Anglesey) is widely perceived as part of the North Wales heartland of ‘Welshness’, but the percentage majority there was even smaller than the eventual national one.

Areas of rapid expansion of Welsh language use, as shown in the 1981 and 1991 censuses, include areas of the big cities (including Cardiff, the capital, whose ‘no’ majority provoked headlines, and considerable residual anger in some other parts of Wales) and largely middle-class residential districts where educational qualifications in the language are seen as increasingly important to young people’s career prospects. A working-class backlash against the influence of the ‘Taffia’ which was documented in the seventies seems to have spent itself, and a recent Western Mail survey of attitudes to the language in what once was industrial South Wales recorded widespread and growing support even from non-speakers. At present, though, apart from a small number of venues such as Clwb Ifor Bach in Cardiff and Clwb y Bont in Pontypridd, opportunities for the spread of Welsh-language rock and pop into the conurbations are still limited.

3: 'Folk' Influences And y Gwerin

Popular music is, of course, a wide and imperfectly defined area, and attempts to define the distinctions between ‘pop’, ‘rock’ and ‘folk’ have often proved problematic. The difficulties are, of course, intensified if and when theorists seek to apply definitions found helpful in one set of circumstances to all others, or similarly to eliminate concepts from current usage. Simon Frith and Richard Middleton, among others, express great difficulty in accepting the existence of ‘folk’ traditions (Frith, 1983, pp.48-52; Middleton, 1990, pp.127-146). They argue that the concept of folk is a bourgeois nationalist construct, serving to ‘protect the ruling class from the threat and suffering of the proletariats by first exoticising them and then absorbing their cultures into their own’ (Middleton, 1990, p.139). Frith has suggested that, in identifying certain musics as folk, ‘we are reading as sociological facts what are in fact ideological experiences’ (Frith, 1981, p.162), and he argues that ‘folk discourse... seems to rest on an essential self-deception’, since ‘that which is commodified is presented as communal’ (Frith, 1996, p.40). Of course, to define folk as exclusively oral, rather than written, or as the exclusive possession of a certain class, or as only played on certain instruments or in certain situations, or in terms of its spontaneity or exclusive discourse, will be misleading; music like all arts is in a constant state of flux. But difficulties of definition do not imply that the phenomenon does not exist. Amnon Shiloah, for example, writing about Jewish and Muslim musicians of the Mediterranean, comments that ‘in the realm of performing practice, the folk poet-musician has a uniquely important position: both narrator and spokesman, he articulates the moods, values and aspirations of his fellow men’ (Shiloah, 1997, p.7).

There are some ways in which the cultural situation of the Gwerin in Wales has been, and continues to be, importantly different from the general working-class experience in other parts of Britain. In England, for example, folk culture has tended to be defined in contrast to that of the elite; oral rather than written, simple rather than complex, using restricted rather than extended code, dealing with locality and work rather than leisure and abstraction. Arguments about ‘authenticity’ bedevilled much research into English folk music from the days of Cecil Sharp onwards, and of course the power of definition rested with middle-class collectors and theorists rather than the participants themselves. The historical experience of the Gwerin in Wales has been different. Between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, the Welsh language was largely abandoned by the gentry, and responsibility for and control over an enormously rich, ancient and sophisticated legacy of cultural forms, in literature and music especially, passed to the ordinary people. Standards of formal education and literacy are not necessarily guides to the richness of a culture, but even Matthew Arnold on his infamous tour through Wales in 1852 was forced to admit that not only did the Welsh poor have a better grasp of their own language than the English poor did, but that they clearly loved it (Arnold, 1854). Gwyn A. Williams has estimated that at least half the population of Wales in the mid-nineteenth century was literate (G.A. Williams, 1991, pp.208-9), and Erasmus Saunders at the time commented that ‘there are many, even of the common people, who gladly take the pains privately of reading and discoursing to instruct one another in their houses. And it is not uncommon to see servants and shepherds, as they have an opportunity, strive to do these offices to each other’ (quoted in Parry Jones, 1972, p.111).

To make these distinctions between the Welsh and English experience is not to seek to set one culture above another - after all, as Raymond Williams points out, the Welsh people have been oppressed for five hundred years by the English state, but so have the English people (Williams, 1983, p. 83).  Rather, it is to point out the danger of exporting concepts and exclusions beyond their native territory, and to demonstrate the untransparency of language. The reservoir of traditional forms, both musical and literary, both simple and sophisticated, that are most easily, if not exactly, defined in English as ‘folk’, are omnipresent in Welsh popular music, and to attempt to understand Welsh rock without references to those traditions, and the niches they open to similar strands from Brittany, Ireland, the Caribbean and the Appalachians, is to impoverish the analysis.

New musics of the nineties, such as dance and rave, are said by Will Straw to have not only crossed but even eradicated previous cultural, conceptual and national boundaries, replacing them with shifting patterns of taste and ‘alliance’ (Straw, 1991, pp.11-18). These alliances and rapidly evolving ‘scenes’, he argues, are replacing loyalties of place and class among the young, as well as of culture and nationality. His perceptions may be true of some of the people, in some places, for some of the time, but there is much contemporary evidence of very firm social affiliations, of one kind and another, being cemented by music, both in English-language rock cultures and outside them.

As rock has expanded and fragmented, not only have audiences in non-Atlantic societies proved fertile in drawing unexpected meanings and uses from mainstream texts, but they have also in many cases supported and stimulated indigenous artists drawing on transcultural forms. Lila Abu-Lughod, writing about the lives of young Bedouin in the eighties, could see conflicting media influences at work in that society; girls and women, attracted by the consumer goods and affluent lifestyles represented in the programmes and commercials on Sudanese and Egyptian television, had increasingly been rejecting the nomadic life and seeking to marry, or move, outside the tribes - often, of course, into shantytowns where extreme poverty and social deprivation were the norms. On the other hand, she noted that cultural confidence and solidarity, most notably among young men but increasingly spanning age and gender distinctions, were being greatly enhanced by the DAT recording and distribution of audiotapes of Bedouin song, in both traditional forms and hybridised with Western and African forms (Abu-Lughod, 1989, pp.7-11). The influence of the griots (the hereditary caste of songwriters, satirists and commentators in Mali) has also been extended by recording technology, as has that of Rai in Algeria. Bix and Foje in Lithuania, folk-rock bands also drawing on both indigenous and transcultural influences, participated during the eighties in the growth of national self-confidence and separatist feeling there, and now maintain a position of both notoriety and respect as critics, sages and satirists of the new State.

In Wales too, as Ned Thomas has emphasised, the rise of Welsh-language popular music   was linked to the growth of an increasingly confident and assertive attitude from the nineteen-sixties onwards to the use of the language itself, spearheaded by ‘r Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (Thomas, 1991, pp.90-102). This change was at least partly generational; many older people supported the movement and its campaigns of non-violent direct action, whether overtly or covertly, but it was from generations coming to maturity from that period onwards that the Cymdeithas drew most of its active membership and leaders. The beginnings of this Welsh struggle were contemporary, of course, with the Civil Rights movements in the USA and the north of Ireland, and its course has run parallel with demands for emancipation and self-determination elsewhere in Europe as well as in the emerging world. It is hardly surprising that the first musicians of the movement accessed the protest-rock of English-language artists such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez as well as indigenous forms, and the rich traditions of satire, raillery and invective in the Welsh poetic tradition. Wales in recent centuries has been an intensely politicised society - the Red Flag flew over Merthyr Town Hall for decades in the middle of the century, as do the Red Dragon and the Irish tricolour over many nationalist pubs today, especially in the West and North.  As Thomas puts it, Welsh pop ‘at its best is satirical and popular song... comparable with the Russian satire of Galich or Vysotsky rather than anything one finds in England’ (1991, p.98). At the same time, he argues, Welsh rock has brought a new lightness of touch and gaiety to a national struggle that in earlier generations was characterised more by deprivation and austere commitment (1991, p.101).

4: Words And Music

In rock music, of course, the dominant discourse for decades reflected its origins among blacks and ‘poor whites’ in the USA, and until this period it was de rigeur for English or other performers not only to sing with American accents but to address and refer to genre situations rooted in American experience. At the same time that The Beatles and other groups from Liverpool, London and elsewhere were asserting their ability to find their own voices, address new preferred audiences and identify and confront issues close to hand, modern musicians in Welsh-speaking Wales like their contemporaries throughout the world were beginning to wrest aspects of the form to their own needs.

Language, whether in song or analysis, is never a neutral medium; vocabulary and syntax, sounds and structures, idioms and intonations, all carry cultural and ideological connotations with them. English and American-English today make up a huge language, loose and supple in form, rich in elision, fluid in tone, with long vowels and soft, often unobtrusive consonants. It is easy to see its appropriateness for the rolling refrains of the ballad and the often almost conversational intimacy of the rock solo; and it is unsurprising, as the music grew up in the language. Welsh, in contrast, is smaller, harder and more reflective, more precise in its vowel sounds and explosive in its consonants - ‘like a crystal, not a snake’ according to Dafydd Iwan (interview with the author, 1995). Intricate metrical forms such as cynghanedd reflect these qualities of the language, with its echoing patterns of assonance and alliteration, and rhymes and half-rhymes ‘like sparks escaping from a fire’, for Twm Morys (interview with the author, 1995).

It was the triumph of the first generation of Welsh-language rock singers, such as Dafydd Iwan himself, Meic Stevens, Edward H. Davis and Geraint Jarman, that forms were developed responsive to the parameters of the language, capable of drawing on musical traditions from within Welsh and other Celtic cultures and addressing issues relevant to a Welsh audience in a Welsh voice, yet open to influences from America, Europe and elsewhere. The shared ideology and commitment of these musicians demanded a music that would reinforce the values of independence, solidarity, pride and love of country that were vital to a regenerating national consciousness. A brief analysis of the content of one or two pieces of music, and reference to the responses of a contemporary audience, may serve to evaluate the measure of their success.

Dafydd Iwan’s anthemic ‘Yma o Hyd’ (‘Still Here’) is, like much of his work, topical in its origin, celebrating in this case the recovery in the use of the Welsh language first revealed in the 1981 census returns. It is a rousing, swelling song, as might be expected from one whose musical roots are in Independent chapels and the great hymns. It has the determined optimism of ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘We Shall Not be Moved’, but also a sense of place and of the immanence of history that might be described as very Welsh; not only the mountains, woods and streams but heroes of the past such as Macsen Wledig, Arthur and Llywelyn Mawr are summoned up to join in the celebrations, and pledge themselves again to the continuing struggle.

The elements of immediacy, satire and raillery that Dafydd Iwan and singers of his generation carried into the tradition from poetry, political literature and sermons have remained central to the modern music of Wales, as is demonstrated in a few lines from a song by the new folk-rock band Gwerinos, whose first album, Cyhoeddiadau Sain, was released in 1997. ‘Cân yr Arglwydd’ (‘The Lord’s Song’), is an exuberantly invective attack on Dafydd Elis Thomas, once the left-wing Plaid Cymru MP for Meirionydd Nant Conwy but now, having recently accepted a peerage, the well-paid chair of several quangos including the Welsh Language Board - seen in Welsh-Speaking Wales as not only toothless and ineffective but in many ways sustaining a status quo that condemns the language to client status.

‘Cân yr Arglwydd’

Hwrê a Haleliwia! Mae’r Arglwydd ar y sîn
Mae gallu wislo trwy ei drwyn a siarad trwy ei din
Mae’i law yn dofi’r moroedd; mae’i lais yn agor pyrth;
Ond cael Strît cred i Fwrdd yr Iaith - rwan dyna fydda gwyrth!

Hwrê a Haleliwia! Mae’r Arglwydd ar y job
Bydd Gwalia fach yn ddedwydd tra bydd ganddi’r ffasiwn nob
Mae’n siarad mewn damhegion yn gywrain ac yn graff -
Os nad y fo di’r addfwyn oen, mae’n ddarn ohono’n saff.

‘The Lord’s Song’

Hurrah and Hallelujah! The Lord is on the scene!
He can whistle through his nose, and talk out of his arse.
His hand doth rule the waters: his voice can open doors,
But to bring street cred to the Language Board - now that’s too much to ask!

Hurrah and Hallelujah! The Lord is on the job!
Little Wales is blessed indeed to have such a splendid nob.
His speech is all in parables, so skilful and so sure,
But if you’re not his little lamb, you’re only half secure.

Much of the song’s exquisite biblical language, often lifted word-for word from William Morgan’s still widely influential 1588 first Welsh translation, and thrown into sharp contrast by the band’s gleefully coarse peasant invective, is lost in translation.  The music too, a banjo-led tongue-in-cheek pastiche of hymn tune and country ballad, is missing here. The pinpoint irony, however, in its evocation of Elis Thomas’s delight in his own power and influence, his self-assured but evasive use of language, and the hint in the final line that he may be a dangerous man to cross, are surely evident, as are the suggestions in the second of these verses of an unabashed and active libido. The sound of rudely punctured dignity - a Welsh tradition from the days of Beca and the Ceffyl Prên - must be audible to all around. If Elis Thomas is one of the latest in a long line of radical Welshmen to have reached Westminster and found its corridors of power congenial, a line that stretches from the Cecils perhaps, through Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan, to the late and - in Wales at least - little lamented George Thomas, this comment from his own heartland (Gwerinos are a Meirionydd band) will have come as unwelcome shock.

Twm Morys of Bob Delyn a’r Ebillion, in contrast, avoids the directly topical, feeling that such references rapidly become anachronistic, although he insists that all the band’s work has political and social dimensions. Both his lyrics and tunes are largely based in traditional Welsh forms, often refer to literature and history, and yet are contemporary in tone and resonances. Bringing together performers and material from Wales and Brittany, some influences from Ireland, together with blues, jazz and classical elements, they are capable of both a high seriousness and a sharp sense of the ridiculous and bizarre. For example, in ‘Seans Watcyn Wynn’ (‘Watcyn Wynn’s Séance’), with front-line instruments of harp, saxophone, mouth-organ and guitar, they move from cantata to folk-tune to blues to big-band jazz riffs in a single song (on Gedwn, 1992). The often surrealist lyrics - exuberantly complex and based in centuries of tradition in their patterns of rhyme, alliteration, assonance and metrication - satirise the snobbery and self-satisfaction of a wealthy C19th Anglo-Welsh landowner, industrialist and strike-breaker, and his family, while celebrating the eventual triumph of the tasteless and untidy peasants he sought to repress.

So dense is this work, both in language and musical structure, as well as in the range and variety of its allusions and references, that an approach to it in the space available here is bound to be no more than a scratching of the surface; but however incomplete the analysis, I print the lyrics and a translation in full below, to enable some of its richness and flow to be appreciated.  Even to non-Welsh speakers, the linguistic and metrical complexity and exactness of the third verse, for example, must be striking; there are three feminine rhymes, followed by five masculine (the letter ‘y’ in Welsh, when at the end of a word, makes a sound very close to ‘u’ - both could be rendered into English as ‘ee’). The wandering, bell-like patterns of double and triple internal alliteration, assonance and half-assonance, known in Welsh literature as cynghanedd, are in Twm’s own words ‘immensely difficult to learn, but once you’ve mastered them, they give you such freedom...’ (interview with the author on videotape ‘Rockin’ a Small Boat’, undistributed, 1996).

‘Seans Watcyn Wynn’

Y fi ‘di Watcyn Williams Wynn
Rwy’n byw efo ‘ngwraig mewn ty mawr gwyn
Mae pawb yn gwasgu dwylo’n dynn
Bob tro dan ni’n mynd o’r mart

Mae’n ffrindiau ffraeth yn dweud o hyd
‘Bod ni’n ddau o bethau hardda’r byd
Fel siandelirs a hetiau drud
A Mo-o-o-o-o-ozart.

Dan ni’n bleidiol iawn i’n gwlad
Yn drwm o bryder am barhad
Ein hannwyl heniaith a’n treftad
A’r holl drysorau sydd
Ac ar y soffa glyd
Edrychwn yn y gwydyr hud
I ni gael gwybod hynt y byd
A sut yfory fydd.....

O lle mae’ch snyff a’ch powder pyff a lle mae’ch wigs a’ch ffyn
Ydi’n rhaid mynd ar y fasiwn sbid mae fy ‘sgidiau fi’n rhy dynn
Dach chi i fod i foesyngrymu’n ddwys cach i i fod i bwyntio’ch troed
Ond dach chi’n hyll a heglog ‘fath a haid o anifeiliad yn y coed

O sut y daeth i hyn? Mae’n gwilydd ar ein menig gwyn
‘Di Mrs. Watcyn Williams Wqynn ddim yn leicio dawnsio bler
Sut i daeth i hyn? Mae’n gwilydd ar ein menig gwyn
Mea Mrs. Watcyn Williams Wynn yn siwr o droi ei ffer

A lle mae’r dyrfa fawr fu’n hel yn swn y delyn fwyn
I sisial canu fel y nant yn y pantiau rhwng y brwyn
A lle mae’r bysyedd hardd a hir fu’n cosi’r ffidil fach
Dach chi ‘fath a phedwar ffwlbart tew yn hewian
Mewian cnewian yn y sach

O be’ di hyn? Mae’n gwilydd ar ein menig gwyn
‘Di Mrs. Watcyn Williams Wynn ddim isio clywed roc
O mae’n nhrwsus i’n rhy dynn, mae’n gwilydd ar ein menig gwyn
Mae Mrs. Watcyn Williams Wynn yn siwr o ffeintio toc

A lle mae’r beirdd oedd wrth eu bodd yn adrodd awdlau
Fyddai’r rheini ddim yn gwisgo crys anweddus a di-chwaeth
A lle mae’r rhai fu’n rhoi a glawr ogoniant mawr eu bro
Fyddai’r rheini ddim yn meddwi’n chwil a chwydu medd
A chodi mil bob tro

O asu gwyn! Ydy’r henwlad wedi dod i hyn?
Mae Mrs. Watcyn Williams Wynn a fi ‘di cael llond bol
Ond be’ di hyn? Mae hi’n tynnu ‘i wig a’i menig gwyn
Mae Mrs. Watcyn Williams Wynn yn dechrau leicio’ch lol!

‘Watcyn Wynn’s Seance’

I’m Watcyn Williams Wynn
I live with my wife in a big white house
Everyone wants to squeeze my hand
Each time we go to the mart.

Witty friends have always said
We’re two of the finest things in the world
Like chandeliers and expensive hats
And Mo-o-o-o-o-ozart.

We’re very faithful to the Land
Weighed down with wear and tear
(For) our dear old language and heritage
And the treasures that we love...
And on the sofa glued
I’ve looked in the magic mirror
So we’ll know the way of the world
And what tomorrow brings....

Oh where’s your snuff and your powder puff, and where’s your wigs and sticks?
We must go with the latest fashion (although) my shoes are too tight
It’s for you to curtsey low, it’s for you to point your feet
But for you it’s with the ugly swarm of animals in the wood

Oh what is this ahead? shame is poured on our white gloves
Mrs. Watcyn Williams Wynn doesn’t like wild dancing
Oh what is this ahead? shame is poured on our white gloves
Mrs. Watcyn Williams Wynn is sure to twist her ankle

There’s a place for the great crowds gathered to the sound of the harp
Whispering songs like the stream in the hollows between the reeds
And a place for the beautiful long fingers, tickling the little fiddle
But for you, four fat ferrets howling
And mewing and crying in the sack

Oh what is this? There’s ignominy on our white gloves
Mrs. Watcyn Williams Wynn doesn’t want to hear rock
My trousers are too tight, there’s ignominy on our white gloves
Mrs Watcyn Williams Wynn is sure to faint soon.

There’s a place for bards, intent reciting awdlau,
But not those wearing disgusting tasteless shirts
A place for some, willing to share the splendour of their land
Not those blind drunk and swilling mead
And earning thousands every day

Oh Blessed Jesus! Is the old land come to this?
Mrs. Watcyn Williams Wynn and I are well fed up
But what is this? She’s pulling off her wig and her white gloves -
Mrs, Watcyn Williams Wynne is beginning to like your nonsense.

The complex interplay of voices within the text contributes to its vigour; the first three verses establish Watcyn Williams Wynn, his images of self, family and world, and the impending seance in his drawing room. Then, as the metrical pattern changes (and incidentally the tempo of the music accelerates from a stately dance to an almost uncomfortable gallop, with a manic drumbeat seemingly forever on the point of racing ahead of the music’s other elements) we find ourselves overhearing a dialogue; as no clues are given by changes of singer or even of the singer’s tone, we have to piece together which lines are spoken by the increasingly rattled magnate and which by the voice of the folk, or the future. Mrs. Wynn is silent throughout, despite her constant presence in the lyrics, although her implied conversion to rock freedoms in the song’s finale can be seen as metaphorically cuckolding the old man.

Much of the imagery is traditional, whether elegiac as ‘the sound of the harp / Whispering songs like the stream in the hollows between the reeds / and... the beautiful long fingers, tickling the little fiddle’ or direct, coarse and brutal, as in ‘for you, four fat ferrets howling / And mewing and crying in the sack’. And yet modernity is always there in the song too; the ‘lol’ or nonsense in the final line, for example, will inevitably refer a Welsh speaker to the title of a scurrilous and widely popular contemporary magazine, associated throughout its long career with the most radical, iconoclastic elements of the language movement.

5: Musics And Articulation

Twm Morys has pointed out that small societies, by their very nature, often find themselves receiving, adapting and refining forms originating from the larger and more diverse societies around them (1995, interview with the author). In the case of Wales, occupying part of a larger island which is itself on the fringes of a continent, this situation is extreme. On the other hand, the small size of this culture is a factor in its extraordinary social and cultural cohesiveness, which in turn stimulates the most rapid and fluent interbreeding of forms. Listening to Radio Ceredigion, the local commercial station, for no more than an hour last Sunday, I heard a children’s choir singing with a well-known rock musician; a Leonard Cohen song in Welsh delivered by a female folk singer; hymns in Samba and madrigal arrangements, and traditional songs rendered with enormous relish by a yodeller and whistler.

Upon what theoretical foundations, then, can we build a framework helpful for understanding popular music in small countries like Wales as well as in large ones, that can take account also of the interchanges, appropriations and resistances between the local and the global, the hegemonic and the fiercely independent? A solid footing would seem to be that offered by Middleton, based itself firmly on the ideas of Althusser and Gramsci, in insisting that popular cultures must be seen as fields of conflict, negotiation and articulation, in which styles, themes, meanings and interpretations - both by audiences and artists - are in a complex and continual process of flux and evolution (Middleton, 1990, pp.10-33).  Of course the ruling elites are in controlling positions, able to appropriate some ideas and performers and deny access to others, and relationships between the centre and the margins are characterised by the same patterns of exploitation and manipulation that define capitalism anywhere, but competitions both economic and ideological within the dominant structures, and the market’s volatility, ensure that gaps and niches exist in which dissent can flourish. Garofalo’s work among African-American musicians in the USA (1993, pp.31-48), and Cohen’s in Liverpool (1991) have both demonstrated the difficulties facing musicians determined to retain their cultural and/or geographical independence, but Gramsci and others have suggested that - especially in periods of rapid cultural change or crisis - subversion and appropriation of previous dominant forms and ideologies frequently take place (Gramsci, 1971, pp.175-85), and the examples above from our case study have demonstrated this process in action.

So extensively have popular musicians sampled other musical forms, so widely disseminated have popular idioms in turn become in march, oratorio and hymn, and so many new musics have contributed to the mix - such as Jamaican reggae, German technik and Polish dance - that popular musicians and their audiences now inhabit a world in which every riff and grace-note, every bass-line and drum signature, every nuance of vocal delivery and instrumental mix carries a wealth of potential connotations and articulations. An examination of the patterns of musical articulation within rock and folk music in contemporary West Wales will reveal, first of all, that neat and tidy compartmentalisation of influences is impossible, and that, as Mark Slobin puts it, ‘there are contrapuntal voices in this cultural fugue that affect and shape the themes’ (Slobin, 1993, p.27). An area of cultural production as effervescent and diverse as the Welsh rock scene will reveal a range of the ‘multiform, resistant, tricky and stubborn procedures that elude discipline’ (de Certeau, 1984, p.96). Some threads of purely musical influence and attraction, diverse as they may seem, can be identified, however, as playing a continuing role in the development of a shared cultural vocabulary.

Of the other national musics most drawn on, those of our Celtic neighbours are the most widespread. The Irish influence in West Wales has been powerful for millennia, and modern folk musicians, in particular, seeking to bring traditional Welsh music into the informal public spaces of pub and club from its strongholds in the home and the Eisteddfod, have drawn heavily on Irish forms and instrumentation. Jigs and reels have joined the hornpipe in the dance repertoire of most bands, and the slow air is becoming as familiar on this side of the water as in Ireland. The penny whistle and bodhrán are now so firmly part of most folk ensembles that some traditional players, such as the harpist Robin James Jones, who himself used to play with the Irish folk band The Chieftains, are seeking to entrench a ‘purer’ Welsh style of playing free of their increasingly pervasive influence.

Such interaction, though, has been a factor of Welsh-Irish musical relations since medieval times if not long before: some of Carolan’s tunes are said to be based on Welsh patterns, and the names of a number of Welsh harp tunes recorded in the Middle Ages show Irish linguistic influences. A more recent, but currently very powerful, thread of influence can be traced through Bob Delyn a’r Ebillion to Breton traditions and instrumentation; the bombard in particular has contributed a stridency and vigour to Welsh rock discourse that can also be found in the call-and-response patterns of many Breton songs first popularised in the sixties by Alan Stivell. Nolwenn Korbel, the female voice in Bob Delyn, has collaborated with Twm Morys in integrating Breton and Welsh songs - the two languages are mutually comprehensible - within the band’s repertoire, and a new generation of bands such as Gwerinos and Ysbryd Chouchen (The Spirit of Mead), who combine Welsh and Breton themes, songs, instrumentation and even group members, are currently gaining a wide audience.

Celtic influences as seemingly disparate as Hebridean mouth-music and Galician piping are rooted in a long-standing and widely-recognised cultural commonality, and can be easily integrated into a musical vocabulary that includes many shared forms, and in which a number of instruments such as the harp, the pipes and the fiddle are pre-eminent. They are iconic of generations of mutual struggle for cultural survival and recognition, and in particular a stubborn sense of identity and self-worth in the face of political and social repression by larger and more powerful neighbours.

Country and Western music is nearly as popular in Wales as it is in Ireland; the best-selling recording artists in Welsh-speaking Wales today are John ac Alun, two middle-aged men making up a voice and guitar duo, singing original compositions in a gentle Country genre. Although it might, superficially, seem an alien form, this tradition too carries associations traceable to the distinctly Celtic, minor-key musics of Scots and Irish emigrants to the New World. More contemporary constructions are important, too; both Welsh-speaking and Irish audiences seem to invest in the rural and redneck connotations of Country music, and in its determined evocations of a sense of place threatened by the pressures of modernity and dislocation.

Looking beyond the Celtic world and its diaspora, a number of forms have been drawn from the musics of other peoples seeking political and cultural freedom; the musical conventions both assert and contextualise the lyrical agenda. Caribbean forms such as calypso and, above all, reggae have been hugely influential in Welsh-language music for over twenty years, their echoing patterns of dub and vocal repetition, and their traditions of commentary and seriousness of purpose engaging powerfully in the politically overt work of musicians such as Geraint Jarman and Edward H. Dafis. The banjo also plays a widely influential role in a number of Welsh bands, its jaunty assertiveness an appropriate foil for satire and invective. More recent influences have been Township musics from southern Africa and Latin forms from Central and South America. The guitar strung and tuned to African patterns not only evokes the guerrilla rock of Zimbabwe’s The Four Brothers and the struggles against apartheid personified by The Ladysmith Black Mambazo Band, but contributes an irreverence and optimism to contemporary Welsh resistance music. Blues, too, particularly acoustic harmonica-led ‘Southern’ blues forms, have been very deeply integrated into the Welsh musical vocabulary.

6: Resistance Musics

Martin Stokes has commented that ‘scholarly binarisms’ can as often obscure our perceptions as inform them (Stokes, 1994, p.99), and Mark Slobin regretted that all too often, new musicological studies seem to offer only ‘an idiosyncratic set of analytical terms and tools’ (Slobin, 1994, p.6). In identifying these threads of musical influence in contemporary Welsh-language music I am not seeking to separate developments here from those elsewhere.  Many of the currents noted are evident in English-language music, too, both across Offa’s Dyke and in the USA. Dafydd Iwan has cited Pete Seeger and Joan Baez among his most formative influences, and John Peel has acted as a highly successful advocate and populariser of radical Welsh bands for years.

Hegemonic forces do, however, seem to have succeeded in asserting commercial imperatives over rock music in the English language to a greater extent than in some other cultures, perhaps particularly those like y Fro Gymraeg, too small to offer great profits, and yet strong and confident enough to throw up effective musical and industrial leaderships.  Global-Atlantic rock has itself often been perceived as an essentially oppositional music, growing as it did out of Afro-American forms steeped in the experience of oppression, and appealing initially to the young with their innate tendency, remarked upon by Plato, to rebel against the ideas and conventions of the older generations. Recently, Ann Kaplan has sought to discover subversion in ‘the pace of MTV’ and its privileging of hedonism over ambition (Kaplan, 1987, pp.123-4). The oppositional, though, like the independent, is a difficult concept to pin down; opposition to what, from what? But although mainstream rock forms have continued, at times, to provide scope for dissent, the ease with which they have in general been appropriated by commercial and conservative interests - ‘The Wild One’ shading imperceptibly into cult figure and fashion statement - should not be surprising. As Grodin and Lindlof point out, the ideology of self-determination and the quest for individual freedom has ‘always been a dominant theme in American culture’, and concerns about self ‘integral’ to it (Grodin & Lindlof, 1996, pp.5-6).  In Middleton’s words ‘The struggle for control of the counter-cultural style was always a struggle between different aspects of the same dominant principle’ (Middleton, 1990, p.32).  And yet hegemonies are leaky, ‘complex, often contradictory and perhaps paradoxical’ (Slobin, 1994, p.27), and oppositional currents constantly re-emerge within mainstream Anglophone music, drawing on resistance moods and conventions from elsewhere, and at the same time stimulating and enriching the reservoir of counter-cultural forms and meanings available to other musicians and audiences.

We live in a time when even the French language, itself with imperial and global pretensions and intentions, has been thrown on the defensive by the penetration of Anglo-American, as the actions of the Academie Francaise have recently demonstrated. Smaller societies, faced more immediately with threats of extermination and incorporation, have been forced increasingly to define themselves against the dominant values of Anglo-American consumer capitalism; to become in their various ways what Paolo Freire calls ‘resistance cultures’ (1985, p.17). According to V.S. Naipaul, ‘The first thing a missionary must teach is self-contempt’, and whether through public education or commercial advertising this policy has been followed by imperialists since the Statute of Kilkenny in 1386 and the Act of Union in 1536, the latter of which demanded the ‘extirpation of the sinister usages and customs’ associated with the Welsh language. Similar patterns can be seen in the education of Maori children throughout most of this century, to take one example, or in the penetration of Brazilian media forms by American commercial imperatives, described by Mario Osavo (1990, pp.22-27). Responses to these pressures have varied widely, from the Ghost Dance of the Oglala Sioux to the destruction of satellite dishes and cassette tapes by ‘fundamentalists’ in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia; but a common thread among resistance cultures is the affirmation, in the face of global hegemony and the taste-and-agenda setting power of the global media even at home, of what are perceived to be their own core values.

Popular music in different resistance cultures may be framing and empowering widely different core principles. James Snead has suggested, for example, that the emphasis on ‘the cut; an abrupt, seemingly unmotivated break, with a series already in progress and a willed return to a prior series’ in many African musical forms, serves to emphasise a sense of social continuity, ‘to confront accident and rupture not by covering them over, but by making room for them inside the system itself’ (Snead, 1990, p.220). Dick Hebdige has related ‘the cut ‘n’ mix aesthetic’ of much modern Caribbean music to the societies’ long-term experiences of fragmentation, dislocation, exploitation and recreation (Hebdige, 1987, pp.26-40). Admitting that there may be ‘no such thing as a point of origin, least of all in something as slippery as music’ he emphasises that ‘that doesn’t mean there isn’t history’ (ibid., pp.10-12). Resistance musics are largely expressed in terms of commonality and shared experience rather than individualism, and defined against the dominant commercial-individual ethics and aesthetics of that rock music which too many critics insist on regarding as the whole.

The work of Roger Wallis and Krister Malm, based in Sweden, examining first of all the music industries of sixteen small countries, including Wales, and more recently focusing in greater detail on four, has left them uncertain whether the next century will see the ‘homogenisation’ of the world’s musics or the development of the process they describe as ‘transculturation’ (Wallis & Malm, 1984 & 1990). They identify three current models of interaction between the global centres and the margins - exchange, domination and imperialism, which they feel exist, in different proportions, in all current transactions. They suggest the possible emergence of a fourth, ‘transculture’; a reservoir of shared musical forms, largely rooted in Afro-American patterns but constantly refreshed, and drawn on, by the needs and contributions of musicians and audiences in a multiplicity of cultures. Forms may thus diversify as much as converge, and musical cultures develop in rapid and unexpected ways (Wallis & Malm, 1990, pp.173-180).

A critique of popular musics based on these foundations may not only be useful in looking within small cultures, but as a valuable tool in engaging with the complex and varied interactions that take place between Anglo-American global forms and musicians and audiences within so-called ‘minority’ cultures world-wide. As Hebdige put it, it is immersion in the particular which helps guard against too intoxicating an involvement in theory (Hebdige, 1988, p.12), and an awareness of the particularities of small societies may well empower understanding of the complexity and vibrancy of transcultural exchanges. Many of the resistances and oppositions that exist within the seeming monolith of the dominant discourse look to forms emerging from the resistance cultures, as the growing interest in ‘World Musics’ demonstrates, and in the ensuing collaborations the struggles for autonomy, authenticity and appropriation are born again. It is important to remember, though, that although music and other cultural elements constitute a field of conflict within which ideologies, expectations and pleasures compete, the arts and entertainments themselves are part of greater clashes. To many musicians and many listeners, music is a weapon - among others - in a more crucial battle. ‘If there’s one thing I can’t stand,’ says Twm Morys, ‘it’s people who think that just because nowadays we see a few bilingual signs, and there’s a Welsh TV channel, the battle for the language is over. It isn’t; in some ways the situation is even more dangerous. It needs all our imagination, and all our energy, to win this battle, and that’s why I do what I do’ (interview with the author on videotape ‘Rockin’ a Small Boat’, undistributed, 1996).
 


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14/5/98.