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So, the initial tweeter was concerned with using ‘gypsy’ as an outdated and loaded term, but I would like to develop this and point out that the affiliation of ‘gypsy’, ‘Roma’, ‘traveller’ (or whatever term is inserted) with the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.