Published Feb. 24, 2012
Perhaps it was a T-shirt bearing the red dragon of Wales that caught my eye. I have this vague memory of David Mandry wearing such a shirt at the Flax Scutching Festival in Winona in the early 1990s, and because I played in a band, the Bog Carrot, that included Welsh music in its repertoire, in addition to traditional Scottish and Irish tunes, I may have said hello.
David and Joan Mandry, the latter hailing from Aberystwyth on Cardigan Bay and being a singer and folksong compiler, soon became Bog Carrot fans, because it’s not everywhere you hear the traditional music of Wales. They came to hear us play on Aug. 19, 1995, in a concert hosted by the Lisbon Historical Society next to the Old Stone House, a former tavern built in 1805, and with them was a young Welsh woman, Mari Morgan, who, we learned, sang traditional Welsh songs.
Most Welsh people in Ohio, Joan told me recently, settled around Portsmouth and Gallipolis, Bob Evans country. “We always used to call each other cousin,” Joan, who was born an Evans, said of Bob Evans. But this area has its share of Welsh descendants, and if you’re little familiar with the Welsh, you should know they have an intense love of singing, choirs having long dominated Welsh culture as a means of participatory entertainment. The Welsh of Deerfield, Ohio, for example, who came to the area to mine coal, maintained a choir a century or so ago, and the Deerfield Chorus is these days a going concern. I had the honor to play violin with the chorus a few years back.
So it was no surprise that Mari, fresh from Wales, was an accomplished singer, and it was a great delight when she joined us on two songs, “Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn” (“Watching the White Wheat”) and “Y Ferch O Blwy Pendaryn” (“The Maid From the Parish of Pendaryn”) and explained their meanings. We learned those tunes from the playing of Ar Log, a group that played Welsh songs and instrumentals in a contemporary Celtic style. Ar Log played the songs as instrumentals, as did we.
Mari now lives in New Jersey and for about 11 years led the North American Welsh Choir, which recently disbanded after a tour of New Zealand. The choir comprised about 100 members from the United States and Canada and rehearsed across the U.S. and in Canada. “Her great love is singing,” Joan said and had just talked to Mari an hour before I called. Joan enjoyed the chance to speak in her native language with Mari.
Wales, on the western edge of Britain, which takes its name from the Britons, the early Celts, retains its Celtic culture and language. “It is in the Welsh language that the ‘otherness’ of Wales most obviously resides; for though anyone can hear it spoken in Wales, and see its symptoms all around in road signs and bilingual pamphlets, the culture that attends it, the frame of mind, the manner of thought, is all but impenetrable to those who do not understand it,” writes Jan Morris in “Wales The First Place.”
“The Welsh-speaking Welsh, the Cymry Cymraeg, form an inner people within the nation, exciting often the scorn or irritation of the English-speaking majority, but more usually I think the envy. The private nature of the tongue, its legendary pithiness and precision, its vast wealth of idioms and proverbial sayings — all this gives it a strange allure, intoxicating to those who know it, infuriating to the rest.
“Welsh is a life-giving language. It makes the Cymry Cymraeg, often diffident and defensive when they are speaking English, superbly confident when they break into Welsh, releasing all their wit and speed of response ... In parts of Wales where the language has died, one often feels a melancholy emptiness in the air, something missing, something saddened: conversely in parts where it is still vigorously alive its presence provides an ancient solace and stimulation, sealing friendships, maintaining loyalties, and making everything seem more virile and vivacious.
Joan has done much to preserve Welsh language and song. She and Lloyd C. Savage compiled “Songs of the Dragon,” published in 1993 by the Welsh National Gymanfa Ganu Association, now called the Festival of Wales, the organization that binds Welsh people and those of Welsh descent in song. Her Welsh accent remains strong despite more than half a century in the U.S.
Joan immigrated with her first husband, John Owens, to Detroit, where John took a post as pastor at the Welsh Presbyterian Church. “We came for three years just for the experience, and that was in 1956!” she exclaimed. John died in 1984 shortly after being named chairman to the committee that investigated the publication of “Songs of the Dragon,” and the work stopped, being revived in 1990. Joan was one of three on the new committee. When David, a medical doctor in West Virginia, retired they moved back to Joan’s house in Lisbon, which she had kept. David (Joan pronounces it Dafydd in Welsh, the “a” hard as in hat and the “f” pronounced like “v”) died in 2007, but Joan continues to practice her love of singing, recently participating in three choirs in Lisbon, her soprano being in great demand.
Her love of Welsh song is apparent in her preface to “Songs of the Dragon.” “The biggest satisfaction comes from the knowledge that we have had a small part in showing the people of North America a glimpse of the wonderful heritage of the ‘Cymry’ (the Welsh people).”