A Time for Music, 2019 Third Place Adult Division

By Gloria Jean Thomas

Sitting with the other contestants, Harriet Matilda Williams clutched her hands together in her lap, hoping the other 11 finalists in the young ladies’ vocal solo competition wouldn’t notice how nervous she was. Music competitions were the major events of Malad Valley Welsh Days, and this would be Harriet Matilda’s last chance to win before having to compete in the adult women’s division. She would graduate from the 8th grade in the spring, and there was no thought of students going on to high school because there was no high school in Malad Valley in 1884. The little one-room county schools in St. John, Pleasantview, Daniels, Cherry Creek, Henderson Creek, Samaria, Gwenford, Dairy Creek, and Elkhorn had classes only through the 4th or 6th grade. Then those students who wanted to go on for a year or two more of school had to ride their horses or catch buggy rides into Malad to attend the big four-room school.

The Welsh Days music competitions were held in the common room of the Malad School. All of the chairs and benches had been lined up for the contestants and audience members to sit on, and a small wooden stage had been set up at the front of the room. The room was full of parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends, and everyone who loved music, which was most everyone in Malad Valley. After all, the Welsh were famous for their music, and the organizers of the first Welsh Days celebration, held just five years after the first ten Welsh pioneer families settled Malad Valley in 1864, had wanted to keep some of their prized Welsh traditions alive. Maybe by next year they would be able to have a piano in the school. For now, all the contestants sang after getting a note from the pitch pipe played by one of the mothers.

As she waited, Harriet Matilda glanced at the other contestants. She knew Lizzy Evans would probably win; she had won the last three years with her beautiful soprano voice. But Harriet Matilda had practiced really hard and hoped she might come in second because that would mean winning 50 cents – enough to buy fabric for new skirts for herself and her two little sisters. She looked farther down the row. She knew that Mary Thomas from St. John had practiced all year for this contest. She didn’t know the two girls from Elkhorn, but they were undoubtedly good singers because they came from the Daniels and Griffiths families. The Price girl from Samaria looked confident – maybe she thought she would win.

Harriet Matilda looked down at her dress, so grateful that Grandma Jones had made her a new apron from bleached flour sacks to cover the shabbiness of her best dress. The bright white apron hid most of the mends in the faded skirt. She continued to worry that Ma and Pa and Grandma Jones and Grandma and Grandpa Williams would be so disappointed if she didn’t win. She glanced back and saw them sitting on a bench a few rows back along with her two little sisters and big brother, who grinned at her. She sighed, still missing Grandpa Jones, who had died a couple of years ago of a heart attack while grubbing out more of the endless sagebrush that always threatened to take over the garden, the pasture, or the small wheat field. At least her Williams grandparents and her own family now lived in two- or three-room log cabins in Malad. (Grandma Jones had moved in with her family when Grandpa died.) She knew her grandparents’ first homes in Malad Valley had been sod huts with dirt floors, dirt walls, and dirt roofs. They had arrived in Malad Valley from Wales in the early 1870s, grateful to be in America where they could own their own land. As her Grandpa Williams always said, “We can starve to death as easily in America as in Wales, but at least it will be on our own land.”

Mr. Pierce, the 8th grade teacher who was the master of ceremony for the contest, stood up to announce the next contestant: “Thank you. We have just heardNettie Morgan of Pleasantview sing ‘The Mochen Du.’ Next Harriet MatildaWilliams from Malad will sing ‘Ar Hyd y Nos.’” Harriet Matilda stepped up on the makeshift stage, hoping she could remember all the words of the old Welsh song.

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“Mom, I don’t want to wear that stupid costume to the contest! Can’t I just wear jeans and my new shirt?” Mattie knew the answer before her mother replied with exaggerated patience, “No, Mattie, this is a big occasion, and you have to wear one of your good dresses if you don’t want to wear the costume.” The middle school girls’ vocal competition for the 2014 Welsh Days was going to be held this afternoon in the Malad High School auditorium, and Mattie knew it was a big deal.

Mattie was one of 15 finalists, most from Malad Middle School but a couple from Marsh Valley and one from Preston. She figured Krissy Thomas would probably win because she had won just about every year. But Mattie wanted to sing well because this might be the last time Great-Grandma Jones would be able to hear her before she moved into the assisted living residence in Brigham City. Mattie also knew that the top three winners received cash prizes, and even the $100 third place prize would make it possible for Mattie to buy a couple more pairs of jeans and some cool sneakers to ease the move from Malad Middle School to Malad High School next fall.

This was the tenth year of the Welsh Days celebration. Mattie had researched Malad Valley Welsh Days as part of her 8th grade social studies class project on Idaho history and knew that Welsh Days had started way back in 1869, right after the pioneers had come to Malad Valley.  Most of the pioneers had come from Wales, and Mattie guessed they must have been homesick if they started a celebration to keep their Welsh traditions alive. Welsh Days had been held every year until 1914 when World War I started, and then it died out. About ten years ago, some Malad people (with last names of Thomas, Evans, Williams, and Daniels, of course), who had lived here forever and whose ancestors had probably walked across the Plains to Malad, had decided to start up Welsh Days again. The music competitions had become a major part of the celebration with divisions for adults and elementary, middle, and high school students.

Mom had insisted that Mattie try out every year from the time she was just in second grade in Malad Elementary School. Some years she made it to the finals; some years she didn’t. By the time she was in Malad Middle School, Mattie had decided that she liked to sing, and she had even sung one of the solo parts in the 8th Grade Chorus winter concert. For Welsh Days, Mattie had wanted to sing a popular song that was the theme from her favorite movie, but Mom had insisted that she learn a traditional Welsh song. Mattie had pouted for a couple of days because all of her friends were singing Broadway or movie theme songs for the competition, not some dreary, ancient song with words that didn’t make any sense.

Mattie looked down the front row of the auditorium where all the contestants were sitting. Except for the three girls from out of town, Mattie knew all the other contestants because they all went to Malad Middle School even if they lived out in the county and had to ride the bus. Yup, there was Krissy Thomas, looking smug and smiling like she had already won. Allison Jones looked nervous and kind of dumb in her Elsa costume. (She was singing “Let It Go” from the movie “Frozen.”) The Waldron twins were new to the competition and looked pretty scared, but Mattie knew they had sung solos in the 7th Grade Chorus concert. Brooklyn Crowther was dressed like a country western singer, which was appropriate because she always sang a Carrie Underwood song. The girl from Preston stared back at Mattie, and she remembered that Mom had told her that the out-of-town girls had parents who had grown up in Malad.

Looking over her shoulder, Mattie saw Mom and Dad, both sets of grandparents, her Great-Grandma Jones, and her little brother, who made a face at her. The Malad High School auditorium was almost full with the families of the contestants and people who had come to Malad just for Welsh Days. Mattie hoped the sound system would work so that the CDs would be loud enough but not drown out the singers. Mom had recorded her piano accompaniment although her song was so simple she could probably sing it without the CD.

The emcee, J.D. Morgan, stood up and announced, “That was Rachel Harrison of Cherry Creek, who sang the Woody Guthrie favorite ‘This Land Is Our Land.’ Next we will be favored to hear Mattie Williams of Malad sing ‘All Through the Night,’ a traditional Welsh song.” Mattie climbed the steps to the stage, nodded to the technician who started the CD, and began to sing, “Sleep my child and peace attend thee, All through the night . . . .” She was amazed at how quiet the audience became as she sang the three verses, and she stepped down off the stage to loud applause. Maybe she did have a chance against Krissy Thomas.

After a very long wait during which the emcee told some unfunny jokes and the audience squirmed, the judges came back in with the results of the middle school girls’ vocal competition. Mattie found herself holding her breath, surprised that she cared so much. The emcee stepped to the microphone, opened an envelope, and said, “The third place winner is Megan Edwards from Preston, who sang ‘The Ash Grove.’” Mattie let out her breath; she had really counted on getting third place. Oh, well . . .

The emcee opened the second envelope and said, “The second place winner is Krissy Thomas from Malad, who sang ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’” Mattie noticed how surprised Krissy looked as she went up on the stage to accept her prize. Of course she had counted on winning the top prize.

“And now for the winner of the 10th annual Malad Valley Welsh Days middle school girls’ vocal solo competition:  Matilda Williams of Malad, who sang ‘All through the Night.’” Mattie jumped from her seat and went up on the stage to accept her $200 prize. She had won! After seven years of practicing and being disappointed, she had finally won! As she stood on the stage, she looked down at her costume – the long red and black plaid skirt, the starched white apron, the plain white blouse, and the colorful wool shawl. She was so glad she had worn her Welsh costume after all, and she decided then and there that next year she would add the stovepipe hat that all real Welsh women wore but which Mattie had thought was just too much. And maybe next year she would learn all the words of “All Through the Night” in Welsh.

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And somewhere – maybe not too far away – Mattie Williams’ great-great-great grandmother, Harriet Matilda Williams, smiled. She remembered all those long years ago when she had won the 1884 Welsh Days young ladies’ vocal solo competition with “Ar Hyd y Nos” which, when translated to English, was “All Through the Night.”