Tone matters greatly. I have long been familiar with Steeleye Span’s “Black Jack Davy,” the story of a wealthy 18th C woman who leaves her husband and runs away with a poor gypsy. Listen a bit, even if you aren’t a fan of Steeleye.
I knew that there were related versions – Gypsy Davy, Gipsie Laddie, Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, and that these tended to be folkier. I guessed it must be in Child’s Ballads, and likely had some obscurer versions.
Had I but thought it through. There are dozens of versions, Scots, Borderer, Scots-Irish, Irish. In some, it is a daughter that runs off from a lord; in others, the gypsy does turn out to be wealthy after all. Of course it crossed the water and came to Appalachia, taking on American versions and names: Harrison Brady, and When Carnal came to Arkansas. There weren’t any gypsies in America then, or darned few, so the reference had to be changed to some more general traveling romantic figure.
And I never connected it to this well-known song at all, because the tone is so different. Only when I specifically listened for it could I tell that the tunes are similar, the rhythm very similar.
Back in my folkie days, BTW, the running joke about anyone claiming to be big was “well, he had a few beers and sang with Tommy Makem” because everyone had had a few beers and sung with Tommy Makem. When my younger brother got married, I stopped using the joke, as his wife was the best friend of Tommy Makem’s daughter.
The migration to the New World by the Scots-Irish and Borderers in the mid-18th C gives us an opportunity to observe what happens to folk songs left on their own, as there is no possible contact between the tunes and lyrics over 200 years. John Jacob Niles, the folksong collector they named the UK American Music Center after, compared the variants between the Appalachian songs and the Child Ballads in his Ballad Book in the early 60’s.
This theme of the wealthy woman running off with a poor man must have struck something deep in the psyche, as it not only shows up in these 80 versions of Child 200, but in The Royal Forester, Lady Diamond, and heck, even “Uptown Girl” has it. Princesses kissing frogs has some similarity. Orpheus and Eurydice. So – did it actually happen that often (the running off that is, not the frog-kissing), or is it a song that reflects the male fantasy/fear of this happening? It may represent milder and more common experiences of slumming or marrying down, made extreme for artistic reasons, or for warning. The versions Frozen Charlotte and The Gypsy’s Warning would certainly suggest this is in play. Poor men pine after high-born women; rich men fear their wives or daughters will run off with some irresponsible charmer. Actually, it’s not entirely a masculine objection. Mothers also fear their daughters will run off with a handsome ne’er-do-well. Which versions did the women prefer? I imagine that is mixed, depending on whether it is oneself who might be running off versus a female relative considering it. Maddy Prior's comment at the beginning of the Black Jack Davy video sums this up nicely.
We have the mirror phenomenon of the poor woman and the better-off man in more modern music: Rag Doll, My Fair Lady, and the theme shows up in the story of Cinderella. But Cinderella is always hardworking and poor, not some charming fancy for boys to follow. Ah well, they have the Queen of the Faeries stories for that, I suppose. The story in reverse seems much less common in the Child Ballads, though we know that the action of lords and earls marrying dance-hall girls or milkmaids is recorded rather frequently in history.