Week 283 – The Gipsey’s Song

This is a poem by John Clare (1793–1864), written around 1825, which I discovered and furnished with a tune back in about 1984. Unlike much of Clare’s poetry, it’s written very much in the style of a contemporary broadside ballad, and demands to be sung rather than read. And, unlike The Crow sat on the Willow, which I’ve never made a serious effort to learn, I used to sing this with Chris Wood back in the 1980s, and it’s recently entered the Magpie Lane repertoire.

John Clare by William Hilton, 1820, from Wikimedia

John Clare by William Hilton, 1820, from Wikimedia

Unlike other Romantic poets, Clare was not so far removed from gypsies in terms of social status, and he knew gypsies first-hand.

In The tie that binds: Gypsies, John Clare and English folk culture, Kristine Douaud writes that Clare

found their encampments a natural and civilising component of the landscape, and saw their seasonal occupations as part of rural life. Further, he recognised the Gypsies as transmitters of collective memory through their oral culture; related to this, and of the utmost importance, is the role the Gypsies’ music played in traditional life.

She continues

Gypsy dances and music form the predominant theme of many of Clare’s journal entries and autobiographical writings during this period; music is clearly a main connecting thread between Clare and the Gypsies. In a long autobiographical fragment (‘[Gipseys]’), Clare explains that his acquaintances with the gypsies were made at local ‘feasts and merry making’ (AW 1983: 69). His first contact was with ‘the Boswells Crew as they were calld[;] a popular tribe well known about here and famous for fidd[l]ers and fortunetellers’ (AW 1983: 69). As a young man, Clare ‘often assos[i]ated with them at their camps to learn the fiddle of which [he] was very fond’ (AW 1983: 69).

Kristine Douaud, The tie that binds: Gypsies, John Clare and English folk culture, Romani Studies Vol. 18, Issue 1, (June 2008), pp1-38.

AW= Anne Williams, Clare’s ‘Gypsies’, Explicator Vol. 39, Issue 3, (Spring 1981), pp9-11

It was apparently John Grey, who was married to Tyso Boswell’s daughter Sophia, who taught Clare the fiddle. Thereafter he could frequently be found exchanging tunes with gypsies who camped nearby

the Smiths gang of gipseys came and encam[p]d near the town and as I began to be a desent scraper [i.e. good fiddler] we had a desent round of merriment

Clearly in this poem Clare has romanticised the gypsy lifetstyle – did they really blithely dance barefoot through winter’s cold? I doubt it. But it’s a good song nonetheless. And one only has to look at “I’m a Romany Rai” for an example of a song written by non-gypsies, very much romanticising the gypsy life, yet taken up enthusiastically by travellers and, in the hands of a singer like Phoebe Smith, a musical and emotional tour de force.

Because this is a poem, by a proper poet, one feels a certain pressure to sing the words as the author intended. But, while not deliberately altering Clare’s words, in re-learning this song after 30 years I’ve actually treated it like any other song, and may well have departed in places from the original. To make up for this, I’ve retained Clare’s spelling of the poem’s title.

 

The Gipsey’s Song

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