Sweet dreams: the old Welsh lullaby and a new look at Wales

Have you heard that song from the new Visit Wales TV advert? Voice sound familiar? The distinctive sweet-smoky tones belong to none other than Cerys Matthews, whose version of an old lullaby, Mil Harddach, forms the soundtrack.

It’s a simple arrangement - just Cerys and a guitar, set against the faint murmur of nature. There’s a stripped-down beauty that suits the images perfectly, conjuring up a feeling of pure bliss. You don’t have to understand the words for it to make sense (if that makes sense). But the words are extraordinarily lovely.

‘What a lullaby!’ says Cerys, doing an instant translation: ‘“You are a thousand times more beautiful than a white rose, than the red rose growing on the hillside, than the proud swan swimming the lake, my baby…”’ 

Mil Harddach wyt na’r rhosyn gwyn,
Na’r rhosyn coch ar ael y bryn
Na’r alarch balch yn nofio’r llyn,
Fy maban bach.

You are a thousand times more beautiful than the white rose,
Or the red rose on the brow of the hill,
Or the proud swan swimming the lake,
My little baby.

It’s not the first time an old Welsh melody has been used to dramatic effect. Suo Gân (which actually means ‘lullaby’) was featured heavily in Steven Spielberg’s 1984 movie Empire of the Sun.  

Another popular tune, Ar Hyd y Nos, appears in the Nicolas Cage film Knowing and also US series The Sopranos and Buffy spin-off Angel. The 2004 LA-based thriller Crash has the lover’s lament Lisa Lân as a recurring theme, while the city’s legendary Ash Grove folk club, which helped launch the careers of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, was named after the Welsh folk tune The Ash Grove (whose melody also carries the words of a filthy rugby song, but we won’t dwell on that).

Welsh roots and country boots

Cerys Matthews and band performing at WOMEX 2013 in Cardiff

Cerys Matthews and band at WOMEX 13 in Cardiff by Yannis Psathas
Let’s get back to Cerys Matthews instead. The singer spent the 90s tearing up the rock scene with Catatonia and hits like Road Rage and Mulder and Scully, before moving to Nashville, Tennessee where she immersed herself in the local music scene. Then she came back to Britain to release acclaimed solo albums, and has carved a new niche as a respected maker of radio and TV programmes. But her first, and most enduring, love is rooted in her musical upbringing in West Wales. 

‘I have been enjoying these songs and hymns since I first sang them as a child,’ says Cerys. She’s recorded two albums of iconic Welsh songs, including Mil Harddach and oddities like Migldi Magldi – a cheerful romp set in a blacksmith’s smithy – which she sang as a duet with the venerable baritone Bryn Terfel. ‘These old songs sound and work so well with such different voices!’ she says.

‘But the melodies and poetry of the songs are not the only elements which captivate. It’s their histories - who wrote them, where, when, why – that are often fascinating and surprising.’  

In fact, she’s busy writing and presenting a TV series for S4C (in Welsh, although it’ll be subtitled in English) in which she takes a journey of discovery through Welsh folk ‘… from Cwm yr Eglwys to Ynys Llanddwyn, from America to Russia ... with love!’

In the meantime, Cerys hopes that Mil Harddach inspires visitors to look a little deeper into traditional Welsh music: ‘It’s just one of the gems found here in Wales’s jam-packed treasure chest of cultural jewels, where we find the  evidence of our centuries-old love affair with singing and writing songs, songs that have such spellbinding melodies and simply perfect verses .’