I grew up on a steady diet of Doc Watson, acoustic guitar, and folk-song permutations.  I considered going into folklore as a field, professionally, but decided that was even stupider than being an English major and an art minor if I wanted to ever not starve, so I did something else instead.  But I collect folk-tale types in music, and have decided to put some of that stuff up here.  I like the mountain/country/frontier members of this “song family” better than the city/syphilis ones for some reason (because of Doc Watson, on which more below), but the whole intertwined family tree is really fascinating.

There are very many versions in this “song family,” including

  • St. James Hospital
  • The Streets of Laredo
  • The Cowboy’s Lament
  • The Unfortunate Rake
  • A Handful of Laurel
  • Willie McBride
  • Locke Hospital

and then it spins further out into tunes such as St James Infirmary (more on that below). A good resource is The Unfortunate Rake: A Study in the Evolution of a Ballad, released by Folkways Records with notes by Kenneth S. Goldstein, according to whom the oldest published textual version of the Rake cycle dates from 1848 in County Cork (and the performer said he learned it in Dublin in 1790). Rob Walker characterizes this song cycle as “splitting” in two directions, one towards the Streets of Laredo group and the other towards the St. James Infirmary group.

Below are some renditions that have stuck with me over the years.  Always in progress.

  • Ken Maynard – Cowboy’s Lament.   “The singing cowboy” ended up living some of the story he sings here – he died destitute despite his notable acting career, probably due to debts incurred through a combo of gambling and heavy drinking.
  • Doc Watson – St. James Hospital.  This is the first and best, for me personally; I can’t really judge anything else fairly next to it.  I think I saw Doc live for the first time in the late 70s or early 80s somewhere in TN, and last time in  ’97 or ’98 at Merlefest.  So it’s just not a fair fight.  But if you listen to what he’s doing here in comparison to Maynard’s version, above, you may be able to get some of what I mean when I say, as I am wont to do, that Doc changed the whole damned game, even if you didn’t learn to walk at bluegrass festivals and cut your teeth on 120 different verses of Shady Grove.
  • Yalego – St. James Hospital. This is an amazing arrangement, and this guy has got the pipes to carry the song.  This song should be carried by the singer, generally, in my opinion; this is the first version that’s ever made me reconsider that opinion, due to the way his throat and his strings share the stage here. It’s a lovely combo, a lovely arrangement.  I don’t know anything about him, found this by accident, but I’ll be keeping an eye on Mr. Yalego. eta June 2012: The artist took that version down, and I can’t find that he has another one up. Still, he’s very good and he has a wonderful voice, so I want to leave some link to his work — so here’s a link to his Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.
  • Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins – The Streets of Laredo.  Definitely not my favorite arrangement, but you can’t not listen to Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins do this one together. And here’s Johnny Cash on his own;  I prefer the less-polished, less-studio-ized versions, but shit, it’s Johnny Cash.
  • Grannie Jans – Streets of Laredo.   Clear, pure, strong, unpretentious; a very “right/true” rendition by a young female singer and guitarist with an incongruous nickname.  Absolutely works.
  • The Fureys – The Green Fields of France.  These guys are sometimes considered a one-hit wonder, but that’s only to people who only pay attention to Top40 shite.
  • Tony Rice – St. James Hospital. Quite close to Doc’s version in the tune’s “family tree.”
  • Norma Waterson – Bright Shiny Morning. She actually talks a bit about the genealogy of the tune and where her version comes from.

***

I really consider St. James Infirmary to be different enough in several ways as to be a different song (not just the lyric/song cycle/story but also the actual *music*, but that’s just an idiosyncrasy of mine in terms of how my brain organizes things). Anyway, if you’re interested in that “family branch” of the song, you can do a lot worse than to start with Rob Walker’s blog, No Notes, which is pretty much devoted to St. James Infirmary and which includes a list of his extensive collection of versions of the song. And here’s a reprint of his essay on St. James Infirmary and its history “from Dublin, Ireland, to Rampart Street.” You should also have a look at Robert Harwood’s blog, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. Both Harwood and Walker have published in print on this song as well.

Here are a few performances of note in the St. James Infirmary “branch” of the family tree:

***

Here’s my transcription of Doc’s version of St. James Hospital:

Early one morning
at the St. James Hospital
early one morning
morn in the month of May
when I looked through the window
and I spied a dear cowboy
a dear cowboy
as cold as the clay

Sit ye down by me
and hear my sad story
sit ye down by me
and sing me a song
for my poor head is aching
and my sad heart is breaking
I’m a poor cowboy
that knowed he done wrong

Send for that doctor
to come and heal up my body
and send for the preacher
to come and pray for my soul
for my poor head is aching
and my sad heart is breaking
I’m a poor cowboy
and hell is my due

Get sixteen pretty maidens
to come and carry my coffin
sixteen pretty maidens
to come and sing me a song
and tell em to bring some of them
sweet smelling roses
so they can’t smell me
as they tote me along

Beat the drum slowly
and play the fife lowly
play the death march
as ye carry me along
throw bunches of lilies
all over my coffin
There goes a poor cowboy
that knowed he done wrong

***

A friend once wrote to me when I started collecting notes on these, telling me:

And it goes back to a series of older yet British folk songs:

The Digital Tradition comments (of Steeleye Span’s rendition of “When I Was On Horseback”):

One of countless songs of the Unfortunate Rake family. While each telling a completely different story, they all share the description of the funeral (here verses 2 and 3). This version is Irish and is the most stripped down I know, consisting of virtually nothing but the funeral. It is worth noting that most versions have it “…I know I’ve done wrong” while here it’s “…that never done wrong”. American versions include The Streets of Laredo and St. James Infirmary, British versions are The Unfortunate Rake and Lock Hospital and many more. There is a Folkways record (The Unfortunate Rake, FS 3805) dedicated exclusively to this family. (MJ)

To which I responded:

My family took the Irish/English debate over American versions of this to extremes, esp. with “The Streets of Laredo” branches, with one side insisting on its Irish origins via “A Handful of Laurel” and the other insisting on its English via the Boer War (ref the syphilis versions I mention earlier.) Don’t try telling them any different or suggesting cross-pollination 🙂 (There’s also an Irish “Rake of Mallow” that’s related, and I’ve heard “The Unfortunate Rake” attributed to Dublin and from probably the 1790s and spreading later to England.) It’s great fun, in a holding-grudges kind of way.

Sandburg’s 1920-something collection has a version (“Those Gambling Blues/St. James Infirmary”) I love that also mentions the sixteen maidens, but with a twist, as his song’s subject is a woman and seventeen go but only sixteen come back.

Of course, on the subject of musical fun with grudges, Dad has reshaped “Shady Grove” to reflect his own personal experiences with women, rearranged and integrated some verses and versions to tell a story of Love Gone Wrong ™, and his piano player has inserted a bit that sounds curiously like a bastardized Bach funeral march, right before the “one day I’m gonna leave her” verse. Mom hates that song.

***

Some notes, courtesy of Reinhard Zierke, on St James Hospital:

[Trad.]

Sung by A.L. Lloyd on his albums English Street Songs and First Person. The latter track was reissued in 1994 on the CD Classic A.L. Lloyd. A.L. Lloyd said in the CD sleeve 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 the one here, sometimes called The Unfortunate Rake. It has become a sailors’ song, a cowboy song, a jazz blues and even an unofficial anthem of the Royal Marine Commandos. In one version even the sexes get reversed. It is known variously as: The Whores of the City, The Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime, The Streets of Laredo, Lee Tharin’s Bar-Room, St James Infirmary and The Dying Marine.”

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

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 me 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 me 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 me coffin,
Sayin’, “There goes an unfortunate lad to his home.”


Credit for notes to Reinhard Zierke, zierke@informatik.uni-hamburg.de
from his now defunct web page [at http://www.informatik.uni-hamburg.de/~zierke/lloyd/songs/stjamesshospital.html%5D which I captured in 2005 because the folklorist in me made me do it.  Last updated Sun Oct 10 09:32:37 CEST 2004.
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last link check: 20 May 2013
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