Seven Yellow Gypsies


Jon admits that this is “Another of the big ballads that I’ve only just got around to learning. I’m not sure about the verse where she sounds like she’s regretting it – sort of takes some of the power away. On the other hand it maybe makes her a more rounded character?”

Another in the Child collection, this one is #200. I do find it interesting that the various recorded versions transcribed at Mainly Norfolk of this all seem to have notes alluding to this being based in fact, before dismissing that as entirely unlikely. As far as I can see this may stem from a myth propagated by Child himself that names a Lady Cassilis as having been abducted in the early C17th, but this is almost certainly dubious to say the least. The song has many alternative titles and variants, including The Gypsy Laddie, The Raggle Taggle Gypsies and Black Jack Davy amongst them. Have a look at Wiki here for the wealth of title variants and recordings. The song is also very common and widespread, which probably says more about its popularity as a fantasy amongst the travelling and Gypsy communities than anything else. I can’t help but feel that the rejection of wealthy trappings for the basic life will have sat well with the alternative lifestyle ethos of the 60s, which may explain its popularity today. While we’re at it, I was also curious as to why the Gypsies are yellow. Any thoughts?



24 Responses to “Seven Yellow Gypsies”

  1. Jane Ramsden says:

    The English term ‘gypsy’ originates from the Greek word for Egyptian, so the term’ yellow gypsies’ most likely refers to skin-tone being golden, light-brown or sun-tanned, either through nature &/or living and working outdoors.

    It would also be in contrast to the fairness of the lady’s white skin. Fair skin was an indicator of higher birth/wealth, as in not having to do any manual, dirty or outdoor work, which would lead to more common tanning!

    One of the curiosities in this song is why a lady fair should want to go off with the raggle-taggle gypsies-o! The fantasy ROMAnce of the travelling life… or in 60’s speak – turn on, tune in and drop out…

  2. Phil says:

    I think gypsies were believed to be yellowish-looking. When I lived in Wales as a child, one local family was rumoured to have Romani ancestry (although we didn’t use that term at the time); their son, who was in my class at school, had a distinctly sallow, yellowish complexion, and I remember my parents making the connection between the two facts (or one fact and one rumour).

  3. wilmott says:

    I remember this as a well-known folk song in the 50’s, before all the ‘alternative’ stuff – in fact I’m pretty sure it was taught on one of the BBC schools music progarammes when I was in primary school.
    And I much prefer the truly alternative ‘The hippies & the hairies’!

  4. the_otter says:

    Love the lilting singing.

    Keep the big ballads coming!

  5. Maurice says:

    Not all “romance of the traveling life”.
    There are versions in which the gypsies “Sang so neat that they all were hanged
    For the stealing of a famous lady” (Nic Jones).
    I have a memory of being taught that, untill a couple of hundred years ago, the hanging of Gypsies was legal. Brings a whole new meaning to “Walk like an Egyptian”.

  6. Cherry says:

    I know at lots of versions of this, all following roughly the same pattern, and roughly the same tune, (sometimes minor, like this sometimes distinctly cheerful!) but subtly different sympathies- some take the husbands side, some the lady. in some she’s left her baby behind, sometimes taken with her, some she doesn’t have a baby (and yes, my first introduction was schools radio in the 60’s too)

  7. schlimmerkerl says:

    “Yellow” used to refer to a color that, in the present day, we would look at as more red. So (basically agreeing with comments above), it probably refers to a complexion— but one more “ruddy” or tanned than “yellow”. Some American songs make similar reference to mixed race women (“mulattoes); “Why do those yellow girls love me so…?” (“The Plains of Mexico”).

  8. Joe Fineman says:

    Which is “the verse where she sounds like she’s regretting it”? I didn’t catch that.

    There’s a lot of folklore about the prowess of other races, and of traveling men, in satisfying women sexually. That is bound to be at least an undertone of songs like this one.

  9. Jane Ramsden says:

    No sign of regret, save perhaps for marrying the husband! Perhaps the essence is she was attracted to and chose to go with her gypsy laddies (though there is a hint of being beguiled in the song) whereas her marriage might have effectively been arranged for her. The trade down in home comforts appears more than compensated for – what price freedom? Nicely sung, Jon.

  10. Peter Walsh says:

    Great performance Jon. Having spent a night or two myself in a ‘cold barren shed’ I would avise her to get back to her soft feather bed! It feels soooo good when you’re back in a proper bed again.

  11. Muzza(N.W.Surrey.UK) says:

    THat Snow White can probably be blamed for setting this trend for multiple romances with Humpa Lumpas. (I have suffered from Disney spells lateley)
    I often wondered what happened to my ex wife….
    Though I did find some repaired pots and pans on the doorstep in exchange!
    I prefer the more distinctive tune that we all learned at school, but enjoyed the excellent renditions by Jon and Waterson Carthy.
    @Jane -another early morning I see, o wise keeper of the folk encyclopedia.

  12. Diana says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this one. What a strange person to leave the comfort of her home
    to run away with seven gypsies (male or female) and what was the attration I wonder!

    Reynard had a visit from one of your namesakes this morning. A rather large fox sauntered through the garden at 8 o’clock, quite casually strolling along before jumping over the wall into the next garden.

  13. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Muzza: Yes, I have to keep strange hours to keep you on your toes and give you something to get up for of a morning. Oh-er, Matron!

    I too prefer the ‘original’ tune. But the appeal of the song is in its bid for freedom, following your heart (or other parts of one’s anatomy!) and the lack of materialism demonstrated.

    On the other hand, there is also a version called ‘Liz(z)ie Lindsay.’ A highland Laird courts Lizie Lindsay in Edinburgh, (sometimes) after his mother had warned him not to hide his highland origins. Her family warns him off, but her maid encourages her. She finds the highlands hard, but he finally brings her home to his family, where he is a lord, and makes her the lady of a great castle. In some variants, she is told when he is wooing her in Edinburgh that he is a lord, and that is what persuades her to go. So much for leaving the laird and lack of materialism!

    Robert Burns adapted the song into ‘Sweet Tibby Dunbar,’ a shorter version of the story. And it is strikingly similar in spirit to D H Lawrence’s novella, ‘ The Virgin and the Gypsy’ – see plot summary below!

    The tale relates the story of two sisters, daughters of an Anglican vicar, who return from overseas to a drab, lifeless vicarage in the post-First World War East Midlands. T heir mother has run off, a scandal that is not talked about by the family. Their new home is dominated by a blind and selfish grandmother along with her mean spirited, poisonous daughter. The two girls, Yvette and Lucille, risk being suffocated by the life they now lead at the Vicarage. They try their utmost every day to bring colour and fun into their lives. Out on a trip with some friends one Sunday afternoon, Yvette encounters a Gypsy and his family and this meeting reinforces her disenchantment with the oppressive domesticity of the vicarage. It also awakens in her a sexual curiosity she has not felt before, despite having admirers. She also befriends a married Jewish woman who has left her husband and is living with her paramour. When her father finds out about this friendship, he threatens her with “the asylum” and Yvette realizes that at his heart her father, too, is mean spirited and shallow. At the end of the novel, one of the daughters is rescued during a surprise flood that washes through the home and drowns the grandmother. The rescuer who breathes life and warmth back into the virginal Yvette is the free-spirited Gypsy, whose name is finally revealed in the last line of the novel.

  14. Jane Ramsden says:

    For those who are interested, here are the chords and lyrics for Lizzie Lindsay, recorded by no less than Danny Doyle and also The Fureys. Now, I am going to see The Fureys and Davey Arthur in Colne on Saturday night – yeh!

    “[D]Will ye gang tae the hielands, Lizzie Lind[Bm]say,
    Will ye[D] gang tae the hielands wi'[G] me?
    [A]Will ye [D]gang tae the hielands, Lizzie Lind[Bm]say,
    My[G] bride and my[A7] darling to[D] be?”

    Then I spoke tae Lizzie’s old mother,
    And a cantie old body was she,
    “Mon, if I was as young as my daughter,
    I’d gang tae the hielands wi’ thee.”

    Then I spoke tae Lizzie’s wee sister,
    And a bonnie wee lassie was she,
    “Mon, if I was as old as my sister,
    I’d gang tae the hielands wi’ thee.”

    “But to gang to the hielands wi’ you, sir,
    I dinna ken who that may be,
    For I ken no’ the land that you live in,
    Nor I ken no’ the lad I’m goin’ wi’.”

    “Oh, Lizzie, I maun you ken little,
    When I see that you dinna ken me,
    My name is Lord Ranald McDonald,
    I’m the chief of the highland degree.”

    So she kilted her coats of green satin,
    And she kilted them up to her knee,
    And she’s of wi’ Lord Ranald McDonald
    His bride and his darling tae be.

  15. Jane Ramsden says:

    And here’s a link to the World Burns Club and the lyrics of ‘Sweet Tibby Dunbar’

    Some goodly sentiments are all very ‘Keys of Canterbury’. Some contrasts between the types of men in all the songs very Dory Previn ‘Angels and Devils the Following Day.’ I’m sure everyone on here knows her iconic album ‘Mythical Kings and Iguanas.’ If not, check it out!

    Is that encyclopaedic enough for thee, Muzzy? Now I’ve got to go do some very mundane chores instead! *Sighs*

  16. John Biggs (Welsh Marches) says:

    And as if all this were not enough, we then come to the versions of the tale in which the girl is tempted to run away with a gypsy or beggar (Put on the beggar’s weeds), only to discover that he is in fact a noble lord in disguise. i.e. The Beggar Laddie, The Auld Beggarman, The Gypsy Rover etc, etc.

    And Diana, you touched on another version, where the lady is lured away to a castle in the mountains by the mysterious ‘Reynardine’.
    Just you beware of that guy wandering through your garden.
    Diana, are you still there Diana !!?

  17. Diana says:

    Still here John, the big bad Fox did not get me. He did not seem very interested in looking at me at the window either, so it looks like I am safe for the time being at least. I must do some googling as I have never heard of that mysterious person.
    Mind you I would not mind being lured away to a castle in the mountains especially one in Wales as I have seen quite a few of them – trouble most of them are not habitable.

  18. Diana says:

    John I googled and found it – I even got Jon and Remnant Kings singing it on Reynard’s site. Anyway it looks like I am perfectly safe as my eyes are green and not blue!

  19. John Biggs (Welsh Marches) says:

    Ah, where can I hire a Basil Brush costume ?

  20. Diana says:

    John no need to go to any expense – just come as yourself.

  21. Muzza (N.W Surrey-UK) says:

    Now….would Lizzie Lindsay have married Lord Ranald McDonald if she had seen him in his working clothes (you know-the yellow trousers and big braces outfit)…
    Sorry folks-I’m having a ‘Drop the dead donkey’ day and it’s only 8:45am!

  22. Jan says:

    I have to admit to having the same thought as Muzza re Lizzie and Lord Ronald.

  23. […] Boden’s fine a cappella recording on ‘A Folk Song a Day’ which you can listen to here. Share this:EmailPrintDiggRedditStumbleUponTwitterFacebookLike this:Like […]

  24. Ali says:

    What a gorgeous Ballard! Totally amazing and so wonderful to lear the back story and history / mythology.

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