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It’s Never Just a Song

I. Turn Your Radio On

It is significant that virtually all hostility [to the word culture] has been connected with uses involving claims to superior knowledge, refinement and distinctions between ‘high’ art (culture) and popular art and entertainment.
– “Culture” in Keywords by Raymond Williams

“He’s Welsh, you know.”
“Did you know she’s from Wales?”

Whether a visiting weekend or weeknight during a longer school break, staying at 131 Morgan Street in Tracy included a variety show that brought the six of us together. My grandparents, my great uncle, my parents and me, lounged in the smallest room in the house with the biggest oil stove in the house. A standard-sized cabinet TV always in the furthest corner. The adults taking up three comfy chairs and one couch, with a dining chair brought to the archway, Me, I’m sat on the floor, using the book-packed secretary, the largest piece of furniture in the house, as a backrest.

We might have been watching shows headed by Johnny Cash, Tom Jones, Dean Martin, Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, the Hullabaloo dancers, Flip Wilson, Sonny and Cher, The Smothers Brothers, or Glen Campbell. Whatever it was, if someone Welsh guested on the show, Gram or Dave called it out. When it was Tom Jones on Ed Sullivan, I’d have heard –

Yes, they’ll all come to meet me
Arms reaching, smiling sweetly
It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home

The old house is still standing
Though the paint is cracked and dry
And there’s that old oak tree that I used to play on

– with my Mom singing along quietly, quite beautifully.

There was a daytime Tracy soundtrack, too – thanks to the kitchen radio Grumpy switched on as soon as he poured the first coffee: KMHL out of Marshall, or KELO from Sioux Falls; always, the choice depending on the weather. As others ventured to the kitchen easing into the day with coffee and eyes turned to the backyard birds, the radio sparked first conversations: Good song, that one. Well, what do you think about that…? Or maybe we’d sing along playfully – young me a soprano, Uncle Dave the responding tenor for something like Ray Stevens’ 1972 “Turn Your Radio On”:

Turn your radio on   (Oh yes turn your radio on)
And listen to the music in the air
Turn your radio on   (Oh yes turn your radio on)
And glory share        (Glory glory share)

The radio stayed on while making food, but switched off during meals and clean up – the only sound then, family. The radio played while we Scrabbled at the kitchen table, It whispered into the nooks of the house where the reading of books and magazines and newspapers took us to new worlds, reflected our world to us from other perspectives as we relaxed into a book, challenged existing knowledge when it was news reportage engaging us from place we’d not ever, or didn’t yet, known firsthand.

At home with my parents, the bedroom clock radios were tuned to preferred local stations: KYSM for Pops, KTOE for Mom, and KMSU for me. The stations offered “just right” sounds to bookend a day. With my parents’ brilliant 78 and 33 album collections, my stash of 45s, and all sorts of concerts at local schools and colleges, our home-in-Mankato soundtrack was multigenerational, multicultural, multigenre. Thanks to a red-lidded portable record player, and my grandparents’ patient willingness to let me DJ for them, I regularly linked the music of my Mankato home to our Tracy homeplace.

My soundtrack now grows via digital radio, podcasts, performers webpages, and Twitter follows – all offered by people I’ve never met. My work colleagues have been known to stop by the office door to hear English and Welsh language tracks during Janice Long’s early-afternoon-in-Minnesota BBC Wales broadcasts. My friends in the younger-than-40 category ask about Doctor Who (BBC Wales as its modern producer) and the lockup year of weekend Tweetalongs. They seek out Welsh author, film, series, and music recommendations as we chat about engaging us. When it turns to music talk, I dip into the stash I’ve accumulated by listening to Wales DJs Bethan Elfyn, Adam Walton, Vicki Blight, Lisa Gwilym, Roy Noble, and Frank Hennessy.

Thanks to the world of apps, smart devices, and computers, I’ve found a made-in-Wales-right-now soundtrack that draws from folk, pop, rock, punk, and rap performers; from singer-songwriters, and blues, jazz or easy listening stylists.  This lot includes performers who began their careers in the 1950s up to those showcased in regional BBCs “introducing” show. The Wales-right-now radio broadcasts include special programming to feature Welsh male voice choir interviews and performances, sounds of both sermons and hymns in church services, and segments from high culture venues – performances from the Welsh National Opera, as well as musicians and speakers at both the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, and National Eisteddfod of Wales.

When I hear Tom Jones’ “Green, Green Grass” on the radio, Murry the Hump’s version is the B-side in my head. This Cardiff-playing-circa-2000 band acknowledges rolling joints rather than rolling hills. Quite different moods and modes in this pairing, tho similar narrators – Welsh working class men. The newer song pushes back on the economic, social, and demographical damages imposed by an English Tory ruling class that extracts value from Wales. We’re tasked with looking back in order to consider whether and how there’s hope to move forward:

My dealer drives a 3 wheeler
Lives in a house
By the side of the sea…
On Wednesday’s I call in to see them
I don’t want to be them
Just call in to see them…
It’s my green green grass of home
It’s the only way we can be free

In this pairing, I feel change – and changed, and prepared to anticipate changes around the corner while riding along with the ups and downs. And, again, I hear Gram’s kind reminder on visits during phd-school to take a good long pause to think about, and acknowledge, how and why home had changed, or had not – especially if I hoped family and home would see the Evan-Stafford-Alexander girl who’d taken shape there in the woman I carried on becoming as part of interacting in my new worlds and roles. This seeking to understand the multiple hows and whys, intersections and divergences in change, this is an aspect of Welshness my Hannah learned from her Hannah. It’s a thread I rediscovered recently re-reading Border Country by Raymond Williams:

I can’t come here and pretend that I’m Will Price, with nothing changed.

Nobody is asking you to do that…You saw me and your Gran: we were different. How many, ever, live just like their fathers? None at all like their grandfathers. If they’re doing the same work, still they’re quite different.
 – Son and Father

II. Homely Welshness

Switching it over to AM
Searching for a truer sound
Can’t recall the call letters
Steel guitar and settle down

Both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel
May the wind take your troubles away
– “Windfall” by Jay Farrar

For the last seven miles from Walnut Grove, it’s karaoke time in my car as I switch from local radio to phone apps so I can bellow along with a two-song loop while the rolled down front windows let in that glorious wind. In this loop, “Windfall” is paired with David Byrne’s Buck Naked” –

Runnin’ naked, down the state highway
Runnin’ naked, in the middle of the day
Runnin’ naked like a tom cat’s behind
Runnin’ naked but the cat don’t seem to mind
And we’re buck naked now
In the eyes of the Lord

On long Easter or Labor Day weekend journeys from the mid-1990s onward, heading to Tracy required a naked heart and open brain. For a 2012 trip to see the newly built 131 Morgan Street, a unit of four affordable family homes, the trip offered me two days of space – visual, cognitive, affective – to think with the wind, to walk with my camera as an eye on change, and to loop on foot around what had been the homeplace.

131 Morgan Street  began as a 2-storey, wood-framed, 2-up, 2-down building with a wooden sidewalk, and expanded to a 4-up, 4-down, front-porched home on a quarter-block lot. Two streets down from the main intersection of Tracy’s two blocks long, two blocks deep downtown. Here Hannah Evans Stafford and David Franklin Stafford established a five-generation, 120-year homeplace for the Evans-Stafford-Alexander family. A second Hannah, my Gram, and my Grumpy, Claude, held the tenancy for the middle generation, making for their four boys a homely place – in its United Kingdom sense of a simple and cozy, rumpled and always incomplete space. I am the only child of son #3, the goddaughter of son #4.

In this home, I was expected to do chores, to read, and to be seen and heard, even at the dinner table, in conversations topical or convivial. Always, I was expected to know History and history: personal and local, world and political, geographic and cultural. In books and conversation, the stories oscillated – capturing ups and downs, the tender painful times and joyous celebratory times through which we carried on whether the experiences were passing or persistent. Whether family and community stories, current news in and beyond the US, or layered histories set out in the books of my homework bag and of the hardback volumes occupying pride of place in the living room secretary, I was to think and talk about them, to shape and reshape an understanding.

Of all the history texts, the History of the Welsh in Minnesota, Foreston and Lime Springs, Iowa, was stored in a special place – dining room sideboard. Gram hefted the leather-bound, gilt-lettered, taller-than-my-hand, one-side-Welsh-the-other-English tome to the dining room table for visiting relatives, and a pestering granddaughter. We’d trace Hannah Evans across those pages: 1870 in Cambria Township with her parents and multiple siblings, then in 1871 heading to Lake Sarah Township, a School Marm at age 18. Marriage to a Civil War veteran in 1877 landed her in Tracy to also begin a school, a business, and to rear six children who would be active in this small town’s Welsh civic, church, and cultural communities.

We’d trace the family story, too, through the books in the house – there was always egg money, or an extra carpentry job, or just one more boarder taken in to buy books. On the shelves an unabridged Shakespeare, all of George Eliot’s novels parsed out in segments sized to fit in a lady’s decorative purse, world and US histories for children, Mein Kampf as a testament to the orchestration of fascism, and a much loved collection of Zane Grey paperbacks. Gram linked the breadth of reading to what she called a Welsh penchant for hearing peoples’ stories in their own voices, and for being working class people engaged in lifelong learning.

In this homeplace, words were everything. In using them, we shaped who we were, and resisted being who people told us we were. In experiencing them, we shaped how we understood the world – principles, perceptions, and practicalities.

In college, Gram passed the first Hannah’s 1874-5 teaching journals to me, with a few lined notebook pages drafting later “pioneer” remembrance writing that were published in area newspapers. The journal pages included pen, ink and watercolor drawings, scribed song lyrics, composed school lessons, and transcriptions of then-current poetry for performing at public orations. Within these texts, I began tracing what she valued: The lines of poetry extolled abolition and temperance, despaired of enslavement and forced migration of indigenous tribes; and balancing love’s tenderness with a call to end domestic violence through temperance. In reading the journals while beginning to teach women’s studies courses and drafting a masters-degree-school thesis focused on family, most powerful were the lessons on world geography and history, and on language use. Among the exercises and lessons, she set out three writing rules: one focusing on the necessity of correct spelling and punctuation (still working on that), one that I can’t call to mind in these moments of writing and editing, and one that has always been resonant, and is even more so as I write now:

Write just what you really think.

What I really think is that I inherited and continued to create a ‘homely Welshness,” one that pushes back on a more traditional hiraeth, which is cast as an earnest longing, a  homesickness, for a home place – a country, an idea of a country or people, that one can’t return to or that actually never came into being.

Where a more sentimental hiraeth prevails to shape Welshness, as in many Welsh-American organisations, I feel, almost always, the trespasser.

I find myself pushing forward with this word, this perception of being and place, via Welsh poet Menna Elfyn, who links the etymology of hiraeth to two early Welsh words she parses as long – field, and from which she asks, “What will you fill that long field with?”  So much. Acreage and forests and rivers and weirs and waterfalls of secular and agnostic, radical and activist, home and community, queer and classed, multigenerational sounds of history, literature, and culture.

Of “fight[ing] against the idea of hiraeth” she adds:

I don’t like this idea that Welshness has this sentimental looking back attitude to life, people wanting things back as they were. I much prefer my hiraeth to be looking forward, forward looking, and wanting, around the corner, for things to be better.

In coming to articulate homely Welshness as a forward-looking hiraeth, I first had to name the bad Welsh-Minnesotan that I am. For example, I can neither read nor hear Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, or A Child’s Christmas in Wales without resistance to the texts’ cadences, gossiping heart, and anchoring backwards. Among his age contemporaries, it’s Raymond Williams as a adult educator, essayist, novelist, and theorist whose tone, textures, and takes on life in Wales – in the world, with Williams as part of changing the world – who speaks to my working class reader, thinker, activist, always-a-teacher soul.

The perhaps more damning bad Welsh-Minnesotan confession I can make is that the music typical of Gamanfa Ganu or male voice choir programs does not stir my heart nor open my ear to listening with care, or sense of belonging. I watch Welsh friends at programs and events in this tradition, which I help design locally, and I feel their joy and connectedness. I can see the congregation of my growing up Welsh church transformed by senses of mutuality and mattering while singing those songs in that sanctuary.

While I feel the energy of my friends’ deep affections for church and chapel hymnody, four-part harmony, Welsh composers like Karl Jenkins or Joseph Parry, and the voices of vocalist  Katherine Jenkins, young Charlotte Church, or Sir Bryn Terfel, I long for them to ask about, listen to – or, simply acknowledge, my homely Welsh music.

So many musics – the Welsh music of pubs and bars, of blues and hiphop, country new and old, rock and rage, queer and quiet, standing room only and backroom venues, street performances and after-hours gigs.

This one’s for the freaks
The beaten down and crushed
The shy and withdrawn
Or just out of touch

May you stay like freaks
May you make mistakes
May your will never break
– “Underdogs” by Manic Street Preachers, 2007

III. Nothing’s Ever Just a Song

When the wind stands fair and the night is perfect, when you least expect it, but always when you need it the most: there is a Song.
– The 12th Doctor

Are you crying?
No, it’s just the wind.
Nothing’s ever just the wind.
– The 12th Doctor and River Song, “Husbands of River Song,” 2015

Llangurig, Wales, this was the point from which I could venture by bus to Newtown, Llanidloes, and Caersws, each as landing places where I first explored home territory for Solomon and Ann Evans, my Wales-based people who sailed away in the 1840s with toddler daughter Ann. Thanks to record shops in Cardiff and Aberystwyth, as well as Music Mouse in Llanidloes, I was ready to be sat on a hill above the River Wye – to listen for the wind, and to write a bit with the music I’d transferred to technology ala 2008 – an iPod Nano the size of a postage stamp.

Even with the newly purchased Welsh bands and singers – among them, the Manics, ‘Phonics, and Super Furries, nearly filling my Nano, it was Mankato’s own City Mouse who so appropriately ruled random play: “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” and “Our Town” –

And I don’t worry
Because I’m sittin’ on top of the world

Sleepy river town, people there don’t fool around
They say they like it there just fine.
Walkin’ down Broadway, you see lots of people frown
Don’t let them fool you, that’s the way they smile
In our town

I was sat in the place where Gram’s people began – here, as in my town, the wind rumpled my hair, caressed my heart, chased grass, and frosted my eyes until I cried. I was there, and back home; there, and where I would go next.

Wind became another music in my ear when I was in Tracy, a town that’s low and flat, humming in B-flat when quiet winds leave Buffalo Ridge at Ruthton – or howling in some dissonant chord when a wild winter wind escapes the Ridge to ice the flat lands. Being at Trafel Gwyn, another space above sea level, I thought of prairie incomers driven away by the wind, and those who tuned their ears and lives to it. My Evans’ were the later, hearing the wind in the world behind them, and feeling it coming around a corner they hadn’t yet explored.

From that hill, I wrote a postcard to my friend Dave, who’d then been part of City Mouse for 30 years, to note my deep appreciation for all of those years.  Mainly, while I was sat on that hill, I thought about sitting in the backyard on breezy evenings while I was an undergraduate spending more time with Gram after Grumpy’s death. In talking about the history courses I took each quarter “for fun,” her rememberings included what she’d read about the race- and worker-rights activism of singer Paul Robeson fighting for Welsh miners, what she’d heard her Hannah say about Robert Owen, a cooperative utopian socialist who was from Newtown, or what she’d experienced during the years just after World War 1 when Morgan Street was a boarding house filled with veterans working the rail line during the day, and screaming in the night with their war memories. My dad’s two older brothers scoffed at our conversations, calling me a trouble-maker talking nonsense with Gram.

As blessed as my parents’ small communities were for me as a kid staying with family, the social hierarchies, monoculture, and closed ranks of both Tracy and Wells moved my parents to leave their homeplaces as young adults. These were also the reasons Mom transferred our membership from the small, primarily Welsh Zion Presbyterian congregation to the larger Centenary Methodist Church. There she found an expansive social gospel mission, a lead minister with an ecumenical philosophy, and a Youth Choir whose songbook included Great Day of Singing hymns as well as 1970s music – Oh, Happy Day, Morning Has Broken, Lord of the Dance, My Train, and the song that first came to Youth Choir rehearsals because of confirmation class conversations about war, race, activism, and Christianity: “What Color Is God’s Skin”:

He looked at me with his shining eyes
I knew I could tell no lies
When he said Daddy why do the diff’rent races fight
If we’re the same in the good Lord’s sight?”

In the musical, oratorical, educational, and service dimensions of this church, the splendid array of world religions were ours to explore as members of that Youth Choir, as confirmands, as readers in the church library, and as parishioners who knew Jesus to not be white. There we might draw on the messages to become polytheists, perhaps converts to other religions, perhaps someone recognizing a connection to church that is cultural rather than religious, or perhaps – as it was for me, to combine all of these in a particular agnosticism.

In the ministry traditions of social gospel, social justice Methodist churches, Vin Walkup’s poem conveys a core belief in music ministry:

He came singing love,
He lived singing love,
He died singing love.
He rose in silence.
If the song is to continue, we must do the singing.  

If the song is to continue…
We must all sing, and there is not one story to sing. Musical Welshness is not only church and chapel, nor is it only choral and choir, nor only white and male.

If the song is to continue…
We can listen in the wind for the singers and songs, insights and ideas, wit and wisdom, purposes and prayers that drift to us, that will sing to us collectively or individually.

If the song is to continue…
Winds from the four directions will call our attention as they carry songs we need when we least expect them – whether an unfamiliar song, homely song, Welsh song, Grandmother’s song.

For the song to continue…
I will write, borrowing the essay form so I can nudge words on a comfortable amble toward ideas that I finally express outside beyond conversations with trusted pals.

For the song to continue…
I needed to wind my way round to a music-informed Welshness that aligns with my heart, with my experience of identity, and my ways of hearing “Wales” – whatever that means, wherever it takes shapes across the world.

For the song to continue…
I’ve needed to accept that my musical Welshness is homely – as defined in the US, unattractive – to most people in my Welsh-Minnesota world. And to accept their welcome of my trespasses.

For all of us, whatever the music, it’s never just a song.

In the end, then, I’ve landed at knowing my identity not as “bad Welsh girl” but as “another Welsh girl” among the many who celebrate Wales as the land of song. As I listen forward from my “homely Welshness,” I do this in the company of a damn fine soundtrack thanks to the folx who launched this journey for me, for others – and maybe someday for you who read this essay.

Ani Glass  Badfinger  Betsy  Beverley Humphreys  Bonnie Tyler
Calan  Catatonia  C
ate Le Bon  Catfish and the Bottlemen
Cerys Matthews  Charlotte Church 
Dafydd Iwan
Dan Bettridge Deyah  Dave Edmunds  Duffy
Funeral for a Friend 
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci  Gruff Rhys
Gwenno  Hannah Grace  John Cale 
Jon Langford
Joy Formidable  Kizzy Crawford  Laura Evans
Los Campesinos 
Mal Pope  Manic Street Preachers
Meic Stephens  Meredydd Evans 
Stereophonics
Super Furry Animals The Anchoress
The Hennessys
– and as I write, Jodie Marie

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