The Secret Stream of English Gypsies

book review by Michael Higgins

Nick Dow has been singing traditional Folk Songs for over Forty years. He has had a big influence on the Folk scene and most recently award winning English Folk Musician Jim Moray has quoted Nick as an influence singing two songs from his repertoire and including one {Seven Long Years} on his latest album ‘Skulk’

Nick (left) is an acknowledged expert on West Country Folk Songs and together with his wife Mally ,has collected over 300 songs in Dorset, and also found singers in Lancashire and Essex

He has also made recordings of Gypsy Singers some of which have been included on Topic Records series ’The Voice of the People’

Nick Dow has returned to the Folk Scene after a long absence. He spent several years building up his business of Signwriting and building and restoring Gypsy Wagons.

Nick has lived an amazing life. From a rough childhood in South London, he has lived on his wits since he left home at eighteen; travelling half way round the world, living on the road with the Travelling Folk and learning their songs, working as a TV and Film Extra, broadcaster, Narrowboat painter, writer, Folklorist, Guitar Teacher and General Dealer. Nick and Mally now live happily in East Lancashire surrounded by Moorland and Fells.Every song Nick sings has a story attached to it, and his gigs are as informative as they are entertaining. He has now collected several songs in  a new book. 

A Secret Stream is an ambitious song book attempting to put English Gypsy music before a heretofore traditional folk music public reared on mainstream collections. The editor and selector of the songs, (and there are over a hundred of them with music notation), is Nick Dow, a long-time collector and singer of songs collected from various parts of England. As Nick Says in his introduction: ‘the purpose of this first volume of songs is twofold: first, to fulfil a very simple brief-that of placing all the folk-songs, tunes and carols, collected from Gypsies in the past, into one convenient volume.’  In this he means those collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by such folklorists as Cecil Sharp, a giant, if not the giant of the modern folk music legacy, and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and his sometime assistant Ella Leather. Mrs Leather, it was reported, had a harder time than Vaughan Williams as her comely appearance had more appeal for the Gypsy men than the women. 

Other collectors, given with brief biographies, are Lucy Broadwood, the Hammonds, and George Gardener.

Also given prominence is George Borrow, the author of Wild Wales and several Gypsy themed books such as the Romany Rye and Lavengro. Borrow followed a boyish romantic dream in the early and mid 19th century to live with Gypsies and learn the Romany language.  As Nick points out, some of his findings may have more to do with his romanticism and inventiveness than true scholarship. Yet one cannot deny his keenness to ‘live the Gypsy life’

As, I must admit, do many, trudging through mundane, urban based tasks in the daily grind of making a living. In this I have form, first being warned by my mother to stay away from the Gypsies who annually camped in front of our house in traditional caravans (called living wagons in Gypsy). They gathered round an open fire singing songs that alas I was too young to remember. Hence the fascination with such non-Gypsy songs as The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies and endless songs and stories of elopements and abscondings with the travelling families. I too left home in my teens to live not with real Gypsies but dropout bohemians and hippies.

My favourites poets often admitted a longing for the Gypsy life. Poor disturbed John Clare did learn fiddling techniques while living among them and briefly gaining fame as The Peasant Poet. I love Clare and have set some of his poems to music. And again, John Masefield wrote ‘ I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life’.

Not that Gypsies go to sea of course. Nowadays even their romantic carved and painted caravans have been retired to museums and grand shows. In the old days it was thieving of chickens and threats of curses and the evil eye that frightened non-travellers.  Now it is modern car-towed caravans bespoiling both common and private land. Attitudes to the earlier collectors of Gypsy music have also changed with a suspicion that the likes of Sharp and Vaughan Williams ‘exploited the lower classes for their own middle class fame and gain’.

Nick Dow explores all these themes and adds that the singers and musicians they solicited for songs and tunes did so willingly and these middle class professionals must have had something about them to be admitted to Romany groups. There is always the lure of fame, or at least gain of course, in both Gypsy and middle class folklorist.  All of which brings us to the singers of the day and their songs. These included the Goby family, bender tent-dwellers and hawkers and basket makers of Surrey and Sussex, Tom Stanley, a Somerset ‘travelling Gypsy’, Kathleen Williams, Emma Glover the ‘Romany’, Lucy Carter, of Somerset and Devon, whose husband was a travelling basket-maker and hawker of pegs and lace, Henry Cave, the ‘half Gypsy’ grinder and cutler, his father, Tom Cave, horse-dealer to start the roll off.

The list carries on with Samson Price, Priscilla Cooper, Betsy Holland, Rebecca Holland, John Locke and the splendidly named Goliath Cole. The latter, born in 1873, originally lived in a travelling caravan with his parents who were dealers and hawkers.

But the glory of the book is the selection of songs ranging from variants on the more generally familiar Barbara Ellen, The Blacksmith, The Claudy Banks, Geordie, John Barleycorn and Henry Martin to the lesser known Johnny Doyle, Molly Bawn, and The Murder of John James. I recently heard Molly Bawn (the Swan) for the first time, sung by Lancashire singer Nick Caffrey in his own sweet style. At least it was unknown to me until now. In the song a young swain fond of fowling accidently shoots his own true love, mistaking her for a swan:

With her white apron wrapped around her I took her for a swan,

And to my sad misfortune I shot Molly Bawn.

In order to stop her son from running away from the law his mother advises:

Don’t leave your own country till your trial comes on

For you’ll never be convicted for the killing of a swan.

 Also in the song list is a different take on the Bird In The Bush, here named The Small Bird or Three Maids a- Milking, a suggestive song that retains a simple but also alluring beauty for all its suggestiveness. Although I could go on, my memory of folksongs is not what it used to be. What is new to me no doubt is not so new to aficionados who take folk music as seriously as a swan takes to water. I am enthralled by tunes that weave out the lyrics and set a mood. But I don’t read music so unless I get someone to play the tune for me I am lost. But here again all readers like me are saved for when I purchased the book I was sent a link which allowed me to download the basic melodies of each song. So The Secret Stream of Gypsy songs is not really so secret to those with the knowledge.

The knowledge of the contributors certainly rounds out the selection with musical notation by Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne and explanatory notes for each song by Steve Gardham. The preface is written by Romany speakers Walter and Mary Lee followed by Nick Dow’s Introduction to the whole collection. In this Nick knows much as he and his wife Mally, herself of a Gypsy family, have been involved in Gypsy music for decades. To hear Nick sing is a delight indeed. But, as this book is not just for Gypsies, perhaps Walter Lee says it best when he writes:

 ‘I hope those who read this book will gain some insight into our culture. Time and space don’t allow me to elaborate further, however enjoy your read and remember, music brings us all together.’

A Secret Stream – Folk Songs collected from English Gypsies, Francis Boutle Publishers 2021.

arts and culture correspondent
Michael Higgins

The excellence of the book notwithstanding, my thirst for poetry and music was not quite quenched. However Sunday evening brought another of the Pegasus poetry nights at The Flying Horse in Rochdale so I was there ready to listen to the other fourteen ´turns´ and to read when called upon.

There was no rain; or snow. to deter attendance but the renewed requirement to wear masks of public transport and shops has just begun to blight our lives, so I hadn´t been quite sure what level of ´crowd´ we might attract. Still, Eileen Earnshaw was back after a brief illness and with our regular visiting ukulele  band and various other musical accompanists we had around thirty  people in the downstairs bar by the time we started.

It was good to see nonagenarian Ken Eaton Dykes, turning  up as an audience member as he recovers from a bout of ill health. He is still beaming and smiley and chatty, of course, but  for the while his daughter Janet reads his work for us..

The Ukelele band with a seeming indentity crisis,  (just styled The Ukes this time) was there, as were Don Parry and Linda and daughter Caroline, and assorted accompanists with guitars, Alyson Brailsford and her partner-guitar accompanist, John, were there too and ome had kazoos and I was there with my Canadian native drum,  so we had much instrumental participation, 

Co-jost and convenor, Robin Parker, (right) kicked it all off with a Climate Change pasofy of the children´s rv programme Magic Roundabout and everything went uphill, pear-shaped and downhill from there.

There was a good rendition of ‘What Shall We Do’ with the Tory Party to the tune of The Drunken Sailor by Linda and daughter Caroline plus accompanist which went down well. given the here almost proven adage that most arts and music folk are ‘lefties’ by default. Robin remarked on the recent Labour Party referral to the Police of Boris Johnson and his supposed illegal Downing Street Christmas Party of last year by commenting that ‘they didn’t even catch Covid’.  Ah, there’s nowt like petty party politics. Alas that is all the Labour party does these days when they are not pressing for even more pandemic restrictions than the Tories want to impose on us. And new travel restrictions are imposed daily so that is probably another year without going to the Alps for us.  Was muss Ich tue?

Ellen read a prayer of Civil Servants, Glenis read her poem An Autumn Performance based on climate change with an ending of ‘Save our Planet Now!’

Don Parry read one of his song lyrics I Am Time – ‘ Some times can never stop. It’s never that time can be mended- it’s what we do with the time.’   

Dave Mckuan sang  ‘Frosty Was A Yobbo’ to the tune of Frosty The Snowman and The Ukes sang Cowboy Carol. Ian Aitcheson read his latest weekly Rochdale Observer offering – yes, Christmas shopping limericks.  Alyson read a poem about ‘putting cob on’t fire’ and John sang a parody of Santa Clause Is Coming To Town with a Covid sensitive Father Christmas: ‘He’s late because he’s washed his hands a million times’.

Robin gave his ‘Shepherd’s Visitation’ from The Edenfield Scrolls and I got my Huron Carol in (with drum= in a version that would no doubt have given any visiting Hurons fits of honest indignation. But I have left far too many people and songs out and enough is enough. No Alfie or Val, or John Leach. But Maureen Harrison was there. Also Ken Hall.

John had thoughtfully brought a microphone as well as a lectern this time but this proved a mixed blessing as the very audible heating noises sometimes interfered with the voice projection, as did the distortion caused by proximity. On the other hand when the heating was switched off to ease the nerves some began to shiver. 

There will be more poetry at the Off Yhe Rails Christmas session is 13th December at a pub in Preston, where I hope to see Nick Dow and wife Mally, collectors of the music reviewed in the main thrust of this article.

Regular Sidetracks And Detours followers may well be aware that April of 2022  marks the  150th anniversary of the death of Samuel Bamford (left). As he was a well known writer English radical reformer and writer born in MiddletonLancashire. there could well be a celebratory event staged in the town. He also wrote on the subject of Northern English dialect and wrote some of his better known verse in that form.  We will keep you abreast of developments.

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