Cher's 'Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves': Why It's One of the 20th Century's Greatest Songs
Cher does not mask her dislike of “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves.” On her current tour, she sings a truncated, 90-second version of the 1971 hit, eliminating a verse and a chorus. “It was a song I recorded in, like, an hour,” she says dismissively. The producer, Snuff Garrett, hated to do more than two or three takes of a song. “With Snuffy, you had to crank out an album in a weekend,” she laughs.
But “Gypsys” isn’t just a highlight of Cher’s catalog -- it’s one of the most majestic pop hits ever made. A tale, recounted at breakneck speed, of sexual hypocrisy and consequences, with a bonus undertow of female and class consciousness. It’s voyeuristic like a pulp novel, exploitative like a Lifetime movie, and redeemed by the brash confidence Cher gives the narrator.
“I was born in the wagon of a traveling show” is a fantastic way to start a song, especially because Cher anticipates her entrance and trumpets a half-measure of words before hitting the downbeat on 'born.' The narrator is a proud, defiant 16-year-old daughter of a family that travels around the South in a medicine show, a popular touring entertainment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They cobble together a living – legally if they can, otherwise if they can’t. The women of the family dance for money (whether clothed or unclothed is left to your imagination) and provide the bulk of the income; the men peddle hogwash tonics they claim will cure your ailments, or preach the word of God for the sake of reward, not salvation. They’re carnies, borderline grifters, but also the model of an immigrant family: hard-working, unified, and adaptable.
Plus they’re brown-skinned Romani (the non-pejorative term for gypsies), which makes them outcasts. In the 600 or so years since they left India, Roma have been consistently persecuted, even sterilized. When the singer and her family go into town, they’re shunned or insulted: “We hear it from the people of the town, they call us gypsies, tramps, and thieves.” This is not the romantic “tramp” of a Springsteen song, but someone at risk of being strung up on a high tree while the sheriff takes a nap.
And yet, the locals who scorn them are also hypocrites who lust for what the family is selling. “Every night all the men would come around, and lay their money down,” Cher declares at the end of the chorus, and she’s clearly hinting at the possibility of prostitution.
In the 1970s, songwriters had to be cheeky about sex: the sexual revolution was underway, but radio stations (and the FCC) were decades behind. “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band, for instance, is a bland, chipper, brilliantly-disguised song about screwing in the middle of the day. The writer of “Gypsys,” Bob Stone, specialized in emotionally complex sour-side-of-sex sagas, including Bobby Vee’s “The Beauty and the Sweet Talk,” Liza Minnelli’s “Mr. Emery Won’t Be Home,” and Jackie DeShannon’s wonderful, prim, shaken-up “A Proper Girl” about losing your boy to a promiscuous girl. Stone’s first draft of Cher’s song was called “Gypsys and White Trash.” Snuff Garrett ordered him to make the lyric more subtle, but the subtext remained in place.
The song feels urgent partially because of the breakneck pace: the band plays at 171 beats per minute. (For comparison, the Ramones’ “Beat On the Brat” is 157 BPM, and Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” is 164.) When she reaches the chorus, Cher suddenly sings way in front of the beat, an expression of anxiety. The lavish arrangement feels vaguely “ethnic” or “exotic,” thanks to mandolin and calliope, and also threatening, due to the irregular meters and some shreds of dissonance. It has the grandeur of a Phil Spector production, but with B-movie horror mixed in to it.
Producer Snuff Garrett, a ninth-grade dropout from Texas and a canny music-biz lifer, sometimes motivated musicians while recording by taking out his billfold and ostentatiously sniffing his wad of cash. He produced, among a lot of dreck, two pieces of grand, exploitative schlock: “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves,” and in 1973, Vicki Lawrence’s “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia,” the messed-up story of a small-town woman who lets her brother hang for a murder she committed. Garrett first offered the song to Cher; Sonny Bono, still in charge of her career even though their marriage was on the rocks, turned it down, because he thought Southern music fans would be offended.
In the second verse of “Gypsys,” the one Cher doesn’t sing in concert, her family generously gives a ride to 21-year-old boy while they travel from Mobile to Memphis. In the course of the trip, the boy seduces the singer. Cher never says this explicitly. Instead, after a dramatic two beat vocal pause, she sings, “Papa woulda shot him if he knew what he’d done.”
In a country song, a deflowered singer would be apologetic or sorrowful. But Cher, savoring freedom and rebellion (Roma prize virginity in girls), delivers the line with a chilling delight. Her response to her statutory rape is almost a brag – however unwisely, she feels empowered. The way Cher phrases “Papa woulda shot him” makes it one of the most lurid and sexy lines in pop music, merely through implication.
Jumping ahead three months in the third verse, the girl is pregnant – or, in Stone’s euphemism, is “a gal in trouble.” The impregnating reprobate has vanished, after grifting the grifters. The last verse jumps ahead another, let’s say, year, and repeats the first verse, but with pronouns changed: the younger generation has supplanted the older one, and the singer, with a young daughter in tow (“She was born in the wagon of a traveling show”) is now trading her sexuality for coin. Without an education, having succumbed to the flattery of an outsider, and obligated to a closed community, she has no hope of social improvement. Life is a carousel we can’t exit. In less than three minutes, the song demonstrates how poverty is perpetuated in working-class families.
Stone packs the song with plot, detail, and emotional complexity, and Cher belts it with a punk-ish defiance. As a song about prejudice, poverty, and the consequences of pregnancy for working-class women, “Gypsys” has aged beautifully. Please, Cher, sing the whole thing in concert. If you have to make your shows shorter, cut out a verse or two from “Dark Lady” instead.