Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Cher - Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves (1971/ No. 4/ 13 weeks/ MCA)


DAUGHTER: The fair has come to town, Mummy! Can I go? Can I go? Pleeease! There'll be dodgems and a helter skelter and a wheel and shooting galleries and a ghost train and candy floss and toffee apples and everything! Let me go there! Pleeease!

MOTHER: Well, alright dear, but your not to go on your own, do you hear me? I'll take you on Saturday, but we'll have to leave before it gets dark.

(to FATHER): Have you heard, darling? The fair's come back!

FATHER: Oh God! Is it that time again? We must remember to lock up very carefully for the next few days. At least she's not a teenager yet.

Although this is a song about a "travelin' show", not a fairground per se, all of the fears and excitement raised by the descent of carnival folk upon your town are evoked by Cher here. She tells us the story from the inside, as an itinerant child;

Gypsies! Tramps! And Thieves!
We'd hear it from the people of the town...
They'd call us -
Gypsies! Tramps! And Thieves!

Her tone of voice is particularly interesting when she tells us this. You might expect her to be upset and angry about facing all this mistrust and prejudice as a girl. Instead, there's a flat note of resignation, acceptance that this is just how things are. This tone makes the story of the song feel more authentic, and also puts the listener on their guard - You're aware that something bad might happen to this girl.

The mean townsfolk are, of course, hypocrites. It is from this reversal, the showpeople being the honest victims, that the drama of the song derives;

But every night all the men would come around
And lay their money down

Lay their money down for what, exactly? Cher tells us about her parents;

I was born in tha wagon of a travelin' show.
My mama used ta dance for the money they'd throw
Papa would do whatever he could
Preach a little gospel...
Sell a couple bottles of Doctor Good

Note how there's a bar of woozy drunken tinkling after "Doctor Good", to evoke the groggy effect of drinking the moonshine. The song's arrangement is built upon a lot of rinky-tink percussion, harmonica, xylophones, tambourines, that sort of thing, to create an authentic travelin 'show mood of a pitch being struck. (It also sounds a bit like the theme to 'Ski Sunday' at times, but that's not an overbearing problem)

The misfortune that befalls the protagonist is a story that is economically told;

Picked up a boy just south of Mobile
Gave him a ride, filled him with a hot meal
I was sixteen, he was twenty-one
Rode with us to Memphis
And papa woulda shot him if he knew what he'd done

I never had schoolin' but he taught me well
With his smooth southern style
Three months later, I'm a gal in trouble
And I haven't seen him for a while...
I haven't seen him for a while...

Nobody could hear this single and assume that this silver-tongued and shifty young Southern man was going to come back... The end of the song echoes the beginning, only now the singer is dancing for the money they throw, to support her daughter, another baby "born in the wagon of a travelin' show", the aged grandfather now having to pitch and hustle to support another generation of children.

I sometimes think that this is the only Cher song that I've heard where her part Native American ethnicity informs her performance, if only subliminally: The story of a group of people who are patronised as being colourful, but backward and uncivilized, who end up getting exploited. Its certainly a song about being a victim, but also, through Cher's interpretation, a song about accepting your lot.

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