William Aubrey Williams (1834-1891) was a blacksmith by trade and a musician by what almost seems to have been divine calling. "Gwilym Gwent", the name by which he is perhaps best known, suggests this musicality, for it is is his bardic name, the name by which he is known in the great musical tradition of his native land.
Born in Wales, whose musicality is legendary, he sang in his uncle's choir at the age of 10. Later he conducted a local band and composed music-particularly songs, and anthems in the great Welsh choral tradition. Meanwhile, blacksmithing continued to be his "day job."
In 1872 he moved to Pennsylvania with his family, eventually settling in the town of Plymouth. He continued as a blacksmith, but with a difference--his work now took him underground, right into the coal mines of the area. He worked in several during his Pennsylvania career.
But he did not stop making music. There were many other Welsh people in the coal region of the upper Susquehanna Valley, and they loved him. They called him "the minstrel of the mines."
He wrote music at home and also in the mines where he worked, sometimes using chalk to write the beginning of an anthem or a song on the side of a coal mine car. His works eventually amounted to over 100, all done without benefit of formal musical training. In addition, he conducted bands and choirs.
He died in 1891. Thousands gathered at the Welsh Congregational Church in Plymouth where he had worshipped, and followed his coffin to the Hollenback Cemetery in Wilkes-Barre. They did not go silently, but sang as they went. To get to the end of their sad yet in some ways noble journey they needed to cross the Susquehanna River. It took several steam boats several trips to ferry them all across.
Nor was that all. As the result of a public subscription an imposing 7-foot monument was erected over his grave and dedicated in 1892. You can go there to pay your respects if you like. And if you have a chance, you should.
The story of Gwilym Gwent is an evolving one. Despite the monument, much about him had been forgotten as the generations who had known him personally passed from the scene. But as a result of several small "coincidences"--an obituary notice about him, a visit by a grandson who knew little except that his grandfather had been a musician--the time for renewed recognition may be at hand.
These "coincidences" befell the Plymouth Historical Society, located at 115 Gaylord Avenue. The society possesses much else of historical interest about its community. Call and make an appointment for a visit if you can. The phone number is 570-779-5840.
I am indebted to Georgetta Potoski of the society for telling the story of Gwilym Gwent, and to Erika Funke for conducting a most perceptive interview with Ms. Potoski on her indispensable program "Arts Scene."
Taken all in all, WVIA-FM and television make a powerful argument for the value of public broadcasting. And organizations like the Plymouth Historical Society serve their communities well by preserving the memories that make them communities in the first place.