7 Traditional Welsh Folk Songs You Can’t Help Singing Along To

ByQuyen Anne

Nov 30, 2023

Our guide to some of the best folk and traditional songs to come out of Wales, a land famed for its rich musical heritage

Wales is rightly proud of its singing heritage. Song, both religious and secular, is hugely important to the Welsh culture – not for nothing is it often known as the Land of Song. In particular, choral music is an essential part of the country’s musical repertoire, with many Welsh choirs famed around the world.

Here are some of the best-known and best-loved traditional Welsh songs.

Best Welsh songs

‘We’ll Keep a Welcome (in the Hillsides)’

The music for this popular song was composed in 1940 by Welsh songwriter and entertainer Mai Jones, while the words came from lyricists Lyn Joshua and Jimmy Harper. Originally introduced for the wartime BBC radio variety show Welsh Rarebit, the song has retained strong associations with Wales.

Originally broadcast on the BBC Forces Programme, Welsh Rarebit was aimed at Welsh people serving in the armed forces during World War II. We’ll Keep a Welcome was written as the closing music for each episode.

Welsh Rarebit was later transferred to the BBC Light Programme, where it became the most popular show in 1949. We’ll Keep a Welcome rapidly became a popular postwar song: indeed, by the 1950s, the song was sometimes referred to as “Wales’ second national anthem”.

The song got its first and second recordings during 1949. Later, in 1956, the great Welsh singer, present and comedian Harry Secombe also recorded a version.

‘Sosban Fach’ (‘Little Saucepan’)

A traditional Welsh folk song, Sosban Fach (or ‘Little Saucepan’) is a well-known and much-loved Welsh language song. A domestic vignette involving an overstretched housewife, a crying baby and a little pan boiling over the fire, the song has close associations with the rugby union club Llanelli RFC and, more recently, the Scarlets regional rugby side.

Those links came about through Llanelli’s tin plating industry: generations of saucepans and other kitchen utensils were tin-plated in the town and then sold on to the British public. The town’s industry, and its most famous song, are also remembered in the Scarlets’ official magazine, Sosban.

Renowned Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel recorded the song on his 2000 album We’ll Keep a Welcome.

‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ (‘Land of my Fathers’)

Often referred to as Wales’ unofficial national anthem, this rousing ‘Land of my Fathers’ has a strong family connection. The words were written by the Pontypridd-based poet Evan James and set to a tune composed by his son, the composer and harpist James James.

The latter, who also found the time to run a public house, composed the piece originally as a dance tune. It was originally intended to be performed in 6/8 time, but was slowed down to a 3/4 tempo when it caught on as an anthem for singing by large crowds.

We named ‘Land of my fathersw’ of the best rugby songs ever

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‘Ar Lan y Môr’ (‘Beside the Sea’)

This traditional Welsh folk song exists in a few different forms, with various different lyrics. Across all variants, however, the tune remains the same. So does the subject matter: ‘Ar Lan y Môr’ is a love song, which also evokes the beautiful Welsh countryside.

This is another traditional Welsh song to feature on Bryn Terfel’s album We’ll Keep a Welcome: it’s also present on the debut album by Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins, 2004’s Première.

‘Men of Harlech’

This famous song and military march is believed to be a description of the seven-year siege of Harlech Castle during the Wars of the Roses. The massive 13th-century castle was being held by the Lancastrians against the Yorkists and, under Constable Dafydd ap Ieuan, the garrison withstood the longest known siege in British history. Indeed, an alternative name for the song is ‘Through Seven Years’.

There may also be connections with an earlier siege of Harlech when, in around 1408, Welsh leader Owain Glyndŵr resisted an attack by the future King Henry V of England.

Men of Harlech‘ has featured in two well-known films: the 1941 movie How Green Was My Valley and Zulu, from 1964.

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‘Dafydd y Garreg Wen’ (‘David of the White Rock’)

David Owen (1712-41), a harpist and composer from Caernarfonshire, is thought to have composed the tune to this haunting traditional Welsh song. Owen was known locally as Dafydd y Garreg Wen (‘David of the White Rock’), after the name of the farm where he lived.

It is believed that Owen, on his death bed at the age of just 29, called for his harp and composed the tune. The words were added a century later by the poet John Ceiriog Hughes (1832-87).

‘Dafydd y Garreg Wen’ is another Welsh song with a unique distinction in history. When, in 1923, the BBC made its first broadcast from Wales, singer Mostyn Thomas opened the programme – with a rendition of ‘David of the White Rock’. The song thus became the very first Welsh-language song to play on the airwaves.

Performances of the song are often accompanied by a harp – an important instrument in Wales’ musical heritage.

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‘My little Welsh Home’

‘I am dreaming of the mountains of my home’: so begin the lyrics to this nostalgic folk song by musician and composer William Sidney Gwynn Williams (1896-1978). Williams also played a major role in the foundation of the Llangollen International Eisteddfod in 1947: indeed, he became the festival’s first musical director.

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