Monday, April 22, 2024


The traditional ballad heard here is at least three hundred years old but doesn't seem to have run out of steam. This lovely, fairly recent rendition is credited to a group called Hurray for the Riff Raff; the singer (who, as it happens, is Puerto Rican) is Alynda Segarra.

I'm not sure when I heard "Black Jack Davey" the first time, though I do remember sitting in a university music library in the 1970s listening to a version on LP that was sung by a woman who may or may not have been Almeda Riddle. There are countless renditions under various names — "Gypsy Davey," "The Raggle-Taggle Gypsy," and so on. (I've seen it argued, convincingly or not, that in the Appalachians it became "Black Jack Davey" because there weren't any Gypsies in the Appalachians.)

The outline of the story, in all the versions, is simple: a woman runs off with a Gypsy or outlaw, her husband discovers her flight and catches up to her, he points out to her all she'll be giving up if she doesn't come back, but she throws it all in his face and refuses to come home.
Last night I slept on a warm featherbed
beside my husband and baby
Tonight I sleep on the cold, cold ground
Beside the Black Jack Davey
Pretty little Black Jack Davey
In some versions the husband then slays either or both of the lovers (as in the ballad known variously as "Little Musgrave" or "Matty Groves"), but the song seems more satisying when that's left out. In the Riff Raff version the husband's role has dwindled away to almost nothing. The music critic Nick Tosches linked the song to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. And why not?