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Williams Pantycelyn and the Welsh pop scene

Wales’s foremost hymn writer, William Williams, Pantycelyn, is also largely responsible for the sales of the most successful Welsh-language pop record ever.

At the beginning of the 1970s a BBC Wales light entertainment producer, on hearing the tune ‘Amazing Grace’ being played by the pipes and drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, had the inspirational idea of marrying the tune to Williams’s hymn, ‘Pererin Wyf’.  A record by Iris Williams was a sweeping success, and has sold more copies that any other Welsh-language pop song to date.

This was revealed by the BBC’s Welsh Affairs Editor, Vaughan Roderick, a descendant of William Williams, during an address at Llandovery College on Thursday, 11 May 2017. The event, organised by Llandovery History Society, drew a large audience from the town and surrounding area and was attended by several of the hymn-writer’s descendants,

Vaughan said Williams, known as ‘Y Pêr Ganiedydd’ (The Sweet Songster) wasn’t the first hymn-writer in Carmarthenshire.   The drover, Dafydd Jones of Caio, had already translated a number of the hymns of Isaac Watts from English into Welsh. However, Williams was more original and prolific.

Vaughan Roderick (third from right) with other descendants of Williams Pantycelyn

He wrote 800 hymns in Welsh and 200 in English. “His hymns are very personal.  They are passionate love letters to Jesus,” said Vaughan.  “They had a remarkable effect on the early Methodists. They would repeat the same verse thirty or 40 times.  Some would become violently agitated, would leap up and down, frequently for hours, and were referred to by the English Methodists as the ‘Welsh Jumpers’”.   Williams, who intended to be a doctor, until his conversion by the Methodist leader, Howel Harris, also wrote several books in prose; two show a remarkable insight into psychology.

Because of his Methodist activities, he was consigned to the curacy of Llanwrtyd and Abergwesyn, two of the remotest and most sparsely populated parishes in Wales. When the bishop of St Davids refused him the priesthood, he became a travelling preacher, which entailed travelling up to 4,000 mile a year on horseback.  He would also display his skills as a salesman by persuading people to buy packets of tea together with copies of his books.

Vaughan Roderick with Stevie Watson of Llandovery History Society in the Pantycelyn corner of the Museum in the Castle Hotel, Llandovery

Occasionally, he would be accompanied by his wife, Mali, who had an excellent singing voice. When Williams had completed a hymn, he would invite Mali to sing the words so that he could evaluate their effect.

William Williams’s best-known hymn. ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’, better known by rugby enthusiasts as ‘Bread of Heaven, is a translation from the Welsh by Peter Williams, the Methodist cleric and Biblical commentator. One of Peter Williams’s descendants, revealed Vaughan, is David Davies, MP for Monmouth until the recent dissolution of Parliament.


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