Working on a lengthy and detailed piece on some bad hombres, and it’s kinda kicking my ass, time-wise. So, rather than going silent here for days, I give you a bit of arcane balladry to enjoy.
I’ve always loved the multitude of variations of “Black Jack Davy,” also known as “Gypsy Davy,” “Gypsen Davy,” “The Gypsy Laddie,” “Raggle-Taggle Gypsy-o” and probably others. It’s always felt like the root of the root to me, if you know what I mean. Apparently the wild-eyed journo/critic Nich Tosches felt the same way; he devoted the first chapter of his first book, “Country: The Twisted Rots of Rock And Roll” to untangling the history of the ballad.
Makes sense. It’s a classic Country/rock-and-roll song, after all. The respectable lady runs off with the charming, roguish outlaw. She could be climbing up on Black Jack Davy’s horse or swinging a mini-skirted leg over his Harley, right? We all know that ladies love outlaws like babies love stray dogs.
The ballad dates back to at least 1720, but it’s probably older than that. According to Tosches and others, the story behind it dates back to the mid-17th Century. Seems a Lady Hamilton rode off with the gypsy Johnny Faa and his band in the Scottish Borders. Lord Hamilton and his men pursued them, slaughtered the lot of them save one, and imprisoned Sweet Lady Jane in a dungeon for the rest of her life. Any damn balladeer worth his salt is gonna mine that vein. The old ballads are often quite dark and macabre.
They are also timeless and endlessly adaptable.
Like many ballads from the Old Country, this one weathered the trans-Atlantic journey well, and became a staple of the Appalachian ballad repertoire. It was carried west to the cattle ranges of Texas and New Mexico, and, like others, was adapted to an environment that bore a strong relation to the feudal, cattle-based culture from whence it originally sprang. That kind of thing trips my trigger in a big way. As Ceili says (fondly), “You are such a nerd!” Me and Tosches.
We’ll start with a traditional version by the Carter Family.
Predictably, I’m pretty sure my first exposure to the ancient ballad was through Waylon Jennings. I distinctly remember seeing this on TV when I was but a stripling and being utterly transfixed. A calling of the blood, perhaps. Sung with Waylon’s usual authority. He had, after all, quite a bit of experience charming fair-haired (and dark-haired, and red-haired) ladies.
Perhaps my favorite version is Dave Alvin’s. Seeing him perform it live here at the Sisters Folk Festival to a dead-quiet audience of 1,200 was a special moment in two decades of festival high points. The version I play is closest to this one.
Sandy Denny sang “Gypsy Davy” with Fotheringay. Delicious ride. Me like.
Custer LaRue’s version feels especially traditional.
Another favorite is Don Edwards’ “Gypsy Davy.” He’s doing Woody Guthrie’s version, updated and with the brand altered to suit the Western range.
Here’s The Waterboys rendering “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-o” at the Cambridge Folk Festival.
Of course, there’s no reason not to rock the hell out of it.
There ya go. A whole bunch more on Black Jack Davy than you ever thought you’d need. So… which one do you like best?