Seven Yellow Gypsies

I’m strongly tempted to have a Nic Jones Fest in the last couple of days of this series! Whether or not we do that, it was unthinkable that we could have a summer of traditional folk songs without including at least one version of ‘Seven Yellow Gypsies’. So here we have a live recording of Nic Jones singing the song; this recording is found on ‘Game, Set, and Match’, which is one of the collections of his live recordings.

I’m not entirely sure of the history of ‘Seven Yellow Gypsies’, but I know that it is one of the most widely-known songs in the tradition. There are several different sub-families of it, including ‘Raggle-Taggle Gypsies’ (which I first heard on a Planxty recording, and have also heard to a completely different tune from Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson), ‘Black-Jack Davy’ (which I think is an Irish/American variant), and ‘Gypsy Laddie/Gypsy Davy’.

Mainly Norfolk has a summary of the British recording history of this song here. There are numerous discussions of the history of the song on Mudcat Café; this is a good place to start. I’ve been wondering for a while if Bob Dylan got his ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ song title from a line in this song, but of course I have no way of knowing.

I should add that this variant of the song is customarily sung in the minor key; I don’t know if Nic transposed it into the major, or if he tapped into another version of the tune. I suspect the former.

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Tim Chesterton

Family man; pastor of St. Margaret's Anglican Church on Ellerslie Road, Edmonton; storyteller; traditional folk musician and occasional songwriter. Email me at timchesterton at outlook dot com.

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