Thursday, June 23, 2016
THROWBACK THURSDAY: She's Gone with the Gypsy Davey
It's a song that's been known by several names -- "Johnnie Faa," "Raggle Taggle Gypsy," "Gypsy Davey," "Blackjack David" and others -- sung for centuries, first published under the name of "The Gypsy Laddie" 276 years ago and undoubtedly sung by the folks years before that.
Nick Tosches, in his book Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'N' Roll, argues the ballad has roots going back to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Writing in the Journal of American Folklore in 1980, the late Christine A. Cartwright said the song was first collected in Scotland in 1740. "The ballad's narrative tension,' Cartwright wrote, "seems to spring from a two-edged threat presented by the Gypsies: their invasion of and imposition upon Scottish culture, with all their disturbing, foreign values and ways, as well as their potentially threatening attractiveness."
More than 100 years before "The Gypsy Laddie" appeared in print, apparently some Scottish politicians wanted to make Scotland great again. No, they didn't build a wall and make the Gypsies pay for it. But in 1609, the Scottish parliament passed a law ordering the Gypsies out of their country. And there are records of Gypsies being sentenced to hang. No wonder someone wrote a song about these dark-skinned invaders running off with white women.
Robert Burns said the song was about the cuckolded Earl of Cassilis whose wife was said to have run away with a man named John Faa. Cartwright however argues there is no evidence this actually ever happened.
An early version of the song was called "Raggle Taggle Gypsy" Here's a version by a raggle taggle band called Planxty (done as a medley with a beautiful Irish air "Tabhair Dom Do Laimh."
Here's another clip from the '70s, The Incredible String Band singng "Black Jack Davy."
And of course the mighty British folk-rock band Steeleye Span did an excellent rocking version. Introducing the song, Maddy Prior says, "I used to think that ths next song was about the triumph of true love. But I've recently come to the conclusion that it's really about a bit of rough." (Click the link. Don't be afraid!) In an interview last year with Chris Braiotta of WBUR, Prior makes the same joke, and elaborates. And now I see [the protagonist] as a totally unsuitable young man for my daughter."
In early versions of the song, there is a confrontation between the wronged husband and the Gypsy, sometimes ending with a lynching and the runaway wife forced to return to her life of luxury. Most "Black Jack Daveys" I've heard though end up with the woman happily forsaking her old life.
Indeed, this ending has virtually disappeared in versions of the song that popped up in America. And that's not all that changed. Gone is any magic spells the Gypsies used to seduce the lady. In fact, in most American versions, there is no abduction at all. The Gypsy and the lady meet by chance in the woods and spontaneously decide to run away together.
Cartwright says, "The lady's choice, in every aspect but the adulterous, is in fact the choice that settled America. Where a land must be settled, the love of adventure and the willingness to roam become positive cultural values for women as well as for men, and the lady's decision to leave the established society for the wilderness cold no longer be seen as a choice that only a bewitched woman would make."
Below are some American takes on this classic ballad. First, The Carter Family.
Rockabilly Warren Smith, in Tosches' book, claims to have written "Black Jack David." He may well have written the "I come from a farm" verse.
Taj Mahal did a bluesy version
And The White Stripes made it rock
For more deep dives into songs, check out The Stephen W. Terrell Web Log Songbook
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