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Wales' first one hit wonder

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James McLaren James McLaren | 09:00 UK time, Monday, 14 May 2012

Today is the 80th anniversary of the death of Welsh composer John Hughes, whose major contribution to the world of music is probably familiar to every single adult in Wales. Honestly.

Born in Dowlais on 24 November 1873, John Hughes, a deacon and chorusmaster at Salem Welsh Baptist Chapel in Llantwit Fardre, died on 14 May 1932. Twenty-five years before his death, he composed a melody entitled Rhondda.

It would eventually become a rugby terrace anthem.

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Hughes showed musical talent from an early age, which was fostered by his equally-musical father, Evan, who bought him a harmonium with which to develop his skills.

His working life began as a 12-year-old boy in the Gelynog Colliery, but he became ill with typhoid after drinking from an infected stream. His illness prevented him carrying out any underground work, so he became a colliery clerk instead.

In the early years of the 20th century he took over from his father as Salem Chapel's chorusmaster and began composing works for worship, most especially for the congregation of Temple Church on the Graig at Pontypridd.

It was in 1907 that a fevered writing session resulted in a melody that would bring him the recognition his talent deserved.

He was invited to compose a work for Capel Rhondda's annual music festival which would coincide with the installation of a new organ at the chapel.

On 1 November 1907 his new melody was performed as planned on the new organ, with a choir marrying the words from Wele'n Sefyll Rhwng Y Myrtwydd by Ann Griffiths (1776-1805) to the tune.

Hughes would later choose Peter Williams' Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah to accompany his melody, and it was in this version that became famous as a song of worship across the world. By 1908 it was known as Cwm Rhondda.

During his lifetime Hughes composed dozens of other other hymns. At the time well-known, they have now slipped out of usage and Cwm Rhondda remains his best-known work.

He died in 1932, aged 58, from illness complicated by - as with many men of the time - his time in coal mining.

After his death Cwm Rhondda developed a life of its own. Rugby fans at the Arms Park would arrive early to guarantee good viewing positions, and keep themselves entertained by singing popular songs from their chapels. Cwm Rhondda began to gain momentum. Its spine-tingling power can still be felt when the Millennium Stadium crowd does what its chapel-going forebears did.

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