Dafydd Iwan, the current President of the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, has been a key figure in the significant renewal of national identity Wales has witnessed since the 1960s. While his contribution has been many-faceted, it is arguably as a singer--songwriter that he has been most influential. A master of satirical, political song, his work is a complex plethora of indigenous Welsh and Anglo-American influences, which can only be fully appreciated by being placed in the context of the preservation and modernization of Welsh culture on the one hand, and of the post-war folk revival and the international rights and justice movement of the 1960s on the other. Although not well-known outside Wales, Dafydd Iwan is a figure of international significance, both as an embodiment in a specific cultural context of the singer--songwriter par excellence and as a concrete example of the power and influence of popular song.
The first years of the 1960s were rather bleak times for the Welsh nationalist movement. They were days of increasing tension and frustration for nationalists of all descriptions--both for cultural nationalists, whose main concern was the preservation of the Welsh language and its associated culture, and for those who were working more actively towards a political expression of Welsh national identity.
The Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru (literally 'The Party of Wales'), founded in 1925, was in a period of crisis following its failure to win any seats in the 1959 General Election to the Westminster Parliament and its disappointing performance in the subsequent local government elections of 1962, despite strenuous efforts by some younger elements in the party to make it more attractive to the voters of the increasingly anglicized and predominantly socialist mining valleys of south-east Wales. Indeed, the party had not won a single seat at a general election in all thirty-five years of its existence, and many of its young supporters were fast losing patience. (1)
A major cause of frustration in Wales as a whole during the period was the impotence of Welsh opinion to prevent the Liverpool Corporation from drowning the village of Capel Celyn, in the Tryweryn valley near Bala in north Wales, in order to increase the city's water supply. This project proceeded relentlessly, despite widespread cross-party protest throughout Wales, from the first planning stages in the mid 1950s until the final completion of the reservoir in 1965. The Bala area is noted for its rich Welsh-medium cultural life, and the village of Capel Celyn was perceived as being a stronghold of the Welsh language and its traditional rural culture which was being sacrificed on the altar of an English city's needs. An indication of the vibrant popular culture of the area is that one of the best-known Welsh ballad singers of the mid twentieth century, Robert Roberts (1870-1951), better known as 'Bob Tai'r Felin', lived near Capel Celyn; and it is worth noting that this lively old ballad-singer and entertainer was to make a lasting impression on the subject of the present article, Dafydd Iwan, when he performed at an informal concert in the mining village in south-west Wales where Dafydd Iwan lived as a small boy. (2)
The name 'Tryweryn' reverberates through Dafydd Iwan's songs from his earliest compositions to the present, and he is far from being alone in regarding the drowning of the Tryweryn valley as a cornerstone of his nationalism. (3) 'Cofia Dryweryn' ('Remember Tryweryn') became a commonplace of Welsh graffiti for many years following the drowning of the valley. The frustration at the drowning of Tryweryn was such that it led to the extreme step, in a country which has a strong pacifist tradition, of some young nationalists using explosives on more than one occasion in 1962-63 to try to destroy equipment on the construction site. This led in turn to some imprisonments, including that of a prominent and fiery young nationalist leader called Emyr Llewelyn Jones. …