Letters From Quotidia Postscripts Episode 11

Letters From Quotidia PS Ep 11 The Raggle Taggle Gypsy/Battle of Aughrim, The Night-Visiting Song, The Stream

Welcome to Letters from Quotidia Postscripts Episode 11– a podcast by Quentin Bega for listeners who enjoyed that Irish phenomenon- the crack! In the Letters, Postcards and Postscripts from Quotidia published since the beginning of 2021. Quotidia remains that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.

This post will focus on women in two songs from the folk tradition and one original. At the outset I will record my debt to Wikipedia for the bulk of the information given. The first is The Raggle Taggle Gypsy In the folk tradition the song was extremely popular, spread all over the English-speaking world by broadsheets and oral tradition. According to Roud and Bishop, Definitely in the top five Child ballads in terms of widespread popularity, and possibly second only to ‘Barbara Allen’, the Gypsies stealing the lady, or, to put it the other way round, the lady running off with the sexy Gypsies, has caught singers’ attention all over the anglophone world for more than 200 years. For obvious reasons, the song has long been a favourite with members of the travelling community.

I first sang this song in the folk group Seannachie almost fifty years ago and I’ve sung it off and on in various venues, solo and with partners since that time.  When Banter formed in the mid-1990s, we all thought that the stirring march, The Battle of Aughrim, would complement it nicely. I do wonder, though, how many fine ladies in history have ever left the money, fine clothes  and privileges of wealth and rank in order to follow a gypsy into the privations of a traveller’s life. Or would the outcome be more like that of John Faa, king of the gypsies, who flourished between 1540-1553.

The story runs that Faa ran away with Margaret Kennedy, Countess of Cassilis. Her enraged husband caught up with them at a ford over the River Doon, still called the Gypsies’ Steps. He hanged Faa and his followers on a Dule Tree (such named trees being used for public hangings) on a mound in front of the Castle Gate at Cassillis while his wife was forced to watch from an upstairs room. He then imprisoned her in Maybole Castle for the rest of her life. So, the version you hear now is one recorded in the round– a laptop on the centre of a table laden with liquid refreshment, hence the field-recording quality. This song, then, is the something old from the template. [insert song]

Most people have heard of the tragic ballad, Barbara Allen. It is a traditional folksong that is popular throughout the English-speaking world and beyond. It tells of how the eponymous character denies a dying man’s love, then dies of grief soon after his untimely death. The song began as a ballad in the seventeenth century or earlier, before quickly spreading (both orally and in print) throughout Britain and Ireland and later North America.

The ballad generally follows a standard plot, although narrative details vary between versions: typically, a servant asks Barbara to attend on his sick master. She then visits the bedside of the heartbroken young man, who then pleads for her love. She refuses, claiming he had slighted her while drinking with friends. He dies soon after and Barbara hears his funeral bells tolling; stricken with grief, she dies as well. In some versions, they are buried in the same churchyard; a rose grows from his grave, a briar from hers, and the plants form a true lovers’ knot.

A diary entry by Samuel Pepys on 2 January 1666 contains the earliest extant reference to the song. In it, he recalls the fun and games at a New Year’s party:“…but above all, my dear Mrs Knipp, with whom I sang; and in perfect pleasure I was to hear her sing, and especially her little Scotch song of Barbary Allen.” There are hundreds if not thousands of recordings of this ballad in song. The folklorist John Lomax and his wife Ruby recorded a version by Hule “Queen” Hines at Florida State Prison on 4 June 1939. I’ll recite, rather than sing, a version of the ballad that is stripped back, omitting the rose and briar intertwining that is found in some versions.

In Scarlet town, where I was born,/There was a fair maid dwellin’,/Made every youth cry Well-a-way!/ Her name was Barbara Allen.//All in the merry month of May,/When green buds they were swellin’,/Young Jemmy Grove on his/ death-bed lay,/For love of Barbara Allen.//He sent his man in to her then,/To the town where she was dwellin’;/“O haste and come to my master dear,/If your name be Barbara Allen.”//So slowly, slowly rase she up,/ And slowly she came nigh him,/And when she drew the curtain by—/“Young man, I think you’re dyin’.”//“O it’s I am sick and very very sick,/ And it’s all for Barbara Allen.”—/O the better for me ye’se never be,/Tho’ your heart’s blood were a-spillin’!//“O dinna ye mind, young man,” says she,/ “When the red wine ye were fillin’,/That ye made the healths go round and round,/And slighted Barbara Allen?”//He turned his face unto the wall,/ And death was with him dealin’:/“Adieu, adieu, my dear friends all,/And be kind to Barbara Allen!”//As she was walking o’er the fields,/She heard the dead-bell knellin’;/And every jow the dead-bell gave/Cried “Woe to Barbara Allen.”//“O mother, mother, make my bed,/O make it saft and narrow:/My love has died for me today,/I’ll die for him tomorrow.”//“Farewell,” she said, “ye virgins all,/And shun the fault I fell in:/Henceforth take warning by the fall/Of cruel Barbara Allen.”//

The something borrowed I will present is The Night-Visiting Song. But not the Luke Kelly version, which is memorable as the last song we have of him singing on stage, before his death at age 44 in 1984. The version I am going to sing I found on the website http://www.joeheaney.org and I’ll quote from what Joe said on one of his many sessions, recorded over a lifetime twenty years longer than that granted to Luke Kelly. A renowned sean nos singer from  County Galway, Joe Heaney had this to say about the song:  

Now, there’s another belief that, we’ll say, two people have a date tonight, or tomorrow night, or something. They say, ‘We’ll meet at eight o’clock.’ And meantime, one of them dies, or is accidentally killed or something. They have to keep that date unless they say, ‘God willing’ or ‘if I’m alive.’ They reckon if you say that, you don’t have to keep that particular date. Now, whatever happens you, that party will let you back for one night only, from midnight (which the old people reckoned was the hour of the dead) until the rooster or the cock crows in the morning. This man was drowned off a horse into the raging tempest. And his girlfriend was expecting him home to her place, to be with her. And he didn’t come; she went in to bed. And about the middle of the night she heard the voice outside the door. And she lifted her head up, and she said, ‘Who is there?’ and he said, ‘It’s me.’ Then she thought he was coming at last. And she had no idea was he dead until he said he had to go when the cock crowed next morning.[insert song]

I said when I introduced the Postscripts that the something blue would be subsumed into the background of the posts. And so it has proved to be. For the something new, of this Postscript, however, I wish to veer away from the tragic, the blue, and present something brighter and more heartsome, to use a word that Gaels, and others, will be familiar with- it means, spirited, giving cheer, uplifting. The Raggle Taggle Gypsy  and The Night-Visiting Song  you have just heard lie at the opposite end of the spectrum conjured up by the word heartsome. You know, it took me a full week to break away from my habitual, gloomy cast of mind and write this! In Australia, now, they say that the dismal Climate Wars are over and that we may yet be able to play a part in saving the only  planet we inhabit. So too, I hope that this song can help to affirm that the survival of our species, down the ages, has depended on a commonality among men and women that simply says- we need, want, and love one another! [insert song]

When I started the Postscripts I didn’t dream I would be heralding  a dozen posts. But life’s like that, isn’t it? And I’m not complaining? I mean, who knows what’s coming next, do you? Of course, I do hope you’re all here for the next PS

Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.

Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text.

For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition.

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