My song today is, ‘Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves’. This was a song by American singer and actress, Cher, for her seventh solo studio album ‘Cher’. It was released in 1971 as her album’s lead single. The song was written by Bob Stone. After Sonny Bono’s first attempts at reviving Cher's recording career had been unsuccessful, Kapp Records recruited Garrett as her producer and he chose Stone to write a song specifically for Cher, to cater more to an adult audience.
Lyrically, the song describes the life of a girl who was ‘born in the wagon of a travelling show’, and it contains themes of racism, teenage pregnancy, and prostitution. Critically, ‘Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves’ has been met with appreciation ever since its release.
It earned Cher her first ‘Grammy Award nomination in the ‘Best Female Pop Vocal Performance’ category. Commercially, it became her first solo number-one single on the ‘Billboard Hot 100’ chart and on the ‘Canadian Singles Chart’, while reaching the top five in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. It was the first single by a solo artist to rank Number one on the U.S. ‘Billboard Hot 100’ chart at the same time as on the ‘Canadian Singles Chart’. It was certified platinum by the ‘Recording Industry Association of America’ for shipment of one million copies across the United States. At the time of its release, ‘Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves’ was the biggest-selling single in the history of ‘MCA Records’. The song was described by Rob Tennanbaum in Billboard magazine as one of the greatest songs of the 20th century.
I was born in Ireland, a land that has always been steeped in folklore and superstition. In my youth, there could not have been a greater difference in how both the Irish and the English viewed the travellers of the road. Whereas the English would refer to the travelling gypsies in their use of the derogatory term ‘Tinkers’, the Irish would call them 'Romany travellers of the road'.
In some ways, both Irish and English nationals ‘feared’ the presence of the travelling gypsies, but in a much different way.
Whereas the English generally considered all gypsies to be unclean in appearance, vulgar in mannerisms and crude in lifestyle, the presence of any gypsy camp nearby made this travelling band the perfect scapegoat for all the rubbish scattered in the locality, all the thefts and criminal damage committed in the neighbourhood, and even for the murder or disappearance of young children who were believed to be kidnapped by some gypsies in the dark of night.
The Irish, on the other hand, held the gypsy in what can best be described as ‘feared respect’. At worst, they were seen as common travellers of the road, making a humble living from their trade in horses and ponies at the open market, along with the sale of pots, pans and washing line pegs to the houses of village communities as they passed through on their travels. At best, the gypsies who professed to be of true Romany heritage were viewed by many Irish people as being prophets and Romany doctors the road. Some Romany travellers were believed to possess the knowledge of mysterious remedies from the woods, the highways, and byways of nature that were capable of curing all manner of illness and ailments, while others could tell a person’s fate or fortune by reading the lifelines in the palm of their hand.
One of the very first Irish stories that my mother told me as a child being brought up in West Yorkshire, England after the Forde family had migrated across the Irish Sea from County Waterford in the mid-1940s was of the ‘specialness’ of my own birth. As an established published author in later life, I would elaborate upon my own story in my last published novel entitled, ‘The Postman Always Knocks Twice’. This book is available in E-book format or hard copy from amazon.com
with all profits from its sale going to charitable causes, as I did with the previous £200,000 book-sale profits given to charity between 1990-2003.
My mother’ story went as follows:
One day, during the early months of 1942 in the village of Portlaw, County Waterford, my mother heard a knock at the door of my grandparent’s house and opened it to a Romany traveller who was standing there with a basket of wooden pegs she was selling. Now, all Irish people believe that if ever they allow a visiting gypsy to one’s home to go away empty-handed, they will be doomed to seven years of bad luck because of 'the gypsy curse'. So, my mother bought a few wooden pegs she did not require.
Then, the traveller said to my mother, “For a silver sixpence, missus, I can tell you about the child you are carrying”. My mother’s pregnancy was known only to herself at the time, as she had only learned of it a few days earlier and had not yet informed her parents or anyone else. Also, being a mere two month’s pregnant with myself (and not yet showing by any increased size of her belly) she was instantly intrigued at the gypsy's insight and gave her visitor a six-penny piece from her purse which she could ill afford to spend. The peg-selling gypsy looked at the lifelines on my mother’s palm and said, “The child you are having will be a ‘special’ child, missus”.
Having captured my mother's interest, and having got a silver sixpence out of my mother in exchange for her prophesy, the traveller did not want to miss the opportunity of obtaining more money. So she offered to read my mother's hand and tell her more if my mother placed in her visitor's hand another and larger silver coin. Deeply intrigued, my mother asked, “And will my baby be a boy or a girl?” The gypsy indicated that for one shilling, she would tell my mother about the child she was expecting, as well as all the other children that she would also give birth to. Being already in for a sixpence, my mother emptied her purse and gave the Romany traveller her last shilling to reveal more.
The Romany traveller said, “The child you are having, missus, will be a ‘special’ child. It will be a boy and your son will be the firstborn of seven children you will have. As you were also the firstborn of seven children (a fact that was true, including a stillborn sister) and are a mother who will also give birth to seven children, your son will be a ‘special’ child”. With this having been prophesised, the Romany traveller left saying, “Bless all in this house".
Seven months later I was born in my grandparent’s house at 14, William’s Street, Portlaw, County Waterford. My mother told me that it was no mere coincidence that the house was numbered 14 (to indicate the significance of being the oldest of seven who would give birth to seven) as 7+7= 14. My mum also pointed out that even my Christian name was symbolically special. I was baptised with the Christian name of my maternal grandfather, William, and even my father’s closest brother was called Billy. She also said that it was fitting I should bear the very same name as the street where I was born!
Every day of my childhood until my years of adulthood, never one day would be allowed to pass by when my mother did not tell me that I was a ‘special’ child. I now know that every mother probably thinks of her firstborn as being a ‘special’ child, but for me during my childhood years, my mother’s unshakable belief in the truth of my ‘specialness’ made me believe in the gypsy’s prophesy also.
Everything unusual which happened to me thereafter happened in my mother’s mind because I was ‘special’. When, at the age of eleven years I got run over by a large vehicle and suffered massive and multiple life-threatening injuries which included a damaged spine, a crushed chest, and badly mangled legs, the doctors said I would die. When I did not, my mother had no doubt as to why. It was because ‘I was special’. When I pulled through the worse of my multiple injuries, and my damaged spine then led the doctors to say that I would never walk again, and I did three years later, my mother believed that was also because ‘I was special’. After living through my childhood and growing into manhood being told every day by a mother who loved me that ‘I was special’, it was only natural that I too came to believe that I was a ‘special’ person.
So, I became a boy who grew up being told and believing he had been born ‘special. I became a person accomplishing ‘special’ things and even learning to do very ordinary things in the most ‘special’ of ways. My ‘specialness’ had been conferred on me by a peg-selling gypsy for the price of a sixpenny piece and was confirmed to me every day of my life thereafter by my loving mother, and substantiated by my subsequent life experiences. For the first twenty-five years of my life, I grew up believing that ‘I was special’ and acting in ‘special ways’. I then spent the following fifty-two years of my life discovering and telling every other person whom I came into contact with that ‘they are also special’.
It is strange how long a superstition can live in the heart of an Irish person once the seed of credibility has been sewn. Even in adult life, whenever a traveller came to my door selling some product, I could never send them away empty-handed. Indeed, one such female gypsy traveller came to my home in Mirfield one Christmas Eve and I gave her a few pounds. Every Christmas Eve for the following seven years, she would return for her few pounds Christmas present. Indeed, when she stopped coming, for weeks afterward I worried about what had happened to her.
Years later, after I married my wife, Sheila, and I then lived in Haworth, whenever we walked down Main Street, we would see usually see a Romanian woman in her 50s selling copies of the ‘Big Issue’ magazine by the church steps. In my mind’s eye, she looked like the travelling gypsy who used to visit my Mirfield home on a Christmas Eve many years earlier. Each time I see this ‘Big Issue’ seller in Haworth’s Main Street, I will give her a few pounds and we also buy a hot coffee from the café where we get our breakfast and take it across to her. Anita is her name, and Romania is the country she came from before settling in West Yorkshire.
Love and peace Bill xxx