The wandering ballad singers of Wales

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Bertie Stephens

Wandering singers, or balladeers were once an important source of storytelling and entertainment in Wales before the rise of the music hall and cinema.

'Y Baledwr Pen Ffair
'Rwy'n cofio ers dyddiau am hen gymeriadau
Yn canu baledi mewn marchnad a ffair,
Hwy ganent mor ddoniol, mewn gair mor gartrefol,
Nes twyllo o'r bobl eu harian a'u haur...'
Dafydd Jones ('Isfoel'), 1881-1968

'The Balladeer at the Fair
Oh, how I recall the old balladeers
Singing their stories with sadness or mirth,
From market to fair, they'd go a tramping,
Taking your money for all they were worth...'

The 19th century marked the golden age of ballad singers in Wales, when songs were composed and performed in fairs, markets and taverns. Of the several hundred archive recordings relating to folk song held at the National History Museum; St Fagans, many references are made by interviewees to these nomadic balladeers.

Bertie Stephens was one such interviewee. Born in Abergorlech, Carmarthenshire in 1900, he was influenced by the balladeers from an early age. In total he recorded an astonishing 80 or so songs for the Museum. With his amazing memory he often remembered in detail where and by who the particular songs were sung, most being performed at the local fairs he visited as a boy.

Stories told through song

Designed to entertain, ballads were sung in plain, uncomplicated language, and usually covered a specific occasion or experience. Daily newspapers were not yet generally available, and many of the older generation at the turn of the 20th century were illiterate, and dependent on balladeers for the latest news. The lyrics were, therefore, paramount, for each composition was primarily a story narrated through song.

Bertie Stephens began visiting fairs at five or six years old, and most of the songs he heard were sung by tramps, who often used their hats to collect money from spectators. Their ballads created such an impression on the youngster that he memorised them instantly.

Hen Feible Annwyl Mam

Bertie Stephens vividly recalled his childhood songs when interviewed by the Museum. Religious pieces were his favourites: he considered them more substantial than comic ditties. Songs like Beibl Mam (Mother's Bible) could take hold of a performer, and he stressed how placing one's whole personality into a piece was essential.

Another Bible-linked song, Hen Feibl Mawr y Teulu, (The Great Old Family Bible) he heard during a trip to Mumbles, from a shabbily dressed man with a collecting cap, carrying a Bible under his arm. Coming from a religious family, Bertie Stephens felt saddened that the singer used the Bible to raise money for beer.

Balladeers often had dubious reputations, and the police were known to arrest scruffily attired, drunken tramps, for disturbing the peace. Bertie Stephens told how his family gave food and shelter one evening to two of these tramps, who in return taught him C'ân yr Asyn (Song of the Donkey). Bertie's father soon discovered that they had stolen some of his newly shorn wool.

His son's rendition to the police of C'ân yr Asyn enabled them to catch the villains near Carmarthen, on account of their singing the same ballad in that area.

New forms of entertainment

With the rise of industry and the creation of cinemas and music halls, wandering balladeers gradually lost their appeal. By the early 20th century they had virtually disappeared.

Fortunately, as these old customs disappeared, there began an interest in collecting melodies and related information. The Welsh Folk Song Society was formed in 1908. There is no doubting the value of ballads as important social comments and our knowledge of these historical customs is due to individuals like Bertie Stephens.

Background Reading

Ballads in Wales / Baledi yng Nghymru by Mary-Ann Constantine. Published by FLS Books (1999).

I Fyd y Faled by Dafydd Owen. Published by Gwasg Gee, (1986).