Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

'Probably the Most Widely Known Gipsy for Many a Mile Around': The Life and Musical Activity of Thomas Boswell, Aka Thomas 'Gypsy' Lewis (1838-1910)

Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

'Probably the Most Widely Known Gipsy for Many a Mile Around': The Life and Musical Activity of Thomas Boswell, Aka Thomas 'Gypsy' Lewis (1838-1910)

Article excerpt

It seems to be stating the obvious, but popular pre-twentieth-century cultural forms never existed in a vacuum and cannot be understood fully unless the lives of those who maintained and transmitted such artefacts are explored and presented in the greatest possible detail. To achieve this end the historian needs to mine the widest range of sources available. The present piece forms a component in an informal series of analytical biographical studies of individual tradition bearers active during the nineteenth century. (1) The life experiences of a musician belonging to the extensive itinerant Romany community travelling a route across north Berkshire and Wiltshire are here laid bare and examined.

The second half of the nineteenth century is a particularly important period for the study of popular cultural forms, especially those once held dear by the rural population. Reduced to the most simplistic historical assessment, the cultural mainstream that encompassed the musical and dance forms at the root of this study had by this date been in existence for at least two centuries. Fluctuations in the popularity, and hence maintenance, of such forms were frequent and external influences were many. But at the core, these forms, and attitudes towards them, remained relatively stable and consistent. An observer transplanted from 1660 to 1860 would have had little trouble identifying familiar tune and dance types. Our putative time-traveller would still have found longways country dances being performed on feast days, even if some of the choreographic details and tunes used as accompaniments had altered somewhat over time and space. Morris dances, in the south midlands at any rate, consisting of figures clearly recognizable from those published by John Playford two centuries earlier, continued to be performed at Whitsuntide, the season deemed most appropriate by community consensus in both eras. Popular dance tunes retained the same structural form and rhythms, even after the instrumental combination of tabor drum and three-hole pipe had been widely supplanted during the decades around 1800 by fiddle and tambourine, this latter requiring a second performer and thereby causing a potential reduction in individual remuneration for services rendered.

By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, however, this common stock was being eroded at an increasingly rapid rate. So much so, in fact, that by the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 it survived only in vestigial form, having been all but completely rejected by the increasingly educated, sophisticated, and mobile generations of men and women born after I860 or so. As the new century dawned, merely a handful of morris dance sides remained in performance in the south midland counties, and their appearances were patchy and sporadic. At Abingdon, Berkshire, for example, during the three years leading up to 1900 the local newspaper reported successively: "There is no Mayor-choosing or Morris-dancing, and consequently less hilarity' (1898); 'the custom of Morris dancing, an institution long peculiar to Ock-street, was in part revived' (1899); and 'it must have required an effort to get up a team' (1900). (2) The dancing booth, a canvas tent with wooden flooring on which longways country dances had been enthusiastically performed across almost the entire southern half of the country for the better part of a century, vanished completely. As the newspaper correspondent reporting on St Giles's Fair, Oxford, in early September 1905 recorded it: "The old-fashioned dancing booth, with fiddle and drum, which formerly occupied this position, has entirely disappeared from the fair.' (3) Where they survived at all, occasions for performance such as fairs and village feast days, which had provided employment opportunities for itinerant musicians over the course of several centuries, had been transformed physically almost out of all recognition. Joseph Cartwright, an Oxfordshire fiddler born in 1841, told George Butterworth in 1912 how he, 'used to play dances of all kinds, including Waltzes[,] & Morris dances for the Bucknell men. …

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