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The Travelling People
First transmitted on
17 April 1964

Broadcast on 17 April 1964, the final radio ballad took as its subject the gypsy and tinker population of Britain. The bulk of the recording fell to MacColl and Seeger, who were already familiar with traveller families from earlier collecting sessions. They spent almost a month in tents, kitchens and caravans, at horse fairs and around campfires in Glasgow, Blairgowrie, Montrose and Aberdeen, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Birmingham, London, Hampshire and Dorset. The travellers were natural subjects with their rich folk life, songs, legends and inborn gift for storytelling; they were also a fascinating social study, maintaining fierce pride and independence in the face of constant hostility and persecution.

Despite tighter budgets and production schedules, the team's travels yielded over 300 hours of interviews with people talking about "what it means to be a tenth-rate citizen in a civilised land". They successfully amalgamated ideas and innovations generated during previous Ballad productions and, for the first time, brought field singers into the studio rather than using singers from the folk revival. Thus the likes of Belle and Sheila Stewart of Blairgowrie, Elisabeth and Jane Stewart of Fetterangus and Joe Heaney of Connemara came to the attention of a wider audience and joined the ranks of revered source singers and carriers of the tradition.

The storytelling tradition of the travellers overlapped with MacColl's own musical journey and several of the songs he wrote for the programme took on a life of their own; The Moving On Song quickly entered the repertoire of many folk singers soon after transmission. Not long after this final Ballad went out the BBC closed the unit and attempts to keep the form alive were unsuccessful, despite New Statesman critic Francis Newton dubbing them "the most valuable products of the British folk-music movement".


What did you think of the Radio Ballad extract? Do you know anyone from the travelling community or have you spent time on the road yourself? Send us your comments.

Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.

Read what others have said

Eleanor Tweedie, Nottingham
This programme does more to explain the experience of travellers at that time than anything else I can imagine. It saddens me to think how little the treatment of Travellers has changed since these recordings were made, and that what changes there are have been for the worse. I remember hearing this on the radio some time in the late 60s, and it made a great impression, as did Singing the Fishing. Another was Close the Coalhouse Door,which was about mining. I think it was made by a different company, but had a similar format with songs etc. I agree with the other posters on this site, please broadcast the original ballads in full. They really do deserve a wider audience.

Leon Greenwell - Claregate, Wolverhampton
I thought the programme was marvellous - I'm still hoping to find a 9-Spined Stickleback, myself; my mate built a caravan out of bits of twigs, but the Old Bill dragged him off the Oxford by-pass

John Moe, Indiana USA
I love the music, but I'd appreciate having it so arranged that I can hear the songs without the commentary when desired. I like to save them but it is difficult when the music is in the midst of the commentary. Thaks so much for all of it!

Nico Pollen London
the 'Travelling People' radio ballad was brilliant - can I hear the whole programme some time. I've not had very much contact with travelling People of any kind, but we used to get t'traditional' gypsies around from time to time when I was a child, and I was brought up to see people who were differen in appearance or way of life as a good thing. I was shy to get to know these strange grownups, so I didn't get to know them, but to this day I cannot understand the hysterical hatred they seem to provoke in 'settled' people. I have worked with homeless people in my time, and, of course, some are difficult anfd unpleasant, especially when they're using drink or drugs, but it seems downright stupid to hate them, as many people do

Never mind the new Radio Ballads, although if they are half as good as the first they will be damn good, lets have the old ones repeated in full. Having listened again to the extracts it brings home to me just how much young people are unaware of the background of the fishers, miners, travelling people and the like. They only know them through the sound bites of the politicians and the media. They are unaware of the real people, the substance, the flesh, behind the facade that is presented to them today.


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