Saturday, September 15, 2012

Black Jack David and the Gypsy King: The Mythic Roots of a Folk Song

Not long ago, I left these Louisiana swamps to go home for the weekend, back to the Arkansas Ozarks where I grew up.  I guess I was a little homesick, because I loaded my MP3 player with traditional songs; mostly old Anglo-Americans tunes from the southern hills.  Some those songs strike primal chords in my emotions, because I've heard them as far back as I can remember.

I can't play a lick on any instrument, but my great-grandfather, Neal Morris, was a singer and recollector of old songs, and he can be heard singing on some of the field recordings collected by the great folk music collector Alan Lomax.  Neal's son (my great uncle) was the folksinger and folklorist Jimmie Driftwood.  My great-grandfather died before I was born, but Jimmie Driftwood lived until I was in my mid-twenties.  I never got to know him that well, but I went to his house many times as a kid; and listened to him and the rest of my extended family sing into the night.  Sometimes, I would fall asleep, and have to be carried out to the car.  That twangy mountain music would run through my dreams all the way home.  No wonder I still have an Arkansas accent.

Of course, I distanced myself from that twang when I was a teenager; trying my best to banish it from my speech and my music.  But it didn't take, thank goodness.  It's in there too deep, and I finally realized I was not, in fact, too cool for it.  But now I listen to those songs a little more deeply.  What's endlessly fascinating about old folk songs is that they are like a big, extended family themselves.  They share DNA.  The same phrases--melodic and verbal--pop up over and over again in different songs.  As a child I heard Jimmie Driftwood singing a lovely old tune called Pretty Mary.  In one line he says, "my horses ain't hungry, they won't eat your hay". The same phrase shows up in some versions of the old cowboy song Jack of Diamonds.  Other phrases from Jack of Diamonds show up in the haunting old song The Cuckoo.  And then, the melody of Jack of Diamonds (well, in some versions) is the same as Rye Whiskey.  And so it goes:  a line in Rye Whiskey declares, "If the river was whiskey, and I was a duck, I'd dive to the bottom and drink my way up." That one shows up in a bunch of other songs (and why not--it's a great line).  With folk songs, you see the same features popping up over and over again, like seeing the same eyebrows on different faces at a family reunion.  Sometimes you recognize the  resemblance, but can't quite put your finger on it, and that makes all the more fascinating.

Of course, songs and families share features for the same reason all related things do, from languages to living species: they're descended from common ancestors. If two songs have similar lines or melodic phrases, they're probably descended from an earlier song.  That, or they've borrowed from each other.  The relationships between songs are more like those between languages than between species or cousins, because songs, like languages, can swap parts.  I can't look at someone and say, "I like your nose, can I have a copy of those genes?" But a singer can remember a line from one song and decide to stick in in another one, just like they can bring a new word home from another country.  With folk songs and languages, the branches diverge and merge.*

Whole families of folk songs may share the same roots, and if you start tracing them, it's amazing how deep they can go.  In another blog post, I wrote about how the cowboy song Streets of Laredo is related to the jazz/blues song St. James Infirmary, and how both are descendents of a song called The Unfortunate Rake. That song is first attested in 1790, but its roots go even deeper than that, because the St. James Infirmary (originally St. James Hospital) was torn down in 1532.  These are some deep roots.  And that's not uncommon. Another example is in Pretty Mary, which has the line, "I'd fight the Lord Randall, if he ever came nigh."  Well, there ain't no lords in Arkansas--that line comes from the old world.

A lot of those old songs sound a little scary and foreign, and that makes them even more fascinating (well, it does to me).  Listening to them is like coming across a backwoods church where people speak in tongues.  It's partly the sound: old recordings have that scratchy, faraway sound that makes them seem otherworldly. Then there are the archaic phrases and singing styles; the knowledge, on the older recordings, that you're listening to someone from a different time--a more superstitious time, and a stricter and more religious one.  Lots of those old songs are downright creepy, especially the ones that hint at the supernatural.

Black Jack David

Which brings me back to my road trip to Arkansas, and my playlist of old songs. One of my favorites on that playlist is a version of Black Jack David, an old song found all over English-speaking North America, but especially in the Appalachians and Ozarks.  The version on my playlist was originally recorded by the Carter Family, but I prefer this more polished version by Norman and Nancy Blake. Here's the recording, and the lyrics below.

Black Jack David by Norman & Nancy Blake With Tim O'Brien on Grooveshark
Black Jack David came riding through the woods
And he sang so loud and gaily
Made the hills around him ring
And he charmed the heart of a lady, he charmed the heart of a lady.

"How old are you my pretty little miss
How old are you my honey?"
She answered him with a silly little smile
"I'll be sixteen next Sunday, I'll be sixteen next Sunday."

"Come go with me my pretty little miss
Come go with me my honey
I'll take you across the deep blue sea
Where you never shall want for money, you never shall want for money."
She pulled off her high-heeled shoes
They were made of Spanish leather
She put on those low-heeled shoes
And they both rode off together, they both rode off together.

"Last night I lay on a warm feather bed
Beside my husband and baby
Tonight I lay on the cold, cold ground
By the side of Black Jack David, by the side of Black Jack David."
In the lyrics as well as melody, there's a strange combination of enticement and foreboding--like you're marching behind some piper, wondering where he's taking you.  Black Jack David is a mystery man; a dark, charming wanderer who woos a young--very young--lady away from her husband and baby.  There's something eerie, almost supernatural, about him.  In this recording, Nancy Blake sings the last line by herself.  It's a nice touch.  It's also ambiguous--is this a cautionary tale, warning other women not to be tempted by the likes of Black Jack David?  Or is it she glad she ran away with him?  Different versions of the song suggest different interpretations.  In some, she says she would rather sleep on the "cold, cold ground, by the side of Black Jack David" than go back to her family.  Maybe this ambiguity is one of the reasons the song has spread so far.  It can be taken either way, so different people--mothers and daughters, for example--might sing it for very different reasons.

The Gypsy Laddie

The song struck my fancy, and rolled around in my head for a couple of days.  Then I stopped thinking about it until--back in Louisiana--I heard a catchy little tune on Pandora called The Raggle Taggle Gypsy, by the Irish folk-rock band The Waterboys.

Raggle Taggle Gypsy by The Waterboys on Grooveshark

Something possessed me to look the song up**. It turns out be a cousin of Black Jack David.  I gave it another listen.  Sure enough, it's a very similar story, except this time the man who charmed the lady is a member of a band of bedraggled gypsies (it's an entirely un-PC song, I'm afraid. Gypsies prefer to be called Romani, but since these songs call them gypsies, I'll stick with that for clarity).  The lady this time is an aristocrat. Her husband, the lord, pursues his runaway wife.  When he finds her, he asks why she left her "goose feather bed".  She replies,
What care I for my goose feather bed
wi' blankets strewn so comely-o?
Tonight I lie in a wide open field
in the arms of a raggle taggle gypsy-o
The earliest known version is called Johny Faa, The Gypsy Laddie.  It appeared in a book of Scottish and English songs called The Tea Table Miscellany in 1737.  In that ancestral version, the charming of the lady seems even more like a magical enchantment than in Black Jack David: "As soon as they saw her well-far'd face, they coost the glamer o'er her." The word "glamor" actually comes from an old Scottish word meaning "magical enchantment", and in those days it meant an actual spell, not "pretty rich people in expensive clothes".  In this version, it doesn't end well for the Gypsies.  The lord gets his "black black steed" and chases after them.  All the gypsies but one, the narrator, ends up being executed (or perhaps the narrator is singing from beyond the grave).
And we were 15 well-made men,
altho we were na bonny:
And we were put down for ane,
a fair young wanton lady.
This song is attached to a legend surrounding a castle in Maybole, Scotland.  John Kennedy, the 6th Earl of Cassilis, married Jean Hamilton in 1621, making her the Countess of Cassilis.  The story goes that the countess didn't care for her dour husband, and was really in love with one Johnny Faa, who, in different versions of the story, is either a gypsy or a knight who disguises himself as one.  While the Earl was away, Johnny and his band came and got her. The earl returned, and with a strong force of knights, captured the fugitives.  The Countess was confined in a high room in Maybole Castle, and Johnny Faa and the other gypsies were hanged from the Dule Tree below her window.  Their heads were carved in stone around the countess' window, and they are still visible today.  The countess was confined in that room, still known as the Countess' Room, for the rest of her life, and the Earl married another woman.

It's all pretty lurid.  In other words, it's a hell of a story. But it seems more likely to be legend than fact.  Records suggest that the earl was sorely grieved when the countess died, and he didn't actually marry another woman until two years afterward.  But there really was a Johnny Faa.  Actually, there were several of them, and they really were gypsies.  Here I need to diverge a little, for some background on these fascinating folk, so that I'm not dealing in stereotypes.

The Romani people seem to have originated as a nomadic caste in northern India, about a thousand years ago.  They were so nomadic, in fact, that they spread right out of their homeland, westward across Asia and into Europe.  Europeans saw their dark skins and exotic dress, and decided they were Egyptians (thus the word Gypsy).  For hundreds of years, many Gypsies have worked as musicians, entertainers, and fortune-tellers, as well as tinkers and migrant workers.  Gypsy music has been a big influence on European music, especially in eastern Europe, and in Flamenco music in Spain.

Gypsies tend to adopt the religion of the countries they settle in, but they've kept old Hindu-style notions of purity and defilement.  They believe, for example, that the upper body is pure, but the lower body is impure, so they wash shirts separately from pants and skirts.  To some extent, they see outsiders as impure.  This helps explains why they've stayed isolated enough to preserve their culture and language for so long.  It may also explain why some of them have traditionally been willing to scam outsiders (the word "gyp" comes from "Gypsy").  This undercurrent in the culture, and their exotic, nomadic ways, have always made them scapegoats among some of their neighbors.  Hundreds of thousands of them were killed in the Holocaust (which they call the porajmos, or "devouring").  But Gypsies have always enthralled outsiders, too (think about how often they appear in songs and stories).  They're a perennially fascinating people.

Gypsies arrived in Great Britain in the late 1400's or early 1500's.  They weren't well-received.  Court proceedings around this time begin to mention "Egyptians", often with the last name Faa or Faw.  In 1540, James V, King of Scots, ordered Scottish authorities to recognize a man named John Faw as "Lord and Earl of Little Egypt."  Faw seems to have promised the king that he would round up his people and leave Scotland, and the king was apparently trying to help in that effort.  John Faa was one of the prototypes of the popular idea of a "King of the Gypsies".  In fact, his name seems to have become a generic term for influential Scottish gypsies.  But they weren't really kings.  Romani people do have a tradition of recognizing some men as leaders, but the word "king" is too strong, because their influence depends more on respect and charisma than formal authority.  John Faa's people didn't obey him, in fact.  In 1541, the king revoked his support, and Faa and all his people were ordered to leave Scotland.

They didn't.  They simply stayed in the borderlands between England and Scotland, where they could slip over the border if they were in trouble with authorities in either country. They had good reason to fear those authorities.  In 1609, all gypsies were again ordered to leave Scotland, on pain of death.  In 1624, another John Faa was hanged in Edinborough, along with several other Gypsy men, apparently for still being in the country.  Their wives and children were initially ordered to be "drowned till they be deid", but they were reprieved, and deported.  This mass hanging happened just a couple of years after the Earl and Countess of Cassilis were married, so it may be the source of the legend surrounding the castle.  Some have suggested that the story was invented by the earl's enemies to embarrass him.  If so, since people still sing the song today, I'd say they were successful.

The Musician and the Fairy King

Johnny Faa, the semi-legendary "king" of an secretive people often credited with supernatural powers, was a natural to be cast in the role of the seducer in the legend that gave rise to Black Jack David.  But where did basic idea come from? What are the origins of this charming, exotic, possibly supernatural character, who woos a woman from her family?  The story in Johnny Faa, the Gypsy Laddie is intriguingly similar to another old song, variously called The Demon Lover, James Harris, or in the United States, The House Carpenter.  In this story, a carpenter's wife is swept away by her former lover, James Harris, who turns out to be a demon, a fairy-king, or even Satan himself.  They board a ship and sail away, but, just as the wife starts to miss her family, the ship breaks apart and she is drowned.

Another suggestion, from the music writer Nick Tosches, is that the legend and the song can be traced back to another, very rare, Scottish ballad called King Orfeo.  In this one, a fairy king charms a woman away from King Orfeo, her husband.
For the king o Ferrie we his daert,
Has pierced your lady to da hert.

And aifter dem da king has gaen,
But when he came it was a grey stane (stone).
King Orfeo pursues them back into the fairy kingdom, where he takes out his pipes, and plays for the fairy king.  The fairy king is impressed.  He tells King Orfeo to name his reward for the beautiful music.  He chooses his wife, and takes her home again.

So, where are we? Black Jack David, it seems, was originally a Gypsy king named Johnny Faa, or at least his legendary counterpart.  And the legendary version of Johnny Faa--if Nick Tosches is right--originated as a fairy king in a half-remembered old song.  We're getting into some deep, dark, mythic roots here. But it goes even deeper.  The song King Orfeo was based on an anonymous poem from the middle ages called Sir Orfeo, which combined two stories.  One, as you may have guessed from Orfeo's name, is the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.  Orpheus was a musician, who could charm even the animals with his lyre.  His lover, Eurydice, dies after being bitten by a snake.  Orpheus goes to the underworld, where Hades and his wife, Persephone, are so moved by his music that they allow him to take Eurydice back with him.  But, they warn him, he must not look back at her until they are out of the underworld.  Just before they emerge, he turns and looks, and she vanishes back into the land of the dead.

The other basis for Sir Orfeo, probably, was an old Celtic myth from Ireland called the Wooing of Etain.  In this story, Midir, a member of a magical race called the Tuatha Dé Danann, wins Etain from her husband (a king) in a board game.  The king resists, but Midir and Etain turn to swans and escape.

Nick Tosches traces the figure of Black Jack David/Johnny Faa all the way back to Orpheus.  I don't know.  It's true that he and Orpheus both use their musical charm to woo, or win back, women.  But Black Jack David/Johnny Faa, charms the woman herself, while Orpheus wins back Eurydice (almost) by charming the rulers of the underworld.  In some ways Orpheus is more like the husband in the songs, who goes out to try to get his wife back.  Black Jack David/Johnny Faa is a darker, more conniving character than Orpheus. I think it makes more sense to identify him with Midir, the magical trickster in Celtic myth.  Or maybe he's an amalgam of the two, a new myth created from two old ones, the way old folk songs can merge to give rise to new ones. 

Whoever he is, Black Jack David is old; much older than the "old-fashioned" hill country culture of the southern US.  If he can be traced back to a mythical Celtic figure, then he is over a thousand years old; born back into the shadows of the Celtic dark ages.  If he can rightly be traced back to Orphic myths, then he goes back to the Greek dark ages, and over 2,500 years old.  In some sense, he's even older than that.  Whether he's a trickster or an Orpheus-type figure, or a little of both, both types of characters appear in mythology from around the world.  As far away as Japan, the primal god Izanagi goes to the underworld to retrieve his sister/wife Izanami.  Like Orpheus, he looks back at her (though instead of vanishing back into the underworld, she tries to kill him).  It's a striking similarity.  Do the two myths have a shared origin in history, or just in the human subconscious?

With folk songs like Black Jack David, we look past pop culture; past the folklore of any particular nation, into the realm of myth.  We can trace their family tree back to some very deep, dark, fertile roots; extending far back into history, and into the murky, irrational regions of our own minds.  Black Jack David is a troubadour, a scoundrel, a magical king, and an archetype.  He's is, in fact, pretty seductive.  As recently as 2003, the White Stripes recorded a version of the song.  Black Jack David may change his name again someday, but I'm guessing he'll be with us for a long time.


Nick Tosches. Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll

The Tea Table Miscellany


* Species don't merge. In fact, the very definition of a species is that it is reproductively isolated. As for human families, they can merge, but individual organisms can't swap genes among themselves. They have to reproduce sexually to mingle their genes, and their offspring get any benefits, not themselves.  Except for bacteria--they can swap genes, and they do it all the time. So the sex life of a folk song is more like that of a bacterium than a human.  Good thing I put these musings in a footnote, huh?

** I think the main reason is that I knew the tune from somewhere, or a tune a lot like it.  Eventually, I realized it had a lot in common like a song I had grown up hearing Jimmie Driftwood singing, called, "Mooshatanio".  He wrote that song himself, but I'm betting he used snippets of an older tune, as he often did.  Whether that older tune was a version of Raggle Taggle Gypsy, I don't know.

Mooshatanio by Jimmie Driftwood on Grooveshark

No comments:

Post a Comment