Folktales And Music Bring To Life The W.Va., Welsh Connection

May 29, 2020

Before the pandemic hit, our Inside Appalachia team was planning a reporting trip to Wales as part of our ongoing folkways project, as the country has a strong historical connection to Appalachia that we wanted to explore. The trip’s been postponed, but in a special report as part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Project, Caitlin Tan interviewed two Welsh storytellers who through their craft bring us artistic parallels between our region’s sister country.


Wales, Appalachia, COVID-19

They called it “The World Turned Upside Down.” In the 18th and 19th century the British monarchy took over Wales and the Industrial Revolution began. Thousands of poorer farmers were displaced, left with no land or work, so they sailed West, eventually finding themselves in Appalachia. This continued to happen for hundreds of years.

“People were displaced from here and then coming over to Appalachia and displacing people who live there,” said Peter Stevenson, a professional storyteller, artist and folklorist who lives in Wales. “So, it's not necessarily a particularly nice story, but there's a lot of folktales behind that.”

One of Peter Stevenson's drawings depicting a part of his story, 'The War of the Little Englishman.'
Credit Peter Stevenson

Peter spent the last few years writing about this complex period in history and about the resulting connection between Wales and Appalachia. The tales have culminated into a book called “The Moon-Eyed People.”

In a way, these old stories help us understand ourselves and the times we are living in, Peter said. Even the title, “The World Turned Upside Down” seems familiar right now. 

“And I don't think it's too much a stretch of the imagination to kind of realize we're probably in one of those right now, in a very different way," he said. "But it's in a human emotional level. We're upside down. We don't know what's going to happen in the future.”

Rooted In The Land

West Virginia Public Broadcasting interviewed Peter for a story last year when he hosted an art exhibit in Morgantown featuring Welsh and West Virginian artists, exploring the unique folklore connections between the two regions. Peter has family in the Mountain State, which initially sparked his interest in the connections between these two places.

He said that through the centuries of immigration Welsh and Appalachian folklore have naturally influenced one another.

“Geographically, they're very similar landscapes, you know, mountains, woods, you have the big rivers, we have the sea, but there's this strong connection between the people and the land," he said. "And the thing that comes out of that connection, it's stories and music, folk culture, buildings, all the things that are rooted in the landscape that people respond to and see.”

The Welsh countryside on a WVPB scouting trip in December, 2019. Peter Stevenson said he sees a lot of similarities in the Appalachian and Welsh landscapes.
Credit Glynis Board / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The Craft Of Storytelling

When Peter tells a story, one feels like a kid again – sitting crisscross, entranced by the vivid tale.

As Peter has retold these old folktales for audiences, he has adapted them – sometimes just taking the idea of an old story and writing it using his own folklore research. 

In live performances, Peter’s artwork typically accompanies each story. He often tells Welsh tales using an Appalachian storytelling device called the crankie. Basically, it is a scroll that moves horizontally, depicting hand drawn or painted images. 

The crankie scroll that Peter designed for the story "The War of the Little Englishman,' set in front of the actual old ruins from the tale.
Credit Peter Stevenson

In the book “The Moon-Eyed People,” Peter intentionally used white, black and red in his drawings. He said he hoped the colors conveyed the tense times. He drew the faces of the characters, often including animals, to look inherently friendly; however, the scenes and the small details often depict things from one's nightmares – a group of angry villagers burning a castle down, a girl with wolf ears, and little goblins and fairies emerging from a fairytale book, to name a few.

“I can tell a great long story and I know hundreds of stories, but how do I remember them? Well, I don't remember word for word,” Peter said. “What I do remember are pictures. I see images. So, I know the narrative of a story. I know what's going to happen one moment to the next, because I can see the pictures."

Featuring The Cello

Lately, Peter’s storytelling performances about Wales and Appalachia have included music. 

Specifically, music performed by Ailsa Hughes. She is a Welsh musician, storyteller and artist.

She wrote the song "Messenger of the Darkness," to accompany one of Peter’s stories – adapting it from old Appalachian and Welsh folktales about death, featuring an owl, an ominous symbol in many cultures.

Ailsa’s voice is hauntingly beautiful. Whether in Welsh or English, her voice harmonizes with her cello – creating a reverberation that fills one’s whole room, even if it is coming through a computer, several thousand miles away.

Although Ailsa has not traveled to Appalachia, she said she is inspired by landscapes and the old folktales of both countries. In fact, during the pandemic Ailsa has been using music, sounds and the landscape to bring people together, through something called “sound mapping.”

One of Peter's drawings from the story, 'Rhyfel y Sais Bach' or in English, 'The War of the Little Englishman.'
Credit Peter Stevenson

“I get people to listen at the moment from their gardens or just put their windows open and creatively depict the sounds they're hearing in the landscape,” she said. “So, like drawing and writing words and finding ways of describing the sounds that they're hearing.”

Melody Rooted In Tradition

Ailsa started playing the cello at age seven. It was only later as an adult that she started writing songs, using them as a storytelling device and, as part of her band duo Tinc y Tannau, sometimes finding lyrical inspiration from old Welsh texts.

“This sense of finding, belonging that I feel really present with that at the moment, this need to connect with my ancestors and to connect with the place where I am, the place where I feel at home in a deeper and deeper way and I think through the arts we can do this," she said.

Ailsa has also taken to the dulcimer, an ancient stringed instrument from Western Europe that was later modified into the mountain dulcimer in Appalachia. It is featured prominently in a lot of the region’s old-time music. 

Ailsa recorded herself playing the dulcimer in her own unique, Welsh style, across the Atlantic Ocean, nearly 4,000 miles away.

“I can’t profess to be able to play this, but I couldn’t not play it a little bit for you,” she said.

Ailsa and Peter had plans to perform their stories and songs this summer in Wales, but the pandemic canceled their shows. However, they recorded themselves and shared their collaboration with us at WVPB.

Peter's drawing of one of the several castles burnt down in the 'War of the Little Englishman.'
Credit Peter Stevenson

The story and song they performed is about the “World Turned Upside Down” period in Wales. The story is called 'Rhyfel y Sais Bach' in Welsh or, 'The War of the Little Englishman," and it is written and told by Peter Stevenson, and the Welsh hymn is sung by Ailsa Hughes.

This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.