Calon Lan: Welsh Anthem and Revival Hymn
This following article by David Pike was originally published on his amazing Welldigger website on August 14th 2012. The article and images have been reposted with David’s consent. We just fully believe that there is such a richness to this historical account of the anthem and it’s legacy, that you will be blessed in so many ways.
Enjoy the read – over to you, David Pike!
‘Calon Lân’ is a hymn which is close to the heart of any Welsh person, and is regarded even today as one of the great anthems of Wales. While it has been translated into English, it is still only ever sung in the original Welsh. Having been written in the closing decade of the nineteenth century, it came to prominence during the Welsh Revival of 1904-5 when it was one of the most frequently sung expressions of spiritual longing and desire for personal holiness by those who were caught up in that great move of the Holy Spirit.
The song has remained a great favourite ever since, still often being sung at concerts and eisteddfodau, and even before international rugby matches at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff. It has even developed the status of one of the great icons of Wales; and even t-shirts, mugs, badges, caps, cards and posters can be seen in many ‘Welsh’ shops with the words of the song on them.
Its iconic status reflects the deeply-rooted and rich Christian heritage that is still a strong part of Welsh culture even today.
Because of its huge popularity, it is also a song whose origins have become mythologised. There are various stories about how it came to be written, and people from several distinct communities today claim theirs to be the place where the song was composed. There is even misapprehension concerning the identity of the person who wrote the famous tune which usually accompanies the words.
‘Calon Lân’ was written by a man who, though a believer and a faithful chapel man, struggled with personal frailty; and it can be seen as a deep and personal expression for a greater measure of personal, God-pleasing sanctity in his life. It was a song which somehow matched perfectly the desire for personal transformation which was one of the dramatic results of the work of the Holy Spirit in people’s hearts during the great 1904-5 Revival. The song continues to give expression to a deep spiritual longing in all of us to be enabled to live a self-less, sanctified life free from superficial and transient materialism, and characterised instead by integrity, honesty, purity, and joy, which are of eternal worth.
This blog explores the story of the writing of this song and of the music with which it has been associated.
Proms in the Park
On Saturday 10th September 2011, Hazel and I were at Caerphilly Castle for the live Welsh BBC concert for the Last Night of the Proms. It proved to be a disastrous evening, as a storm of Biblical proportions, the remnants of Hurricane Katia, struck just as the evening was getting under way. The downpour not only drenched the waiting crowd of thousands who sought desperately to shelter from the deluge under flimsy umbrellas, but also flooded part of the covered stage, threatening the electrics. While technicians did what they could to salvage the event, the Welsh audience typically broke into a spontaneous rendering, in four part harmony, of Cwm Rhondda to keep up their spirits. But in the end, the whole thing had to be cancelled. We all trooped home through the mud, disappointed, but with another famous Welsh melody, ‘Calon Lân’, also vividly impressed on our minds following a performance of the lovely hymn by Only Boys Aloud. This wonderful choir sang the song as part of the warm-up programme as the rain began to fall, the front row of singers getting thoroughly drenched in the process. In spite of the increasingly torrential rain, they continued stoically to deliver their brilliant rendition. It was worth being there for that alone.
Proms in the Park, Caerphilly 2011
In March the following year, Only Boys Aloud led by their conductor Tim Rhys Evans, performed this same Welsh hymn on the TV programme ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. They completely wowed the audience, and made a huge impact on all three judges; Amanda Holden was moved to tears, while Simon Cowell remarked that he was touched by it even though he could not understand a word of it. He also surprisingly admitted that he had never heard the song before. The choir successfully reached the final of the competition, coming third, and subsequently won a recording contract.
You can hear the ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ performance via the following link:
The success of Only Boys Aloud with ‘Calon Lân’ has intensified interest in the hymn, both in Wales and further afield. While I was aware that it was one of the keynote songs of the great Welsh Revival of 1904-5, and that it had been written by one Daniel James, I knew very little else. It was the performance by Only Boys Aloud that finally prompted me to find out more about the writing of the song.
Only Boys Aloud
Daniel James was born in the parish of Llangyfelach, just north of Swansea, on 23rd January 1848. His parents, Daniel and Mary James, lived at Lisbon Cottage, on the southern edge of of the village of Treboeth, where his father worked as a stone mason. The house where he was born no longer exists, but it was probably a simple single storey thatched dwelling. Today, there is a small area of Swansea that still bears the name Lisbon, and it was probably here that the James family lived at that time.
Older terraced houses in the Lisbon area of Swansea
Later, when he began to write poetry, the young Daniel James would write a poem called ‘Dyfal Donc a Dyrr y Garreg’(‘A Persistent Knock Breaks the Stone’), honouring his father’s trade as a mason.
Daniel’s parents were devout dissenting believers who worshipped at Mynyddbach Chapel, which was situated on open moorland, a mile or so up the Llangyfelach Road. It was a hugely influential chapel which in those years often experienced outpourings of the Spirit in revival. It was in this atmosphere that Daniel was brought up, attending chapel regularly with his parents. He became a dedicated chapel-goer throughout his life, and was a man with strong faith in God. It was at Mynyddbach that he learned to write poetry, and it was in the windswept burial ground there that he was laid to rest at the end of his life.
For a while, Daniel attended the local school in Treboeth. But by 1861, he had left school and was working as a labourer in the local tin works at nearby Morriston. Then, sometime in the 1860’s when the younger Daniel was still in his early teens, Daniel James senior died. He was in his mid forties. Daniel was then left as the main breadwinner for the family, while his mother Mary became a charwoman. Daniel must have been good at his work for he eventually became a puddler – a highly skilled job which involved direct responsibility for the smelting process.
In 1871, when he was 23, Daniel married Ann Hopkins, who was two years younger than him. They settled in Treboeth at Plas-y-Coed Terrace. They went on to have five children: four girls and a boy.
It was in these years that he was encouraged by several members of the chapel at Mynyddbach to study prosody, specifically the techniques involved in the writing of poetry in Welsh. He attended a small group based at the chapel to this end, and they used the book published by David Watkin Jones in 1869 called Yr Ysgol Ffarddol (The School of the Bards). Encouraged by others, Daniel took the first steps in writing himself, using the pseudonym ‘Dafydd’. But D.W Jones, an elder at Mynyddbach, encouraged him to adopt the bardic name ‘Gwyrosydd’. There is some ambiguity regarding the meaning of this name, though the double meaning may well be intentional. it could mean simply ‘Man of the Moors’, the area around Mynyddbach Chapel at that time consisting primarily of relatively high open moorland. Today, though, much of it has been built on. Equally, the name could mean ‘Truth Will Stand’. Some claim that the name refers to the old name for Oystermouth Castle, which is a few miles away, but personally, I find this a little forced, and am happy to settle for a combination of the first two meanings.
A street named in honour of the bard
Daniel clearly had a gift for language, and it was not long before his writings began to be published, at first locally. His lyrics and pieces written for recitation came to be highly regarded, and many of them were published in newspapers and journals. Eventually, three collections of his verses appeared in his lifetime, and helped to popularise his work to a wider Welsh-speaking audience.
The three volumes were:
- Caneuon Gwyrosydd (1885)
- Caniadau Gwyrosydd (1892)
- Aeron Awen Gwyrosydd (1898)
The first two were republished in 1909, probably as a result of the great popularity of
‘Calon Lân’. But Gwyrosydd never made much money from his publications, and was forced to be a hard-working manual labourer for virtually all his life.
The Kings Head
It was in the earlier incarnation of the current Kings Head public house on Llangyfelach Road that Daniel used to go for a drink after work. Here he was something of a local character, apparently becoming well-known for his warm smile and his great sense of humour, though his fondness for a pint would have brought him a certain amount of disapproval from some of the chapel deacons in times when temperance was beginning to become an integral part of the culture of the chapels.
The ‘new’ Kings Head as it looks today
Gwyrosydd used a particular high chair in The Kings Head. he would often be found sitting on this chair, composing verses for his friends, who would then buy him a drink. He often wrote poems to order in return for a pint of ale.
One Saturday night, Daniel was supposed to have arrived home slightly the worse for wear after an evening in The Kings Head. Mary, disgusted with him, would not let him in, and so he was forced to spend the night in the pig-sty behind the house. Next morning he awoke to the sound of the singing from the nearby chapel. When he noticed that the congregation did not end the hymn with the ususal ‘Amen’, he was suddenly overcome by inspiration, and rushed into the house looking for pen and paper. The result was the poem ‘Ble Mae’r Amen?’ (Where’s the Amen?).
Daniel himself told the story of his wife Mary giving him money to buy a pound of butter. However, he gave in to the temptation to buy himself a drink instead. Afterwards, filled with regret, and being somewhat afraid of the kind of reception he might get on returning home without the promised butter, he called at a friend’s house, borrowed some money, bought some butter, and returned home. His wife did not realise what had happened. The next day he was able to repay the friend the money he had borrowed, and accompanied its return with a poem of thanks, honouring his friend!
By the time of the 1881 census, the family was living at 207 Llanyfelach Road, and it is by this time that Daniel was working as a puddler. The numbering of the houses on Llangyfelach Road is completely different to what it was then, but their home would probably have been just a couple of hundred yards down the hill from the present Kings Head pub.
Older houses on the part of Llangyfelach Road where Gwyrosydd lived. The hall was formerly a mission Sunday School established by Mynyddbach.
In the 1880’s Daniel had started to work at the Landore tin-plate works, initially as a hammersman, and then as a traffic manager and weigher. It was at this time, when all five of the children were less than fourteen years of age, and shortly after the birth of the youngest child, that Daniel’s wife Ann tragically died on Christmas Eve 1887. She was 38 years old. It was the second personal tragedy to hit Daniel hard, the first being the death of his father.
Being much in need of help to support his still young family, however, Daniel soon met and married a widow of around his own age who had herself been the victim of personal tragedy. She was Gwenllian Parry, who was 36 to his 40 when they married in the Swansea Registry Office in October 1888. Gwenllian had five children of her own, the youngest of whom, Lydia, then aged seven, had been born in the Ukraine. In 1881, Gwenllian and the four oldest children, all under the age of ten, were living in Clase, Swansea, and her husband was not there. It seems likely he was one of those Welsh people who went out to what was then called Hughesovska to help establish the steel works there, probably earning lucrative wages doing so. After a period of separation, Gwenllian and the children must have followed him out there sometime just after the 1881 census. It would have been after their reunion with her husband that Lydia was born in about 1883. Just afterwards it seems the husband died, probably either as a result of illness or from an industrial accident. A more than likely devastated Gwenllian and the five fatherless young children then returned from ‘South Russia’ to Swansea. It must have been a challenging time, bringing together two families in this way, with ten children between them. Then Daniel and Gwenllian went on to have three more of their own.
The ‘Welsh’ steelworks at Hughesovska in Ukraine, now known as Donetsk
By this time also, the Landore tinplate works was in serious decline (it closed down completely in 1897), and Daniel was forced to find work elsewhere. It was time for a new start, and after brief stays in the Dowlais and Tredegar areas seeking work, they finally settled at Blaengarw, at the head of the Garw Valley, just north of Bridgend. Here, most of the family lived in a small miner’s terraced house at 8 Herbert Street, which can still be seen today. Some of the younger children from Daniel’s first marriage were by now being brought up by other relatives, but even so, it must have been a real squeeze in this tiny house.
8 Herbert Street, Blaengarw
They were living in the same house by the time of the 1891 census, though for some reason, Daniel’s surname is given as James rather than Jones, Nevertheless, there is absolutely no doubt that this is the right family. Daniel is given as being 42, and Gwenllian as 38. Her five children are there, aged between 18 and 9, and her three oldest boys are all described as being coal miners. Only William aged 9 is there from Daniel’s first marriage, and there are two children of the new marriage, both under two years old. Daniel himself has also become a coal miner. He worked underground at the nearby Ocean Colliery, one of three mines in the small pit village at that time.
Ocean Colliery, Blaengarw, as it was
After years working in the tinplate works, Daniel must have found working underground very hard at his age, but he seems to have maintained his sense of humour. It is reported that he used occasionally to write verses in Welsh while at work, using a piece of chalk. One verse he wrote on the side of an empty coal dram after it had derailed underground, and after he had struggled hard alone to get it back on its rails:
Dyma fi o dan y ddaer
Yn scwto, yn scwto,
Cael fy maesddu gan hen ddram
O damo, damo
Here I am underground,
Having been deaten by an old dram
Oh damn it, oh damn it.
The site of the Ocean Colliery today
It was probably soon after the move to Blaengarw, probably in 1891, that Gwyrosydd wrote the words to the poem ‘Calon Lân’. He is supposed to have written the poem on the back of a cigarette packet. One story says that he wrote it in the bar of the Blaengarw Hotel. Another suggests that he composed the words while at work as a coal-weigher, waiting for the next dram of coal to arrive at the pithead. Yet another, that he wrote it at home when his son returned from school having been set as homework the writing of a verse on the theme ‘Calon Lân’ (A Pure heart). All these have a bit of the ring of mythologising about them, and we will never know exactly the context for the writing of the poem.
Blaengarw Hotel, recently painted!
Nid wy’n gofyn bywyd moethus,
Aur y byd nai berlau mân:
Gofyn wyf am galon hapus,
Calon onest, calon lân.
Calon lân yn llawn daioni,
Tecach yw na’r lili dlos:
Dim ond calon lân all ganu
Canu’r dydd a chanu’r nos.
Pe dymunwn olud bydol,
Hedyn buan ganddo sydd;
Golud calon lân, rinweddol,
Yn dwyn byddol elw fydd.
Hwyr y bore fy nyminiad
Gwyd i’r nef ar adain can
Ar i Dduw, er mewn fy Ngheidwad,
Roddi i mi galon lân.
verse 1, line 3: Gofyn wyf am fywyd hapus
verse 2, line 2: Chwim adenydd iddo sydd
verse 3, line 2: Esgyn ar adenydd can
chorus, line 3: Does ond calon lân all ganu
A wrecked coal dram on the site of the former International Colliery, Blaengarw
I don’t ask for a luxurious life,
The world’s gold or its fine pearls;
I ask for a happy heart,
An honest heart, a pure heart.
A pure heart full of goodness
Is fairer than the pretty lily.
None but a pure heart can sing;
Sing in the day, sing in the night.
If I wished for wordly wealth,
It would swiftly go to seed;
The riches of a virtuous, pure heart
Will bear eternal profit.
Evening and morning, my wish
Rising to heaven on the wings of song
For God, for the sake of my Saviour,
To give me a pure heart.
Old winding wheel on the old International Colliery site
Recently an excellent rhyming translation of the Welsh text into English was made by Malcolm Cowan. This copywrite version appears here with his permission, and can be seen in its original context at his own website: https://www.ebook.cowensw.co.uk/Poems/Summary.php?
I’d not ask a life that’s easy,
Gold and pearls so little mean,
Rather seek a heart that’s joyful,
Heart that’s honest, heart that’s clean.
Heart that’s clean and filled with virtue,
Fairer far than lilies white,
Only pure hearts praise God truly,
Praise him all the day and night.
Why should I seek earthly treasures,
On swift wings they fly away,
Pure clean hearts bring greater riches
That for life eternal stay.
Dawn and sunset still I’m searching,
Reaching on a wing of song,
Give me Lord, through Christ my Saviour
That clean heart for which I long.
View over Blaengarw and Calon an Park from the site of the International Colliery
Initially, the poem was set to music written by Thomas Bedford Richards. T.B. Richards was a descendant of John Bedford, the late 18th century ironmaster from Cefn Cribwr. He was supposedly born in Tongwynlais in 1856. He studied at the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth under Dr. Joseph Parry in the late 1870’s, and came to Blaengarw in about 1888. Here, he was a member of Bethania Welsh Baptist Chapel. he was a pioneer of Tonic Sol Fa, and a composer of hymns as well as an organist. He also conducted at local gymanfa ganu – Welsh music concerts. Richards died in Haverfordwest in 1934.
‘Calon Lân’ was first sung to this tune at Bethania Chapel in Blaengarw in 1892. I have yet to track down the tune that he wrote, which is quite possibly never or only rarely used to sing ‘Calon Lân’ today.
The vandalised Bethania has just been sold
During the 1890’s people’s awareness of the song ‘Calon Lân’ must have spread wider, encouraged by the publication of the text in two of Gwyrosydd’s collections of poems. As a result, it became increasingly well-known.
Meanwhile, tragedy struck yet again for Daniel James in this period in Blaengarw. In the spring of 1895, shortly after giving birth to their third child, his second wife Gwenllian died. She was just 44 years old. Once more Daniel was left alone.The Parry children, now grown up, remained at 8 Herbert Street, as did William James, Daniel son through his first marriage, and Myfyr, the son of the second. The other two children were looked after elsewhere, as was common in those days. It must have been another desperate time for Daniel, though.
Blaengarw as it was, with the International Colliery (foreground)
It was in about 1900 that John Hughes wrote the music with which the words of ‘Calon Lân’ are most closely associated today. Quite how this came about is not known. But the story goes that Daniel James himself gave John Hughes a copy of the words of ‘Calon Lân’, and Hughes went away and by the very next day composed a tune to accompany the words. Given that the two men then lived in separate communities some twenty miles apart, it is more likely that, having a published copy of ‘Calon Lân’, Hughes wrote the music for his friend, and either sent it to him, or delivered it himself on a visit to Blaengarw. It is seems generally to be accepted by the people of Blaengarw, that Hughes then brought the music to show Daniel James, and they played and sang it together on the piano in the Blaengarw Hotel.
There is an account that says that before taking the music to Daniel James, Hughes first got John Evans, the organist at Dinas Noddfa Chapel, to play the new tune on the organ, which also tends to support my theory.
Dinas Noddfa, now closed
Part of the myth surrounding ‘Calon Lân’ relates to the precise identity of John Hughes. Just to complicate things, there is a famous hymn tune writer by that name who lived not far from Blaengarw, who was born in Dowlais in 1873 and lived in Llantwit Fardre, near Pontypridd, where he died in 1932. He is most famous as being the man who wrote the great Welsh hymn tune ‘Cwm Rhondda’, and he is sometimes thought to be the John Hughes who wrote ‘Calon Lân’ as well. Just to confuse things still further, I’ve come across at least one other source citing yet another John Hughes of the same age who was born in Llandeilo, Talybont and who lived in Clase as being the author of the tune!
But our John Hughes was actually born in North Pembrokeshire round about the same time as the John Hughes who wrote ‘Cwm Rhondda’. His parents, William and Elizabeth Hughes, were poor agricultural labourers who lived in the parish of Bridell, just south of the town of Cardigan. They lived in a small cottage on the main road in the hamlet of Pen-y-bryn, and it was here that John was born on 13th February 1872. That makes him almost a quarter of a century younger than Gwyrosydd. The house in which he was born still survives, and is marked with a plaque honouring it as the birthplace of the man who wrote the music to ‘Calon Lân’.
John Hughes’ birthplace
Probably seeking a better life that was possible for poor people at that time in rural West Wales, the Hughes family moved to Landore in 1874, when John was just two years old. They lived at 9 Byng Place in Clase. After leaving school at Brynhyfryd in 1884, John started work as an office boy at the Duffryn tinplate works in Morriston. This could have been when Daniel Hughes got to know him. In 1891 the family was living at 30 Mysydd Road, Clase. His father was a coal haulier in a mine, while John was a clerk at a works. He later became a secretary to a tinplate manufacturer; and at the time that he would have written the music to ‘Calon Lân’, he and his widowed mother were living at 215 Neath Road, immediately opposite the site of the Landore works – now the location for the Liberty Stadium, home of Swansea City Football Club and the Ospreys Rugby Club. At that time, John was 29 years old, and still a batchelor.
Liberty Stadium on the site of the former Landore tinplate works
In 1903 John Hughes married Mary Anna Thomas, and they settled down at 3 Stockwell Villas on Mount Pleasant in the heart of Swansea, where they had three daughters. John Hughes was doing well for himself, given his humble origins. However, in June 1914, just before the start of the Great War, he died at the young age of 42. He was buried at Caersalem Newydd Chapel in Treboeth, but I have not been able to locate his grave in the huge jungle behind the chapel.
Caersalem Newydd on Llangyfelach Road
Recently I travelled to West wales to photograph the house in which John Hughes was born, and to see the artistic flower pavement outside Cardigan Castle which honours the man who wrote the music for ‘Calon Lân’. It was a summer Saturday in August, and a special weekend of events was running catering for tourists, many of them from England. I was astonished to witness the enormous and bitter irony of a troup of English morris dancers performing right on the ‘Calon Lân’ pavement, which honours one of the greatest of Welsh hymns. I doubt they were even aware of the significance of what they were doing! I had to wait until they had finished before taking a few quick snaps.
The Calon Lan lily pavement in Cardigan, and the associated wall-plaque.
Quite how long Daniel remained at Blaengarw after the death of Gwenllian is not clear, but some time in the next few years, probably just after John Hughes wrote the music for ‘Calon Lân’, he moved away from Blaengarw, alone this time.
By the time of the 1901 census, Daniel James was lodging with three others with a Jones family at 15 Navigation Street in Mountain Ash, some miles away to the east. The three boarders would in all probability have had to share one of the bedrooms in the tiny cottage.
Navigation Street, Mountain Ash, number 15 is nearest the camera
Daniel was by now 50 years of age and was working as a labourer underground. He had apparently been found work in the Nixon’s Navigation colliery by an admirer called T. Glyn Richards, who was a member of Bethania Baptist Chapel in the centre of the town, and also the conductor of the Mountain Ash Male Voice Choir.
It was at Bethania, in Mountain Ash – probably the chapel which Daniel James himself attended while he was living in Mountain Ash, that the new tune by John Hughes had its first public airing.
Bethania Welsh Baptist, Mountain Ash
In the spring of 1903 there was yet more tragedy, as Daniel’s son William died following a minor accident underground at the International Colliery in Blaengarw. He was just twenty years old. He had been cut while working, not too seriously; but within three days he was dead after lock-jaw set in. William was buried in the same grave as his mother Mary at Mynyddbach Chapel in Llangyfelach, Swansea.
‘Calon Lân’ was one of the most popular hymns sung during the Revival; and while it is possible that both the original tune and the one by John Hughes were used, it is likely that Hughes’s tune was the one most commonly used. Certainly it would have been the revival that popularised the latter over the former. Here are two references to ths use of ‘Calon Lân’ in the special supplements produced by ‘Awstin’, the Pontypridd-based reporter, providing readers of the Western Mail with information about the Revival meetings.
Shortly after two o’clock in the afternoon there stood at, the side door of the hall two young men and five young ladies singing the touching lines
“Calon lan yn llawn daioni,
Perffaith fel y lili dios;
Dim ond calon lan all gana,
Canu’r dydd a chanu’r nos.”
I entered, and found the Town-hall absolutely empty, but, I was quickly followed by the singers, and gradually by people from the street, and to hear and see the service that was conducted by these young people, alone and unaided—except as they were, as they prayed, “directed by the Spirit”—was a sight, which I shall never forget.
Skewen – January 10th 1905
At the morning service the Rev. Elvet Lewis, in the course of a brief address, remarked that the revival of 1859 took place soon after he was born, and one of the best-known hymns of that period which his mother used to sing, was this:-
Y Gwr wrth ffyon Jacob
Eieteddodd yo i lawr.
Dramwyodd drwy Samaria
Tramwyed yma’n awr;
Bu syched aro yno
Am gael eu hachub hwy,
Mne syched arno eto
Am achub llawer mwy
He sang it to the tune “Brynian Cassia,” and the congregation took it up well, the “repeat” of “Mwy, mwy- am achub llawer, mwy,” being very effective. The same hymn was used as the master-key to open the hearts of the people at the afternoon service. Next came the beautiful hymn:-
Calon lan ya llawn daioni,
Tecach yw na’r lili dlos
Dim ond calon lan all ganu-
Canu’r dydd a chanu’r nos.
The tune was an adaptation of ‘If I’ve Jesus, Jesus only.’ This was repeated several times.
It was during the Revival, in 1905 to be precise, that yet another tune was written which has also been connected with ‘Calon Lân’, as much as with other great hymns (eg: ‘Love Divine All Loves Excelling’). It is ‘Blaenwern’, written by William Penfro Rowlands (1860-1937).
Rowlands gave the tune the name ‘Blaenwern’ in honour of a farm at Henry’s Moat near his former home at Lys y Fran, where he was once sent to convalesce after a serious illness in his late childhood or early teenage years. This farm was tenanted by the elderly Margaret Edwards in 1861, who was a staunch supporter of the local Congregational Chapel; and by one Jonathan Perkins in 1871, the unmarried son of Rev. Reese Perkins, the locaI Congregational minister, who served at Maenchlochog and at Siloh Chapel, Henry’s Moat, and his wife Mary. Either Margaret Edwards or Jonathan Perkins must have looked after the sick William Rowlands at Blaenwern. The tune ‘Blaenwern’ seems not only to express William’s gratefulness to God for his restoration, but also communicates all the passion and power of the Revival during which it was written.
While the tune was composed during the 1904-5 Revival, it was not published until the appearance of Henry Jones’sCan a Moliant in 1915. ‘Blaenwern’ became increasingly popular as a tune, especially in the 1950’s, after its use in the Billy Graham Crusades of those years.
Briefly, William Penfro Rowlands was born at Llys y Fran, in the parish of Maenchlochog in the Preseli Mountain district of North Pembrokeshire on 19th April 1860. His parents were William and Anne Rowlands who were tenants of a small 23 acre farm caled Dan-y-Coed, and members of Siloh Congregational Chapel at Henry’s Moat. The cottage in which William was born is now a ruin, though a monument to this composer was raised near to the ruins by local residents in 1998, proud of his connection with their community.
Monument commemorating William Penfro Rowlands
In 1881, having worked for a while as a farm servant at Roch, he moved to Morriston in Swansea. Ironically, this was not that long before Daniel James moved away from that part of the town. In 1891 he was living at Springfield Terrace, Llangyfelach with his new wife Hannah (nee Davies), who was ten years younger than him. As well as being a composer and musician, Rowlands taught locally in several schools. He was initially precentor at Bethania Welsh Baptist Chapel, but later became the conductor of the Morriston United Choral Society, and was precentor of the Morriston Tabernacle Congregational Church.
Rowlands died in Swansea on 22nd October 1937 at the age of 77, but I am not aware of where he was buried.
There is a magnificant rendering of ‘Calon Lân’ to the tune Blaenwern by the massed choirs of Morriston in the presence of the Prince of Wales on the ‘Cymanfa Ganu’ recording made by the BBC in 1969, now sadly long ‘out of print’. It too can be heard on You Tube. I defy you to remain unmoved by it!
By the end of the decade, Daniel was getting too old to continue to work underground, and was able to secure a job with the local council as a gravedigger. In the 1911 census he is recorded as being a 63 year old labourer for the UDC, and was then lodging with one other boarder with a Davies family at 15 Richmond Road, Mountain Ash, which was only a couple of hundred yards downhill from the cemetery.
15 Richmond Road, Mountain Ash
Daniel would have worked in the Aberffrwd burial ground just up the mountainside from the town. Today the place is deemed unsafe, and the gates are locked, denying access. But while the work must have been easier in some respects, it is hard to imagine a man who has by now become something of a celebrity for his poetry and the song ‘Calon Lân’, having to do this sort of work, which he continued for at least seven years, until the end of the Great War.
Aberffrwd cemetery, Mountain Ash, now closed to the public
In 1918, an old man, Daniel moved back to Swansea to live with his youngest daughter Olwen and her husband Joseph Longstaff at Tanylan, Morriston. His only income was a small pension of 7/6d (35p) a week. He did receive some additional support from admirers, and friends petitioned the Prime Minister for a Civil List pension, which reflects the esteem in which he was held by this time, but Gwyrosydd died before there was a response, on 11th March 1920, aged 72. He was buried at Mynyddbach Chapel burial ground, Llangyfelach with his first wife and son.
A translation of the inscription on the headstone reads as follows:
In memory of Ann, beloved wife of Daniel James, Treboeth, who died on December 24th, 1887, 38 yrs old. See the grave of a Dear one who was pure sunshine, undefiled to her family. Also William James, his son 20 yrs old. Also the above Daniel James (Gwyrosydd) who died March 16 1920 73 years old. Pure heart so full of goodness. Also daughter of the above, Mary, who died June 28 1941, 68 yrs old. Come ye blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.
After the revival, ‘Calon Lân’ seems to have grown in popularity, becoming established as one of the most cherished hymns of 20th century Wales.
There is a report of a first public concert including the hymn at Bethania in Mountain Ash in 1910, though this seems surprisingly late given its popularity in the Revival which ended five years earlier.
There are also references to Welsh soldiers singing ‘Calon Lân’ while serving on the Western Front in the Great War. I have already mentioned its use by crowds at rugby matches, and while it continues to be sung at pre-match warm-ups at internationals in Cardiff, it is gradually being displaced now by Delilah and Hymns and Arias!
In 1936 a bronze memorial plaque to Daniel James was set up on the wall of the then Treboeth Public Hall, now Treboeth Community Centre on Llangyfelach Road.
The plaque commemorating Gwyrosydd
Sadly, when I visited treboeth on a quiet Sunday afetrnoon recenly, I found that this plaque had been removed from the front of the building. Just as I was standing outside the Community Centre, about to take a photograph, a woman on her way to post a letter asked me what I was looking for. It turned out she was the chairperson of the Community Centre. I explained my interest in Gwyrosydd, and she explained that the plaque had only recently been taken down to protect it from theft. Apparently, a bronze plaque on the adjacent war memorial had recently been taken by metal thieves, and it was felt the Gwyrosydd plaque was too valuable to risk something similar happening. It would be replaced by a plastic replica, while the original would be restored and put up on the wall inside the building when it reopened in the autumn. A sad reflection on our days, I thought, and in direct opposition to the sentiments expressed in ‘Calon Lân’! It reinforced in me the awareness of how much this nation needs a fresh spiritual awakening!
Treboeth Community Centre
Very recently, as already mentioned, there has been an upsurge of interest in the song. In 2007 it was played on S4C’s Welsh language TV programme Codi Canu to encourage traditional four-part harmony singing at rugby matches.
Meanwhile, ‘Calon Lân’ continues to be a staple of recordings by male voice choirs, and all the great Welsh solo artists feature it in their repertoires, sometimes to the tune by John Hughes, and at others to the famous tune Blaenwern (think ‘Love Divine All Love’s Excelling’) – even sometimes both, as recently by Cerys Matthews. Cerys sang the song live on Dechrau Canu, Dechrau Canmol – the Welsh equivalent of Songs of Praise – in 2009, using both tunes, one after the other. She has done as much as anyone recently to renew the popularity fo the song.
Here also is a link to a great live performance of the song by one of Wales’s greatest singers, Bryn Terfel, at the Faenol Festival in 2006. The audience clearly loved joining in with the singing.
In 2008 Parc Calon Lan was opened at Blaengarw on the rite of the former colliery washery which had attached to the International Colliery. his was part of a project to completely rejuvenate the area, and to emphasise the heritage the place has as the former home of Gwyrosydd. The park includes a wonderful community-created terracotta scupture conceived by American sculptor Rebecca Buck who now lives in the village. It commemorates the writing of the song.
When I visited Blaengarw very recently I was very pleasantly surprised at the extent to which members of the local community were proudly aware of the story of Daniel James. Indeed, some of the descendants of the children of his second wife Gwenllian still live in the village. I met three young boys who boldly came up to me in the park to ask where I was from, to find that one of them, a nine year old, was able to say proudly that he lived in the house next door to the one in which Daniel James himself used to live. I was astonished at both his awareness of this fact, and his sense of pride that he should live so close to the great bard’s house.
Later on I met some of the older locals in the Blaengarw Hotel, who likewise were full of stories and information about the writing of ‘Calon Lân’ in their community, and only too pleased to be able to share what they knew; while three former miners sunning themselves on a bench high up above the village, were only too pleased to tell their tales of the days when Blaengarw was a key mining community in the Valleys. They invited me to take their picture, which I am pleased to include here.
In addition to the performances by Only Boys Aloud, and possibly encouraged by their success, the song was recently sung in May of 2012 to commemmorate the reopening of Caersalem Newydd Chapel in Treboeth, the place where John Hopkins is buried. Swansea Male Choir and the Loughor Town Band took part in the ceremony. A newspaper report of the event recorded:
‘It was fitting that the grand-daughters of the man who wrote the music were guests of honour at the concert and led the applause when the whole audience joined with the choir in a spontaneous and stirring rendition of Calon Lan.’
Also in the spring of 2012, whilst filming a TV programme about Welsh artist Evan Walters, who was born in the tavern right next door to Mynyddbach Chapel, Daniel James’s home church, Rolf Harris took a break from filming to visit James’s grave, and himself sang the song in Welsh.
Not surprisingly, since my first visit to the place last year, a path has been cut through the undergrowth in Mynyddbach burial ground, and handpainted signposts now point the way for thousands of recent visitors to the grave of Gwyrosydd, one of the most popular of Welsh bards in the last few generations.
There are very few resources with information about Gwyrosydd, and I have relied heavily on four websites, in addition to my own trawling through census and public registration records.
(The latter site if the source for pictures of Gwyrosydd and Hughes, and of the Treboeth bronze plaque honouring Gwyrosydd)
Resource for John Hughes, in addition to the sites above:
Resources for information on John Penfro Rowlands:
(The latter is the source for the picture of the Lys-y-fran memorial)
For the Revival meetings:
The Religious Revival in Wales – ‘Awstin’ (2004)