I have been haunted by this song for weeks, and so hopefully, if I blog about it, I shall be relieved of its repetition:
Penned by the uber famous folk musician Ewan MacColl (nee James Henry Miller) and possibly Peggy Seeger, it was seemingly written for a BBC radio show aired in the 60’s. MacColl recorded lots of radio material.
I suppose it’s obnoxious of me from the folklorist perspective not to feature Ewan as my go-to vocalist for the song, but this album of Bok’s was my first encounter with the song, and still my favorite. I shall add the lyrics at the end of the post. I feel better already!
Here’s the song that got me started on this whole mini-research project, sung by The Watersons. The Watersons are a family with gypsy heritage who were part of the British folk revival in the 60s and 70s; some still record as venerable members of the movement. One notable contribution of theirs was choral arrangements. As I have been given to understand over the years, traditional music performance in the Isles, especially vocals, were pretty much solo, but the siblings added harmonies. Of course arranging and updating traditional music was the whole deal with the folk revival in general. The Watersons and 30 Foot Trailer:
The British Romanichal ethnic minority commonly called gypsies in the U.S. is supposedly a group that moved west into England in the 16th century. They were once folks important to the economy as itinerant agricultural workers, among other trades. Romanichal roots are from the Indian subcontinent, according to linguists. This film (I guess it’s one in a series) is where I first heard about the gypsy migrations:
However, I think of the film mostly as referring to the Spanish gypsy, as one can see by the trailer above. The British gypsy population was persecuted and lots of them shipped off to other countries; the largest population is actually in the U.S. right now. Spanish gypsy music is, of course, the most well known world wide, but it’s got a fair amount of Moorish blood in it. Impossible to say how much, of course… The Belgian-French guitarist Django Reinhardt brought the gypsy sensibility to the ears of the Western world through his guitar solos with the Hot Club of France:
Django was a consummate chicken stealer in his youth, a gypsy profession that might have caused more than a little consternation amongst the settled folks in the neighborhood. Django’s most famous tune, Minor Swing, was featured in the film Chocolat, and therefore brought to the attention of folks who had never heard of him and his gypsy swing:
Johnny Depp was playing an Irish traveller, though, so it could be that playing Django was a bit of a mix up. Of course I know next to nothing about Irish travellers, such as whether or not they would like to play Django on their guitars. However, I did run across this bit of information: through the modern miracle of DNA testing, it is determined that Irish travellers are actually Irish, not of Asian or any other descent, not Romani. They are a group that broke off from the general population, hit the road, and thus isolated, hundreds of years ago. I assume their itinerant habits are what configure their tribal-like society. As far as I can tell, their music is no different from the non-itinerant Irish folk trad.
Again, it’s Hollywood, but brad Pitt brought the Irish travellers (or pikeys) to the big screen in the film Snatch:
In fact the original traveller DNA project was seemingly in collaboration with a pikey who won the Olympic light welterweight gold in 1996: Francis Barrett. In a documentary on the research way too long for me to watch, it is indeed challenging to understand the fella… it’s titled Blood of the Travellers, and you can find it on Youtube, a Vimeo film.
Anyway, that was quite a rabbit hole, which is both the fun and work of blogging this kind of material! I always learn something. To finish, one of my favorite tunes from the old British folk revival days, Vashti Bunyan. In the late 60s she and her boyfriend bought a horse and wagon or caravan (the Wicki article says a cart- well, maybe it was…) and traveled to the Hebrides to join a commune planned by their friend Donovan of Sunshine Superman fame. She recorded an album, Just Another Diamond Day, that had mostly songs she wrote in a dreamy style, some of them written for her small children, in fact. And some featuring life on the road.
Bunyan’s an unusual example of fame. She quit the music biz when the album didn’t sell very well; I think she also recorded another with more “serious” material. In the decades that followed, she slowly gathered a notable following, and supposedly now her old albums have sold for thousands of dollars. Just Another Diamond Day was rereleased in 2000 and she recorded a couple new albums since then. I include it because of the theme of caravanning, or travelling. A song dedicated to her ponies Bess and May, I assume, Jog Along Bess:
Ah well, the old hippie days… I leave you with the lyrics to The Travelling People, though there is a controversy on the last word of the first verse, for I don’t know how a person can be lumbered. On the liner notes to my old Gordon Bok LP, the word ‘numbered’ is rendered in its place. Point being, I will not vouch for the truth of it. Close enough.. Happy travels!
I’m a freeborn man of the travelling people
Got no fixed abode with nomads I am numbered
Country lanes and byways were always my ways
I never fancied being lumbered
Well we knew the woods and all the resting places
The small birds sang when winter time was over
Then we’d pack our load and be on the road
They were good old times for the rover
In the open ground where a man could linger
Stay a week or two for time was not your master
Then away you’d jog with your horse and dog
Nice and easy no need to go faster
And sometimes you’d meet up with other travellers
Hear the news or else swop family information
At the country fairs we’d be meeting there
All the people of the travelling nation
I’ve made willow creels and the heather besoms
And I’ve even done some begging and some hawkin’
And I’ve lain there spent rapped up in my tent
And I’ve listened to the old folks talking
All you freeborn men of the travelling people
Every tinker rolling stone and gypsy rover
Winds of change are blowing old ways are going
Your travelling days will soon be over