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Johnny Faa's Indictment.

 

We are seven brothers of a song
We all are wondrous bonnie-O,
And this very night we all shall be hanged
For stealin’ of the Earl’s lady-O.

They will hang us tonight, my brothers and me. The trial is today, but the verdict is certain. What else but foul sorcery, they will say, could bring an earl’s lady to run away with a gypsy?

The gypsies came to our good lord’s gate
And O but they sang bonnie!
They sang so sweet and so complete
That down came our fair lady.

She came tripping down the stair
And all her maids before her;
As soon as they saw her well-faured face
They cast their glamourie o’er her.

He was a poet, that earl. And a fine poet too, I must admit. He wrote poems to his lady wife that were admired by those who heard them. But he did not understand the effect those poems had on her, he did not know that poems could be magic. His poems told her exactly who she was, what she thought and felt, and how she behaved; they gave his understanding of her and not her own. He bound her in his cool web of language like a spider’s prey, and like a spider he sucked the juices from her. His songs were so sweet and so complete that they cast a spell on her that charmed the heart from her, till her life was his and not her own.

And then we came. The travelling people, never content in one place, but always desiring change. We came with our ribbons and mirrors for sale and spices from distant lands, with our juggling and fire-eating. The common folk of the castle clustered round us, and we began to sing.

The Earl’s wife moved down the stairs to listen to us. My heart was caught as I saw her, and I made new songs for her. She came closer, and my songs asked her questions. “Who are you, my lady, do you know who you are?” “Here is a dance, lady will you join in it?” “I have a heart to give away, lady will you take it?”

They’ve gien tae her the nutmeg fine,
They’ve gien tae her the ginger-O.
She’s gien tae them a far better thing,
The gowd ring frae off her finger-O.

The questions seemed to free her, she laughed and looked lovelier than ever. She took the gold wedding ring from her finger and tossed it to me. I spun it round three times, threw it into the air and it disappeared in mid-flight.

And she pulled off her high-heeled boots,
Made of Spanish leather O.
“Last night I slept with my own wedded lord,
And tonight with the gypsy laddie O.”

And so we rode away, my brothers and I, and she rode with us. I took delight in showing her the land as it truly was, close to and not from a distance. I showed her how to catch trout, putting a hand quietly into the stream under a fish where it lay resting, and moving her fingers rhythmically closer and closer to the trout; then closing the hand quickly and flipping the fish onto land. She was soon more supple at this than I, and I had always been reckoned the best.

The first time she startled a hare and it ran straight into one of the snares she had made from her own braided hair and a few twigs and branches, she laughed with delight. Then she cried as I picked up the dead animal, and she realised that she was responsible for its death. And she laughed again when she tasted the stew I made from that hare, and the wild garlic and the sorrel that I picked. And always she both laughed and cried as her snares caught beasts and birds for food, laughing that she was so skilful, crying that creatures had to die to feed us.

She lay in my arms in the moonlight, and we gazed at the mass of glittering stars. I saw the best of dark and light in her face and eyes, and knew the mystery of cloudless starry nights was echoed in her power and beauty.

I sang at the fairs, and I admit that I was surprised when her strong voice made a harmony with my own. But I was even more surprised and delighted when she started songs herself, and I realised that they were not ones she had learned but were entirely her own.

We moved through the summer and into autumn. I showed her the crops ripening, and we gleaned some of the leavings. I milked cows into the bowl she held. And I shared with her berries and mushrooms and nuts, which she saw for the first time as they grew and not as they came to table.

It could not last. Her husband had been seeking her through all those months. We had kept ahead of him, travelling in lands whose lords were no friends of his. But in the end, as I knew he would, he and his men caught up with us.

“So come saddle me my best black horse,
Come saddle it quite swiftly O,
So I may search for my own wedded wife
Who is gone with the blackguarded gypsies O.”

So he rode east and he rode west,
Till he came to yonder boggie-O,
There he spied the pretty young girl
Wi’ the gypsies standing around her-O.

They seized me and my brothers. The Earl spoke to his lady: “Come back with me to your proper place. Remember who you are.”

And I spoke too. “Yes, my love, you have no choice now but to go back with him. Go to your proper place, and, above all, remember who you are.” The Earl thought I had accepted defeat; the fool did not understand me. But I could tell that she knew what I meant — I saw the bubble of merriment on her lips underneath her sadness at what would happen to me, that she could not prevent. The memory of her face as she rode away will stay with me the rest of my few days.

Them seven gypsies all in a row,
They were so brisk and bonnie O,
Tonight they’re all condemned to die
For stealing Earl Cassilis’ lady O.

They will hang us tonight, my brothers and me. The earl will prosper, all his ventures and lands. The common folk will call him “the Lucky Earl”. They will cheer as he and his wife ride out together, calling out “Thanks be to the luck of the Earl.” He will nod graciously at this tribute to him, and will never notice her grin as she pretends not to know that she is the Luck of the Earl and it is her who the cheers are truly for.

The earl will never realise that his own poems are deeper than they used to be, that they are no longer rigidly ordered, still less why this is so. He will listen to songs of the minstrels without realising who wrote them, and why they ring with the wild freedom that comes with a gypsy’s knowledge of the land.

And he will never know who slips from her bed on May Eve and dances among the corn that the harvest shall be good, nor who leaves her bed at full moon and milks the cows to be sure their milk shall be rich and plentiful.

She will mourn my death. But I die satisfied that she has answered the questions my songs posed her. She has taken my heart, she has joined in the dance, and at last she knows Who she is.


NOTES

There are many versions of the ballad which is the source of this story, with titles such as The Gypsy Laddie, Seven Gypsies, The Wraggle-Taggle Gypsies-O, Black Jack Davy. This is number 200 in Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads; information about the origin of the story, in particular the name Johnny Faa, can be found there. The verses quoted come from several versions. The first verse is from the singing of Jeannie Robertson, the second and third are from a version in Child, the fourth and seventh from the singing of Jean Redpath, and the fifth, sixth and eighth from the singing of A. L. Lloyd.

According to the singer and storyteller Sheila Stewart, herself of traveller origin, the travelling people of Scotland (often derogatively called tinkers) are of very different background from the gypsies. She says that there were never any gypsies in Scotland, and that Johnnie Faa was a traveller.

I mentioned at the end of my article on the conference celebrating Robert Graves’s The White Goddess that this story was in some sense a response to Graves. It uses a few phrases from his poems. In his terminology, the Earl represents the God of the Waxing Year, while Johnny Faa corresponds to the God of the Waning Year, who he usually refers to negatively. Also the Lady is not, as Graves so often sees her, just a muse to the poets but is a poet in her own right.

Wood and Water 74, Spring 2001
© Daniel Cohen
 

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