"The Unfortunate Lad", also known, for obscure reasons, as "The Unfortunate Rake", is a traditional folk ballad (Roud 2; Laws Q26), which through the folk process has evolved into a large number of variants.
The term "The Unfortunate Rake" is sometimes used as a generic name for types of variant, or for all variants, irrespective of the titles and/or the lyrics of the source material. For example, writing in the United States, Lodewick (1955), referring to a group of early variants that involve a soldier and a camp follower, as opposed to a group of versions that involve a prostitute, writes, "For identification, I shall call this by its most popular title, "The Unfortunate Rake". A follow-up piece by Goldstein (1959) in the same journal refers to "The Rake Cycle".
The variant or variants on which these writers base their use of the title "The Unfortunate Rake" are not cited. Early twentieth century British references to this title are references to a tune, not to song lyrics, with the idea that the tune may have originally been used for a song called "The Unfortunate Lad" being offered as a conjecture.
According to Bishop and Roud (2014), the earliest-known variant, a late eighteenth-century/early nineteenth-century broadside in the Madden Collection, is called "The Buck's Elegy". This is the lament of a young man about town, set in Covent Garden, a well-known haunt of prostitutes. The moribund young man bewails the fact that he did not know what was wrong with him in time, in which case he could have taken mercury to treat the ailment, and he makes requests about his funeral. This version includes what Bishop and Roud refer to as 'explicit clues' that the persona has venereal disease in the form of references to mercury and other treatments for that disease.
Bishop and Roud state: 'Despite the number and variety of collected versions, the early history of the song is still unclear, and surprisingly few nineteenth-century broadside copies have survived.' They state that the song probably dates from 1740 or earlier, but that 'at present we have no evidence to support such a theory'. Some versions, they explain, provide clues to venereal disease as the cause of the persona's woes; others 'manage to avoid or disguise this element'. They also comment that many versions incorporate a 'military-style' funeral, with pipes and drums and rifles. They describe it as 'one of the most versatile songs in the Anglo-American tradition, as it seems able to adapt itself to any group or situation.'
A nineteenth century broadside published by Such printers of London is referred to in some twentieth century literature on the song. This version, and several others of that time, is called "The Unfortunate Lad". The first line of this song is 'As I was a walking down by the Lock Hospital.' This term, which referred to a hospital for the treatment of venereal diseases, is another item referred to by Bishop and Roud as an 'explicit hint'. Several digitised images of broadside version of this song may be found online.
In 1911, Phillips Barry, who had studied folklore at Harvard, published an article claiming that the origins of "The Unfortunate Lad" were to be found in a fragment called "My Jewel, My Joy". His argument was based on a one-verse fragment provided with a tune of the same name. This had been collected by William Forde in Cork and published in 1909 by P W Joyce. The single verse is as follows:
My jewel, my joy, don't trouble me with the drum,
Play 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 many variants feature various young soldiers, sailors, maids and cowboys, being "cut down in their prime" and contemplating their deaths.
It has been claimed that a similar story set to a different tune become the standard "St. James Infirmary Blues". This claim has been disputed on various grounds. Kenneth Lodewick commented: 'No folk connection has been shown, but the composer of the hit tune apparently knew the tradition - and used it.
In nineteenth-century broadside versions, the narrator meets a comrade outside a lock hospital. Despite the weather the comrade is wrapped up in flannel. When asked why, he replies that he has been wronged by a woman, sometimes inferred to be a prostitute or camp follower, but in the Such and Carrot broadsides referred to as 'my heart's delight'. She failed to warn him when she 'disordered' him, so he was unable to obtain 'salts and the pills of white mercury', and he is dying, complaining that he has been "cut down in my prime". He has ignored the warnings of his father that his 'wicked ways would never do'. He asks the narrator to arrange for him a specific funeral, for his coffin to be carried by six 'jolly fellows', his 'pall' by six 'pretty maidens'. They should carry 'bunches of roses' to cover the smell of the corpse. He further instructs that they should 'muffle their drums' but "play their pipes merrily", specifying the 'dead march' as music, and asking for 'guns' to be fired 'right over my coffin'. These instructions have sometimes been construed in the literature about the song as a request for a 'military funeral'.
Lists of variants appear both online and in the literature on the song. One source of documentation is the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at the English Folk Dance and Song Society. The Broadside Index and the Folk Song Index are both compiled by Steve Roud and are searchable online.
A number of different variants use the same melody, including the sub-family known as "The Cowboy's Lament", of which "Streets of Laredo" is perhaps currently the best known member. This tune is also used for a different song, "The Bard of Armagh".
The nineteenth century broadsheet versions from the British Isles were printed without tunes.
In 1904, it was conjectured that words of the song "The Unfortunate Lad" had originally been sung to an Irish tune called "The Unfortunate Rake", which had been printed with different words, or no words, in two collections of Irish tunes, one by Crosby, the other by Belden.. For example, the words provided for the air "The Unfortunate Rake" by Crosby are about a wandering harpist from Connaught, who is seeking pity and hospitality from his listeners.
English folk song collectors in the early twentieth century found different tunes being used for variants.
The melody for a variant called "The Unfortunate Lad", set in Rippleton Gardens, was published in 1904.
Another melody, this time to a variant called "The Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime", was collected in 1909 and published in 1913. The tune is noted as "mixolydian with dorian influence". In a note to this article, Cecil Sharp reported that he had collected six different tunes for this song, and he published the ones he stated were the "two best tunes - both of the Henry Martin type". The first is labelled "dorian", the second "aeolian/dorian".
In 1915, yet another tune was published in the Journal of the Folk Song Society; this time stated to be similar to one used for rush-cart Morris dancing at Moston, near Manchester, England.
In 1918, English folk song collector Cecil Sharp, who was visiting the US, collected a version which used the phrase "St James' Hospital" in Dewey, Virginia. This song was called "The Sailor Cut Down in His Prime". Sharp's field notes were available for researchers, though the song was not published until after Sharp's death, when his collaborator, Maud Karpeles, produced a second volume of songs from the Southern Appalachians.
By 1937, the English Folk Song Society had become the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and in that year, another tune was published, this time to accompany a variant beginning with a reference to "Bath Hospital". The tune is described as 'dorian'.
In the 1950s a version sung by A L Lloyd and called 'The Unfortunate Rake' was released, with Kenneth Goldstein as editor of the LP called 'Street Songs of England', and the same version was included on Goldstein's later Folkways LP, "The Unfortunate Rake". Though this version is described on the liner notes as a nineteenth century broadside version, and is often taken as such in subsequent literature, Lloyd's practice in the past had been to publish 'composite' versions of songs, to give what he called 'greater continuity or higher dramatic interest'. The liner notes to the second LP are often cited as a source of historical information about this song, though they do not appear to come within Wikipedia's definition of a "reliable source", having been compiled by Goldstein, who had had an education in business and was currently in the business of selling folk music via recorded music. The version sung, and possibly devised, by Lloyd appears to be the earliest available variant using the title "The Unfortunate Rake" for which there is clear evidence.
These liner notes are the main origin of an often repeated incorrect idea that an early version of the song was collected in Dublin, Ireland. In those notes Goldstein cites an article by Kenneth Lodewick as a source. In that article, Lodewick incorrectly substitutes 'Dublin' for 'Cork', which is the place of collection given in the source material he cites. That same source material is where A L Lloyd obtained the tune he uses on the LP. It is a collection of Irish tunes gathered by William Forde in Ireland, and published by P W Joyce, of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in 1909. The tune in question is called "My Jewel, My Joy", and not "The Unfortunate Rake". Lloyd's rationale for selecting this tune is outlined in the essay cited by Goldstein in the liner notes to the second LP.
None of these versions, with the exception of the 1950s version by A L Lloyd, and the version collected in Virginia, includes the phrase "St James'", though some refer to a differently named hospital.
In most variants the narrator is a friend or parent who meets the young man or woman who is dying; in other variants the narrator is the one dying.
The 1960 Folkways Records album also titled "The Unfortunate Rake" features 20 different variations of the ballad. Variants not in this album include a number of nineteenth century broadsheet versions, including:
The Folkways LP appears to claim that A L Lloyd is singing a nineteenth century broadsheet version, but does not specify which broadsheet version. It does, however, provide a reference to the 1956 article by A L Lloyd (Op Cit), which explicitly refers to the Such version. However, the words sung by Lloyd are not those in the Such broadside.
Other variants not on the Folkways LP include:
In 2016 a version of the song renamed to 'A Young Trooper Cut Down' was recorded on the album 'War Stories' by Harp and a monkey. This story tells of the use of the song as a piece of propaganda by the military warning on the dangers of syphilis during WW1.
In 2018 the song was prominently featured in "The Mortal Remains," the final episode of the Coen Brothers "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" under the title "The Unfortunate Lad." The song was performed acapella by the actor Brendan Gleeson.