is arguably one of Britain's best-known tunes, having been chanted by
football fans over the country, berating the referee as he makes
another dodgy offside ruling. That celebrated curmudgeon Victor Meldrew
was subjected to a tirade by garage staff sung to its melody: they had
spitefully recorded over a cassette tape left in his car. Virtually
everybody who is British knows this tune yet very few could name it and
even fewer sing it properly. This is an attempt to put this state of
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak, but Thou art mighty;
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.
'Cwm Rhondda' is a belter of a hymn that defies one to sing it quietly (you can listen to it here). It is the very embodiment of hwyl,
the Welsh love of homeland and of culture, and as such has come close
to supplanting the official Welsh national anthem. This is especially
the case at rugby 'internationals', where the faltering, bathetic,
falsely-devout Land of My Fathers
is soon dispensed with in favour of something far more robust. England
fans often respond with their own countermeasures, often the Negro
spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, but soon buckle under the
sonic onslaught of 'huge gangs of tough, sinewy men�terrorising people
with their close-harmony singing'1
religious overtones to this performance are more an affectation than
anything else. If the rugby fans had ever gone to chapel then they
might actually have learned to sing the whole hymn, not just the
chorus. The Welsh comic song-writer Max Boyce wrote an unusually incisive song � Ten Thousand Instant Christians
- about it being one of the 'hymns of yesterday, only half remembered'
and about the cod spirituality of rugby fans. In mitigation, they can
claim that there are so many versions of the lyrics that they might as
well make up their own.
history of 'Cwm Rhondda' goes some way to explaining this confusion.
For those who find it difficult enough to understand the huge number of
variations of the Christian faith, Welsh non-conformism
must seem like a microcosm of this bewildering variety of sects and
movements. Originally a branch of Methodism, the movement fragmented
down to almost atomic levels. A religious map of Wales would have
looked like something dragged from the wreckage after an explosion in a
paint factory, dominated by countless shades of Orange. During the 18th
and 19th Centuries, a community would have several chapels, each vying
for prominence and larger congregations2.
Just about the only thing uniting them was a distaste for the trappings
of 'high church', with the result that chapels often tended to be drab
The music had to go some way to making up for
this austere approach to faith. Welsh hymn tunes were simple, rousing
melodies which could be easily grasped by congregations who often were
hearing them for the first time. Also, the tunes were often named after
the places where they were written, so that peripatetic organists could
instantly recognise the tune and let the chapel sing whatever lyrics
they wanted. 'Cwm Rhondda' simply means 'the Rhondda Valley.' However,
despite its Welsh name, the hymn is actually written, and properly
performed, in English. 'Cwm Rhondda' was written by John Hughes, the
organist of Capel Rhondda in
Hopkinstown, near Pontypridd. Hughes had been asked to write a tune for
the inauguration of the chapel and its organ in the early 1900s. He
took an earlier set of words written by William Williams (Arglwydd,
Arwain Trwy'r Anialwch), who published them in 1745, and arranged a tune
to them. Unusually, there had been a large influx of English-speakers
into that area as the railway was being built and the chapel was
originally intended to serve as a place of worship for them. Hughes
used an English translation, 'Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,' for its
first performance in 19073, with Hughes himself at Capel Rhondda's mighty organ and it rapidly gained in popularity.
the tune is well-known the world over, although the lyrics seem to be
infinitely mutable. For instance, American congregations may know it as
'Christ is Coming' or 'God of Grace and God of Glory.' This is for two
reasons. Firstly, unlike the unofficial English national anthem, Jerusalem ,
the original words themselves are unexceptional; even the lyricist's
own mother would have been hard-pressed to rank him as a poet on a par
with William Blake. Secondly, the simple scansion allows all sorts of
rhymes, no matter how clunky, to be shrink-wrapped around the melody.
But it's the melody that makes the hymn; the chapel even contains
furniture donated by converts from Hinduism who were moved by the power
of Hughes's music.
As for the chapel itself, it has proved to be
less durable. Dwindling congregations throughout the Principality have
meant that Capel Rhondda is going the same way as many of the other
chapels. In particular, its façade is crumbling and it requires a large
amount of funding before even the first phase of the work can be
completed. It would be a terrible shame if this chapel, like the other
two members of the 'holy trinity' of the typical Valleys community -
the coalmine and the rugby field - followed the others into the state
of desuetude and neglect that has come to characterise the area in
general. But whatever becomes of it, its most famous cultural product
will certainly live on, whatever words end up being sung.
Related BBC Links
1 A quote from BBC's 'Blackadder the Third'.
This religious Balkanisation is epitomised by the joke about a Welshman
who gets shipwrecked on a desert island for ten years. When he is
eventually rescued, his saviours find that he has built a coalmine, a
pub, a rugby field and two chapels. They ask him why two chapels, so he
points to one and says: 'that's the one I don'tgo to'.
3 Some maintain that it was actually first performed in 1904.