It’s a song and a story, or a hundred songs and stories. It’s sung and told on one continent or every continent. It concerns a young man gone wrong, or a young woman with life ruined by alcohol, wicked men and tragic choices, perhaps a gambler trapped in his addiction, or a young cowboy dying in Texas with a bullet in his chest.
Scores of songs seem to have grown from a single root, an old and ever-evolving street ballad usually called “The Unfortunate Rake.”
This “rake” has nothing to do with sweeping up the autumn leaves that soon will color our lawns. “Rake” in this instance abbreviates an archaic word: “rakehell” – a person, usually a man, of debauched and self-destructive lifestyle who makes choices that can lead nowhere but to ruin, regret and death.
“The Unfortunate Rake” ballads tell a story that varies in details, characters, setting and melody, yet is the same in theme and message. You’ve heard it before, probably many times, because it is part of our worldwide folklore.
I began wanting to know more about this ballad because of one of the more moving scenes in the gritty British television series “Ripper Street.” The series is set in the Whitechapel area of London during the period after the Jack the Ripper killings had recently ended, and concerns police work in Whitechapel as that district struggles to move past the haunting tragedies that made it famous.
When a young police constable is murdered, his fellow officers gather at his memorial service and are led in singing “A Trooper Cut Down In His Prime,” one of many variations of “The Unfortunate Rake.”
When I noticed the close similarity between their song and the American western folk song “The Streets of Laredo,” it roused my curiosity enough to begin wanting to learn more.
Musicologists and folklorists, I fast learned, get into disagreements about such things as this. I’ve got no credentials even to enter their scholarly debates, though I will say it appears obvious to me that the song led by “Ripper Street” Irish actor David Wilmot on “Ripper Street is a twin to “The Streets of Laredo.” Not an identical twin, but at least a fraternal one.
Wilmot’s song begins: “As I was out walking by Saint James’s Hospital/ Early the morning and warm was the day/ Who should I see but one of my comrades/ All wrapped up in flannel and cold as the clay.”
“The Streets of Laredo” in most versions begins: “As I walked out on the streets of Laredo/ As I walked out in Laredo one day/ I spied a young cowboy wrapped up in white linen/ Wrapped up in white linen as cold as the clay.”
The tunes of the songs are similar, also the choruses. The “Ripper Street” policemen’s “trooper” song chorus goes: “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 am a trooper cut down in my prime.” (The word “bundooks” meant a rifle in British Army slang of that era. The word is a corruption of the Hindustani word “banduk,” meaning “rifle” or “musket” and was picked up by Brit soldiers serving in India during the period of the British Empire.)
The very similar chorus of “The Streets of Laredo” usually goes, “Oh, beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly/ Sing the Death March as you carry me along/ Take me to the valley, there lay the sod o’er me/ I’m a young cowboy, and I know I’ve done wrong.” (or “I’m shot in the breast/And I know I must die.”)
It takes no more than a quick comparison to see that those songs are, in many respects, almost one and the same.
Beyond those two “Rake Cycle” songs though, there are many other derivatives. Even the jazz standard “St. James Infirmary” is widely considered to have borrowed considerably from “The Unfortunate Rake” thematically and lyrically.
Another noticeable aspect of songs falling under the umbrella of “The Unfortunate Rake” is the unflinching manner in which some address gritty realities, from disease through death and decomposition.
In several versions, the narrator, talking with the doomed individual, learns that the cause of impending death is venereal disease.
Sexually transmitted infections naturally were a particular threat to those living a “rakish” lifestyle, and in earlier times some of these ailments were “treated” with mercury.
In some versions of the ballad, one verse has the narrator saying: “I asked him what ailed him, I asked him what failed him/ I asked him the cause of all his complaint.”
The answer comes: “Well, it’s all on account of some handsome young woman/ ‘Tis she that has caused me to weep and lament.”
Continuing: “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.”
There are versions of the ballad in which the victim of the STD is female, infected by a male who neglected to inform her of his condition.
In the best-known American derivative of the “Rake” ballad, the “Laredo” folk song, bodily death and decay is presented in some renderings as blatantly as the STD references above.
For example: “Get six sturdy cowboys to carry my coffin/ Get six pretty harlots to sing me a song/ Spread bunches of roses all over my coffin/ so they won’t smell me as they carry me along.”
Such old lines remind us that in the world of our forbears, death typically was a much more “in-your-face” reality than it is now, as was the decomposition process that occurred so speedily before the advent of modern embalming.
Flowers in past times added more than beauty and color to funeral/burial scenes. Their scent helped mask inevitable death-associated stenches.
The late Kenneth Goldstein, an authority on British folk music, wrote in the 1960s about “The Unfortunate Rake”: “This ballad of the ‘disordered’ soldier started its life as a street ballad in the 18th century. It proved to be as tough as its subject and has flourished right into our own time, changing its form but never its substance.”
Goldstein noted that the central character of various versions or derivatives of the song may vary from a soldier or sailor to a girl, a cowboy, or gambler, but the story and certain of its elements “remain constant.”
It would be hard, Goldstein declared, to find a ballad that “more vividly bridges the centuries, or which has shown itself more adaptable to social and geographical change.”
The “Ripper Street” song scene can be found on the Vimeo website. It’s a well-done scene, worth seeing.
As for the “Ripper Street” series itself, it’s gripping but definitely not what most would consider family friendly viewing, especially in families with young kids. Lots of bare corpses on slabs and Victorian-era autopsies that leave little hidden from view, and equally little restraint in language and behavior depicted throughout the series, and there is plenty of violence.
It features great and nuanced characters, though, especially Detective Sgt. Bennet Drake, played by Jerome Flynn, and former U.S. Army surgeon and Pinkerton agent Capt. Homer Jackson, played by Adam Rothenberg.
It’s Jackson, often referred to by other characters simply as “the American,” who does most of the slicing and dicing and swearing.