It’s unlikely the name of Joseph Parry will mean much to anyone who is not from Wales. But if you’ve ever experienced a performance by a Welsh male voice choir you’ll certainly have heard his music. Although he died more than 100 years ago, versions of his composition ‘Myfanwy’ have been recorded in recent years by Cerys Matthews and the opera singer Bryn Terfel. Parry’s music is also said to have influenced Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the national anthem of South Africa.
Not bad for a man born into poverty who left school at the age of nine to work in the local coal mines and iron works. From those humble beginnings he rose to become the first person from Wales to achieve a Doctorate in Music from Cambridge University and become the first Welshman to compose an opera – Blodwen, was the first opera in the Welsh language.
Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones is a fictionalised biography of Joseph Parry from his early beginnings in the industrial town of Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. In the 1840s when Joseph was a young boy, this was the largest industrial town anywhere in the world according to Jack Jones. The discovery of large iron ore deposits encouraged wealthy investors to build iron works employing thousands of people but industrialisation brought overcrowding, poor sanitation, water shortages and disease.
Some of you who had visited the place during one of our dry summers will remember the stink of the place … and no doubt wondered how we could go on living there, You get used to anything can’t you? It was the cholera we were most afraid of for that did not give us any chance to get used to it. It cut us down and few of us were lucky to get up again.
This was the life the Parry family escaped in 1854 when they emigrated to Pennsylvania (hence the book title), settling in the town of Danville which had a large Welsh community. Though Joseph had regularly sung in chapel choirs back home, he had no formal musical training until the age of 17. From then he began making rapid progress, travelling throughout the United States to give concerts, winning awards back home in Wales at the National Eisteddfod and gaining funding to enable him to study full time in Cambridge.
The portrait Jack Jones conveys in Off to Philadelphia in the Morning is of a man with huge resources of creative energy, always buzzing with ideas for new compositions and projects, but whose work was often not received with the level of acclaim he anticipated. Late in his life he came to question his decision to return to his native land, thinking that if he had stayed in America he would have been better appreciated. Frustrated by the lukewarm response in Wales to some of his later composition, his wife agitated for a move from South Wales to London where she believed his talents would be better recognised.
But their finances were so precarious they couldn’t gather enough money to set up home in the capital. Nevertheless Parry drove himself on despite failing health, the premature death of two sons and lack of money. But in death his contribution to the musical life of Wales was recognised with a huge funeral attended by at 7,000 people from all parts of the UK and a memorial close to his final home.
Off to Philadelphia in the Morning is an odd book. Jack Jones never claimed it was anything other than a work of fiction yet it contains a significant amount of factual information from the size of the population of Merthyr Tydfil to the fortunes of the landowners who exploit it and the chapels that try to provide hope for the inhabitants. If it’s not pure fiction neither is it a straight biography. It has an unnamed narrator who is clearly a working man from Merthyr Tydfil and one who knew Joseph Parry well enough to be invited to his concerts and his home. This narrator wants to be seen as a historian not just of Parry’s life but of the changes that happen to the town of Merthyr Tydfil as it goes from prosperity to decline. We get frequent digressions to relate the lives of a number of other inhabitants – some of which are interesting but which do tend to make this an over-long book and take attention away from the main subject of Joseph Parry himself. Consequently I found myself skimming quite a number of pages….
But there is one question that remains unanswered in Jack Jones’ book – who was Myfanwy? There is a girl by that name who is a childhood friend of Parry in the book, a girl who looks after her blind, drunkard father until one of the iron magnets spots her musical talent and pays for her to be taken care of and given lessons. In the book she becomes a world famous opera singer who meets up with Parry when they are both well established in their field. Legend has it that Parry wrote ‘Myfanwy’ in her honour (there is no mention of this in the book) though in reality he wrote only the music for the ballad and the lyrics came from another source. So now I’m left wondering how much of this book can be relied upon as an accurate account of his life and how much is myth?
The Book: Off to Philadelphia in the Morning was published in 1947. My copy, which I picked up from Bookbarn International dates from 1978. A TV series based on the book was broadcast by the BBC in 1978.
The Author: Jack Jones was – like Joseph Parry – born in Merthyr Tydfil. He went to work in the coal mines at the age of 12. During the depression years of the 1920s he became involved in politics and became a trade union leader. He began writing newspaper articles as a freelancer before progressing to novels.
Why I read this: the name of Joseph Parry is one that I’ve heard ever since I was a child but although I’ve seen his birthplace in Merthyr Tydfil and I live close to his last home, I knew nothing about him.
If you want to hear Parry’s music have a listen to this rendition of Myfanwy by the Morriston Orpheus Choir from Swansea.