Another theory, though less well-known, has its proponents: that Madoc, a son of Owain Gwynedd – the rebellious Welsh prince who was a notable thorn in the side of King Henry II of England – fled the fighting back home and sailed for the New World around 1170. The Welsh expedition is said to have landed at some Southern port and proceeded to work its way up the Mississippi and Missouri watershed, intermarrying with various Native tribes and leaving behind tantalizing traces of Celtic technology along the way. When the Lewis and Clark expedition encountered the Mandans, for instance, they were trying (without success) to find some who had reddish hair or spoke a few words of Cymric, based on rumors that they’d heard.
The Madoc discovery story, alas, is not supported by much in the way of scientific evidence (although during the Tudor/Stuart period it was popular among the English, who were trying to stake a claim to the New World that predated that of the Spanish). Those whose romantic sensibilities are stirred by old tales of Celtic glory will have to content themselves with the news of a more contemporary Welsh invasion of America: We’ve got our very own Eisteddfod now, and it’s coming to Kerhonkson this very weekend.
What the heck is an Eisteddfod? Well, the people of Wales have been putting them on in high style off and on since at least 1176. The word literally means “to be sitting together,” and refers to a gathering of the greatest bards in the land to perform and compete for prizes, as judged by a formal board of their peers. Back in the old days the winners got to dine at the table of the presiding lord; at one Eisteddfod held in 1568, the prizes were tiny silver charms in the shape of a musical instrument, a tongue or a chair, depending on the category of competition.
The tradition began to go into decline after Elizabeth I decided to institutionalize the various performing arts throughout Britain and required that bards be subjected to a licensing exam in order to compete. Interest in Celtic folkways was discouraged as the English became more dominant, and the Eisteddfods became less organized and waned in importance.
The late 18th century saw a revival of interest coinciding with the rise of the Romantic movement in the arts. Then, in 1847, three non-Cymric-speaking English commissioners conducted a sketchy survey of the Welsh people and published a notorious report known as the Blue Books depicting them as ignorant, lazy and immoral. The ensuing huge public outcry in Wales led to a resurgence of traditional cultural values, and the Eisteddfod once again became a national institution. The “Great Llangollen Eisteddfod of 1858” ended up in a near-brawl when an essay refuting the claim that the aforementioned Prince Madoc had discovered America was named as winner of a top prize, and the event’s organizer – an outspoken proponent of the Madoc hypothesis – refused to award it.
Based on the roster of performers slated for this weekend’s seventh annual Festival of Traditional Music at the Hudson Valley Resort and Spa (the former Granit Hotel), Eisteddfod 2010, it seems unlikely that fisticuffs will erupt. Sponsored by the Folk Music Society of New York, Inc. and the New York Pinewoods Folk Music Club under the name of Eisteddfod in various locations for some four decades now, it’s a mellow folkie crowd, featuring some venerable names. For instance, there’s Heather Wood, the last surviving member of British folk pioneers the Young Tradition, who propelled Peter Bellamy to iconhood back in the ‘60s. Wood now lives in New York and is frequently spotted in the audience at the Towne Crier in Pawling, but seldom performs herself anymore. Nearly as legendary is Eric Weissberg – the guy who was really playing offscreen when that weird inbred idiot-savant kid on the porch in Deliverance was ostensibly performing the tune known as “Dueling Banjos.” Then there’s Alison Kinnaird, one of Scotland’s greatest experts on the Celtic harp, who also happens to be a master glass engraver and was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) by Queen Elizabeth II for her “services to art and music.”
Singer/autoharp player Caroline Paton, who with her late husband Sandy co-founded the venerable Folk-Legacy record company, will be on hand. So will Robin Morton, one of the original members of the Boys of the Lough – probably the most respected practitioners of traditional Irish music after the Chieftains. Few people can crank out a sea chantey or a bawdy drinking song with the gusto of transplanted English singer/concertina player John Roberts, a regional institution both for his long partnership with Tony Barrand and as one-fourth of the seasonal band Nowell Sing We Clear. The dulcet tones of John Kirk & Trish Miller are also well-loved here in the Hudson Valley and beyond.
Other performers slated to appear include Paul Brown, Martha Burns, Jerry Epstein, US Eisteddfod founder Howard Glasser, Benny Graham, Alan Friend, Lorraine & Bennett Hammond, Sharon Katz, Vic Legg, Bob Malenky, Val Mindel, Joe Newberry, Steve Suffet, Dwayne Thorpe, Triboro, Mickey Vandow and more. For a full list of the performers visit www.eisteddfod-ny.org.
The event kicks off with dinner at 6:30 on Friday, November 5 and runs through 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 7. In between there will be one full concert per day plus 25 workshops, an open-mic session, late-night singing, a contra dance and informal socializing, music-making and outdoor walks. Participants are encouraged to register for the entire weekend to stay at the hotel and experience all the music, but prices range from a $25 member’s ticket for a single concert to $115 for an All-Festival Pass. Meals and lodging are additional, of course. The Hudson Valley Resort and Spa is located at 400 Granite Road in Kerhonkson. You can reserve online directly at http://eisteddfod-ny.eventbrite.com, and lots more info is available at www.eisteddfod-ny.org or www.minstrelrecords.com/fmsny/eisteddfod, or you can call (718) 672-6399.