The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies
(with Lord Thomas and Fair Annet)
William was playing his fiddle in the square at Ottery. This young woman came up to him and asked: do ‘ee know any songs too, or is it just they dances?
She had been stood across the street listening some time, under the eaves of the market. She had two small children who raced up and down amongst the marketers and the horses and the wagons, but she gave them no heed. She was dressed in a heap of assorted tatters; you could hardly tell how any of the items may have started their lives, but they were all held together by a calico shawl. Her feet were bare but her arms were lined with silver bangles and when she came close William saw she had a gold ring in the side of her nose. Gypsy, he thought, but she was pale with tangled red hair, pulled aside with a comb.
-I have a few old songs, said William.
-I could chop with ‘ee, she said. I like the sad ones best of all though. She stood back and looked at him. I think you might too. Bonny Biscay-O, that’s a fine one for a young rai like you.
-It treats of a young buye who crosses the sea and is far from his true love. How he longs to return back to her. The woman launched into it, turning to face the street. She had a sweet and carrying voice. Blithe was the word for it, William thought. People paused to listen. Her children came over and clung to her skirts. All three made a pathetic picture, which was likely practiced. The song came to an end as William got its measure, just three verses. Some brass coins landed in his hat on the ground, and the traffic moved on.
-That’s very lovely, he said sincerely. Apt too, he recognised. It must be written on my face.
-Now ‘ee must give one to me, she said, that’s the bargain.
He could bring only The Miller of Dee to mind. He sang two verses, playing with the fiddle tucked into his armpit. No-one stopped, even when he repeated the tune on the instrument with a brave flourish. It’s tired stuff, he said.
-Yes, she said, disappointed. But well sung. I ‘spect ‘ee knows a hatful if ‘ee had but time to think. That’s the way of it. Give ‘em another o’ they old dances while ‘ee mull on it.
William began a jig, then found another. The woman bent and scooped up the coins which, after all, were her due. She left him two ha’pence, for his come-on.
Market day in Ottery St Mary. Even here, hard against the church wall, there was no escaping the smell of blood and raw meat from the butcher’s shambles on the hill. The square beyond was filled with sheep and cattle, tethered or penned amongst hurdles, halfway out to St.Saviour’s bridge. His music had a burden of bellowing and bleating to bear. It brought to his mind The Butcher’s Boy. He sang it.
-That’s better, said the woman, when he reached the end, though the performance had produced no money. So this maid hangs herself for love? The woman reached over and boxed her little boy’s ear, for some offence William failed to notice. The child went off wailing.
-That’s how they go, these ballads, said William.
-Then ‘er mustn’t have had no spirit, said the woman. Girt gowks all, some women. Myself, I’d ‘a been arter him with my penknife. Still, that’s a fine tune, and I‘d go a long way to hear it. When you’m done, you must play it my rom. He likes a good tune on the fiddle too. I ‘spect as we’ll be in the yard of the London. They’ll even let pikeys in there, ‘cause they had the cockfighting early on. Them bain’t particular if there’s money to be spent, and my rom draws ‘em in with his old box. You should hear him, thikky old hurdy-gurdy. No, truly now.
The woman picked up a basket she had laid on the top of the wall. I’ll chop another song with ‘ee if you’ll catchen afore we go. She went off into the crowd down the hill, gathering her children to her.
William played another hour or so in the sunshine. He gained maybe a shilling, but then the grammar school emptied and he saw no purpose in playing to a knot of gurning scholars. And he was still without breakfast. He pocketed the money, rolled his fiddle into his bag and strolled through the throng to the inn below the market. He was curious to see what fun might be there.
Even before he entered under the archway of the inn, where it led into the coachyard, he could hear the noise, a whining melancholy droning like a pother of wasps, and out of it or above it somehow a wailing writhing tune that he recalled, but couldn’t put a name to. One of Miss Baker’s hornpipes, maybe. There was stale air under the arch, a waft of beer and tobacco from the open door of the taproom, and then he was back in the sunshine, in the busy yard full of farmers and labourers and their wives taking the air with their drink. The gypsy was sitting halfway up some steps to the croft over the stables with his box across his knee, working furiously at its droning wheel, his right hand skipping over the keys. Glossy black hair fell over his face as he leant across and applied himself to the instrument. The maid who had spoken to William earlier was sat on the step below him. She was banging some little tabor. When she caught sight of William she motioned with her[MT1] [MT2] head to call him over. The children were passing round the yard shaking a cup, it seemed with some success. William felt a rush of good spirits. He ordered up a pint of small and a mutton chop, before joining the musicians at the steps.
-This yer’s the young rai with the bashadi, as I was telling ‘ee, the woman said to the gypsy man when he came to the end. Her talk was full of this canting. The gypsy looked up. He was about thirty, dark eyed and dark skinned like his kind. Alright? said the man. He had a firm jaw, into which he stuck a clay pipe from his pocket, and he took a long draw till the bowl reddened. My Jo reckons as you’re the proper bashadi-mengro, he said, looking William up and down.
-Well sir, if she means the fiddle, then it’s my pride, I agree.
-So if that’s it in your sack, let’s cut a jig and see what you can do.
William pulled out the fiddle. She looks like she’s had some music wrung from her, the gypsy observed of it. They struggled to get it in tune with the hurdy-gurdy, trying this way and that, but finally William was bold enough to start on another of Miss Baker’s tunes. The gypsy recognised it immediately, for her tune book was popular then. So they were off and up and down and through a few repeats, till the gypsy struck out with another dance unknown to William, but which he strived to follow with some success, so that they ended almost together. They produced a smatter of applause from a few of the drinkers in the yard. William could not restrain a grin of delight at his own efforts, and so encouraged, went on to Nancy Dawson, which made the gypsy laugh before he started in hot pursuit.
-That’s The Piss on the Grass, said the gypsy when they were done.
-Not in Dorset it isn’t, said William, confounded.
-You’m in Devon now, said the gypsy.
This gypsy was called Tawney Harris, or so he said. He had a stopping place, what the gypsies call an atchin-tan, with his family in the woods near Fairmile just then. That’s a bit toward Exeter, and on the edge of Sir George Yonge’s estate. This Sir George was a magistrate, the same who called the militia into Ottery in the bread riots years ago. Round this time he had some government job in the Tory interest, and the King had even stopped with him. So Tawney’s family were bidding on their luck. But then gypsies will cock a snook at anyone , they don’t care, for they’ll be gone tomorrow. High or low, it makes no difference to them.
So after the two men had played a while, sparking tunes off one another to their own amusement, and Jo had sung for the crowd once or twice, she seemed satisfied with the money they had got in. She said: If you’m going Exeter, you’ll have to stop by and play for my granny. Her can’t walk the road so much now, just sits by our lot and minds the fire, but her would love to hear you cutting it with my rom. She might even have a new song for ‘ee.
William was cautious. His first such invitation was rightly in his mind. Jo said: Oh, but I think as her’s ‘specting you. The old puri told me this morning I was like to bring back some darro from the market, by which I took it she was meaning some jewel, and I paid her no mind. But she’s never wrong.
-I can tell ‘ee where we’re to, Tawney put in, and you’ll find us easy, just along the hill from the turnpike. I enjoy matching tunes with a gorgio like yourself, if I can be so bold young man. And you certainly got the spriest dooks - by which the gypsy signified William’s hands or fingers.
William was flattered, as maybe the gypsy intended. But the man was no mean player of his strange instrument: there were few back home who could match William note for note like that. So after his late breakfast, he took the Fairmile direction from the town, and dawdled along in the afternoon sunshine till he crossed the river and found himself at an inn on the London road. He havered a while here, for Exeter was not far off, but thinking anew of his resolution, he turned up the hill and into the woods, as the gypsy had proposed.
William passed through a boundary of young beech trees, whose saplings were already spreading up the hill, but as he climbed along a faint and meandering path, ash and birch and then ancient girt oaks replaced them. Here the ground cover thickened and the summer’s brambles pulled at his sleeves. The garlic was all past here, the last of the bluebells fading, in the gloom under the vaulting green branches. When he paused for breath a chiff-chaff spoke above him briefly, but then there was silence again, and he pressed on. As the hill levelled out the oaks thinned to a band of coppiced hazel, there was a smell of woodsmoke, and he came into the warm sunshine of the gypsies’ clearing.
There were maybe six or seven of these people, not to count their ragged children, though it was difficult to be sure because they were coming and going and in and out of their old tents and benders for the rest of the day. They were camped beside one thing they seemed to share, which was an old four-wheeler, with a canvas roof. There was an assortment of peevish dogs tied between its wheels. A gypsy is never far from his dog, no more than from his pony. As it happened, Tawney Harris was stretched out on the ground beside the campfire, apparently taking his ease. His Jo was nearby, with another man, and both were adding with hatchets to a girt heap of thatching spars behind them. But in pride of place, and sitting on an old carver chair like it was a throne, was the grandmother. Or so William guessed, and rightly as it turned out.
Her name was Annie, and she was old and near blind, deaf too, so when they spoke to her it was kneeling in front like supplicants. Her body, little, like the granddaughter’s, was perched on the edge of the chair, and her hands gripped its arms as if to stop herself blowing away, she looked that light. William thought she was close to dust. All the time he was there, he never saw her look right nor left, and she still stared ahead when later Jo came to feed her with a spoon. He could not think that music could have any meaning for her, that she could hear it even. But when they persuaded him to play before the old woman, he saw her fingers move in time on the chair, and when he finished the first air, and the gypsies applauded, she spoke in a low but clear voice.
-Good, she said. Good, my rai. We’ll have more and if you are pleased.
-If you are pleased, madam.
She did not reply, but Tawney Harris jogged his elbow, and William began again. The gypsy joined along when he could, and then emboldened to sing, William found that the wife soon picked up most of what he knew, and added verses of her own that were fresh to him. And if ever they hesitated, the grandmother would prompt them with a line or a word. Then she would say as it were – I think we’ll have Young Buchan now, and Jo would set off on that, or some other that her grandmother named, until the long summer’s day grew tired at last. The light in the clearing turned dimpsey and with music and instruments laid aside, it was time to sup from the pot that steamed on the fire. They stretched out on the ground to eat and just for a while there was silence.
When they were done and William was coming to think how he should lay his head, the old lady commanded one of the number to make up the fire, and she bid William come closer. As he kneeled at her side, she tilted her head down as if to make a study with her blank and ancient eyes. She said: I have heard you sing before before.
-I think not, madam.
-Oh, I think so. In some other place and long ago, but I know thee. We were different then, some different rani and rom. Different, but the same.
-How can that be, madam? William asked, but the old woman gave no answer. Her eyes were lit by the flames of the mounting fire, and still she looked neither left nor right. There was a touch at William’s sleeve, and Jo was kneeling beside him. Her finger crossed her lips, begging silence. The fire crackled and sparked, and the old woman began:
-She was born in a cold country, this rani. It’s a land of the big moors up in the north, empty hills. The rowans cower in the ghylls to find a home out of the wind, but still they shiver and shake in it, and the rocks they grow from are wetted with spray blown out of the beck. Mashmadalo lives there, that eats their children, and so makes men jealous, of life and each other. They count their cattle and then they kill for them, they burn the houses of their enemies and the women in them too. Their country makes them good haters. It’s the borderland that has no borders. Scotch or English, they don’t care, for the only government is their own temper. And so she sat beneath the gibbet three days and three nights, while the corpse of her lover turned in the wind till she could chase the ravens away no more. Mashmadalo owned him then.
-They say we are the people of Egypt, turned out before the coming of Moses that’s in the Holy Bible. And like him this rani was a foundling. Red hair, pale, an outsider then, even to a race of outsiders, so lost and maybe unlooked for, though that’s not the way of our people. But she was taken up from the roadside and into the great Earl’s court. He that called himself an earl, but a riever and a robber is the truth of it, and his great castle just a stone tower with an outside stairs on a black hill, set about with barn and byre and hissing geese. And she was given to the care of the housekeeper, who put her to the kitchens, and the steward, who put her to his books, so she learned to write and tally. She paid them by her singing, songs that she could not remember not knowing, that might always have been with her, or left behind by some passing crowder. Then her menses came on and the earl’s son cast his eye on her. He was a handsome man, but proud. His parents had left him to be the servant of his appetites. He promised her this and he promised her that, but she kept a sharp knife always by her, and in the end when his father died, he married her. Maybe he loved her then, but he made a show of her for his own glory, with velvet red and broidered gowns and boots of Spanish leather. In that way he spurned his neighbours and his tenants, who smirked behind his back of the outlandish girl found under the hedge. They knew the truth of it, that saw her abroad barefoot in the wind and rain when her lord was away from home.
-Two bonnie babies she bore him, because she held him close to make of him the man that she thought he could be. But these childer were born, both, under a sickle moon, and did not live long. Mashmadalo took them. That was their fate, she believed, and was reconciled, but her lord raved and cursed his God who had done this to them, and then the bitch who must have bred them, for she was in his sight and God was not. He no longer visited her bed. He made his diversions in hunting, and in building his herds, and then in making men hate him. So it seemed to her.
-It fell out that one day, when her lord was away trading, or raiding, it was all one to her, she looked out from the tower, and saw smoke rising from fires by the river. There were tents and waggons, and soon the gypsies came to the door, hawking and dukkering among the servants. She bade them be brought to her in the hall. They were yellow from their fires, but the black hair of the men hung to their shoulders and gleamed with soap. Their clothes were dun and ragged, but flashed with scarves of coloured silks, and they wore golden rings. When she called for a song, they pushed forward the youngest amongst them. He was tall and well-made and close like her to nineteen. He stood up on a footstool, and first he held her eye, as he would from his hanging-tree at the last. His voice, when he began, was sweet and clear, and called to her so that she hardly knew of what he sang. His voice took her across the sea, which she had never seen, with a lover, whom she had never known but who was promised to her, and an end that we call baxt, that is, fated. She surrendered readily enough in that moment, to love or fate, it didn’t matter which.
-When the night came on, she had the servants pinion the shutters and then sent them away. She took wine from her lord’s closets, and meat from the kitchens, and she feasted the whole gypsy band. They had among them a deaf woman, a drabarni who they said was skilled at dukkering, by the reading of palms or of the cards, but our rani told the woman she did not need her fortune read. She knew it, of course, in the young man’s singing. In turn she sang to him too, some of what she knew. Later she took him alone to her chamber over the hall. In the morning, the servants found her gone, and the gypsies with her. Their campfire was a ring of ashes.
-These songs they sang, that we call dijilia, they are the love tokens and the war trophies of those who own nothing. They are history and warning, but they are all that our grandmothers or our fathers leave to us, and we carry them with us wherever we go. They remind us who we are.
-She knew it could not be. But knowing what is written cannot alter what must be. That lordling’s fury had to be unyielding and so it was. These people roamed the north. They found their aitchin-tans on the black peat and the white marl, and pooved their horses in other men’s fields, as they always had. She rejoiced in the cold hard ground that she slept on, because she was no longer beholden, and it was of her choosing. But they had no rest, because her husband or his ruffian servants were always at their heels, and in some lonely dale he trapped them at last. He offered her silks and a bed of goosefeathers to lie upon, but she knew this was spoken through pride, not love. She wanted only the gypsy’s singing – and his kisses too. So when she would not the servants stripped the pair naked, but they stretched her lover’s neck on a forlorn oak. His feet kicked at heaven. Mashmadalo.
-This gorgio rode away then, with his sword and his steel bonnet, but after twelve weeks the mushi’s belly began to swell and in forty her chavvi came on, a daughter for he who had died. The remnants of the band had taken the maid in, and they helped her clothe the babe from the rags they had to spare, and the drabarni woman found her herbs to ease the smart of the birthing, and showed the mushi to bury the birth cord among the roots of elder, so the father could find rest.
-This rani kept for her baby her sweetest songs, songs she heard from the skylark or the curlew. So at her breast or later on her knee, the chavvi was never heard to cry.
The old woman stopped. Jo helped her to drink from a leather bottle, and the gypsies built up the fire. There’s more to tell, granny? asked Jo.
-Oh yes. Just bide. The grandmother looked neither left nor right, but began again:
-That cold country. The swallows come late there and wheresoever they go leave soon. In that short season, the sun can scarce dapple the valleys, so when at times the cloud is rent from the fells the heart leaps at the wonder of it. So I remember it. But people get their living on those hills, and live out their lives there too. Stonecutters and shepherds. And miners that toil away like maggots in cheese. They throw their spoil behind them and build their houses from it, all roofed with the green turf. Then they fill up the packs of their poor ponies with the lead and such they’ve gained and harry them down the mountain. So our people would chop with them, baskets and colts and bridles, and then in some other dale in the North sell what they had traded for bread and wool and what they could not make for themselves. They would do whatever our folk have always done, go where they have always gone, while the years turned round.
-So this chavvi grew up a lover of markets, and fairs and horse-dealings and all the gatherings where our people of Egypt might be found. And of course she found her voice almost before she left her mother’s skirts. It was surely baxt that she should sing all she had learned and sweetly. So even before this maid was grown, the people looked for her wherever they might assemble. There you would find her amongst the copers and the rigsmen and the dealers. She had that carrying voice that would hush the crowd around, like she laid an enchantment upon them, whether she sang alone or with some bashardi or pipe from some fellow. And when she was done, she would smile with a private delight that made men love her. I think they saw some story in her which they knew but could not tell even to themselves.
-So it was that Lord Thomas first saw her, a little after she was grown. It was at some sale and her song drew him from the back of the crowd, and he heard her through, and was stayed and could not be satisfied till his servant put silver in her hand and bid her sing at his mother’s court. He could not sleep until she was come.
-Now this young lordling was betrothed to another, for his father had died with his birthright eaten up, and his mother had fixed on a bride to repair all their fortunes. And young Thomas liked her well enough, for though she was quick and fiery and brown from toil in her father’s fields there were many such fields with meads and woods alike, and mother and son saw how the girl might grace and recover their ruined court. In her turn the brown girl loved him too, for in faith he was tall and likely, while her own father could be flattered by this match. But when our rani came to the house and sang for him, Thomas forgot all this, and for a while could think only of her. Her people found a resting place in the green dale where Lord Thomas lived, and every moment he walked out with her, and when he could not her pale skin and her red locks were always in his mind. And in a while she came to love him in turn, even as they sat together in the broom and he hurt her with promises she saw he could not keep. Mashmadalo is a jealous god.
-Thomas took counsel from his mother and she said the brown girl has sheep and kine but the little beauty the gypsy has will soon be gone. And he took counsel from his sister and she said sheep will die in cots and kine in the byre but you must know what the heart wants. Thomas sighed as a lover but also as a son, and so summoned the valleys around to his wedding to the brown girl. So that maid was vaunting then and when the day came on her servant dressed her in a smock of holland and fine needle-work and braided her black hair about and beneath a gay caplet, while she rode to the church with bells at her pony’s mane and her father’s man before. In her turn this rani was dismayed a while but knew now that her lover was fickle and so her heart submitted. But in her pride she joined the throng in the church with her people about her to see him married. And when she passed through the body, the crowd fell hushed and Lord Thomas looked around. She stood with her red hair upon her shoulders and her feet naked with the sun bright through the south door, so that he clean forgot his bride. This rani enlightened all that place.
-Lord Thomas had a rose in his hand that was due his bride, but he laid it at the rani’s feet. The brown girl leapt up in wrath and cried at the rani, so I remember it, to know if it was water of the same rose that washed the gypsy’s face so pale. And the rani could say only, it’s of my mother’s womb. So the other pulled out the long bodkin that held her braided hair and in the very church stabbed the rani so that her blood ran about her feet. Too late then Lord Thomas knew his heart. In his rage against her, he drew his dagger and drove the brown girl through. But worse was his rage against himself and the whole world too when he saw the rani laid upon the floor. He bent the knife upon his own breast and fell dead by her side. Mashmadalo was satisfied then, I’d say.
-That cold sun in the green churchyard and the brown beck shivering. The little band carried away their daughter wan and bloody before the anger of the gorgios could turn upon them as they knew it would. In some secret place the drabarni ministered to her for many weeks with potions only she knew, gathered from the streamside and the forest floor. But before the rose and the briar could entwine from the graves of the dead, the band with our rani had long passed out of that country. They knew they could never return. In the morning the sun rose on their lefthand, and in the evening it set on their right, and in the months to come the mountains wore to hills and the hills to a land of vagrant rivers and cornfields and lushness that hedged out where they might bide so that it became that all this land was theirs and none of it. But the sun waxed stronger and stayed longer as they travelled and it warmed through the bones of this rani so that she began to sing again as she was wont, as she must. She was cherished because a people who forget their own music cannot endure long.
The old woman sipped from the bottle Jo held for her, and there was silence.
-And the rani, what became of her? asked William at last.
-She lived what was written for her. For her and her kind. Fields and lovers for the summer, woods and childer for the winter. You’ll know I think. At last what was red and pale turned to grey and sallow. As it must.
-She had no choice then?
-Choosing is the rich man’s privilege, and not even then because the rich man is born to riches, that is baxt for him. The woman drank again, then said: I cannot love this wood about us.
-It saddens my heart. When I lie my head down at night there is rumbling and roaring here that is louder than the blood. It is some fate waiting for the trees and creatures that bide here. Even they cannot escape what is appointed.
-But if we are Christian men and women, our Book tells us that Eve made a choice, and Adam after her. So can we all perhaps?
-There was no choice, Mashmadalo awaited that pair at the gates. The fate of both was written by their frailties, as the Serpent well knew. Such knowledge, it is the very pith of dukkering. The cards or the stars or burnt bones, they can only point to what may be in the heart. When you know that heart then you may know what is baxt. That was the tragedy of young Thomas.
The fire was dying to embers, and the darkness under the trees was suddenly chill. The gypsies were making ready for the night. Tomorrow, or the next day, the old woman said, soon, there are hangings in Exeter. Jo will go with some of these people. Not her rom. Tawney has business of Egypt that cannot wait. But I think you should go with them. Jo will like your company.
William could not forbear asking: And my own fate?
Jo pulled at his arm, and shook her head, but the old gypsy thought and then said:
-Conflict, I think. Land and sea. The discord in your own heart that must be resolved. The woman stretched out her hand and laid it on his head, like a benison. He stiffened with surprise, but he did not recoil. She said: For these men in Exeter, Mashmadalo awaits. The die is cast for them, as it is for all. But they are certain of their fate, as you are not. But you can see how they meet it. You may learn from that.
Her hands fell back to her lap. She still stared into the darkness as before, but William saw the last sparks of the fire shone in her eyes.
The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies
Or Black Jack Davey, or The Gypsy Laddie, or Seven Yellow Gypsies: However it is called, the story is the triumph of the heart over riches told in innumerable ways and with happy or sad endings as you choose. On You-Tube I love Nic Jones at https://youtu.be/ndoRoc97qAE?list=PLYK but for the real goosebumps of a voice from a past age, listen to John Jacob Niles at https://youtu.be/qmUDtDPgGKI
I confess that so far I cannot find a song of this title, which is mentioned frequently in the opening of the Raggle-Taggle Gypsies. I suspect if it exists, it significantly pre-dates the well known ballad The Bay of Biscay. However there is a very lovely and eccentric take on this last by a lady called Debra Cowan at https://youtu.be/jlJvXnR2iVY, to which I would beg to refer you.
Lord Thomas and Fair Annet
This is also and more commonly sung as Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender or Elinor. I find this version by Holly Tannen https://youtu.be/HDx3vARccTU the most haunting, but at such a slow tempo the great Jean Ritchie at https://youtu.be/iVHqaP817OU may be preferred.