Old-Time Music Connects Wales And Appalachia Despite Thousands Of Miles

Jun 26, 2020

As part of our Inside Appalachia folkways project, we have been exploring Appalachia’s unique connection to Wales. Both regions mountainous landscapes, a history of coal extraction, folktales and it turns out, music. 

There is a growing community of musicians from both Wales and Appalachia who share an interest in the culture that binds them together.


Wales And Appalachian Old-Time

Ben McManus is a musician who lives in Aberystwyth, Wales. He grew up playing instruments, but as a teenager, he was instantly captivated when he heard music, from Appalachia. 

“I came back from high school one day, and the gardener's were playing bluegrass, like really loudly out of a boombox,” McManus said. “And I was just like, ‘wow, what is this music?’”

He was hooked. McManus searched for similar music, and that led him to Appalachian old-time, which is older than bluegrass. In fact, the string music played here in Appalachia has cultural roots from all over northern Africa, Europe and the British Isles — including Wales. 

Clifftop is an old-time music festival in southern West Virginia.
Credit West Virginia Public Broadcasting

McManus fell in love with Appalachian string music so much, he eventually traveled to West Virginia to learn more from the musicians here. He took fiddle classes at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins and played at the Clifftop Appalachian Stringband Festival, a world-renowned old-time music celebration in southern West Virginia, which has been going on for 30 years. 

Two Festivals 3,665 Miles Away

In Wales, there is another music festival, called Fire in the Mountain, named after an Appalachian fiddle tune. It includes a growing group of musicians in Wales who are also interested in the music of Appalachia. 

McManus said it is the closest thing to Clifftop that he has found. 

“A river runs right through the middle of it, so just a lot of chilling out, and just music everywhere, folk music everywhere,” he said. “It's just a big four day party on a beautiful farm in the middle of Wales.”

Appalachians In Wales

And this music exchange goes both ways. 

Musicians Carl Jones and Erynn Marshall live in Galax, Virginia. They travel the world teaching and performing old-time music. But their favorite place to go is Wales. 

“You might hear bluegrass and old-time and then you might hear somebody sing a Welsh song, you might hear somebody do an old-time or bluegrass song and sing it in Welsh,” Marshall said.

Marshall added that she and Jones were going to attend Fire in the Mountain this year, but it was cancelled because of the pandemic.

Jones is from Georgia, but on one of his first music trips to Wales, he was surprised to find he shared a lot of similarities with the Welsh people he met.

“We met a lot of singing farmers and they looked a lot like me. I was kind of shocked,” he said. “I said, ‘Wow, this guy looks sort of like I look.’ They are really good singers. I'm not saying I'm a good singer, but I did really feel an affinity to the geography and the location felt very comfortable to me and I love going to Wales.”

Jones recently took a DNA test, and discovered that many of his ancestors came from Great Britain. He said he would like to believe that many of them were from Wales. 

A view of the seaside in Wales in December, 2019.
Credit Glynis Board / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Marshall is originally from Canada, but she said she fell in love with Appalachia about 25 years ago. She devoted years to learning old time music from the people in the region. She said she wants to ensure that their music lives on.

“You know, we're all links in the rope of tradition, you know strands in that rope,” Marshall said. “And it's really important for me to share what those musicians shared with me; they were very generous.”

The Roots Of Old-Time

Musical traditions evolve as they pass to different cultures and continents, but there are many elements of this music that have not changed, for centuries, even after traveling thousands of miles.

One of Marshall’s favorite songs is a beautiful ballad she plays on the fiddle, called “Love Nancy.” It is an Appalachian song, but it actually originated from an older song from the British Isles.

“It came to West Virginia and other people learned it like myself, as well — it’s beautiful, many of the words long forgotten, but the tune still lives,” Marshall said.

This interconnection between Welsh immigrants and Appalachian string music has long fascinated folklorist Gerry Milnes. 

“I don't know of any culture who came here who didn't bring some music with them,” he said.

Milnes is the former folk arts coordinator at the Augusta Heritage Center. 

Over the years in his interviews with people in Appalachia, he has discovered hints of Welsh influence in our culture. 

“There's a whole list of towns with really Welsh sounding names,” he said. “Certainly for one thing, there's an awful lot of Welsh surnames that are involved currently and in the past with old-time traditional music in West Virginia.”

Many Welsh people immigrated to Appalachia in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Although there is not a lot of written history about this group of immigrants, Milnes said he has a hunch that there are more cultural connections with Wales than we realize.

Ben McManus, the Welsh musician who fell in love with Appalachian old-time, agrees.

He has been digging into the history of music that the people of Wales would have been playing in the late 1600s —  just before so many of them immigrated to Appalachia. He said there is very little recorded history of the music and culture from that time, adding that is perhaps because the British invasion and oppression of the country wiped out much of that history

A lot of the Welsh folk music of today had to be rewritten in the following centuries. McManus said he recognizes the importance of keeping traditional music alive, which includes Appalachian old-time. 

“Obviously being like a Welsh guy on the other side of the world, like, it's kind of not wanting to take someone else's tradition, but it's like, learning their style,” he said”

The modern day cross cultural exchange of Appalachian old-time music is on hold this year, at least in person. Virginia-based musicians Erynn Marshall and Carl Jones have their sights set on Fire in the Mountain next year. So does McManus. In fact, he is planning to be in West Virginia too — playing old-time music across the Mountain State when it is hopefully safe in 2021. 

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.