Still pursuing a recent obsession with Welsh music, this American-of-Irish-extraction thought he would reflect a little on the beautiful song “Calon Lân” (generally translated to English as “A Pure Heart”). It’s a song that seems to be deeply embedded in the Welsh culture, to such an extent that you could easily believe it were a much older song than it is. It was first published in 1899, which isn’t yesterday, but is certainly modern times, only fifteen years before WWI.
The lyric was written by the Welsh poet Daniel James, also known by his Welsh poetic nickname, “Gwyrosydd.” It’s reported that he wrote the words as a prayer and then later asked the Welsh tunesmith John Hughes (known also for the great melody “Cwm Rhondda”) to put it to music, which he did, promptly creating a hymn of some sublime beauty and power. Its first appearance was in a Sunday School periodical, and it became widely beloved during what is known as “The Welsh Revival” of 1904-1905, a revival of Christianity which is credited with spurring similar awakenings far beyond the borders of Wales.
The song is also one of a number of great Welsh melodies which can be heard in the classic film, “How Green Was My Valley,” directed by John Ford, from 1941.
It’s the kind of a song where I think most anyone listening to it would find it affecting even with absolutely no idea of what the words mean. I can say at least that it certainly had me reaching for a hankie the first time I heard it, though I had no tangible notion of what it was about. Somehow just the sound of the singing of those syllables and that tune left no doubt that it represented something very profound. It seemed unlikely that it was a song about, say, scrambled eggs. It came across as a statement from deep within the human soul, full of emotion; it was clearly an extraordinarily deep declaration or plea.
Quite a lot of people heard “Calon Lân” for the first time in this way when it was performed on the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent” in 2012, by a choir of young Welsh lads known as “Only Boys Aloud.” It was one of those obviously choreographed but still likeable moments when people are unexpectedly wowed. The video is embedded via YouTube below (and then below that some more scribbling from me about the song).
The boys got to the final, where they were defeated by a dancing dog. No shame in that; we humans have little choice but to concede that dogs are our betters.
The first time I heard “Calon Lân” I was very interested indeed to know what the words meant, so I looked it up.
In Welsh and then English, the first verse goes:
Nid wy’n gofyn bywyd moethus, I don’t ask for a luxurious life,
Aur y byd na’i berlau mân, The world’s gold or its fine pearls,
Gofyn wyf am galon hapus, I ask for a happy heart,
Calon onest, calon lân. An honest heart, a pure heart.
The refrain goes:
Calon lân yn llawn daioni, A pure heart full of goodness
Tecach yw na’r lili dlos: Is fairer than the pretty lily,
Dim ond calon lân all ganu None but a pure heart can sing,
Canu’r dydd a chanu’r nos. Sing in the day and sing in the night.
And jumping to the third and final verse:
Hwyr a bore fy nymuniad Evening and morning, my wish
Gwyd i’r nef ar adain cân Rising to heaven on the wing of song
Ar i Dduw, er mwyn fy Ngheidwad, For God, for the sake of my Saviour,
Roddi i mi galon lân. To give me a pure heart.
That a song with this kind of import becomes so loved and so ingrained in a particular culture—to the extent that everyone seems to know it and it is even sung before big rugby matches—is quite something in itself, something to really make you wonder. Naturally, not everyone is singing it in a devotional sense—for some no doubt it’s more a statement of identity, and national pride—but the words are what the words are. It’s not exactly “We Are the Champions.”
There was a certain kind of synchronicity for yours truly in becoming familiar with this song, as I was also participating in a little Bible study on the Sermon on the Mount at the time. Though there’s an incalculable amount that can be said about that preaching of Jesus, a central theme surely is that Jesus is asking people to look to and examine their hearts; he is challenging people to have hearts that are worthy of lifting up to God. This song constitutes a poignant prayer for God’s help in that very quest.
It also strikes me as a particularly resonant prayer in such times as those in which we now live, with a great excess of everything assaulting us: the twenty-four-hour-media, all but inescapable on screens from a couple of inches wide to ones that take up the whole wall, accompanying us from the bathroom to the bank, telling us all the things we want, all the things we ought to desire if we don’t already, and all the things we don’t need to know about everyone else. And all of these things are working so efficiently to crowd out any simplicity—and certainly any sense of the holy and the pure—remaining in our hearts.
There are lots of versions of “Calon Lân,” once you look for them. Although I love the male voice choirs, my favorite most days is the simplest version out there, just voice and guitar by a great modern-day ambassador of Welsh music, Cerys Matthews. On YouTube there is also an earlier live performance from her with harp and banjo, and a lovely version with the Fron Male Voice Choir and string accompaniment, but this simplest one embedded below is from her marvelous 2010 album, TIR (which means “land”).
An old joke, I believe, is that God answers prayers recited in Welsh twice as fast … there being no need to translate them. (Actually, given what’s known of some significant connections between the Welsh and Hebrew languages, there might be something in that joke.) In any case, it’s my belief that a song that is so deeply expressive even to those who don’t know its language must surely rise quickly to God’s own ear and be treasured there.