The Lost and Found Musical History of Merthyr Tydfil: A Case Study in Local Music Making

Pre covid, I was looking forward to going to the University of Michigan to deliver a paper talking about what was at that point a new edited collection I had just worked on – focusing on ‘hidden histories of popular music in the UK‘ (Popular Music History 2019). However, the conference was eventually cancelled and postponed a year until last week. Hosted by the International Association for the Study of Popular Music US branch, the online event ran for the majority of last week. You can check out the papers here and if you are interested, you can listen to my presentation below. I have also included a transcription of the talk below. My talk focused on a number of projects I organised on hidden histories in Merthyr Tydfil in addition to the collection more broadly. Hope you enjoy.

The initial impetus for this talk began in 2016, when after moving to the Valley’s town of Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales, I realized there were many stories about the “lost popular music scenes of the past” emerging from the local community. Via informal conversation, memories of a once thriving music scene emerged with residents, who reminisced on narratives ranging from famous bands, iconic local musicians, to now long demolished or derelict buildings, that were once places where the local community would gather to enjoy music. However, as these informal stories emerged, it also became apparent that these histories were not officially commemorated in the town or the surrounding areas— they had technically been forgotten in terms of published material, curation or indeed by the broader local community. 

The reason for this deficiency of material is complex, ranging from lack of targeted finance; the priorities of museums; the capacities of local communities to ‘self-curate’; to local histories simply been considered unimportant to “official” curators, publishers and writers. Issues of “selected histories” and “institutional power” are highlighted in the work of academics such as Baker (2015, 2018), Brocken (2010) and Wall (2013),  with Bennett pointing out how popular music cultures were not traditionally regarded as heritage in the first place, with their “mass produced emphasis” rendering ‘them the anthesis of authentic cultural value as conceived in conventional heritage discourse’. This comment of course has great resonance with Theodor Adorno, who as early as 1941 was asserting that the “simplistic” harmonic language of popular music, in addition to its “formulaic” lyrical subject content and “standardized” forms resulted in it been unworthy of serious academic study. Adorno of course was commenting principally on “mass produced” popular music, so what he would have thought about the authenticity of local music making remains to be seen. 

After noting the tendency of collections ‘follow[ing] established narratives of popular music histories’ (2018: 3), Baker verifies how grassroot based collections, led and collated by local people, can provide an ongoing alternative narrative, that has the capacity to be distinct from a unitary vision of the past towards one that incorporates many pasts, ‘legitimating the role of communities as bestowers of heritage status’. Most importantly, these pasts, which can include memories and memorabilia of local people, can also be regarded as reflecting community identities, resulting in the archiver been transformed from passive curator to community facilitator.

Music of course has long been regarded as inextricably linked to a sense of self-identity, be it from the perspective of producer or consumer. In terms of community engagement, DeNora (1999) proposes a framework through which music has the capacity to provide a means that facilities individuals to construct what she describes as ‘virtual identities’, ranging from ‘emotional self-management’ to providing a way of ‘transferring [an individual’s] means of expression from the ‘real’, physical realm, to the ‘imagined’, the virtual’. 

When seen through this lens, engagement with music can be seen to not only expresses or reinforce how a listener feels (who they are), but also who they were and also who they want to be. I would suggest that this has significant consequences when considering memories of and relationships with local music histories, as when contemplating music, musical communities reflect on at least two of these parameters simultaneously. While younger generations who don’t remember first-hand the original historical events may focus on “who they are” and “who they want to be”, older members have the capacity to engage with all three, with the “who we were” parameter tending to be the primary focus of many historical accounts.  

Local music making and consumption has of course been addressed by the likes of Sarah Cohen, Barry Shank and Ruth Finnegan, with Howard Becker in particular being amongst the first to challenge the notion that only well-known musicians and bands were worthy of study. The work of these academics can be seen to move beyond simply collating local popular music as heritage, toward attempting to understand the movements, creative practices and strategic relationships of local music making. Perrenoud and Bois describe such practitioners as 

[..] neither rich [..] nor famous. They are neither “stars” nor “great” artists who are well known or celebrated. This is a situation experienced by most artists, yet it is seldom studied. This sociology of the banal, which deals with artistic work in its most mundane aspects, has, for a long time, had only a few proponents (2017: 5). 

Although the aforementioned writings are mainly based on the economic and cultural capitals of local musicians, often without any historical imperative, they do describe the reality of many of the musicians included in a special edition of Popular Music History I recently edited. These musicians are noted as having a distinct skill set from their more well-known counterparts, usually working in portfolio careers (when professional) without intermediaries such as agents and record labels—dealing more directly with the public, in an ongoing local career.  

It could therefore be argued that this “local dynamic” and sense of identity are two of the factors that adds a specific nuance to the memories of local musicians when they recount stories of the past, as they are communicating a set of relationships that are not the same as that of an “untouchable star” to an unknown audience. For example, when reflecting on a fund-raising concert his band The Villains performed at to raise money for the Aberfan disaster, which claimed the lives of 126 children and 28 adults on October 21st 1966, drummer Stuart Davies commented

At the time, I did not really appreciate how big this concert would be to me, but the enormity has grown throughout the years really. Now I feel honored to be one of the people to be asked to perform at that concert. 

Within this comment, Davis is simultaneously recounting historical facts (the Aberfan disaster and the benefit concert) and an emotionally bonded “identity memory”, in which he and his band performed as part of a grieving local community. Davis is also clearly expressing who he wasis, and to a lesser extent who he wants to be: someone who is known for engaging in the musical history of Merthyr Tydfil and more specifically the event, which is connected to such an iconic aspect of the town’s history.  

The notion of being part of a community, either as a musician, curator, music industry stakeholder or audience member (or indeed a combination of all of these things) is something all of the authors my edited collection share, with all contributors either been born or currently living in the place of their subject matters. All of the six chapters focus on the “lost” history of local music participation, ranging from issues surrounding curated history (via exhibitions and re-enactments); influences of the built environment on popular music activity; impacts of popular music’s past on the community, to the ways in which changing relationships with local music venues reflect both local concerns and wider trends in popular culture. 

One of three chapters concentrated on south Wales, my own chapter focuses on an analysis of a one-month local music exhibition curated in 2018 and an earlier connected project which was implemented as part of The British Academy’s Being Human Festival. Although the Merthyr Tydfil based exhibition could be regarded as following in the footsteps of a tried and tested method of curating and exhibiting popular music narratives in public spaces, the week-long Being Human activities used memory collection and enactment activities to both depict and help understand how local popular music histories can resonate not only with the participants who witnessed them, but also a younger generation who were not born when the activities took place. Based on the data compiled from both of these activities, my essay initially presents an historical account of the development of popular music in Merthyr Tydfil between 1955 and 1975.  It subsequently proceeds to consider the potential impacts that undertakings such as exhibitions, memory collection, online communities and re-enactment activities can have on local communities. 

In closing and as indicated earlier, Adorno and those following in his tradition clearly consider popular music to be an “inauthentic” practice, which leads to the misguided assertion that there is no point in studying it, let alone celebrating and understanding the impacts of its history. However, as Barker and Taylor (2007) specify, although all popular music can be regarded to be “fake” to some degree, it still has the capacity to be a profoundly authentic experience for many. Indeed as Taylor (1997) indicated, local “unmediated” music that is free from “commercial pressures” has a particularly strong resonance on the authenticity continuum. Although many of the artists and venues discussed in my collection are not known internationally, or in some cases nationally, the tripartite relationship of artist, local community and music industries, through the lens of memory, has an important resonance with what Moore (2002) describes as first, second and third person authenticity, allowing participants to understand what it is like to be themselves (me), what it is like to be “you”,  and this is what it like to be “them” (a distant other). I would suggest that the dialogical relationship between these factors (in addition to the aforementioned notions of communities considering who they are, were and want to be), are an arguably underestimated reason why studying local music infrastructures are so important: as local music practices, whatever their historical timeframe, resonate in specific ways with local communities. While local musicians usually don’t need to provide any information on “who they are” (“this is/was me”) to local audiences, as they often know them personally, performing in a band does provide an “extra dimension” to identity, where although a performer may come from a similar locality and even a congruent day time vocation, their identities are overtly distinct. In essence, the “me” being referred to is authentic and “tangible”, but also peppered with at least the allusion of celebrity (This is who I was/this is who I want to be). Consequently, even when singing a cover version, the “you” being referred to by the local musician is implicitly understood in a different way than that of a global superstar: while the performer understands that the audience may know them, the reverse is also true, the audience knows that the performer can speak into their experience in ways that a global superstar may not. 

When reflecting of this special edition of Popular Music History, it is apparent that in addition to “authentic”, “alternative” and “lost” histories, the essays also reflect alternative and lost community identities, for both musicians and audiences alike. It is important to remember that although the notion of the “virtual (alternative) identity” highlighted earlier by DeNora (1999) is significant, these identities are based on “real” memories and of course, remembered histories. So, collections such as this provide discourse for both the academic and local music communities, of which the majority of music listeners are inevitably part of. 

All of the essays in this special edition suggest that although local popular music histories resonate both positively and negatively with mainstream narratives, they also have a specificity that is unique to the region. As outlined by Bennett and Rodgers, the local is not sealed off from the global, but resonates in a fusion, resulting in ‘distinctive expressions of musical life’, what Sheila Whitely described as ‘a local structure of feeling’. This collection represents an historical snapshot of these expressions and feelings in the UK, highlighting not just music’s importance as a symbolic anchor of locality, but also how the voices of musicians, audiences, critics, venues, curators and other music industry stakeholders can form a collective identity, in a series of competing narratives. 

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
This entry was posted in Being Human, Merthyr Music Project, Musicology, Wales and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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