Friday, March 13, 2009

Romance And Retribution: "The Whistling Gypsy Rover"

In observation of the upcoming St. Patrick's Day holiday, on which half the country is bemused by our Celtic madness and the other half wishes that we'd shut up and/or go away - I thought it'd be a good time to write about my all-time favorite Irish song. I've known and loved this number for fifty years, well before the Kingston Trio recorded it, and I absolutely never tire of hearing it.

But what makes this song even more attractive to me is the complex and dark tale of its origins, a story that I have learned only gradually through the decades, and a lingering controversy regarding its "authenticity" that still surfaces today. So let's look at the song's evolution.

Act I - The Abduction and Retribution

In 1724 (according to Dorothy Scarborough, below - but 1642 in other sources), Sir John Faw (or Faa or Fa'a or Johnny Fa'a) of Dunbar in Scotland decided that he would be a happier man if he could secure the permanent company of his former fiancee, Lady Jean (or Jane) Hamilton, who sadly had been bargained into an arranged marriage with a certain John Kennedy, the sixth Earl of Cassilis. Accordingly, Faw and seven of his friends waited until Lord C. was out hunting (shades of Menelaus, Paris, and Helen from the Trojan War stories) and then showed up at Castle Cassilis disguised as gypsies and made off with the all-too-willing lady. The point of the disguise is obscure, because virtually everyone from the town drunk to the stableman's grandmother recognized Sir Johnny and reported so promptly to an enraged Lord C. upon his return. Well, her husband saddled his fastest steed and roamed these valleys all over, seeking his lady at great speed and the now-doomed Gypsy Rover. Cassilis and an ad hoc posse caught up with the fake gypsies in about a week as they headed for the River Clyde (perhaps the origin of the non-existent River Claydee of the song) and promptly strung them all up to the same (presumably massive) tree, thus ending Johnny Faw's brief career as a romantic hero. Lady Cassilis was returned to the castle and imprisoned for the rest of her life in a tower built just for her - which I'm thinking prevented those embarrassing dinner table moments that might ensue (and that Homer portrays with wicked humor between the forcibly reunited Menelaus and Helen in The Odyssey).

Act II - The Song

The story was just to good to escape being memorialized in a folk song, and Francis James Child, the famous 19th century American scholar who created a more comprehensive catalog of songs from the British Isles than anyone from them did, lists about twenty variants that began to appear in Scotland as early as the 1740s. The most common names for these songs include "Gypsy Davey," "The Wraggle-Taggle Gypsies," and "Black Jack Davey" among many others. These songs don't sound much like "The Gypsy Rover" and they don't have a chorus (see below). After the abortive attempt at a restoration of the Stuarts with Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, thousands of Scots left the country for Ireland, from whence a good many later emigrated to America as the Scots-Irish, bringing with them (especially to the southern Appalachians) their traditions and songs, including "The Gypsy Laddie," which has been part of the American folk repertoire for a very long time.

Act III - The Controversy

The song continued to develop wide variations in melody and lyrics, though always preserving the gypsy abduction bit. In 1937, Professor Dorothy Scarborough of Columbia University published a book called A Songcatcher In Southern Mountains that included several variants of the song - including one called "The Gypsy Laddie" that included a happier ending (the lady stays with the gypsy, abandoning her forlorn husband and newborn baby) and including the "ah dee doo" chorus. Scarborough got the song from two different women who were from West Virginia originally, one identifying the song as English but the other relating that she learned it from a grandmother who learned it in Ireland. Here is a link to a MIDI of the tune that Scarborough published in 1937 but which she reprinted from a tune collected by John Cox in 1925:

MIDI Of "The Gypsy Laddie" From Scarborough's Book [Scroll to the bottom of the page and click "Gypsy Davy ( Widdermer Schauffler version)"]

Sound familiar? Then you have to wonder how 13 years later in 1950, Dublin songwriter, singer, and radio show host Leo Maguire could claim to have written a song he called "The Whistling Gypsy Rover" and copyright it, asserting that he had penned it on a dare that he could not compose "an Irish song with a happy ending." Maguire may have turned husband into father and forgotten about the baby - but the rest of the words with the shady valley and ah-dee-dos are from Scarborough and probably originally from a forgotten Irish variant of the poor Johnny Faw song.

So Irish immigrant New Hampshire millworker Tommy Makem picks up Maguire's version somewhere and sings it as a lovely solo at the 1959 debut Newport Folk Festival, from which Vanguard Records waxes and releases an anthology including Makem (already teamed informally with the Clancys) doing the song. It catches fire - in 1961 alone, versions are released by the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Highwaymen (as a single reaching #42 on the Billboard charts), the Clancys and Tommy on their first Columbia release - and the Kingston Trio.

The Highwaymen credited it as traditional, though purists have scoffed at that, braying about Maguire's copyright (which the KT acknowledged). But the song IS traditional to someone, and my Irish American grandmother (born in 1891) recognized the Clancy's version as one she had heard as a little girl.

So here they are - from 1962, with Tommy Makem on lead, with their original instrumentation - Liam Clancy on guitar. Tommy M. had become a fine banjoist by then...can't tell why he isn't playing...

Can't tell you how much I miss this group...Tommy Makem was a sublime singer.

The Kingston Trio does a great job here with it - I think it's their most successful venture into Irish music, without the slight accent of "Mountains of Mourne" or for me the unnecessary dramatics of "Roddy McCorley" or "The Patriot Game." Tom Lamb opined, I think, that the intro may be John Stewart using a banjo mute - an odd sound certainly - and I'm betting on David Wheat on lead guitar:

Here is the "hit" version - the Highwaymen, who do a fine job. Their quiet version is a lot like Chad Mitchell's:

Finally - because I like ladies voices - The Sirens of Sterling from the 2007 New York Renaissance Fair:

So a happy St. Paddy's Day to all...and may ye be in heaven an hour before the divil knows yer dead...

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