What is Van Morrison to do? The Irish contrarian musical titan has constructed a body of work that is populated by Gypsies. But “Gypsies” is not politically correct anymore. Anyway, that’s the consensus of entomologists who recently flushed the term “Gypsy Moths” from its epistemology, four decades after my friend Joey Skaggs first demonstrated against its racist usage.
Last week the New York Times reported on this development in an exhausting piece that nevertheless failed to reference their 1982 coverage of the Skaggs’ protest in which the Times ironically perpetuated scurrilous Gypsy stereotypes in an ironical sort of way that was not lost on ironists.
For any ignoramuses reading this, GYPsy is etymologically derived from eGYPtian because our medieval Earthling forebears were just as moronic as me. We now know that Gypsies came from the Punjab and their dialects are related to Sanskrit. But Gypsies didn’t change the name of their premier trans-national congress until 1971 when they substituted the word “Roma.” And no, they did not adopt Dean Martin’s “Arrivederci Roma” as their trans-national anthem. By the way, New Jersey did not rescind their law which made it legal to shoot Gypsies until 1998. Hopefully Romas will now be covered too. And yet, through it all, some Romas still prefer to be called Gypsies. Life is so damn complicated.
So where does that leave us? With Van Morrison, of course. He has been in the news lately because of his staunch resistance to COVID lockdowns at the height of the pandemic in Ireland and England that prevented him and Eric Clapton from performing anti-COVID lockdown songs in spaces that had been locked down. I can only imagine his reaction when he reads that he should be referring to Gypsies as Romas. But hey, Van, chill. Let’s see what the results are first:
“I want to rock your Roma soul” – Into the Mystic
“Barefoot Roma players ‘round the campfire sing and play” – Caravan
“La la la da da da da daaa, Roma!” – Gypsy
“And the Romas rode with their hearts on fire, they say ‘we love to wander’” – Streets of Arklow
“Roma Robin, Sweet Emma Rose, tell me everything I need to know” – Caravan
“Roma Queen, rave on right beneath the silver moon, don’t stop your carburetor” – Gypsy Queen
“Rom–Rom–Rom, Roma, Roma in my soul, soul, soul. R–R–Roma” – Gypsy in My Soul
Searching for indications that The Belfast Cowboy might be able to handle these changes with grace, I came across his album, Latest Recording Project Volume 1, released in May, on which Van plays some scintillating sax when not railing against everyone and everything. One reviewer, astonished by its pervasive anti-Semitism, wrote: “Now we know what the Protocols of the Elders of Zion would sound like with saxophone accompaniment.” Thankfully there were no references to Gypsy Moths.
Full Disclosure: After Protestant Morrison, idol of the North, recorded an album of Irish songs with the Catholic Chieftains of the South in 1987 at the height of The Troubles, it seemed to me he had cast himself as an extraordinary peace maker. In fact, his “Days Like This” single became the official anthem of the peace movement in Northern Ireland. And so I proudly made my online avatar a thumbnail pic of Van The Man with his band-mate Pee Wee Ellis (co-author with James Brown, of “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”). I once made a pilgrimage to Hyndford Street, Cyprus Avenue, Orangefield and so many other places of his Belfast youth which Van has written about so wonderfully for decades, free of rancor or grievance, like so many of the Irish poets, North and South, who regularly bring me to tears (not a huge accomplishment when it comes to me, I must admit).
Last August, to celebrate Morrison’s 75th birthday, Michael Higgins, the President of the Republic of Ireland, recorded his spoken-word rendition of Van’s Rave on, John Dunne. Higgins is a poet in his own write…er…sorry, but I momentarily channeled my favorite Liverpudlian, the Irishman John Lennon…I meant right, not write and certainly not Enright, although our family crest does read, translating from the Gaelic here, “When you’re right, you’re right, but when you’re always right, you’re an Enright.” Er… where am I? Oh yeah, bullet-riddled 2021.
But all is not lost. I think The Belfast Cowboy can be rehabilitated as well. Perhaps the Nazis’ genocide of European Romas alongside the Jews can be used as a teaching moment about anti-Semitism for Van, you know, building off his fondness for Gypsies and such. Incidentally, if you ever find yourself searching for a a compendium of English words that are rarely seen in print, I recommend this monograph: Transpopular Spaces: Gypsy Imageries in the Work of Van Morrison.
BONUS Roma COVERAGE!
There are plenty of other song publishers and labels whose back catalogues will need some judicious editing and over-dubbing to keep those royalties flowing. Here are a few that come to mind, but given some of these lines, I don’t think substituting Roma will help much:
“Roma, oh tell me, what is in your crystal ball?” – The Gypsy Cried – Lou Christie
“I took my troubles down to Madame Rue, you know that Roma with the gold-capped tooth” – Love Potion Number 9 – The Clovers and The Searchers
“Her eyes were like a cat in the dark that hypnotized me with love. She was a Roma woman” – Gypsy Woman – The Impressions
“And where, where is my Roma wife tonight?” – The Gypsy’s Wife – Leonard Cohen
“Went to see the Roma, living in a big hotel” – Went to See the Gypsy – Bob Dylan (more on this in the images below – was Elvis a Roma?!? Or was Dylan being, you know, poetic, like Van)
“The Roma of a strange and distant time, travelling in panic, all directions blind” – Gypsy – The Moody Blues
“To the Roma that remains, her face says freedom” – Gypsy – Fleetwood Mac
“She held me, to her bosom, just a boy of seventeen, I recall a Roma woman” – I Recall a Gypsy Woman – Don Williams, Waylon Jennings, BJ Thomas, etc.
Of course, the old folk songs will have to change now too: “The Roma Rover,” “The Raggle-Taggle Roma Boy,” “Roma Lou,” “Roma Davy,” to name a few.
But there’s one song that might need enhanced rehabilitation. In fact, it should only be re-released under super-secret double probation. Back in 1971 when Bob Stone composed it for Cher (aka Cherilyn Sarkisian La Piere Bono Allman), he entitled it, “Gypsies, Tramps & White Trash.” But White Trash apparently had a stronger lobby than Romas and Tramps back then.
Life is so damn unfair.