"The Unfortunate Rake" is a song first known from the late 18th century which is notable in large measure for its truly massive number of derivatives. It may be one of the most widely-transmitted songs in the pre-revival Anglophone folk repertoire, and at least two well-known songs with completely different melodies appear to be derived from it also. Variants appear not only in English, Scottish, and American folk music, but in country, jazz, and punk versions as well. It is, in other words, one of the world's great folksong families.
The plot of "The Unfortunate Rake" is fairly simple. The singer meets a man (usually an "old comrade" but sometimes a stranger) who is dying; the latter character then spends the rest of the song narrating what happened to bring him to this point, then makes requests about his funeral arrangements.
In the earliest versions, the cause of death is merely hinted at: "I asked him what ailed him, I asked him what failed him / I asked him the cause of all his complaint / 'Twas all on account of some handsome young woman / 'Tis she that has caused me to weep and lament." But it's elaborated on just slightly, so that the savvy listener of the eighteenth century knew the whole story: "And had she but told me before she disordered me / Had she but told me of it in time / I might have got pills and salts of white mercury / Now I'm a young man cut down in my prime." This lyric is crystal clear if you have a passing knowledge of medicine as it was in that era - "white mercury" is mercury (II) chloride, a white crystalline salt historically used to disinfect wounds and for one other medical purpose: the treatment of syphilis. To the listener armed with this knowledge, the man's narration about how his womanizing ways have led to his death become crystal clear. But the times were not good ones for publishing lyrics that spell out the fact that the song is about STIs. (Neither is it appropriate for all modern audiences; lately I sang an Unfortunate Rake variant in the presence of a child who was unclear on what was being hinted at, so I told her the man in the song was very sick and was thinking back on his life before dying. I figured if she was ready for the full details, her parents were right there and could fill in the gaps.)
Some old versions of the song get a little more graphic. Old Blind Dogs have recorded a wonderful cover of a version of the lyrics from the early twentieth century under the title "Pills of White Mercury," in which the man's symptoms are described in detail. Another line even makes the connection between the man's status as a rakish wastrel and his death more explicit, quoting a young woman as saying of him, "Now for his sins his poor body must pay."
Brought to America in the early 1800s, the song took a different turn. A rewrite of the lyrics that focused on the setting of the action being "St. James Infirmary", bearing that as its title, didn't scan to the old melody and so sprouted a new one which later became a jazz standard, covered by such people as Louis Armstrong. It's also been suggested that the separate American folk song "House of the Rising Sun" was inspired by (albeit not derived directly from) a group of variants where the man tells about his lover dying instead of himself. Relative to such a version, "House of the Rising Sun" has had the gender flipped - in most versions its narrator is a woman telling about how her male lover's life has been ruined by his sinful ways. But the connection is far from clear.
But far better known is how the song was adapted to frontier life: the dying man is now a "young cowboy," his sinful life has gotten him into trouble that results in his being shot in the chest rather than dying of a disease, and the title is usually given as "Streets of Laredo." Aside from "Home on the Range," it might just be the most commonly-recognized song of the American west.
"Streets of Laredo" itself has spawned many variants. Pete Seeger used it as the basis for an anti-discrimination anthem entitled "The Ballad of Sherman Wu," based on the true story of a college student who couldn't pledge Psi Upsilon because of his race. The Kingston Trio latched onto the line in most versions of the words where the two characters introduce themselves with one saying something like "I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy" and wrote "Laredo?" More seriously, some of the cowboy's requests for his death not found in most older versions (in particular "So beat the drum slowly and sound the fife lowly") are echoed prominently in "The Trooper Cut Down in His Prime", an English anti-war song in the "Rake" family; this suggests some connection between this version and the American cowboy song. Those same lines (with that particular part set to a tune which follows the contours of the "Rake" melody, albeit imprecisely) feature in the chorus of Eric Bogle's song "No Man's Land," which muses on the First World War as a vehicle for considering the futility of war in general ("The suffering and the sorrow, the glory and the shame / The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain / For Willie Mcbride, it's all happened again / And again, and again, and again, and again"). Bogle's song has often been mistaken for traditional and transmitted under the title "Green Fields of France," thus bringing the song back into the oral tradition. From there, it's become associated somehow with Ireland, and has been picked up by bands with Irish roots - not all of them traditional; one of the best known recordings is the one by the Dropkick Murphys.
It seems there's something about this simple song of a dying man lamenting, repenting, and requesting a proper funeral that has grabbed audiences across more than two centuries that causes it to spread, to change to its new circumstances, and to inspire other songwriters. It's been about disease, the violence of frontier life, war, and racism. And as we'll see in my next post, its simple melody is even older, and connects it to an even broader family that may predate the "Unfortunate Rake" lyrics by over a century.