It seemed like a miracle, the first time that I heard this. And once again, I am indebted to A. Judy Collins –my earliest exposure to the song was on her compilation album ‘Recollections’ –and B. my brother Allan, of course, who bought the album .( Her version is still one of the most stridently powerful you’re likely to hear.)
Despite the mispronunciation (rim-ney) it was clear that Judy Collins was singing about my valleys, these villages and towns! Blimey! Somewhere in the vast commercial music business machinery of North America’s long playing record making and distribution industry, someone was highlighting the plight of the miners of the Rhymney and Rhondda valleys! It boggled my teenage mind! Here was my heritage in a song: my father’s struggles –remembering his life as a miner’s champion as the local colliery’s Lodge Secretary, N.U.M. representative and Labour Party Secretary in our village.. How far down the road I was in my recognition of the characters and talents of Pete Seeger and Idris Davies, I can’t remember –I may have had some vague awareness of both… But within not too long a time they had both become heroes of a kind.
Our secondary school awarded an ‘Idris Davies Memorial Poetry Prize’ to senior students –which I won in my final year of school… To this day I don’t know for which poem, or perhaps it was for my general fascination with poetry? To my shame, despite receiving the prize, I don’t think I bothered to explore anything about Idris Davies, beyond remembering that he had lived at Rhymney. Then for one birthday, when I was in my twenties, my sister Judy sent me a copy of Idris Davies’s Collected Poetry – with a note inside telling me that he had in fact taught at our primary school (Cwmsyfiog, New Tredegar) during her time there! The connection felt even stronger; and I started to read the poems and loved his compassion for the people of his valleys, as well as his lyricism and pithiness. ‘The Bells of Rhymney’ is from a long poem sequence called ‘Gwalia Deserta’ (wasted Wales?) and there are many sections of it which I began to ‘mine’ for teaching purposes doing my time as a secondary English teacher.
Somehow, in the 1950s it had caught the attention, then, of Pete Seeger – he the tall liberal, union-encouraging, banjo playing member of ‘The Weavers’ whom I had known primarily as someone who had popularised songs like Malvina Reynolds’s ‘Little Boxes’, and the folky antiwar ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ Branded inevitably as a commie-sympathiser in the 1960s witch hunts, he remained a musical hero right up to his death last year, in his nineties, when he was still playing, still supporting the causes of international justice, unions, labour, societies’ underdogs, providing a voice for the oppressed, without ever being ‘precious’ about his own creative output, or trying to promote himself as any kind of ‘celebrity’!
Given those priorities, and that kind of integrity, we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised that this poem came to his attention –but the meeting of minds and artistry which his song ‘adaptation’ represents still seems miraculous! The melody totally ‘gets it’, echoing sympathetically the reflected emotions. Take for instance the way that the melody rises to something plaintive in ‘is there hope for the future?’ (the brown bells of Merthyr), and the lyrical trill in ‘why so worried, sister, why?/sang the silver bells of Wye’ perfectly captures the kind of blithe complacency of a ‘sister’ valley that geographically appears to parallel the industrial valleys to its immediate west, and yet in its rural comfort and relative affluence, cannot identify with their plight and struggles. Seeger seems to get this, and makes of the poem a stirring anthem.
I sang it a few weeks ago in Merthyr’s monthly ‘Acoustic Evening’ in their beautiful, recently renovated town hall (Red House). I feel like everyone around here must know this song, yet I hear it sung so rarely. One man came across afterwards and said ‘That’s an old Byrds song –they used to do it, didn’t they?’ They did indeed. West coast electric folkers, a million miles away from the struggles of Blaina miners asking for a fair wage for their dirty work. Funny old world.