Why does Dylan like Black Jack Davey? (And all hell breaks loose)

By Tony Attwood

I think we last met Black Jack Davey in Bob Dylan and Cowboy Jesus (part V) and it’s no surprise that we’ve come across this song before because it is a fundamental of the English and Scottish folk song tradition upon which Bob has lavished so much interest over the years.

Bob first played the song in September 1993, before its 18th and final outing the following month.  It was released on “Good as I been to you.”

 

The song has been through many mutations and has multiple names from Gypsy Davy through to the “Raggle Taggle Gypsies O” throughout reflecting the notion that the gypsies were somehow different and separate from the rest of society, not just by their style of living and dress, but through some deeper power that they could exert.

Perhaps because it tapped into a mystery and to a degree a fear, the song was incredibly popular across the English speaking world, along with “Barbara Allen”.  Throughout all versions, the gypsies’ power enables them to entrap the lady against all her normal judgement and rationality.

Robert Burns quoted the song in his “critical observations on Scottish songs” at the start of the 19th century, and Cecil Sharp who was the prime collector of music of the English folk song tradition also noted and recorded it.  The sanitised version of “Wraggle Taggle Gypsies O” became part of the singing lessons in English schools through the first half of the 20th century.

Woody Gutherie, the Carter Family and many many others all recorded the song – and throughout the lady (sometimes identified as the wife of a nobleman) is charmed away from her life of luxury to be with the gypsies.  When she is found she is asked, “Would you forsake your husband and child?” and the answer is yes – often with her saying, “What care I for your fine feather sheets?”

Nick Tosches suggests the song is based on the story of John Faa, the outlaw, and Lady Jane Hamilton, wife of The Earl of Cassilis.  In that telling pretty much everyone (the wife and the gypsies) are caught and either die or are imprisoned.

Here are the lyrics – although of course they vary from version to version

Black Jack Davey come a-riden’ on back,
A-whistlin’ loud and merry.
Made the woods around him ring,
And he charmed the heart of a lady,
Charmed the heart of a lady.

“How old are you, my pretty little miss,
How old are you, my honey”
She answered to him with a lovin’ smile
“I’ll be sixteen come Sunday,
Be sixteen come Sunday.”

“Come and go with me, my pretty little miss,
Come and go with me, my honey,
Take you where the grass grows green,
You never will want for money
You never will want for money

“Pull off, pull off them high-heeled shoes
All made of Spanish leather.
Get behind me on my horse
And we’ll ride off together,
We’ll both go off together.”

Well, she pulled off them high-heeled shoes
Made of Spanish leather.
Got behind him on his horse
And they rode off together.
They rode off together.

At night the boss came home
Inquiring about this lady.
The servant spoke before she thought,
“She’s been with Black Jack Dave,
Rode off with Black Jack Davey.”

“Well, saddle for me my coal black stud,
He’s speedier than the gray.
I rode all day and I’ll ride all night,
And I’ll overtake my lady.
I’ll bring back my lady.”

Well, he rode all night till the broad daylight,
Till he came to a river ragin’,
And there he spied his darlin’ bride
In the arms of Black Jack Davey.
Wrapped up with Black Jack Davey.

“Pull off, pull off them long blue gloves
All made of the finest leather.
Give to me your lily-white hand
And we’ll both go home together.
We’ll both go home together.”

Well, she pulled off them long blue gloves
All made of the finest leather.
Gave to him her lily-white hand
And said good-bye forever.
Bid farewell forever.

“Would you forsake your house and home,
Would you forsake your baby?
Would you forsake your husband, too,
To go with Black Jack Davey.
Rode off with Black Jack Davey?”

“Well, I’ll forsake my house and home,
And I’ll forsake my baby.
I’ll forsake my husband, too,
For the love of Black Jack Davey.
Ride off with Black Jack Davey.”

“Last night I slept in a feather bed
Between my husband and baby.
Tonight I lay on the river banks
In the arms of Black Jack Davey,
Love my Black Jack Davey.”

Thus it is an incredibly popular Scottish / English folk song which has travelled across to America, and it taps at the centre of the fear of the unknown, the power of  the outsider to override rationality, of love, desire, lust….  It is all there.

And it can be re-worked as often as anyone wishes in every way imaginable.   Here are my two personal favourites of all time.  First, the slow version

And now all hell breaks loose..

Why does Dylan like it?  It is a fundamental song within our folk tradition, with a vibrant story and really engaging melody.  What else would you need?

Why does Dylan like (the series)

Untold Dylan: who we are what we do

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