Friday, April 3, 2015

Friday Tunes: Bells of Rhymney

This week’s installment of labour themes in pop culture is the Bells of Rhymney (“Rum-ney"). Various artists (include Cher and the Byrds) seem to fiddle the lyrics to suit them so I have reprised the original Welsh poem (“Gwalia Deserta XV”) from which they were drawn below. This Oysterband version is a bit muddy but seems a bit more authentic than the vocally crisper John Denver version.

This song’s lyrics were inspired by a coal-mining disaster and a 1926 British general strike over wages and working conditions in the coal mines. The song touches on the unfettered exploitation of miners, also seen in eastern Canada:

Who made the mineowner?
And who robbed the miner?
They will plunder willy-nilly,
They have fangs, they have teeth

Part of the song’s charm is its structural parody of “Oranges and Lemons” and the jaunty music juxtaposed with the rather dark lyrics.

O what can you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney.

Is there hope for the future?
Cry the brown bells of Merthyr.

Who made the mineowner?
Say the black bells of Rhondda.

And who robbed the miner?
Cry the grim bells of Blaina.

They will plunder willy-nilly,
Say the bells of Caerphilly.

They have fangs, they have teeth
Shout the loud bells of Neath.

To the south, things are sullen,
Say the pink bells of Brecon.

Even God is uneasy,
Say the moist bells of Swansea.

Put the vandals in court
Cry the bells of Newport.

All would be well if — if — if —
Say the green bells of Cardiff.

Why so worried, sisters, why
Sing the silver bells of Wye.

-- Bob Barnetson

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