> A.L. Lloyd > Songs > The Unfortunate Rake / St. James's Hospital
> Martin Carthy > Songs > Young Sailor Cut Down in His Prime
> Louis Killen > Songs > The Sailor Cut Down in His Prime

The Unfortunate Rake / St. James's Hospital / Young Sailor/Trooper Cut Down in His Prime

[ Roud 2 ; Laws Q26/B1 ; G/D 7:1404 ; Henry H680 ; Ballad Index LQ26 , LB01 ; Bodleian Roud 2 ; trad.]

This song is one in a family of many related songs. In 1960, Kenneth S. Goldstein published an album on the prestigious Folkways label with 20 variants, The Unfortunate Rake: A Study in the Evolution of a Ballad. His liner notes, available as a PDF scan at Smithsonian Global Sound, are an essential reading. The first four recordings on this album are British:

  1. A.L. Lloyd sang the Unfortunate Rake, accompanied by Alf Edwards on concertina, on his 1956 album English Street Songs.

  2. Ewan MacColl sang The Young Trooper Cut Down in His Prime on his albums Bless 'Em All and other British Army Songs (Riverside, 1957), Barrack Room Ballads (Topic, 1958), and Bundook Ballads (Topic, 1965). He commented in his sleeve notes:

    This ballad is probably the oldest of British barrack-room favourites. It exists in many variants, and is a standard song among all ‘sweats’. Veterans of World War I claim that the song originated in the first expeditionary force in France, but, of course, it is very much older, tracing back to the eighteenth century street ballad, The Unfortunate Rake. I recently heard a ninety year old actor, Norman Partridge, sing a version which he said was current with troops in the Boer War, and which varied hardly at all from the version included in this album, which was learned from Harry Cox, traditional singer from Norfolk.

    [The reference to Harry Cox seems to be a red herring. Cox's version is quite different, and MacColl's version is the one he collected from Harry Sladen in Openshaw in 1946 and which he included in his book The Singing Island (London: Mills Music, 1960)].

  3. Harry Cox sang The Young Sailor Cut Down in His Prime on October 9, 1953 to Peter Kennedy. This BBC recording 21483 was also included on the Folkways anthology Field Trip—England edited by Jean Ritchie.

  4. The north-east Scottish farm labourer Willie Mathieson learned Noo I'm a Young Man Cut Down in My Prime in the winter of 1933 from John Innes, farm servant and second horseman at the farm of Boghead, Dunlugas, Banffshire. He sang it in 1952 at the age of 72 to Hamish Henderson.

A.L. Lloyd also recorded this song as St James's Hospital on his 1966 album First Person; this track was later included on his Fellside anthology CD Classic A.L. Lloyd. He commented in the liner notes:

It's often said that a folk song has no fixed form: passing from mouth to mouth it's likely to take on various shapes adapted to sundry circumstances. Few songs illustrate this better than Saint James's Hospital, sometimes called The Unfortunate Rake. It began life as the lament of a soldier “disordered” by a woman; he seems to feel that the wounds of Venus, no less than those on the battlefields, entitle him to a funeral with full military honours. In the sea-ports the song was altered to concern a sailor, and it spread widely under the title of The Whores of the City. Later, the sexes got reversed, and a new version arose as The Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime. In the U.S.A. a cowboy adaption, The Streets of Laredo, became one of the best known American folk songs. Incongruously, both the young girl and the cowboy ask for a military funeral. A late avatar of this persistent song is the jazz epic, Saint James' Infirmary, sometimes called a blues though it's more like a ballad. A memory of the original scene lingers in the title of Infirmary, and the ceremonial funeral remains, but in underworld rather than military splendour. In World War II, a version called The Dying Marine became the unofficial anthem of the Royal Marine Commandos. The tune we use here is the earliest reported, “sung in Cork about 1790”.

Martin Carthy sang a much shorter version with quite different verses as Young Sailor Cut Down in His Prime on the 1966 LP Songs from ABC Television's “Hallelujah”.

Louis Killen sang The Sailor Cut Down in His Prime on his 1997 CD A Seaman's Garland (Sailors, Ships & Chanteys Vol. 2).

Jack Beck sang The Pills of White Mercury in 2001 on his Tradition Bearers CD Half Ower, Half Ower tae Aberdour. He commented in his liner notes:

I learned this from Peter Hall's singing; he collected it from Peter Anderson in an Aberdeenshire retirement home. Graphically explicit, this is the ancestor of The Streets of Laredo and The St James Infirmary Blues. I think of it as the Napoleonic wars' equivalent of those AIDS public information messages on television! The chorus displays, in my opinion, a remarkable naiveté on the part of the young soldier.

Laura Smyth and Ted Kemp sang The Trooper Cut Down in His Prime in 2014 on their EP The Charcoal Black and the Bonny Grey. Their notes again referred to Ewan MacColl:

The Trooper Cut Down in His Prime (provisionally Roud 2 and 23650) is a well-travelled song having been found in England, Ireland, Scotland, America, and beyond, but under different titles and featuring different characters. What in one case is a sailor, is in another a poor lass, and in another a cowboy on the streets of Laredo.

The British version centres on a poor victim of syphilis. He/she tells of their demise, either through promiscuity or a false hearted lover, and how they wish to be buried. The American version of St James’ Infirmary is along the same theme, but puts the song into third person, while the American cowboy is suffering from a gun shot in the chest. But often a common phrase can be heard:

Beat the drum slowly and play your fifes lowly,
Sound the dead march as you carry me along.

It can be quite a haunting song, and the British version deals with a not so pleasant subject matter!:

And six young maidens to carry white roses
So they won’t smell me as they pass me by.

The version we sing has a tune similar to others found in the English tradition. It was collected from Harry Sladen in Openshaw, 1946, by Ewan MacColl, and published in the book The Singing Island. Uniquely, this version features the line “And fire your bundhooks right over my coffin”, bundhooks being from the Hindustani word “banduk” meaning a rifle or musket [cf. Ewan MacColl's album Bundook Ballads].

Rosie Upton sang St James Infirmary in 2014 on her CD Basket of Oysters. She noted:

From the American tradition but with its roots in English songs such as Sailor Cut Down in His Prime. It seems to be a song I've always known, I was certainly singing it when I was a student, and I can't remember when I heard and adapted the different verses of chose to sing it from the woman's point of view. A place few would willingly go.

Compare this to Steeleye Span singing When I Was on Horseback on their third album Ten Man Mop, to Norma Waterson singing The Unfortunate Lass on her and her sister Lal's album A True Hearted Girl, and Norma singing Bright Shiny Morning as title track of her third solo album Bright Shiny Morning. All of these songs share the funeral verses.

Lyrics

Willie Mathieson sings Noo I'm a Young Man Cut Down in My Prime

As I was a-walking one bright summer morning,
As I was a-walking one bright summer day,
It's who did I spy but one of my comrades,
Rolled up in white flannel and caulder than clay.

Chorus (repeated after every other verse):
O love, it is cruel, cruel to deceive me,
Why didn't you tell me your sorrows in time?
My head is an-aching, my heart is a-breaking,
Noo, I'm a young man cut down in my prime.

It's I have an aged father, likewise a mother,
Oft times they did tell me it would ruin me quick.
I never did believe them, I always did deceive them,
And still with the city girls I spent all my time.

Go send for my mother to wash and to dress me,
Go send for my sister to comb my black hair;
Go send for my brother to play the pipes slowly,
And play the dead march as they carry me along.

There's a bunch of roses to lay on my coffin,
There's a bunch of roses for my head and my feet;
There's a bunch of roses to lay in the churchyard
To perfume the way as they carry me along.

At the gate of the churchyard to girlies were standing,
The one to the other in a whisper did say:
“Here comes the young man whose money we have squandered,
And noo they have laid him down in his cauld grave.”

Harry Cox sings The Young Sailor Cut Down in His Prime

As I was a-walking down by the Royal Albert,
Black was the night and cold was the day;
Who should I see there but one of my shipmates,
Wrapped in a blanket, far colder than clay.

He asked for a blanket to wrap 'round his head,
Likewise a candle to light him to bed;
His poor heart was breakin', his poor head was achin',
For he's a young sailor cut down in his prime.

We'll beat the big drums and we'll play the pipes merrily,
Play the dead march as we carry him along,
Take him to the churchyard and fire three volleys o'er him
For he's a young sailor cut down in his prime.

At the corner of the street you will see two girls standing,
One to the other did whisper and say:
“Here comes a young sailor whose money we'll squander,
Here comes a young sailor cut down in his prime.”

His kind-hearted mother, his kind-hearted father,
Both of them wondered about his past life;
For along with the flash girls3 he would wander,
Along with the flash girls it was his delight.

A.L. Lloyd sings The Unfortunate Rake

As I was a-walking down by St. James's Hospital,
I was a-walking down by there one day.
What should I spy but one of my comrades,
All wrapped up in flannel, though warm was the day.

I asked him what ailed him, I asked him what failed him,
I asked him the cause of all his complaint.
“It's all on account of some handsome young woman
'Tis she that has caused me to weep and lament.”

“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
But now I'm cut down in the height of my prime.”

“Get six young soldiers to carry my coffin,
Six young girls to sing me a song,
And each of them carry a bunch of green laurel
So they don't smell me as they bear me along.”

“Don't muffle your drums and play your fifes merrily,
Play a quick march as you carry me along.
And fire your bright muskets all over my coffin,
Saying, “There goes an unfortunate lad to his home.”

A.L. Lloyd sings St. James's Hospital

As I was a-walking down by St. James's Hospital,
I was a-walking down by there one day.
What should I spy but one of my comrades,
All wrapped up in flannel, though warm was the day.

I asked him what ailed him, I asked him what failed him,
I asked him the cause of all his complaint.
“Well, it's all on account of some handsome young woman
'Tis she that has caused me to weep and lament.”

“And had she but told me before she disordered me,
Had she but told me of it in time,
I might have got pills or salts of white mercury
But now I'm cut down in the height of my prime.”

“Get six young soldiers to carry me coffin,
Six young girls to sing me a song,
And each of them carry a bunch of green laurel
So they don't smell me as they bear me along.”

“And don't muffle your drums, me jewel, me joy,
Play your fife merry as you bear me along.
And fire your bright muskets all over my coffin,
Sayin', “There goes an unfortunate lad to his home.”

Ewan MacColl sings The Young Trooper Cut Down in His Prime

As I was a-walkin' down by the Royal Arsenal,
Early the morning though warm was the day,
When who should I see but one of my comrades,
All wrapped up in flannel, and cold as the clay.

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
Then beat the drum lowly and play your fife slowly,
And sound the dead march as you carry me along;
And fire your bundooks right over my coffin,
For I'm a young trooper cut down in my prime.

The bugles were playin', his mates were a-prayin',
The chaplain was kneelin' down by his bed;
His poor head was achin', his poor heart was breakin',
This poor young trooper cut down in his prime.

Get six of my comrades to carry my coffin,
Six of my comrades to carry me on high;
And six young maidens to carry white roses,
So they won't smell me as they pass me by.

Outside of the barracks you will find two girls standin',
And one to the other she whispered and said:
“Here comes the young swaddy whose money we squandered,
Here comes the young trooper cut down in his prime.”

On the cross by his grave you will find these words written:
“All you young troopers take warnin' by me;
Keep away from them flash girls who walk in the city;
Flash girls of the city have quite ruined me.”

Martin Carthy sings Young Sailor Cut Down in His Prime

So beat the drum o'er him and play the fife merrily,
Sound the dead march as you carry him along.
Take him to the graveyard, fire five volleys o'er him,
For he was a young sailor cut down in his prime.

At the top of yon street you can see two girls standing
One to the other did whisper and say,
“There goes the young sailor whose money we squandered,
Whose like we have tasted and wasted away.”

Links

See also the Mudcat Café thread Origin: Saint James Infirmary Blues.