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Gypsy and Traveller Voices in Archives

The English Folk Dance and Song Society’s Vaughan Williams Memorial Library’s archives contain many songs sung by Gypsies and Travellers. A new project will make these songs more accessible to the communities from which they came.

The English Folk Dance and Song Society’s Vaughan Williams Memorial Library’s archives contain many songs sung by Gypsies and Travellers. A new project will make these songs more accessible to the communities from which they came.

Romani Gypsy academic and poet Dr Jo Clement of Northumbria University is working to create resources that make the Gypsy and Traveller collections more accessible, particularly for Gypsy and Traveller people seeking engagement with their cultural heritage.

The project Gypsy and Traveller Voices in UK Music Archives is led by Dr Hazel Marsh (University of East Anglia) together with Dr Esbjorn Wettermark (University of Sheffield) and Tiffany Hore, Director of Library and Archives at the English Folk Dance and Song Society. It has been funded by the University of East Anglia’s AHRC Impact Acceleration Account.

Through collaboration we will highlight the richness and importance of Gypsy and Traveller music collections – for communities themselves, supporting the cultural wellbeing of some of the UK’s most marginalised communities, and also for the wider English folk scene.

The resource will be further shaped by focus groups from Gypsy and Traveller communities. The resource will be launched at the Library in late June, before a presentation at the Strumpshaw Tree Fair in Norfolk in July.

What do we mean with Gypsy and Traveller?

Various ethnic groups feature under the umbrella term Gypsy and Traveller. The histories, terminologies, interconnections that relate to these groups are not straightforward. Individuals as well as groups prefer different terms and may subscribe to different discourses about their origins and history. However, current research suggests that Romani Gypsy people migrated from India into Europe in the middle ages, reaching Britain and Ireland in the early 16th century. Irish and some Scottish Travellers, on the other hand, represent indigenous nomadic ethnic groups, with continuous presence in Britain and Ireland. Neither of these groups should be confused with the Roma, mostly East European Romani people, who have arrived on Britain and Ireland in more recent times.

About the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library’s collections of Gypsy and Traveller music
The Gypsy and Traveller collections held by the library consist primarily of private collections that have been deposited in the library archive. The majority of the collections relate to Romani Gypsies, but there is also material relating to Irish and Scottish Travellers. A sizable number of recordings have been digitised and published on the library’s online portal. Most of these recordings are also available in other archive collections (such as the British Library) or published on LPs and CDs from a variety of record companies.

In addition to the digitised material available online, the library collections also include written and audio publications with Gypsy and Traveller songs and music which can be seen in the library. Where relevant the library catalogue also includes notes on collections in other places, such as the British Library Sound Archives. There is currently no single register of Gypsy and Traveller material in the collections and some inside knowledge is required to find the right entries.

Photo: Priscilla Cooper, photographed by Cecil Sharp.

Sound examples

Irish Traveller singer Mary Delaney sings “My brother built for me a bancy bower”

Gypsy singer Priscilla Cooper singing “Basket of Eggs” recorded on wax cylinder in 1908 by Cecil Sharp

Gypsy singer Carolyne Hughes singing a song in Anglo-Romani “Oh 'tis mandi went to poov the grais”

Gypsy singer Jasper Smith sings Hartlake Bridge

Gypsy fiddler Harry Lee plays a step dance tune, The Rakes of Kildare”

Scottish Traveller singer Belle Stewart sings “In London's fair city there lived a lady”

Gypsy singer Phoebe Smith sings “High Germany”