Posts tagged ‘John Clare’

June 1, 2019

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

October 9, 2018

Week 276 – The Crow Sat On The Willow

For several months now, Fay Hield has been managing – no, let’s say curating – the  hashtag on Twitter. Every week a new theme is suggested, then on Tuesday anyone is free to post links to songs linked to that theme. So far, in best Blue Peter style, I’ve been posting links to previous entries on this blog, but I thought it was time to record something specially for the weekly Twitter gathering.

This week’s theme is poetry. While many traditional songs are very poetic, as far as I can recall, I have previously recorded only one setting of an actual poem – Billy Bragg’s setting of Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Man He Killed’. Despite my intentions at the time, I’ve never got round to learning that one by heart. Here’s a setting of a John Clare poem, and again I’m reading the words off a sheet of paper. But in this case (like ‘Boxing Day’ and ‘The Widow that keeps the Cock Inn’) not only have I not learned the words; frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever really had any intention of learning the words. Still, as I said in reference to those other two songs, since I made up the tune, if I don’t sing it, nobody will.

I was first alerted to John Clare (in relation to folk music at any rate) by the setting of his ‘The Cellar Door’ on the LP No Relation by Royston Wood and Heather Wood. As a student I started to investigate his poetry, and discovered, for instance, that the title of the Watersons’ For pence and spicy ale was taken from a Clare poem (‘Christmas’, part of ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’). This one, with its talk of the ploughman’s love for a milkmaid, seemed like a suitable candidate to be turned into a song – although traditional songs tend not to have this slightly awkward 10-line structure. I’m not sure if I actually ‘composed’ the tune, or just assembled sequences of notes which I’d encountered in various traditional song tunes. In fact, what I sing now may not be the tune I originally made up – I never wrote it down or recorded it, but 36 years on, I think this is pretty close to what I intended to sing back then.

You can find the words online in various places. I think I copied them out from The Later Poems of John Clare edited by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield.

Crow in the Willow: Solitary crow perched in a willow tree. Image copyright Suzanne Goodwin.

Crow in the Willow: Solitary crow perched in a willow tree. Image copyright Suzanne Goodwin.

 

The Crow Sat On The Willow