#718: The Gypsy Rover by The Highwaymen
Dave Louis Fisher was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1940. In high school, Fisher had been part of a doo-wop group named The Academics. In 1958, Fisher helped form The Clansmen as a collegiate folk quintet of four freshmen at Weslayan University in Middletown, Connecticut. According to Joseph Murrells in his book, The Book of Golden Discs, Dave Fisher was the quintet’s lead singer and arranger. The other original members of the group were tenor Bob Burnett (born in Providence, RI), bass Steve Butts (born in New York City), baritone Chan Daniels (born in Argentina) and guitarist Steve Trott (born in Glen Ridge, NJ). The name, The Clansmen, they reasoned, was suggestive of Irish and Scottish clans, reflecting the Celtic roots of the songs the folk group performed. However, in the Civil Rights era with growing awareness of the violent acts and images of the Ku Klux Klan (known as the Klansmen), The Clansmen was not going to be a wise choice for the folk group to bill themselves if they wanted to go far. When they signed with United Artists at the end of 1959, they were given a new name, The Highwaymen. The name was inspired by the lines from lines by British poet, Alfred Noyes, “A highwayman comes riding…riding…riding,” from his 1906 poem The Highwayman.
Steve Butts remembers that by their third year in college, in 1960, The Highwaymen were making pocket money as a folk group. “In our junior year, we used to get in the car to play more and more around New England. We’d make a couple of hundred bucks and make just enough to pay for gas and the motel. We mostly played alone, but one time we played with a duo called The Simon Sisters. That was Carly Simon and her younger sister. We certainly heard her name. They were just starting out the way we were. They were a duo at that time, but basically we just played colleges, and dances, and things like that… for not many bucks.”
In 1960 The Highwaymen recorded a song originating in Saint Helena Island, one of South Carolina titled “Michael Row The Boat Ashore.” The song had been heard by abolitionist Charles Pickard Ware in 1862 who wrote down the lyrics of the song sung by plantation workers on the island who were now freedmen. Years later the song was taught to folk singer, Pete Seeger, in 1954. The Weavers sang “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” at their reunion concert in 1955. In 1960, The Highwaymen recorded “Michael.” It broke onto the pop charts in Worcester, Massachusetts, in March 1961, and in Springfield (MA) in April 1961. By September 1961, The Highwaymen had a number one record for two weeks with “Michael”/ It ended up becoming the #3 hit for the year 1961 on the Billboard year-end singles chart.
The Highwaymen were part of a folk music revival in America that had been chugging along since The Weavers had a number one hit in 1950 with “Goodnight Irene.” Other successful folk music artists in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s included the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four. The follow up single to “Michael” for the Highwaymen was “The Gypsy Rover”.
Folk music musician and writer, Jim Moran, has written about a an old Irish story that inspired the narrative in “The Gypsy Rover.” Drawing on his sources, Dorothy Scarborough and others, Moran recounts, “In 1724 (according to Dorothy Scarborough, below – but 1642 in other sources), Sir John Faw… of Dunbar in Scotland decided that he would be a happier man if he could secure the permanent company of his former fiancee, Lady Jean (or Jane) Hamilton, who sadly had been bargained into an arranged marriage with a certain John Kennedy, the sixth Earl of Cassilis. Accordingly, Faw and seven of his friends waited until Lord C. was out hunting… and then showed up at Castle Cassilis disguised as gypsies and made off with the all-too-willing lady. The point of the disguise is obscure, because virtually everyone from the town drunk to the stableman’s grandmother recognized Sir Johnny and reported so promptly to an enraged Lord C. upon his return. Well, her husband saddled his fastest steed and roamed these valleys all over, seeking his lady at great speed and the now-doomed Gypsy Rover. Cassilis and an ad hoc posse caught up with the fake gypsies in about a week as they headed for the River Clyde (perhaps the origin of the non-existent River Claydee of the song) and promptly strung them all up to the same… tree, thus ending Johnny Faw’s brief career as a romantic hero. Lady Cassilis was returned to the castle and imprisoned for the rest of her life in a tower built just for her…” Over twenty variations of “The Gypsy Rover” (“Gypsy Davey,” “The Wraggle-Taggle Gypsies” and “Black Jack Davey,” “Nine Yellow Gypsies”, “The Gypsy Laddie” and others) emerged in the following centuries.
In 1950, Dublin radio show host, Leo Maguire, claimed to have written “The Gypsy Rover.” He Maguire turned the husband into father and left reference to a baby out of the lyrics. However, all those familiar with the folk ballad knew Maguire’s song was not original with him. From the 19thcentury there was a raft of ballads about aristocratic women pairing up with gypsies. The woman would already be married to a lord of the manor, and the lord would then chase after the pair in an attempt to return to his possession what was rightfully his. The original song was called The Raggle Taggle Gypsy. In this case the lady leaves her house, land, money, goose feather bed and blankets all for the gypsy and his kisses.
In the case of the lyrics by Leo Maguire, the lady is pursued, not by her husband but by her dad. In Macguire’s song the father catches his daughter and the gypsy at a mansion where there is music and wine. It is then the gypsy rover reveals that he is actually not a poor gypsy at all but the “lord of these lands all over.” Given the Gypsy Rover is a man of wealth and station, there is no disruption to the order of things related to class. It is the Lord of all these lands who whistles and sings ‘til the green wood rings who wins the lady’s heart. She has left her castle, husband, servants and her estate all for him.
In 1952, Joe Lynch made the first recording of the song. The song was covered by numbers of folk artists including The Kingston Trio, The Seekers and Glenn Yarbrough. The Highwaymen’s version was the only single release to become a Top 40 hit in North America. It peaked at #42 in the USA, but climbed to #6 in Vancouver. Other radio markets where the song charted especially well were Halifax, Nova Scotia, where it climbed to #1. The song made it to #3 in Toronto, Pueblo (CO) and Sarasota (FL). It also peaked at #5 in Syracuse (NY), Hartford (CT) and Calgary (AB).
The Highwaymen had one other Top 20 hit called “Cotton Fields” before they faded from the national pop music charts. At the time they had several appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Tonight Show with Jack Paar. The Highwaymen also had a Top 30 single in the spring of 1962 in Vancouver titled “Whiskey In A Jar.” In 1963, The Highwaymen were an opening act at The Hungry i nightclub in San Francisco for comedian Woody Allen. They also appeared on Hullabaloo.
The Highwaymen disbanded in 1964. Dave Fisher went to work in Hollywood in 1967. He became a composer and arranger and wrote hundreds of tracks for TV and film. Bob Burnett served in the United States Army Reserve and then got a career in law and banking. Chan Daniels went on in the A&R departments for MGM and Capitol Records. He left employment to start his own successful international music company. However, Daniels died unexpectedly of pneumonia in 1975. Steve Butts got a Ph. D. in Chinese Politics and taught baroque music. In 1987, the Highwaymen had a 25-year college reunion concert.
In 1990, Dave Fisher was at a concert in Houston where a new group who named themselves the Highwaymen were performing. In this case, The Highwaymen were a country music supergroup comprised of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. Dave Fisher was uncomfortable with the “Highwaymen” memorabilia for sale at the concert. It happened that one of the early 60’s folk band members of The Highwaymen, Steve Trott, had become a Department of Justice official in the Reagan administration. Furthermore, Trott had been promoted to the position of judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. With Steve Trott’s counsel, the new Highwaymen were sued for copyright infringement by the original Highwaymen. Waylon Jennings proposed a resolution of the matter. Jennings suggested to the original Highwaymen that they open an upcoming concert for the country superstars in Los Angeles. The original Highwaymen accepted the offer.
The Highwaymen performed their final concert in 2009. Dave Fisher died in 2010 and Bob Burnett passed in 2011.
September 27, 2018
Robert von Bernewitz, “The Highwaymen – An interview with Dr. Steve Butts. They had a Billboard #1 hit with “Michael, Row The Boat Ashore” in 1961,” Music Guy 247.com, June 14, 2014
Stephen S. Trott bio, Wikipedia.org
Dennis Hevesi, “Bob Burnett, 71, Performer in the Original Highwaymen, Dies,” New York Times, December 10, 2011
Douglas Martin, “Dave Fisher, Member of the Highwaymen, Dies at 69,” New York Times, May 12, 2010
Derek Schofield, “Dave Fisher Obituary: Singer and arranger with the US folk group the Highwaymen,” Guardian, June 8, 2010
Jim Moran, “Romance And Retribution: ‘The Whistling Gypsy Rover’,” Comparative Video 101.com
Murrells, Joseph. The Book of Golden Discs. Barrie & Jenkins, 1978.
Michael Jack Kirby, The Highwaymen, Wayback Attack.com.
“The Fabulous Forty,” CKWX 1130 AM, Vancouver, BC, December 16, 1961.
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