An ancient song lives on

I wonder how many readers know the long, storied history of the folk ballad that began life in the 18th century as ‘The Unfortunate Rake’?  Here’s an upbeat, foot-tapping version by Old Blind Dogs, a Scottish folk group, who renamed it ‘The Pills Of White Mercury’.  (The lyrics may be viewed here.)

The music is better known to US audiences in its cowboy form as ‘Streets of Laredo‘.  A scholarly collection of 20 variations on the tune gives this information about it (link is to an Adobe Acrobat document in .PDF format).

The Unfortunate Rake:  A Study in the Evolution of a Ballad

The oldest text we can find for any member of the “Rake” cycle of songs was not published until 1909, though it had been collected in 1848 in County Cork, Ireland, from a singer who had learned it in Dublin in 1790. The singer, according to Patrick W. Joyce, could remember only a single chorus, calling it “My Jewel, My Joy”.

“My jewel, my joy, don’t trouble me with the drum,
Sound the dead march as my corpse goes along
And over my body throw handfuls of laurel,
And let them all know that I’m going to my rest.”

The song may well have been in tradition for a long time before the singer learned it, but any attempt to date it earlier is pure conjecture.

The earliest complete texts appear to be those printed on various 19th century broadsides from England and Ireland … The distinguishing feature of these texts is the military funeral requested by the dying young man, a feature found in all versions and variant forms of the “Rake” ballads.  It appears safe to deduce from this factor, that the dying young man, though not described specifically as such, was a member of one of the military forces. Later texts reported from tradition seem to bear this out, for specific mention is made in several of them to “The Young Trooper” (Soldier) or “The Young Sailor” cut down in his prime … The early broadside texts are rather explicit in their mentioning the cause of the young man’s death — some venereal disease. The situation is stated rather clearly:

“Had she but told me when she disordered me,
Had she but told me of it in time,
I might have got salts and pills of white mercury,
But now I’m cut down in the height of my prime.”

Later texts have rarely been as frank; usually the cause of death is not mentioned, or have been rationalized to less degrading, but more violent, forms of death.

Somewhere along the chain of oral transmission (probably during the 19th century), some singer reversed the sexes of the main characters. The dying person is a “Young Girl Cut Down In Her Prime”, and her malefactor is a young man … In this form, the ballad has been reported vith greater frequency than any other, excepting of course, for the later cowboy adaptations.

Whereas the earlier forms of the “Rake” ballad discussed above have all been reported rather frequently from Old World sources, only variant forms of “The Bad Girl’s Lament” have been reported in the New World.  Undoubtedly, however, the other forms were also known at one time, but vere crowded out of the picture by the popularity of a western recension of the “Rake” theme. It appears impossible at this late date to trace the line of descent of Cowboy variants;  we can only guess that some frontiersman brought a version of either the older “Rake” ballad, or its sister mutation, “The Bad Girl’s Lament”, to the West where it was readily adapted to the frontier situation … Though never specifically stated, we may deduce that the cowboy meets his violent end as a result of drinking and gambling which lead to an argument over cheating at cards, and his eventual death from ‘lead-poisoning’.

There’s more at the link.  The collection may be purchased from the Smithsonian.

Here’s a soldierly rendition in classically slow, sad form by Steeleye Span, which they titled ‘When I Was On Horseback’.  (The lyrics are here.)

For American readers, here’s the late, great Johnny Cash singing the local version, ‘Streets of Laredo‘.

Finally, here’s one of the most recent variations:  Eric Bogle‘s anti-war song ‘No Man’s Land‘ (also known as ‘The Green Fields of France’ or ‘Willie McBride’), which adapts the classic tune and adds completely new words.  I like it very much.

The history of the tune and its variations makes a fascinating study, which well repays your time and attention if you’re into that sort of thing.



  1. I've been in love with Maddy Prior since 1973. I can (and have) cruised the interstate for days listening to nothing but Steeleye Span, Silly Sisters, et. al.
    First heard The Green Fields of France in an Irish Bar (where else?) on Armistice Day in the mid-80s. Never made the connection to 'Laredo'. Thanks for the article and links. Blow the rest of my day.

  2. Thanks. If you're into "rake" songs, here is an entire blog that was devoted (mostly) to the song "St. James Infirmary."

  3. Somehow, I am not surprised to find you know of Steeleye Span.

    I grew up with the stuff, as it's one of my father's favorite bands, and I now have most of their discography in my iTunes myself. I gotta be in a certain mood for it, but when I am, nothing else will do.

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