‘I haven’t counted how many songs I sing; you have!’
She might be a great-grandmother in her mid-eighties, but Freda Black has a sharp wit and a cheeky nature, which is belied by her demure appearance. Though she now calls her house in Headley, Hampshire ‘home’, Freda was born in a horse-drawn caravan parked up in a Somerset field near Chew Magna.
It was Christmas Day, the ‘same hour as the Lord were born’, and Freda’s mother told her that she was brought presents by the villagers, while the local vicar organised five choirboys to sing round the caravan to welcome the new-born baby.
The family roamed freely across England, from the south Midlands – Bunker’s Hill in Kidlington, and Oxhill, Warwickshire – right down through Somerset and Devon. Their life was one very much out of doors and as one of eight children – seven girls, one boy – Freda had plenty of company to explore their natural, ever-changing playground.
The family had a wagon in which the smallest children would sleep in bunks while their parents had the top bed. Freda remembers “a square tent, a proper Gypsy one, green with the flaps at the front”, which housed a wooden floor and stove. The oldest girls would sleep there.
Freda’s parents were versatile in their occupations. Occasionally they would join relatives in running fairs or circuses, and much of their work was seasonal, dependent on the produce of the land. Freda remembers joining her mother in picking hops, wild flowers and strawberries, as well as cutting willow, or ‘withy’, to make baskets and bundles of palms for Palm Sunday. Her mother would also sell ‘swag’, the laces and brooches she collected. Freda’s mother was also an excellent cook, using the range in her wagon to produce the family meals. Freda remembers enormous steak and kidney puddings, which were boiled on the stove in the open air.
Freda’s father, Leonard Smith, was well known in the Traveller communities for being a ‘fighting man’. “My dad fought Dixie Brown and beat him; his name is in the books now. They used to fight, fight fair, shake hands, then go and have a pint,” Freda says.
She recalls men calling by their caravan just to challenge her father to a fight. “A boy arrived with boxing gloves once and said to my dad, “Have you got a boy to fight, Len?”
“‘No, but I’ve a girl,’ he said and he put boxing gloves on me. One hit and I made him cry!”
Freda’s family would entertain themselves most evenings with singing, music, dance and storytelling around the campfire. When their family met up with other travelling families or with relatives, campfire sessions could last all night. Freda’s grandfather was an accomplished step dancer and continued to ‘dance on the board’ well into his nineties.
Later, Freda married a Traveller and become a mother to nine children herself. She and her husband continued to live on the road and to sing and play music in the evenings. Her husband played the accordion and he and his father knew a wealth of Irish songs since serving in the armed forces in Ireland. Often, when her husband nipped to the pub in the evening, his father would stay with Freda and they would spend the evening sharing songs.
When it became more difficult to travel as freely as their parents and grandparents had, they reluctantly took up residence in a house. Freda began selling antiques from door to door, mixing quite regularly with ‘the gorgies’, or settled people.
Freda has since made sure that she has continued telling the stories and singing the songs she learned from her parents and grandparents, and her husband’s family. She still follows her mother’s recipes, passing them on to her children and grandchildren, and swears that most common ailments can be treated with the plants and herbs we find on our doorsteps.
Until the Song Collectors Collective conference in January 2013, Freda had never sung in public and never even for an audience. In fact, two of her daughters, Freda Bell and Kathleen, hadn’t realised how gifted and knowledgeable a singer their mother truly is, and have since begun to learn some of her repertoire ensuring that it stays alive within the family, becoming another generation of tradition bearers.