The problem with gypsies and outsiders…

May 09, 2018

Yesterday I went to a ‘Widening Participation’ conference, hearing about all things bias, barrier and bigotry when it comes to accessing university for various social groups. I am on the side of stopping all that nonsense and on the team that spots it in others and finds ways to address it.  The conference happened to fall on a Trad Song Tuesday, so while learning how to be the saviour of education for all, I was also tweeting away discreetly at the back. The theme was ‘Gypsies and outsiders’ – chosen through popular vote in a twitter-poll. Now, if the context I was in wasn’t enough to ring alarm bells, I got a tweet from a follower sensitively pointing out the potential for offence - cue to think more deeply.

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So, the initial tweeter was concerned with using ‘gypsy’ as an outdated and loaded term, but I would like to develop this and point out that the affiliation of ‘gypsy’, ‘Roma’, ‘traveller’ (or whatever term is inserted) with the word ‘outsider’ is hideously excluding.  I throw my hands up as the person who wrote the initial themes for selection and hang my head in shame.  I am an educated, equality-minded person and I wrote that. I’d like to take a few words to look at the scene, the materials, the relationship to history and contemporary contexts and try to unpick how I deemed that appropriate, to perhaps help others understand how we ‘innocently’ present ourselves and our music in unforgivable ways.

It’s not all bad. #TradSongTues was great, with over 12k people seeing tweets about #TravellerSongs yesterday.  Songs telling tales of travelling folk were shared, along with performances by people from travelling backgrounds. Radio programmes and essays about these musical communities gave more understanding of this way of life – on the whole, traveller culture and lore was celebrated and enjoyed by a lot of people.

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So, what is it that we enjoy about these singers and songs? For me, I like the stories, what they make me think about and how they make me feel.  I use the word ‘gypsy’ a lot, I sing the word ‘gypsy’ a lot. One of the key songs on my latest album was ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’, about, yes you guessed it, running away with the gypsies.  To me the song represents two cultures in an older time, portraying the gypsy way of life as viewed through the lens of a settled culture.  I see the characters as personifications of ideas rather than anything like a true representation of actual peoples (though for others this meaning might be stronger).  The gypsy here is a gateway to freedom, a release from the life she knows, and dislikes, to another place.  If you feel like you don’t fit in, there are others out there that you can escape to.  For this psychological meaning to come through, the gypsies have to be presented as other, an alternative, not the norm - the outsiders - or it really wouldn’t make sense.  I use stories of fairies and the otherworld in a similar fashion, though of course there is less ideological issue with this (apologies to any fay folk out there).

I wouldn’t use the term gypsy to describe contemporary people affiliated with travelling heritages. I certainly wouldn’t suggest they were outsiders.  Yet I am so familiar of using a representation of their heritage for this purpose it gets messy. Should I be singing songs that have such representations in them? Perhaps, perhaps not.  I certainly wouldn’t write one like that now, so if we are to use old songs we must develop more sensitivities and awareness of how the representations contained within them are transferred to the contemporary context; who they might affect and how - even if that is just ourselves and our veritably homogeneous audiences.

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Hartlepool Folk Festival - What assumptions are we making about who is there and how they might react to controversial traditional song themes? (photo credit: Andrew R. Dorrian)

I was made acutely aware of this in a BBC Radio 3 recording session last year. I have sung ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ at every gig in the last two years without batting an eyelid.  My introduction talks of the song as a vehicle for the listener to support their choices in the world.  I felt I had explored it analytically and made it relevant to myself, therefore justifying my singing of it.  But in the studio, I was a guest alongside Thomas McCarthy, a singer from an Irish traveller background and I was embarrassed. I had to sing the song in front of someone who is likely to have been derogatorily been called a ‘gypsy’ at some point.  It made it feel exposed, naive and inconsiderate. It made me wonder who else in those homogenous audiences might have been in Thomas’ position.  What assumptions had I made and how should I have felt on other occasions?

If we are wondering why diversity in the folk scene is lacking, perhaps it is in part due to the multitude of innocent acts such as this that put people off, perhaps, just perhaps, directly calling people ‘outsiders’ is in some way off putting… 

Each and every one of us is involved. From me stupidly writing it in the first place, to the majority of people who blindly voted for it, to those who scrolled past without raising an eyebrow, we are all complicit.  We need to consider our actions, not just their impact on our own enjoyment, or those of our immediate friends and fellow folkies, but on those communities we might be connected to through our songs, and those communities we might want to be inviting into our world of song.  None of us want to be painted as a bigot, but we need to be aware of our biases and the barriers we put up without even realising it. We need to recognise the inherent bigotry in the culture that we are living, and singing, in and take conscious steps to address them.

Note to self - must try harder.

  • Piers Cawley

    Well said Fay! I must confess, I did cringe a bit when I saw it on the list and hoped that one of the other choices would win. And I didn’t point to at least one fabulously sung song because the narrator (voice? I’m never sure) of the song indulges in some dreadful slurs on travellers. And I am prone to recommending everyone listen to more Mike Waterson at the drop of a hat.

    This isn’t the only area where I find myself treading carefully with folk songs. There’s some horrific misogyny knocking about, and plenty of songs that really don’t sound right any more when they’re sung by a bloke. You won’t catch me singing Two Magicians, Just As The Tide Was Flowing or most of the “badger her until she says ‘oh, all right the’” courting songs like The Sweet Nightingale, much as I love hearing them from others.

  • Paul Cowdell

    Thanks, Fay. It's interesting, & not easy, but it's basically about respect. There is also a question of emic usages: I (genuinely) don't know how far 'gypsy' may or may not still be used emically across English Roma communities, & I'd be interested to hear. I heard a story about Thomas McCarthy having to bite his lip quite a bit while talking to an older English Roma singer who kept using 'Tinkers' for Irish Travellers. Times and usages change, and we need to be driven by how communities themselves self-describe. (Simon Evans recorded a Kent man who said 'We're called Roma, 'cos we're always roamin'). These are /their/ lives, after all.

  • Tom Watson

    Very interesting post. I sang a version of Raggle Taggle Gypsy at a band practice just the other night without batting an eyelid. I was also aware of the number of times I sang "whore" at that practice. I guess the lyrics are reflective of a different time, some things should be celebrated, others less so. My personal view is that the folk tradition is to keep stories alive, not endorse or judge their message. A bigger question would be whether songs written more recently with questionable social messages should continue to be performed.

  • Felicity Greenland

    This is a really interesting article Fay. It's definitely something that changes over time and is still changing. Coincidentally I just watched and old programme of Tracey Emin on Who Do you Think You Are (available on Youtube) - she was thrilled to discover that she was "descended from gypsy besom makers" (in Essex if I remember rightly) whereas her ancestor appeared to have left them for London and never admitted his roots to his London friends or offspring.

  • John Ball

    Hi Fay, thanks for this. I notice all of the the Roma/Slovakian music groups that are now forming around Fir Vale include the word 'Gypsy' in their title to identify themselves. Having said this, I get it that the article is concerned with defining others rather than self-defining. It is complex though, I grew up with my step-Grandad who was Romany Gypsy and it felt like he spent his whole life trying to avoid being defined and described as 'gypsy'. I think I can say with confidence that he wouldn't have been happy being in the audiences you talk about.

  • Joan Crump

    As my festival is being used to illustrate the anaemic folk audience in the photograph above, I thought I'd chime in. ;) Coincidentally, we have a whole thread of Gypsy and Traveller music at Hartlepool this year - Thomas McCarthy, the Doyle Family, Bob Knight and the Orchard Family are all coming to this year's festival, and we're hosting a discussion about the music legacy of Gypsy & Traveller communities.

    I have several friends - not all musicians - who self-identify as Gypsies. I am not aware of it taking on a derogatory meaning - certainly most councils in the country still operate Gypsy and Traveller/Gypsy Roma Traveller Services departments (GRT has certainly been an accepted and acceptable acronym for years - is it still?).

  • Anni Fentiman

    The issue about self identification....I have no problem describing Vic Legg’s mother family as gypsy as he and Viv use the term. Vic did a presentation at the National some years ago about their family the Orchards, they described life as children with Romany spoken in the house and Mary Stewart, a lovely traveller lady stood up and said she rembered the same when she was a child. This was like her acknowledging something she had kept quiet so many years in her life. I found that very moving, the extent we have driven the notion of gypsy under ground. Let’s hope we have an emergence of gypsy pride that is accepted in everyone’s world.

  • Chantelle Smith

    My personal position is that whatever we sing we should be mindful of what we are singing about and what stereotypes we may be promoting. I'm not saying we shouldn't sing problematic songs (although I don't agree with the line of thought that keeping the songs going regardless of the effect they have is a good one - they're not sacrosanct and have always evolved according to the society singing them) but we must do so in a conscious, responsible manner. We, as folk singers, should also be prepared to listen to groups who might feel as though a detrimental image of their culture is being perpetuated through songs being sung.

    As a settled individual not of the travelling communities, I don't feel that I can speak on behalf of thr communities or that we're likely to get a consensus from them. I would like to hear the opinions of members of those communities because I want to listen and do right by them without imposing my own take on what I think they might say.

    If we sing songs from a thoughtout, principled stand - which we can explain when asked - and with the ability to listen to the travelling communities and do our best not to insult them or perpetuate stereotypes then that's a good place to start from I believe.

    Out of interest, did you ask Thomas McCarthy how he felt about the song?

  • Linda C

    I am not sure if I have understood the full blog but I have to ask why you were embarrassed about singing Wraggle Taggle Gypsy infront of Thomas McCarthy ,having read Wiki and note that the song is circa 1700 and was translated in to Anglo-Romany in 1890 by the Gypsy Lore Society before the word Gypsy became the derogative term that it is in modern times surely Thomas would recognise this song in the context that it was originaly written in.
    I also notice that the inuendo of certain folk songs has been mentioned I like the song The Sweet Nightingale which unless you know something of the "hidden code" of folk songs is about a lovey little bird singing its heart in the valley. Remember hearing Norma Waterson saying she had been singing Bunch of Thyme for a long while before she relised there was a double meaning maybe some songs should be appreciated at face value without trying to work out the hidden meanings.

  • Andrew Partington

    Been thinking about this ever since the blog was posted. I grew up with 'Singing Together' - school song programme from the 50s and 60s for those younger than I - which had no problem including songs with a minstrelsy provenance for us 9 year olds. I suppose for me it depends if the song celebrates or denigrates a culture, and/or where it comes from - if a song from a social group, or culture, has been offered to share (as opposed to written about that group by someone else), should we not sing it? I know that's not quite what your blog was about, Fay, but I am as keen not to self-censor (as the early collectors did) as I am to respect those whose songs inspire me and to share those songs. And yes: we must all be aware of changing contexts and how in our performances (whether in concert hall or - as in my case - the pub after Morris) we reflect and respect our sources.

  • Jane Bernal

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