> Shirley Collins > Songs > Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime
> Lal & Norma Waterson > Songs > The Unfortunate Lass
> Eliza Carthy > Songs > The Unfortunate Lass

Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime / The Unfortunate Lass / Bad Girl

[ Roud 2 ; Laws Q26 ; Ballad Index LQ26 ; VWML CJS2/10/2309 , GG/1/21/1431 ; Bodleian Roud 2 ; GlosTrad Roud 2 ; Mudcat 22885 ; trad.]

Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime is one of countless songs of the Unfortunate Rake family. It was collected by Frances Jekyll from an unnamed singer in East Meon, Hampshire, in 1909 and printed both in the Journal of the Folk Song Society in 1913 and in Ralph Vaughan Williams' and A.L. Lloyd's The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. A.L. Lloyd commented in the book:

At the end of the eighteenth century a homiletic street ballad spread in England concerning the death and ceremonial funeral of a soldier “disordered” by a woman. It was called The Unfortunate Rake (in Ireland) or The Unfortunate Lad (on the broadside printed by Such). Many singers know it as St James's Hospital. It is still a common song in the British Army, though printed versions are few. English sets have been reported from Yorkshire and Hampshire. Our song represents a later development, in which the sexes are reversed, but the ceremonial funeral is retained. Versions of this form have been recorded from Oxfordshire and Somerset as well as the present Hampshire version. In America, the song has been adapted to the cattle range (The Cowboy's Lament or The Streets of Laredo) and the gambling hall (St James' Infirmary). The motif of the ceremonial funeral remains constant, despite all the transformations of the chief character.

Texas Gladden of Salem, Virginia, sang The Devil's Nine Questions in August 1941 to Alan and Elizabeth Lomax. This recording was included in 1978 on the Blue Ridge Institute album in their Virginia Traditions series, Ballads from British Tradition, and in 2001 on her Rounder anthology in the Alan Lomax Collection, Ballad Legacy. This album's booklet noted:

This is widely sung as the story of the dying cowboy who has been shot in the heart. Most Americans know it as The Streets of Laredo, with the last verse, “beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly, for I’m a young cowboy and know I’ve done wrong.” Texas Gladden is singing another version of the song, where the protagonist is dying of syphilis, not from a gunshot. In Gladden’s text, “my body’s salivated” is not a reference to salvation, but to the toxic effects of the mercury that was administrated in times past as a treatment for venereal disease.

An earlier Irish version found in print was called The Unfortunate Rake, and the form of the song has given birth to many parodies such as The Dying Aviator. In other versions it is known as St James Hospital, or as the blues/Dixieland song Saint James Infirmary. Gladden’s version presents the story from a young woman’s viewpoint. It has been suggested that the “roses” the dying person asked to be placed on the coffin were more to kill the smell of decay than to “soften the clods as they fall.”

The beauty and intensity of Texas Gladden's singing has created a performance of this song that stands alone in American music. The voice of her protagonist is female; the song starts with “when I was a young girl, 1used to seek pleasure.” Gladden’s singing transcends the moralising that underlies other versions, transforming the song into a personal contemplation of tragedy and death.

Shirley Collins sang this version in 1970 on her and her sister Dolly's album Love, Death & the Lady. She learned a related version, Bad Girl, from the singing of Texas Gladden and recorded it in 1964 with Davy Graham for their album Folk Roots, New Routes.

Norma Waterson sang this song with the title The Unfortunate Lass on her and her sister Lal's album A True Hearted Girl. The title of that record is taken from the words of this song. This track was also re-released on the 1992 CD Green Fields and in 2004 on the Watersons' 4CD anthology Mighty River of Song.

Norma's daughter Eliza Carthy sang a quite different The Unfortunate Lass with the Ratcatchers (Jon Boden, John Spiers, Ben Ivitsky) in 2005 on her album Rough Music. She commented in her liner notes:

This is put together from a few different sources. There are hundreds of versions of this song from all over the world, all with heartbreaking words, and this one contains lines from England, Aberdeen, Ireland, the West Indies and the American South. “My body's salivating” refers to the reaction that the body has when taking mercury as a cure for syphilis.

Jon Boden sang Eliza's version of The Unfortunate Lass as the 17 November 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Fay Hield sang Bad Girl's Lament on Martin Simpson's 2011 Topic album Purpose+Grace. He noted:

One of the marvellous aspects of folk songs is their ability to move and to morph. There is no better example then The Unfortunate Rake, an 18th century English song about a young man expiring of syphilis. The song became When I Was on Horseback in Ireland, The Streets of Laredo and Tom Sherman's Bar Room in the Western US, and St. James Infirmary and The Dying Crapshooter's Blues. The main character [changes] from Rake to Cowboy to Soldier and Sailor, and here changes gender. The Bad Girl's Lament, also known as One Morning in May, comes from the singing of Texas Gladden, a traditional singer who knew 300 songs by memory. She was recorded by Alan Lomax in Virginia in 1941.

In this video, Fay sings the Bad Girl's Lament at the Bristol Folk Festival in April 2011:

The Askew Sisters sang The Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime in 2014 on their RootBeat CD In the Air or the Earth. They commented in their liner notes:

[…] In contrast to these two ballads, the young woman in The Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime has accepted the onset of death and is resigned to her fate. The song takes the form of a dialogue between a mother and daughter, as the young woman recounts her demise, probably from syphilis, which was often treated with mercury pills. These verses are very popular and have assembled themselves into many different songs over the years, such as The Cowboy's Lament, The Streets of Laredo, St James Infirmary Blues. We've gathered various verses from the many incarnations of this song, and use the tune collected by George Gardiner from Charles Shears of Salisbury Union, Wiltshire, in August 1909 [ VWML GG/1/21/1431 ] .

Andy Turner sang Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime as the 6 July 2014 entry of his blog A Folk Song a Week.

Lynne Heraud and Pat Turner sang When I Was a Young Girl I Used to Seek Pleasure in 2019 on their WildGoose CD Watching for Winkles. They noted:

An American homiletic ballad and a variant of The Bad Girl’s Lament. It was collected by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax in 1941 from Mrs Texas Gladden of Salem, Virginia.

The Norfolk Broads sang Young Girl on their 2021 album Yonder Green Grove.

Compare to this song Norma Waterson singing Bright Shiny Morning, the title track of her third solo album Bright Shiny Morning, to A.L. Lloyd singing The Unfortunate Rake on his album English Street Songs and St James's Hospital on his album First Person, and to Steeleye Span singing When I Was on Horseback on their third album Ten Man Mop. All of these songs share the funeral verses.


Texas Gladden sings One Morning in May

When I was a young girl, I used to seek pleasure;
When I was a young girl, I used to drink ale;
Out of the alehouse and into a jailhouse,
Right out of a barroom and down to my grave.

“Come, Papa, come, Mama, and sit you down by me,
Come sit you down by me and pity my case;
My poor head is aching, my sad heart is breaking,
My body's salivated and I'm bound to die.

“Oh, send for the preacher to come and pray for me,
And send for the doctor to heal up my wounds;
My poor head is aching, my sad heart is breaking,
My body's salivated and Hell is my doom.

“I want three young ladies to bear up my coffin,
I want four young ladies to carry me on;
And each of them carry a bunch of wild roses
To lay on my coffin as I pass along.”

One morning, one morning, one morning in May
I spied thisyoung lady all wrapped in white linen,
All wrapped in white linen and cold as the clay.

Shirley Collins sings Bad Girl

One morning, one morning, one morning in May
I met this young lady wrapped up in white linen,
All dressed in white linen, cold as the clay.

“When I was a young girl, I used to seek pleasure,
When I was a young girl, I used to drink ale.
Right out of an ale house down into the jailhouse,
Right out of the barroom down to my grave.

“Come mama, come papa, and sit you down by me,
Sit you down by me and pity my case.
For my poor head is achin', my poor heart is breakin',
I am a poor young girl and I know I've done wrong.

“Send for the preacher to come and pray for me
Send for the doctor to heal up my wounds.
For my poor head is achin', my sad heart is breakin,
My body's salivated and I know I must die.”

(repeat first verse)

Shirley Collins sings Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime

As I was a-walking one midsummer's morning,
As I was a-walking along the highway,
When who should I see but my own dearest daughter
With her head wrapped in flannel on a hot summer's day.

“Oh mother, dear mother, come sit you down by me,
Come sit you down by me and pity my case;
For my poor head is aching, my poor heart is breaking,
And I'm in low spirits and surely must die.

“Oh mother, dear mother, come send for the clergyman,
And send for the doctor to heal up my wound,
And likewise my young man whose heart it did wander
So that he may see me before I'm put down.

“And when I am dead to the churchyard they'll bear me,
There's six jolly fellows to carry me on;
And in each of their hands a bunch of green laurel
So they may not smell me as they march along.”

So rattle your drum and play your fife over me,
And sing the dead march as we walk all along;
Then return to your homes and think of that young girl,
“Oh, there goes a young girl cut down in her prime.”

Norma Waterson sings The Unfortunate Lass

As I was a-walking one fine summer's morning,
Now as I was a-walking one midsummer's day;
I met a young female, all a-dressed in white linen,
Aye, a-dressed in white linen and as cold as the clay.

“Oh mother, dear mother, come sit down beside me,
Now come sit down beside me and hear me sad case;
For I have loved a soldier who has lately deserted
And he's gone and he's left me in shame and disgrace.”

“Oh daughter, dear daughter, why didn't you tell me?
Now why didn't you tell me of it in time?
For I could have bought salt, aye, and the pills of white margery
You're a true-hearted girl but cut down in your prime.”

“Come doctor, dear doctor, and fill up your bottles,
Come fill up your bottles and make them quite dry;
For me bones they are aching and me heart it is breaking
In this shame and disgrace I am a-feared I must die.

“Have six jolly sailors to carry me coffin,
Have six jolly soldiers to sing me a song;
Have six bonny lasses carry bunches of roses
So that you can smell me as we roll along.

“Then play your fife lowly and play the drum slowly,
Sing out the dead march as you go along;
Take me to the graveyard and throw the sods on me,
I'm a true-hearted girl but I never done wrong.”

Eliza Carthy sings The Unfortunate Lass

As I was a-walking down by the Royal Albion,
Oh bright was the sunshine and warm was the day,
I spied a young woman, wrapped up in white linen,
Wrapped up in white linen and colder than clay.

I asked her what ailed her, I asked her what failed her,
I asked her the cause of all her complaint.
Well, it was all on account of some handsome young sailor,
Now it's he that has caused me to weep and lament.

And had he but told me before he disordered me,
Had he 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.

When I was a young girl I used to seek pleasure,
When I was a young girl, with a sailor so brave.
Then it was out of the ale-house and into the gaol-house,
Right out of the bar-room and into my grave.

Singing, come by dear mother and sit yourself by me,
Oh come by dear father oh sing me one song.
My poor head is aching, my sad heart is breaking,
I'm a true-hearted girl but I know I've done wrong.

Oh once on the quayside I used to [go with me?]
Oh in my young days when I used to be gay
Oh down by the dock with those handsome young sailors
Those boys are to carry me, poor me to my grave.

Now mother, come mother to wash and to dress me,
Send for my sister to curl my black hair,
And ask my dear brother to play the pipe slowly
And play the dead march as they carry me there.

And send for the minister to come and pray for me
Oh send for the doctor although it's too late
My poor head is aching, my sad heart is breaking,
My body's salivating and Hell is my fate.


Thanks to Greer Gilman for the Norma Waterson transcription, to Bob Hudson for the note, and to Garry Gillard for help with Eliza Carthy's version.