Idris Davies was a miner, teacher and poet who T.S. Eliot thought captured the atmosphere of the 1926 General Strike better than anyone else. His work received a welcome second look when Pete Seeger used a part of one of his poems as a lyric for the 1965 folk song "Bells of Rhymney". The Pop group The Birds turned it into a major hit.
The poem is a monologue I wrote to accompany my version of the song that includes some of his actual words.
For more information on Idris Davies see his Wikipedia page
There’s a long-held Welsh folk tradition that pigs can see the wind. People can only see its effect, but as a metaphor for the human condition, it is clearly visible.
Kite in wind the day flew by
for a long time
I held onto
Raven and crow —
Black rags pulled from clothes lines —
Ragdance over fences
Over stallions maddened by wind shear.
Picking up clothes pegs, rags scattered
It’s proverbial that those born, bred and still living in their immediate environments often have forgotten the exceptionality of their surroundings. Frequently, famous, even world famous, landmarks and places of beauty or mystery have been absorbed into the everyday. The traveler, expatriate and passerby often have the advantage of fresh eyes and curiosity, to take what for many has become ordinary and rediscover a world of wonders!
Firebird hides behind the crater rim.
Cool, sonorous night—late lunar relief—
Still silhouettes saguaros, but soon
Desert fox will slip down the wash, searching for
Day-shade, dancing past rat-full, rattling snakes,
Snake-feeling for flat, siesta rocks.
Scattered skeletons, scavenger-clean,
Whisper on superstitious winds,
“Leave mysteries locked in The Lost Dutchman Mine.
Trade silver and gold for copper and tin.
You magpie-men pickpocket sleeping hills.
Drudge-dug, blind-black, brought out in plain sight,
See the thief’s motherload overspill.”
The driver drives by.
Masterful abstract artifact unsigned,
The canyon road claws at crumbling walls,
Crawls into the cellar of impossible stone,
Across the bridged, silver stream— the artist revealed—
Then back up and out. Unforgiving, unsurpassed,
Cathedral of treacherous splendour!
“Live and let live” the mountain air whispers to
Hunters and hunted, love-lost in embrace,
As Hawk glides in clear, confident skies.
And Raven, proud with bloodied beak,
As black as Apache shoulder-flowing hair,
Drinks lost light from fallen-warrior eyes.
Sleep now on your bitter, broken dreams.
Let shattered-glass promises cover your corpse.
Let your children still dance and laugh for love, keep
Defeat in abeyance, carrion away.
And the driver?
Caring and careless, necessary guest,
Brings government surplus, soils sacred air with alien smoke,
Leaves roadside dying, crying in his wake.
But this intruder must leave these tumbling crests,
Turn, follow the ebbing-tide light,
Turn back along the path to the place he belongs.
Back through rocks, imperceptibly aged, past
Rusting machines, long abandoned mines, past
Sun-loving Snake and Fox’s run,
Spat out through the trailhead— high country’s gate —
To the flat, scorched, stone-cold concrete town.
There, a windowed mistress hopes for rain,
Hopes in vain for her white wedding day,
Prays for her lover’s uncontested divorce,
While Warrior and Hunter watch, wait,
And the driver drives by.
Rainy Reunion in Tenby
The yearly cycle turns around Glangaea, the old Welsh New Year, at the beginning of November. The ancients would fix their gaze on Caer Arianrhod—The Corona Borealis—hoping to catch a glimpse of the entrancing goddess, as she sat at her silver spinning wheel, gracefully spinning their earthly fate. Spirits were abroad and the long winter darkness, already manifest, called for bonfires, ritual and reassurance, in a fragile, often casually temperamental world. They would look again to the skies around Glanmai—Mayday—but this time with much greater hope in their hearts at the promise of lengthening days of life-giving light. If, like the spinner, they could have travelled time, in that early November sky, they might have fleetingly caught a different silver glimmering, the very distant, outstretched wings of a Boeing 747-400, as it imperceptibly lowered its nose, after passing over Taliesin’s Rheged—Strathclyde. Making its way south above the ancient kingdoms of Elmet and midland Britain, it safely touched down in 21 st Century Heathrow Airport.
A speedy London Underground run, then the familiar Paddington-South Wales train, seemed to quietly and smoothly anticipate the waiting family the other side of Cardiff, on Port Talbot Parkway Station. Making good time to and through the tunnel and, although bathed in rapidly fading evening light, the characteristic and comforting hills of Gwent, then Sir Forgannwg held out welcoming Welsh arms. Home was now a reality, hireath—homesickness—a remnant of then. Croeso i Gymru—Welcome to Wales!
The advantages of living six thousand miles away from your origins are legion, as are the disadvantages. One of the more interesting advantages is the built-in ability to time travel. Yes, seriously! No need of the teeming imagination and mechanical aptitude of H.G. Wells. No need of magical caves, dream worlds, psychedelic tunnels or worm holes; just five or more years of separation and the ebb and flow of human tides. Now, read on for the revelation.
As we observe, so we are observed, with the inevitable process of aging, gracefully or not, easily read in the open pages of our tearful, smiling faces. To see someone beloved and be seen by them, with intervening years, is to indeed travel time. Reconciliation with a long estranged close relative is heartwarming, yet the ravages are sadly shocking enough to insist that you yourself look into the mirror and hope it will show more compassion. Even more striking, to see new family additions: a babe in arms with familiar features, “Doesn’t she look a lot like...”; a slightly older child, “Reminds me a lot of him when he first...”; “She’s got the attitude of a young so and so!”
Sometimes those too-rapidly-growing cherubs go to the same school and even the same classroom where you yourself window-dreamed. Yes, the wheel is always in spin but, even for a brief spell, you become that smiling, sing-song rhyming, chiming child in the playground again, vicariously young. Perhaps a six-month-old infant’s casual gesture, facial expression, outstretched hand is a duplicate of an older uncle or aunt. They are, in a sense, one and the same, just at different points on the curve of our earthly continuum. And so it was this time, as it has always been and always will be, an opportunity for all to visit with the great sweep of generations, in the comfortable front room parlour of a small industrial town.
Even the rain is somehow familiar here, in this smoky old borough. It reminds the prodigal visitor that November on the coastal plain of Bae Abertawe—Swansea Bay—has a geographical signature; characteristically lashing the gray stone walls, windows and slate roofs devoid of wise Jackdaws. But, solace for a traveller’s flagging soul, on a bacon, fried bread and black-puddinged morning, during a steak and kidney pied lunch, or haddock and chipped Friday teatime treat, all is warm, well and beyond reach of re-gathering gray clouds and threatening gales.
Intermittent gusts and squalls were certainly there, the following rainy Monday in Tenby Town. Dinbych y Pysgod—Tenby of the Fish—is a Norman-walled town, replete with castle, smugglers’ caves, squabbling gulls, nets, boats, anchors, ropes and enough mythic and poetic license to be itself a tall tale. It is a place to engage all the senses; salty to the taste, it had the smell, touch and ambient sound of a wind and rain swept Pembrokeshire sea town. It is ever a harbour for those long at sea, the perfect place for reunion.
The last time of meeting this long lost friend was his twenty first birthday in Ynysybwl, Cwm Rhondda. Growing up, there had been many occasions of music making, larking, drinking cider, laughing and day dreaming... you know the kind of things teenagers did forty odd years ago, and yes, still and will always do. Sitting in the bay window of The Buccaneer Inn, with the wood fire keeping out the chill, there was a sense of “What will it be like to see and be seen down the wrong end of a telescope?” The sixties were a lifetime before; washed away, gone, almost as if they had happened to someone else. Something dreamt, scenes from a subtitled foreign film. Would we recognize... know each other? Would we like what we saw... the look of one another? What would be said? What was there to say?
After a long tearful embrace, fears went the way of the fallen rain, guttering down to the invigorated sea. Age certainly showed its fascinating and frightful imprint, but friendship—true friendship—showed no sign of weakening, let alone disappearing. Maybe it had even enlivened with time and travel. Conversation was as brisk as the keen wind off the bay, while the two hour run of our brief encounter was spinning at the speed of the goddess’ wheel. First there were the fifteen-minute, forty-year personal digests, then the “Do you remember such and such... so and so?”; “He did well”; “V married W”; “X retired years ago”; “Y made a big splash in London Town”; “Z was never the same...” Email, network and mobile numbers exchanged, promises made, and just like that, the bay window looked out on an empty, rainy Tenby cobblestone street. The world had silently turned. Time had moved on... once again.
Looking out of another window at around thirty five thousand feet, heading back over Rheged, shell-shocked head spinning, you might have wondered if a time-travelling Taliesin had caught a glimpse of the Boeing from the ground, as he scanned the sky for a sighting of Arianrhod at her wheel. Then the realization would dawn. Glangaea or not, and even though you can, there is no need to time travel, if you have never left the May Day of your days. The spirit of Glanmai is, after all, at home in the heart—in the abode of the soul—and beyond the ceaseless turning of the silver spinning wheel.
If you can’t have a leek, take cabbage
Among the many marvelous oddities associated with the place of my birth, perhaps the oddest is a lowly green and white, tubular garden favorite. All countries have national emblems--birds, flowers, harps, tree leaves, animals--but only one, to my knowledge, has a beloved national vegetable: Cymru/Wales. Yes the leek is unique, coming as it does with a host of traditions, origin tales and even a proverb:
Oni chei gennin, dwg fresych/ If you can’t have a leek, take cabbage
And the meaning is? As with all cryptic sayings and the like it’s up to you to decide. For me, it means something on the order of: if you can’t have what you want, take what’s available. That in turn reminds me of an engaging little story I was told a good while ago, on a rainy Sunday night, in a cozy front room, on the last day of a visit to Wales.
In the mid to later years of the 19 th century in Edinburgh, there lived the Mackintosh family. Unusual for Scotland, they were of the Catholic faith, were quite wealthy, and had a host of children of various ages. Amongst them, Robert--the hero of our tale--was an adventurous, inquisitive, young lad destined, he thought, to follow in his father’s flourishing haberdashery business. Tragically, the family’s happy, mid-Victorian life was abruptly shattered by the sudden death of the children’s mother in childbirth, and from that point on their childhood would never be the same . This was particularly true for young Robert.
After the prerequisite period of mourning, Robert’s father—also a Robert—took a new wife to look after the children and for companionship. Unfortunately, the new wife, although a good companion, showed no interest in the young ones at all, and even suggested sending the girls to a nunnery and the boys to become priests! Robert the younger caught wind of this, and having no intention of taking the cloth, took to his heels, lied about his age, and joined the crew of a ship engaged in the lively British coastal trade.
Not too long after boarding ship for his maiden voyage, Robert’s fledgling career on the briny byways was cut short. The ship docked a little way up the Neath River, at Llansawel/Briton Ferry. Anxious to see the lay of the wild Welsh lands that he’d learned about in school, he wondered around the quaint little hamlet, met a local girl, Mary John, and jumped ship! To cut a short story even shorter, he--as all sailors are wont to do--fell in love, lied about his age again (not being the requisite 21) and married Mary.
Llansawel is a moderately long walk from the once vibrant, industrial valley and moorland of the Afan River. Mary and Robert settled there, Robert working in the coal mines, copper and iron works, and Mary very busy with a burgeoning late Victorian family. Sometime later and unbeknown to young Robert, Robert senior passed away. The executors of his will had the difficult task of tracking the children down, to inform them of their loss, and of their modest but welcome inheritance. Now I’ve always said the Romans invented bureaucracy, and the British perfected it. Everything that happens in the UK is recorded in triplicate, indexed, and filed alphabetically with numerical sub-sections. The executors followed the paper trail of sea voyage logs, marriages and births, and discovered a very surprised Robert Mackintosh living peacefully in a little South Wales valley village.
The terms of the windfall were that a number of silver crowns—a tidy sum for the day--would arrive periodically, until the full amount was paid off. Robert and Mary, not being wealthy and with a growing family, were ecstatic, and I’m sure celebrated their luck with a taste or two of homemade elderberry wine , while raising a glass to the late Robert senior for his thoughtfulness. Robert junior, like many of his age and position in life, did not trust or like banks, so he secretly came up with a plan to keep their money safe. Unknown even to Mary, he would quietly slip the silver coins in between the leaves of his cabbages in the garden. Nobody went there except himself he thought, so his crowns would be as safe as in the Bank of England. Then he would put on his best Sunday clothes and hat, and walk down to the nearest town—Aberafan—and celebrate by toasting his late father’s belated gift, knowing that his secret hiding place was well kept.
One time, shortly after the crowns had arrived Robert, as usual, made a deposit in the back garden “bank ”, donned hat and coat and lightheartedly skipped off for a pint or two down to the nearby town. On this particular occasion, the kindly local vicar happened to call at the Mackintosh house asking for donations to feed the poor and destitute of the parish. Mary apologized for having little money to spare with all the kids to feed, but offered to give the gentle man a couple of cabbages to make cawl/soup for the unfortunates. “ Oni chei gennin, dwg fresych” the vicar replied with a smile, and off he went to the vicarage with the cabbages, as happy as a trout/mor hapus a’r brithyll!
Not long after, a very contented, rosy-cheeked Robert, a tad unsteady on his feet, returned to his happy home, kissed Mary, and headed for the garden to deposit what was left of his drinking money. Now, it’s always a difficult thing to sober up quickly, as I can well attest, but Robert, seeing several cabbage stalks and no cabbages was instantly alert, everything being explained by Mary, as they raced to the church hall. Luckily, the soup was not yet on the stove, and the whole confusion was soon sorted out. A grateful Robert and Mary even made a small donation to the fund. As with all such harmless mishaps, when the family gathered ‘round, there’d be much laughter in the house, as the story was retold a hundred times over; each telling a little more elaborate! To this day, the yarn has never lost its magic, even though everyone knows the happy ending.
Note* This more-or-less true story was told to us by my mother’s cousin, Pam Walker, nee Mackintosh, who sadly passed away recently, just as I was thinking about sharing this tale with all of you. And, by the way, Robert, whom unfortunately I never met—he must have been a hoot!—was my great-grandfather; Mary my great-grandmother.
For more of my scribblings and much more, go to: www.tramormusic.com
Album Release Interview with John Good
(Ceri Shaw of AmeriCymru interviewer, April 2013)
Can you tell us a little about your new album 'Chwarae Teg'?
JP and I formed a traditional band named Afan about 15 years ago in the Phoenix area, but he had to move out of town to take care of an ailing family member and we lost touch. In January of this year a Welsh and music student of mine was singing in Welsh at a wine bar when John Piggott came up and said; "You should meet John Good." She replied: "He's my teacher!" We hooked up again and soon we were working towards a few gigs, with a recent trip to play for Berwyn Jones, Barb and Don Bennett and Laurie McAlister in the Lincoln Nebraska area suggesting we should hit the red button and immortalize our present musical condition.
The album is credited to the 'Welsh American Acoustic Project'. How does this relate to Tramor?
Tramor (Overseas) has been a variable-member ensemble for a number of years; ranging from one person to five players, 12 dancers and a pipe band ... sort of a there's-an- interesting-gig-in-the-wind-would-you-like-to-play/dance/pipe/story-tell kind of Celtic music hall menagerie. The 'Welsh American Acoustic Project' started off life as a sub-title, but JP, being an x-preppy, computer nerdish, robot-war-fest announcer likes it so much that we have to put it on every bloody thing. It's actually a pretty accurate description of what we are developing ... transatlantic, stylistic mayhem using wooden tools, no offense intended.
There is a unique version of 'Ar Lan Y Mor' on the album. Care to tell us how this evolved?
We both knew the song already and I have been toying for years with the idea of starting out with some music and/or a lyric and spinning stories from the mood, narrative or provenance of the piece. The verse about the cow has always intrigued me, so I hooked it up with an old story about a cobbler and an angry giant from Wales. Another live piece is based on an Arthurian tale told by Iolo Morganwg a couple of hundred years ago.
Care to tell us how the River Severn got its name?
No. Buy the album... just kidding! Hafren was the love child of Locrinus, who's real wife Gwendolin threw in a river out of spite and commanded everyone to remember this infamy by naming the river Hafren, that was consequently Latinized as Sabrin, then Saxonized as Severn, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth (who was about as reliable as old Iolo.)
How did the 'Wrekin' get its name?
A Welsh giant of that name unloaded a shovelful of earth where the hill now stands according to legend, but I think the fairies did it!
Where can people go online to buy 'Chwarae Teg'?
It's on the website, but if you can't wait -- and you shouldn't -- you can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org ($15, including postage). It'll also be in the bookshop at AmeriCymru.
What's next for John Good and Tramor?
I intend to win the lottery tonight but in case this plan fails, we'll be out and about in Arizona, the South and Northwest, or waiting for the telephone to ring and the man with the astrakhan overcoat, beaver skin top hat and Rolls Royce to cross my palm with silver. We intend to increase our repertoire and stylistic diversity so as to keep our blossoming fan base confused but strangely happy.
Any final message for our readers?
Please don't call the mind police. I don't really think I'm Owain Glyndwr and that incident with the parrot and the pirate ... that was an accident.
John Good, known to many as Sioni Dda, was born and tumbled up in South Wales, in the shadow of blast furnace number 4, Port Talbot. He went to university in Yorkshire, in the late 1960s, and spent as much time in poetry readings and happenings as in the lecture halls. It was a time of cultural, social and artistic revolution, with the majority of students looking to R.D. Lang, Ginsberg and John Cage for direction.
John moved back to Glamorgan to study with Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott and somehow acquired a Master's degree in Music Composition, while spending more time at the Chapter Arts Center, drinking Brains' beer and losing at darts. There was a short sojourn in London, some inner-city school teaching, then a couple of years in Brighton, playing music and keeping copious diaries of his post-academic wanderings. One slow Wednesday, San Francisco looked interesting, and after couple of months of traveling from sea to shining sea, he was offered a job playing in a contemporary jazz-rock band and accidentally emigrated.
The sun was setting on the Summer of Love in the Bay area and L.A. and a song writing career looked enticing. All this time, notes and diaries were morphing into lyrics, short stories and poems, but this was a time for collection of experiences and naive essays into the hard world of professional writing, all the while trying to shim up the greasy pole of fame and fortune in the world of Punk and New Wave music. He learned a great deal about song writing, life, folly and rejection, and needed a break, geographically and mentally. Fame and fortune supplies great material for latter ruminations, but is exhausting. John, as he says, moved to Phoenix, bought a semi-truck and took off--All Aboard!--on the Black Top sea!
In Arizona, a stint on the board of the Phoenix Poetry Society and evermore frequent magazine publications of his poetry and short stories began to refocus his artistic desires. Remembering quite long poetry, songs and short story re-writes, in between truck stops, is tricky business. Casting off his truck driving anchor, he remembered his degrees and took a part time job teaching in a community college and formed a Welsh-American, modern, folk band, playing folk harp, Welsh bagpipes, pibgorn, flutes, whistles and voice. He still tours the Celtic Festivals from time to time. Simultaneously, he teaches online Welsh Language classes, writes articles, book reviews, short stories and poems for AmeriCymru, and is a columnist and regular contributor to Ninnau, the Welsh American newspaper.
Now, in his early 70s, on a Saturday night, he may still do a jig or two, if influenced to do so. Living in the foothills, outside of Prescott, Arizona, he is collecting and editing his stories and poems, with a view to publishing. An interesting life has filled many a page or two; his website contains a selection of his writings.