Essays – The Myth of the Origins of St James’ Infirmary Blues and The Unfortunate Rake

The Myth of the Origins of St James’ Infirmary Blues and The Unfortunate Rake

 – by Karen Heath

The Myth

Over the years, a myth has grown up on both sides of the Atlantic. This myth states that the American song St James’ Infirmary is descended from an original British song called The Unfortunate Rake about venereal disease. The latter song is supposed to have been printed as a broadsheet in the 19th century, but to have older roots.  A L Lloyd is supposed to be singing it on a mid-20th century LP of the same name on the Folkways label.  I don’t believe there ever was such a 19th century song.  In this piece I explain why, and I present a view of how the myth came into being. 

My interest in this subject arose when I was told that St James Infirmary, which I play on guitar (after a fashion), was originally Irish.  I set out to discover whether this is true – and concluded that it almost certainly is not. 

I have spoken of the ‘myth’ of The Unfortunate Rake.  I use the word ‘myth’ here in a general sense of a traditional belief, especially a belief about the origins of something that is not based on factual evidence. The reason I use this word is that, despite carefully tracing references, including some purportedly “academic” ones, back through a chain of articles and essays to the early 20th century, and despite searching online reference sites linked to collections of 19th century broadsheets, I cannot locate any song (as opposed to a tune, or air) called The Unfortunate Rake that predates the 1950s and that could be the original as per the myth, or any reference to sight or sound of such a thing.  Nobody seems to have seen it, though many people wrote about it. The arguments that it existed seem to be thin, and to be based largely on the verified existence of a broadsheet song called The Unfortunate Lad.  


I am grateful to JSTOR, without which I could not have traced the events which make up my tale.  I must also mention Robert W Harwood’s excellent book I went Down to St James’ Infirmary, a fascinating read that I discovered on my journey back through the literature.  After first writing this piece, I read an article by Richard Jenkins (Ref 28) showing that he has trodden a similar path (indeed, our research paths crossed, and we are both sceptical about the Irish origin claim).  I have amended one or two paragraphs to draw upon Jenkins’ ideas. 

The Janey Buchan Archive at the University of Glasgow helpfully supplied a copy of an obscure piece by A L Lloyd.

Finally, Max and Rex Haymes’ legendary Sunday pub blues sessions have brought pleasure and inspiration to many people.  I’m sure we all hope that some day soon they will return. 

If nothing else, this piece offers a guide to, and critical review of, the work that has most often been referred to in popular pieces online and elsewhere on this topic.  Enjoy.


19th Century Broadsheet Version of The Unfortunate Lad

Numerous web sites and at least one book (1) set out the lyrics of a song called The Unfortunate Rake that is claimed to be an original broadsheet song, derived from an Irish, or Anglo-Irish ancestor, but these turn out to have reproduced a significantly different version sung by Bert Lloyd, a British journalist and folk singer, that first appeared in the 1950s.  I have come to the conclusion that this version was actually written in the 1950s by that very folk singer. It was then, whether deliberately or by mistake, passed off as being a genuine early broadsheet version.  Once it is accepted that much of what is ‘known’ about The Unfortunate Rake is mythical, it follows that Lloyd could not have been singing a 19th century broadsheet version of that song on the Folkways LP of the same name.  There was no such broadsheet.  What, then, was he singing?  I try to answer this question, as the reader will see.

To sum up, there is no direct evidence of a pre-1900 song called The Unfortunate Rake as this features in the myth. The question then arises why and how an idea with no documentary basis became so widely accepted as a fact.  My reading suggests an answer.  It enables me to construct an account, a narrative, which I share with my readers.

But let us start with the evidence we have about specific songs that were sung and written in the past.

Songs from the past

Since no direct evidence of an early song called The Unfortunate Rake exists, it seems best to start out with versions that have been preserved.

According to Bishop and Roud (2), the earliest known variant is called The Buck’s Elegy.  This song survives in an undated broadsheet version, to be found in the Madden Collection at the University of Cambridge, and the tune to which it was sung is unknown. The broadsheet dates roughly from the late 18th/early 19th century and the action is set in Covent Garden, an area of London that was once a well-known haunt of prostitutes.

Presumably, The Buck’s Elegy is seen as an early version of The Unfortunate Lad because of similarities in content and in the way that the theme is presented.

Structurally, both songs are made up of embedded first-person narratives in which one character meets a second, whose sad story makes up the bulk of the song.  Put briefly, the second character has caught a fatal venereal disease and he makes requests about the conduct of his forthcoming funeral.  These requests include details which can be seen as militaristic, including drums and weapons.  Other details, including requests for scented plants of one sort or another to offset the odour of the corpse, reflect the practices of the time.  The argument that the 19th century ‘lock hospital’ songs developed from earlier songs, songs like The Buck’s Elegy, or from that song itself, is persuasive on the basis of the number of structural and thematic resemblances.

The Buck’s Elegy begins as follows:

As I was walking down Covent Garden,
Listen awhile, and the truth I’ll relate,
Who should I meet but my dearest comrade,
Wrapt up in flannel, so hard was his fate.

Its last verse runs thus:

Come bumble your drums, bumble them with crapes of black,
Beat the dead march as we go along,
Come draw up your merry men, draw them in rank and file,
Let them fire over me when I lay low.

A version of this song called The Unfortunate Lad was printed by at least three different English firms in the mid/late 19th century (3), with more or less identical words.  Below are the words and title printed by H P Such of London, probably between 1863 and 1865.  I have chosen a version by this particular printer because it comes into the story of the myth’s development, as the reader will presently see.

The Unfortunate Lad

As I was a walking down by the Lock Hospital,
As I was walking one morning of late,
Who did I spy but my own dear comrade,
Wrapp’d up in flannel so hard is his fate.

Had she but told me when she disordered me,
Had she but told me of it in time,
I might have got salts and pills of white mercury,
But now I’m cut down in the height of my prime.

I boldly stepped up to him and kindly did ask him,
Why was he wrapped in flannel so white?
My body is injured and sadly disordered,
All by a young woman, my own heart’s delight.

My father oft told me and oftentimes chided me,
And said my wicked ways would never do,
But I never minded him nor ever heeded him,
I always kept up in my wicked ways.

Get six jolly fellows to carry my coffin,
And six pretty maidens to bear up my pall,
And give to each of them bunches of roses,
That they may not smell me as they go along.

Over my coffin put bunches of lavender,
Handfuls of lavender on every side,
Bunches of roses all over my coffin,
Saying, there goes a young man cut down in his prime.

Muffle your drums, play your pipes merrily,
Play the dead march as you go along,
And fire your guns right over my coffin,
There goes an unfortunate lad to his home.

The setting for the song has changed from Covent Garden, as in The Buck’s Elegy, to a ‘lock hospital’.  Why? What was a ‘lock hospital’?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (4) the one-word term ‘lock’ was originally used for a hospital in Southwark, Greater London, which first isolated and treated leprosy patients but was later, and certainly by 1691, used for those suffering sexually transmitted diseases.  It is often stated that the word ‘lock’ comes from a French word for bandages, but the OED provides no evidence to support such a theory.   Eventually the longer term ‘lock hospital’ came into use to refer generally to any hospital for the treatment of sexually transmitted disease.  However, such hospitals were rare.  It is worth remembering that at this time there was no NHS: hospitals were generally paid for by charity and public subscription, and since people with sexually transmitted diseases were not seen as being particularly deserving, hospitals treating them were rare; indeed, people with such contagious diseases would have been refused admission to many of the extant institutions.

I have seen it asserted that the term ‘lock hospital’ is slang and that its use would have been considered improper in official literature. Whatever informal uses the word ‘lock’ may have been put to, the latter assertion is not correct; the term ‘lock hospital’ was used in official and medical reports.  A late 19th century paper on Lock Hospitals, which mentions institutions of that sort in Dublin and Glasgow, as well as in various English cities, is listed as additional reading at the end of this piece.

The dates for the broadsheet Unfortunate Lad songs are close to those of the Contagious Disease Acts.  I believe that this is probably significant.  The first of these controversial acts was passed in 1864, as a result of concern about the effects of venereal diseases upon the effectiveness of the army and navy.  These brutal laws provided for the compulsory intimate examination of women thought to be prostitutes, and, if it was found that they did have the disease, for their compulsory detention and treatment in a lock hospital.  The provisions applied only to areas of the country where there were military bases, but they led to a major expansion of provision.  Some complained that the laws had not gone far enough, and should be extended to soldier’s wives and girlfriends.  Others felt that men should be subject to the same examinations, penalties and detention.  These laws applied only to women; men believing themselves affected would probably have visited a chemist or, perhaps, have consulted a doctor if they could afford it.  Following a strenuous public campaign, the CD Acts were repealed, but their passing and implementation must have left their mark on the public psyche.

I would suggest, therefore, that the printing of the homiletic Unfortunate Lad songs in the latter half of the 19th century, with their military characters and their explicit references to lock hospitals represented the national public health preoccupations of the time.

As we gave seen, The Unfortunate Lad ends with the afflicted character making a request about his funeral arrangements.  Such endings were found in a variety of songs, especially what were called neck ballads, or goodnight ballads, songs about, and often sold at, the hanging of convicted criminals.  And they crop up in other places too: there is at least one example of a song ending with a funeral request in the works of Shakespeare:

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away, breath:
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
Oh, prepare it!
My part of death no one so true
Did share it.

Not a flower, not a flower sweet
On my black coffin let there be strown.
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
To weep there!

(from Twelfth Night)

Goldstein (1959) gives several examples of songs which end with accounts of or requests about a funeral, raising questions about whether the relationships he sees between some of them are more than accidental.  He sees the need for more research on the topic.  It seems reasonable to suggest, therefore, that not every song which ends with a funeral request will be a song about somebody about to die from the effects of venereal disease.  Such endings seem to have functioned as conventional tropes upon which the makers of songs could draw as and when they saw fit.

To put this another way, the mere fact that a song has what was in effect a conventional ending referring to a forthcoming funeral is weak evidence that it is part of what came, rather misleadingly in my view, to be called ‘The Rake Cycle’.

Unlike The Buck’s Lament and The Unfortunate Lad, the last song in this section, My Jewel, My Joy, was collected from an informant, rather than surviving in a published documentary form.  At one time, I assumed that it had been sung to its collector, but thanks to Professor Richard Jenkins’ recently published piece (28), I understand that it was probably sent to him in a letter.

It is, in my view, open to question whether My Jewel My Joy song is relevant to the story of The Unfortunate Rake.  Arguments that it is relevant may be examples of the operation of ‘confirmation bias’, as Jenkins (28) might put it, but as the fragment comes into the story of the creation of the Unfortunate Rake myth, it cannot be ignored.

William Forde, of Cork, was a 19th century musician and antiquarian, who collected songs and tunes, though his main interest was in tunes (5).  He collected a piece which came to be called My Jewel, My Joy in Cork from somebody who claimed to have heard it sung there in 1790.  Forde’s papers were later acquired by another song collector, P W Joyce.  In 1909, Joyce published a selection from Forde’s collection, and, eventually, donated Forde’s materials to The Irish Academy (6).

As My Jewel My Joy was one of the Forde songs selected by Joyce, we can find the title, the words of the single verse provided by the informant, and the tune, in the selection published by Joyce in Boston in 1909 and now also available on the Internet. Joyce’s publication is sometimes cited as if Joyce collected the song himself, but, as we have seen, he did not.

The only words set down are:

My jewel, my joy, don’t trouble me with the drum
Sound the dead march as my corpse goes along
And over my body throw handfuls of laurel
And let them know I’m going to my rest.

It should be emphasised that no additional information is provided about this song by Joyce.   This is the sum total of what he says about it in the 1909 publication:  From Mr W Aldwell of Cork (“Dec 17th, 1848”), who heard air and song sung in Cork about the year 1790.  He remembered one verse of the song (given here), which, as Forde remarks, is curious for the absence of rhyme. 

Richard Jenkins (28, p116) has a detailed and interesting section on this part of the ‘myth’.  He comments that one might reasonably question how accurate Mr Aldwell’s memories will have been, given the time lapse between 1790 and 1848.   As others have done, he points out that the lack of rhyme (supposedly commented on by Forde) may indicate a flawed memory, assuming that Aldwell had not written the piece down long before presenting it to Forde.   Presumably, the accuracy of Aldwell’s version of the melody (if he submitted this along with the words) might be called into question on the same argument.  Yet the melody given appears to be complete and to make sense as a tune.  Jenkins goes further: he reports searches of various archives which failed to produce Mr Aldwell’s original letter or any mention of the song by Joyce himself outside of the published collections.  But, as Jenkins reminds us, ‘absence proves nothing’.

Moreover, if both A L Lloyd (20) and Robert Harwood (1) are wrong, if Aldwell sent a written version of the piece to Forde, as opposed to Forde transcribing it from an oral performance, this shows that Aldwell could write down music.  On this assumption he will not have been a ‘tradition bearer’ in a purely oral tradition.

As I have indicated, I am not convinced that either these lyrics or the tune are necessarily linked to The Unfortunate Lad.  The sole thematic link appears to be the funeral request, especially the reference to a drum, which has military connotations.  We have none of the hints about venereal disease, and no evidence of any embedded narrative form.  There is reference to a plant, the laurel (also known as the bay), but this particular plant has a specific Christian symbolism in terms of resurrection, of the victory of life over death.  In our other early versions, the plants mentioned have strong and pleasant scents, and would be carried partly to supress the odour of the corpse, and, perhaps, partly because there was still a lingering idea that perfumes protected one from air-borne diseases.

Another difference is the direct address of a loved one, the jewel of the title, which is not present in The Lad, and which would, I suggest, seem inappropriate in that context. It seems extremely unlikely to the present writer that the ‘jewel’ in question would be so well-disposed towards a lover dying of syphilis for which he blames her (or another woman?) as to actively participate in giving him the send-off he requests. Unless he were a complete idiot, he would know this.

As it happens, Cork, being a naval port, was covered by the Contagious Disease Acts, though, of course, these came later than the date suggested for the Jewel fragment.

For all we know, this might be a song about a person mortally injured in a duel or in battle bidding farewell to his loved one.  Even the idea that the character in this song is actually a soldier lacks textual support. It may have been ‘read into’ the fragment by those actively seeking links between songs.

The aeolian tune to which this fragment was sung is, it should be noted, different from other tunes referred to in this piece.  It has been argued that it is similar to the tune of The Cowboy’s Lament/Streets of Loredo, a family of songs that I do not discuss here, but I cannot see the resemblance.

To sum up, any claims that My Jewel My Joy is part of what came to be called The Rake Cycle are, it is argued, based on assumptions or inferences rather than on demonstrable facts, and are difficult to reconcile with such wording as has been preserved.  Its inclusion in the myth narrative may be an example of the confirmation bias that Jenkins (28) argues has affected folklorists’ discussions of this set of songs.

NB It has been suggested that another broadsheet ballad may form part of this family, namely In Newry Town, also known by various titles, including The Wild and Wicked Youth.  This song has also been used as evidence for an Irish origin of St James’ Infirmary.  The link here is the presence of a funeral request.  Bishop and Roud (Op Cit) discuss this song, and report having consulted an expert on Irish music, whose view, ironically, was that the song was unlikely to have been Irish in origin.  The EFDS Society describe this as a goodnight ballad.

I do not find the argument that the funeral request demonstrates that In Newry Town is an ancestor of St James’ Infirmary compelling. As mentioned previously, a variety of song types made use of such endings.  Death is part of the human condition, and it is surrounded by various rituals, and it should not surprise us that the writers of songs about death should have chosen to describe the funeral at the end of the song.

Words and Tunes

Before moving on to the story of how the myth of origin grew, it may be helpful to remind ourselves that words and tunes can have different origins.  People sometimes forget that tunes could be used for more than one song, and that some sets of words, rather like hymns, have been sung to a variety of melodies.  I mention this because such muddles may be found in some of the online and published commentary on The Unfortunate Rake.   

The fact is that nobody knows what tunes the purchasers of most broadsheet ballads would have sung the songs to.  Sometimes the sheet suggested a particular tune, sometimes not.  The ballad tends to have a standard 16-bar structure, so singers could, presumably, fit the words to a ballad-type tune of their choice, adapting the tune here or there as the words or their own inclination might dictate.

Not surprisingly, the English song collectors of the early 20th century who recorded both words and tunes found variants of our song being sung to a variety of tunes.  Cecil Sharp knew of at least six different tunes (10).

Our story is complicated by the fact that St James Infirmary is not the only song believed to have its origins in The Unfortunate Rake.  There is a family of very similar songs of which The Streets of Loredo, or The Cowboy’s Lament is perhaps the best-known example.  It is sometimes said that the words of this set of songs are also derived from those of The Unfortunate Rake.  As for the history of the tune to which The Cowboy’s Lament is usually sung, that is a different story.  The same tune, or a very similar one, is also used for an unrelated song called The Bard of Armagh.

It has also been argued that the tune Joyce used for the ‘My Jewel My Joy’ piece resembles the tune of The Streets of Loredo (See, for example, if I have read him aright, Jenkins, 28, p 116.)  At this point, I may have to part company with Jenkins.  For more than one reason, I am not sure that we are able to state with the certainty he does, that the ‘My Jewel’ piece is ‘clearly a member of the tune family to which the Irish, British and North American Rake variants and Loredo all belong.’  I speak as a person who has played a number of these versions on a keyboard.  However, I have not yet read the Bayard pieces on song families cited as references by Jenkins.  Perhaps when I have, I shall change my mind.

Just to muddy the waters even further, at least one tune still in use is sometimes called The Unfortunate Rake, though I am not aware of any evidence that any versions of our song were sung to this air. The Rake was a relatively significant cultural figure, and he crops up in more than one art form, often coming to an ‘unfortunate’ end. Historically, several different tunes had the same name. 

The Myth Begins

The earliest reference that I have found that links The Unfortunate Lad with The Unfortunate Rake dates from 1904, and comes from a number of The Journal of the Folk-Song Society devoted to songs collected in England by Mr Frank Kidson (7).

Kidson quotes the first verse of a variant set in Rippleton Gardens which he calls The Unfortunate Lad. He suggests, without advancing any argument on the point, that it is likely that the words were originally sung to an Irish tune called The Unfortunate Rake.   In a comment that seems to undermine his own thought, he says that there is ‘some slight resemblance’ between the tune of Rippleton Gardens and the air called The Unfortunate Rake.   That air exists under several names, and there are doubts about whether it was Irish in origin.  One can only assume that Kidson is guessing, based on the verbal similarities between the two titles.

The sources for this air that Kidson gives include a volume of songs collected by Crosby and published in 1813.  The words Crosby provides for it are about a wandering harper, and have the feel of a 19th century sentimental song. It seems clear then, that this tune, whatever its origins or original words – if indeed it had any words –  had been used with unrelated words for almost a century at the time when Kidson wrote.   I find the tune quite different from the ‘Jewel’ one.  The Jewel is in the aeolian mode.  The Unfortunate Rake draws on a six-note scale with a minor third, nothing where one might expect a sixth in a heptatonic scale, and a major seventh. 

We cross the Atlantic for our second article referring to the Rake by that name: Irish Folk Song by Phillips Barry.  Barry had been educated at Harvard University, where there was much interest in old ballads, and he was the originator of a theory about folk song called ‘the communal re-creation’ theory (8).  Folklorists in the US were in touch with those in England, as the story of Cecil Sharp’s visits to the US shows.  Barry may well, therefore, have read the journal with Kidson’s article in it.

Writing in 1911, Barry begins his article by praising Irish folk song, saying that the symbolic harp identifies Ireland as producing ‘the music-folk of the world’.  The section of his essay that is relevant to our story is mainly concerned with tracing the way an old song mutated into or was, in accordance with his theory, communally re-created as The Cowboy’s Lament.   Barry’s naming of the old song is of special interest here.  Though referring to the Such broadsides, which, as we have seen, call our song The Unfortunate Lad, Barry puzzlingly refers to the song as The Unfortunate Rake.

Having blithely, and without justifying himself, retitled the Such broadside, Barry goes on to assert, incorrectly, that ‘Joyce traces it {The Unfortunate Rake} in Ireland as early as 1790’, citing Joyce’s Old Irish Folk Music, no 442, as his source, or authority, for the assertion.  The reader will recall that P W Joyce was the man who published William Forde’s collection.

As a matter of fact, as the reader has seen, there is no evidence that Joyce ever mentioned any other song in connection with the fragment.  In ascribing this ‘tracing’ to Joyce, Barry in effect avoids the need to justify the claim that My Jewel My Joy is the same song.  He writes as if somebody else has already actively carried out this work.  It is tempting to surmise that Barry, whose admiration for the Irish is clear, wishes to argue that the Irish have made an active contribution to American popular culture (and of course they have), and that this wish led him to make a stronger claim for an Irish origin than the evidence itself would support.

I invite the reader to put him- or herself in the position of somebody reading Barry’s article without having had the benefit either of reading the Such broadsheet or of knowing what Joyce actually wrote.  If relying solely on the information provided by Barry, one might forgivably conclude that it is beyond doubt that there was a Such broadsheet called The Unfortunate Rake, a song which Joyce had traced back to a song called My Jewel My Joy sung in the Ireland of the 1790s.  And this, I feel sure, is precisely what subsequent readers have done, and this is how the myth began to establish itself in some people’s minds as being ‘true’.

I have found websites which assert that the ‘pipes’ mentioned in The Unfortunate Lad and some other versions of the song must be Irish small pipes, presumably on the basis of a fairly common belief that the song was originally Irish. The musical instruments the pipe/fife and drum were originally associated with the military because they served a communication function in battle. The noises they made carried over the noise of the fighting, so they were used for signalling. As the Irish small pipes are usually played sitting down, I suggest that it is unlikely that these pipes were the instruments in the mind of early singers of this song.

A Wikepedia entry listing Irish ballads includes, in the section called ‘Places, Emigration and Travel’, the title Lock Hospital.  The reference reveals that this title actually refers to the fragment called My Jewel, My Joy.  This shows how firmly embedded this element of the myth has become and how potentially misleading information is disseminated through the internet.

I would also point out that even if My Jewel, My Jewel could be shown to be the oldest-known version of The Unfortunate Lad, this would not prove that the song was originally Irish or Anglo-Irish. Songs and tunes crossed from mainland Britain to Ireland and back, just as people did.

In 1912, Phillips Barry returned to the topic of The Unfortunate Rake in a piece called Some Aspects of Folk Song (9).  In this piece he categorises the song as a ‘homiletic ballad’.  He asserts without any supportive argument, references, or examples that a song called The Unfortunate Rake was still extant in England and was known in Ireland as long ago as 1790, this date obviously coming from Forde via Joyce.  Barry states as fact something which was at the outset a weakly justified inference.

The ideas in the article are muddled: Barry gives the last verse of the Such Unfortunate Lad version song, stating that this is the ‘original form’, a claim he cannot justify and which seems to contradict his view that My Jewel, My Joy is the older version.   Some writers have dealt with this by asserting that the lack of rhyme in My Jewel, My Joy shows that Forde’s informant had a faulty memory.  On this basis, perhaps they feel free to draw inferences about what the actual words must have been.  But the argument needs to be made, and once again Barry fudges the issue.

Barry also asserts that song is the lament of a dissolute solder who is dying in hospital.  This significantly misrepresents the setting of the Such song, which is set ‘by’, or ‘near’, the lock, or in some versions, an unnamed or differently named hospital.  It is not set in a hospital.  Moreover, as we have seen, lock hospitals almost always treated women, and not men.  The natural inference for the late 19th century listener to draw from the originals is that the dissolute soldier realises his fate as a result of learning that his female sexual partner is in the lock hospital.  If he is going to die, then so is she, and, if she caught the disease before he did, then is likely she will die before him.

For me, Barry’s work raises questions about the methodologies, if any, taught to folklorists of the time.  What criteria were used to establish genealogies for songs, for example?  What emphasis was there on distinguishing fact from theory? That said, Barry’s article does demonstrate that song collectors were finding versions of the early song across the United States. (NB Barry seems unaware of the Covent Garden version.  I do not know when this version came under the radar of the folklorists.  It is not mentioned in my story of the myth’s development because it does not feature.  Had it done so, then certainly the myth would have been different.)

On this side of the Atlantic, British song collectors continued to find variants of the song being sung to different tunes. A 1913 number of the English Folk-Song Society’s journal features several of these, this time under the heading The Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime (10).  Cecil Sharp himself contributed two tunes used for variants, both of which he described as being of the ‘Henry Martin’ type.  One tune Sharp categorised as Dorian, the other as Aeolian/Dorian.  In 1915, yet another tune was added to the collection (11).  However, on the British side of the Atlantic, in contrast to the USA, the supposed title The Unfortunate Rake appears to have been lost sight of.

For a while, there is no mention of the Rake, but in order to understand what happens next, the reader needs some background.

In 1918, Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles, both of whom were involved with the English Folk Song Society, visited the US to collect folk songs that had travelled the Atlantic with settlers, though the full collection was not published until 1932, some years after Sharp’s death.   Sharp’s diaries from the trip are now accessible online (12).  On June 8th, the two collectors found, in a town called Dewey, a song which seemed to be related to The Unfortunate Lad, and which made reference to St James’ Hospital in the first line.  The last verse is:

Oh, beat your drum loudly and play your fife merry,
To march a dead body along to the graveyard;
And plant the green sods over me.
If I am a young man I know I done wrong.

This song was not published until 1932, when the 2nd volume of Sharp’s songs from the Appalachians was edited by Karpeles (Sharp having died by then) and issued with the title English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (13). However, Sharp, who was in close touch with Kittredge of Harvard University, had left copies of his field notes in the library at that university, so they were available for interested Americans to read.

In the early 1920′s, another Harvard-educated song collector, W Roy MacKenzie, collected a St James’ Hospital version, this time in Nova Scotia, Canada (14).  Like the Dewey version, this refers to ‘linen’, as opposed to the ‘flannel’ of the known British songs.  The final verse runs

So beat your drums and play your pipes merrily
And play the dead march as you bear me along.
Take me to the churchyard and throw the ground over me.
I’m a young maiden: I know I’ve done wrong.

In 1925, Phil Baxter published in Little Rock, Arkansas, a version called Gambler’s Blues, with words by Carl Moore and music by Baxter himself.  This story is set in Joe’s bar-room, and involves embedded narratives, and a character who tells of seeing his loved one in the infirmary (15).

In the United States, songs with resemblance to The Unfortunate Lad proliferated, and two versions found their way into Carl Sandburg’s successful 1927 collection The American Songbag (16).  One is set in Old Joe’s Bar-room, the other in St Joe’s Infirmary.

Possible variants found their way onto discs, including Fess Williams’ 1927 Gambler’s Blues and Louis Armstrong’s 1928 St James’ Infirmary Blues, as well as the song The Dying Crapshooter’s Blues, which Blind Willie McTell later claimed to have written, though his version seems to have been based on one by Porter Grainger, as Harwood (Op Cit) explains.

Harwood also gives a fascinating account of a copyright court case, the central question in which was whether Joe Primrose (AKA Irving Mills) had sole right to use the words ‘St James’ Infirmary’.  Various musicians declared that they had heard versions of the song that used the phrase ‘St James’ prior to Joe Primrose copyrighting his version, but as the judge wanted documentary evidence, Primrose won his case.

In 1932 Maud Karpeles, as already indicated, edited and published the second volume of the songs she and Sharp had collected in the Appalachians.  This included the song mentioning St James’ Hospital. It also includes a note referring to Mackenzie’s discovery in Nova Scotia.

What was now the English Folk Dance and Song Society featured another article on the topic of this song family in 1937 (18).  Ironically, since no song featuring those words had ever been found in England, the EFDSS was by this time referring to the song under the generic heading of  St James’ Hospital, words found by Sharp and Karpeles in the Appalachians in 1918, and also found, as Karpeles was aware, in 1920’s Novia Scotia by  MacKenzie.  No doubt the international success of the Armstrong song had something to do with this choice of heading.  The song reported in the article was called Bath Hospital by the singer, who said that he had given up singing it when he realised it was ‘not quite nice’.   The second verse, which the singer said he had altered to make it more acceptable, replacing ‘disordered’ with ‘disappointed’, is as follows:

I asked her what ailed her, I asked her what failed her,
I asked her the cause of all her complaint,
She told me her young man had disappointed her,
And that was the cause of all her complaint.

The song ends

Mother, dear mother, come play the French fiddle,
And play the dead march when they carry me along
And over my coffin throw handfuls of laurel,
Say there goes a true-hearted girl to her home.

Enter A L Lloyd

English broadcaster, journalist and folk singer A L Lloyd (often known as ‘Bert’) published two articles about the origins of the song St James’ Infirmary, one in a 1947 issue of Keynote magazine (19) and the second in a 1956 issue of Sing (20).  The second article is a revised version of the first.  The articles make uncomfortable reading today, making use as they do of the term ‘negro’.

Lloyd is an interesting, if controversial, character.  Many pieces about him emphasise his jovial and generous personality.  The academic David Gregory has published a number of research articles on Lloyd.  For present purposes, one particular insight from Gregory’s work is especially significant.  Lloyd sometimes tinkered with material that he represented as traditional before publishing it, a practice which more conservative folklorists would frown upon (21a and 21b).  It is ironic, then, that Gregory appears to accept at face value Lloyd’s assertion that there was a broadsheet ballad called The Unfortunate Rake (21b).

In the first cited article, Gregory quotes at length from an interview given by Lloyd, in which the latter states that he rarely sang songs exactly as he had learned them, but that sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, he would alter them. ‘Some,’ says Lloyd, ‘I’ve altered deliberately because I felt some phrases of the tune, some passages of the text, to be not entirely adequate.’

In the second article, Gregory discusses the controversial editorial approach Lloyd had taken when compiling an anthology called Corn on the Cob. According to Gregory, Lloyd would create a new composite version of a song when the collected material seemed to him to be unsatisfactory or incomplete. Gregory quotes an interview from Lloyd in which he acknowledges and justifies this approach:

‘Most of the poems quoted in this book are given as taken down from the singing of individual singers and unedited, but in one or two cases, where there exists a whole cycle of ballads dealing with a single subject or figure, a composite version has been made, put together from several texts, in – order to give the ballad a greater continuity or a higher dramatic interest … Singers of these ballads are always incorporating new or alternative verses into them, and that is all that has been done in this case. I make no apology for doing so.’

Gregory comments, with detailed examples in support of his view, that Lloyd’s ‘in one or two cases’ is an understatement.

Similar complaints about Lloyd tinkering with supposedly authentic, original material have been made in connection with his collections of Australian songs (*).

Lloyd’s articles about St James Infirmary rely heavily on the literature we have already discussed, and appear to be among the earliest, if not the very first, to suggest that St James Infirmary is part of the family.  In his first article, Lloyd states that The Unfortunate Lad

‘… is a ballad found on a broadside bearing no imprint.  Some believe it was published by Pratt of Birmingham, others credit it to Henry Such of the Borough, London. It is known also as The Unfortunate Rake.’

Lloyd is not clear about whether he himself has seen this broadside, or whether he is drawing on what others have said or written about it.  Whoever published the one he is referring to, the Such versions I have seen do include the printer’s name, as does one published by Carrots: the song seems to have been viewed as a commercially viable product by more than one publisher, though Lloyd seems unaware of this.  By Lloyd’s day it was true that The Unfortunate Lad was sometimes known as The Unfortunate Rake, though this seems only to have applied in the USA, so in saying this Lloyd is simply reporting the facts as he saw them at that time.  This does not, however, prove that the title had been used by singers of the song in the more distant past.

In his Keynote article, Lloyd provides an interpretation of the ending of the broadside version/s he is referring to, but he does not reproduce it, leaving readers unable to evaluate his interpretation for themselves.  He describes it in terms which are impossible to reconcile with the actual wording of the Such, Carrot and other printings which I have seen.  Lloyd writes that in the broadside:

‘… the rake … ends by begging for a military funeral of a defiant and cheery character (“Beat your drums loudly and blow your fifes gaily,” is his request) with harlots carrying roses to liven the proceedings.’

Why Lloyd should assume that the ‘six pretty maidens’ of the actual broadside versions are ‘harlots’ is perhaps something only he could explain, but it is clear that the early versions referring to drums, including The Buck’s Elegy, stipulate that the drums should be muffled, as is appropriate to a sad and solemn occasion, not beaten loudly. Nor do the extant versions mention ‘fifes’; the term ‘pipe’ is used.  As far as I can ascertain, military funerals were reserved for high-ranking people; strictly speaking, the unfortunate character asks for no such thing, and if he had done so, his 19th century listeners would have known he was never going to get it.

What Lloyd seems to be doing in his account of the ending of the broadsheet version is giving a biased and inaccurate account that supports his claim that St James’ Infirmary, with its mention, in the version Lloyd quotes, of jazz bands raising hell, is part of the song family.

Lloyd argues that there is confusion in St James’ Infirmary because a woman is dead in hospital, while the funeral is ordered for the man.  He says this is because the moribund characters in the old songs were sometimes men, sometimes women, and that this caused the confusion in the ‘Negro version’.

I disagree, and I find Lloyd’s explanation unnecessary, if not positively patronising.  For me, St James is entirely consistent with the Unfortunate Lad songs, once you realise that the woman in the latter would have been in the lock hospital, which is how the man met outside it realises that he has the disease.  If one person catches a fatal disease from another, then obviously, in the long run, two deaths are involved, as in St James’ Infirmary.  This interpretation is consistent with the St James lyrics in which the character sings of seeing his loved one in the infirmary.

Incidentally, Lloyd introduces a small dating error in his second piece, stating that Sharp heard a song in Dewey on June 18th when it was actually June 8th.  A minor error, but one that wastes your time if you are looking it up in Sharp’s diaries, which are now online!

In his early 20th century piece, Barry commented that American versions replaced the coarse vices of the early versions with less offensive weaknesses such as drinking and gambling.  In the case of St James Infirmary, I suggest, the coarse vices might have been omitted, but nothing had put in to replace them as a cause of the decline and death of either partner.  My guess, for what it is worth, is that just as the early English folklorists blenched at the topic matter of the song, early 20th century African-American musicians might have sung a more explicit version, but have recorded and published less controversial ones.  Suggestive lyrics were commonplace in some forms of African American entertainment, especially in the blues.  All this would explain the narrative gap which Lloyd interprets as confusion about the gender of the victim.  (NB Different interpretations have been offered which explain some versions of St James’ Infirmary Blues, but this is perhaps not the place to explore these in detail.)

By the time he wrote the second article, in Sing, Lloyd appears to have seen a copy of the Such version, or one of the more or less identical printings of this song. The evidence for this is that this time he quotes the final verse.  Not surprisingly, he also omits his rather misleading account of the ending of the song.

Unlike Barry, and perhaps because he is a singer himself, Lloyd takes an interest in the various tunes that had been collected over the years.  In the first article, he links some of the tunes to that of a song called Henry Martin, the Bold Scottish Pirate.   In doing so, he is clearly drawing on, and it could be argued, rather simplifying, Cecil Sharp’s comments on two collected tunes, as given in the 1913 EFFS article that was discussed above.  In the second piece, Lloyd chooses a favourite tune, and it is the tune called My Jewel My Joy that William Forde collected in Cork.  This choice will be of significance later.

Back to the USA

The continuing popularity of songs within this tradition appears eventually to have stimulated the folklore enthusiasts of the United States into publishing more articles on the topic.  In 1955, Kenneth Lodewick published an article called The Unfortunate Rake and his Descendants in a magazine or journal called Western Folklore published by the Western Folklore Society (22).  Lodewick’s main interest is in tracing elements or themes that feature in various versions of the song, including what he refers to as the ‘Negro blues’ version, St James’ Infirmary.  This piece was highly influential in perpetuating the Rake myth, as we shall see.  As the title suggests, Lodewick takes it for granted that there once was a related song called The Unfortunate Rake.

Like Lloyd, and the other writers before that, Lodewick does not or cannot provide an example of a song called The Unfortunate Rake, despite having done a certain amount of background reading on the topic.  Referring instead to the Joyce collection mentioned above, Lodewick adds to the confusion by incorrectly asserting that My Jewel My Joy was learned in Dublin by Forde’s informant, a mistake which, as we shall see, was later repeated and disseminated widely.

Lodewick quotes two extracts from what he calls a ‘stall ballad’, meaning a broadsheet or broadside ballad, which he has found (second-hand, as it were) in a collection of songs by H M Beldon, but it would appear, from the wording ‘locke hospital’, and from the ending, that this is actually one of the 19th century Unfortunate Lad songs.  Unfortunately, Lodewick’s referencing isn’t clear about Beldon’s source for these lyrics, and a later writer in the same journal, Wayland Hand, stated that all that Beldon had produced was a ‘tantalizing sketch’.

I would argue that if Beldon in fact had found a ‘stall ballad’ that was actually entitled The Unfortunate Rake then this example would by now have been referenced in the continuing thread of publications on the topic and published online.  Many researchers would have been very pleased to see it.  What is clear is that Lodewick himself has seen no such thing.

It should be noted that none of these writers has referred to The Buck’s Lament. As they are apparently unaware of it, their narratives about the history of the song do not take account of it, and are for that reason less satisfactory than they might be.

Lloyd and Goldstein

The next, and probably, in terms of the crystallisation of the myth, the single most significant event, was the issuing in 1960 of an LP called The Unfortunate Rake on the Folkways label (FS 3805). This LP was produced by Kenneth S Goldstein, who worked with A L Lloyd on several projects, and it featured A L Lloyd as a singer of the title track.  This was not the first time a recording of Lloyd singing the song had been issued, which was on an LP called English Street Songs (Riverside RLP 12-614).

Wayland Hand [1958] naively perhaps, wrote: ‘This rare old ballad can now be heard in full from an old broadside version in the singing of A L Lloyd.’  Had Lloyd really succeeded in tracing down the elusive broadside hinted at but not found by writers in the past half century?  I don’t believe it for a minute. But Wayland’s comment, published as it was in a prestigious folklorist journal, no doubt helped to spread the myth of The Rake among a wider audience. 

Record producer Goldstein, according to his New York Times obituary (23), had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration, and he turned his business talents to good use in the music industry, where he is credited as a ‘prime mover in the 1960’s folk revival’, having produced over 50 albums of folk music. Eventually he wrote a doctoral dissertation on folk music and moved into academia.  His interest in folklore is demonstrated by the fact that he wrote the liner notes for the LP The Unfortunate Rake, under the heading The Unfortunate Rake, The Evolution of a Ballad (24).   In preparation, perhaps, for this task, he published some short notes on the song a 1959 edition of Western Folklore. The Smithsonian has published the liner notes online (25).

Understandably, perhaps, in view of Goldstein’s later academic prominence, these notes have been taken for a reliable source by many commentators when they are no such thing.  The reader may suspect as much in view of the fact that two of the references cited by Goldstein are 1) the Lodewick article discussed above, and 2) the second of A L Lloyd’s pieces on St James Infirmary.

Goldstein’s notes begin by asserting that the original St James Hospital was in London, and was situated on land where St James’ Palace was later built, a claim for which he offers no evidence at all.  As a matter of fact, as we have seen, there is no direct evidence that a version using the words ‘St James Hospital’ was ever sung in 19th century England.   Moreover, on the face of it, this unsubstantiated claim that the song refers to St James in London conflicts with repeated claims that the song has an Irish origin.  Why would the Irish be writing songs about a London hospital?

As we have seen, mention of St James is first recorded on the continent of North America, in the USA and Nova Scotia. Where did this wording originate?

Perhaps it could be argued that the best explanation of the appearance of the words St James’ in both the USA and Canada is that British settlers took the song over the ocean to both places.  On first thought, this seems unlikely.  Nova Scotia, as the name suggests, was largely settled by people from Scotland, whereas the song is supposed to be Irish in origin.  However, even if we accept this explanation, it is an inference, not a fact, and one which conflicts with the wording of the earliest known version, which makes no reference at all to a hospital. It also lacks support from British, or indeed Irish, early versions containing reference to St James. 

On the other hand, there is evidence from the early 20th century that the commercial entertainment circuits crossed borders between the USA and Canada.  It must be the case that performers did this: many American performers came to Europe, which involved crossing an ocean as well as national borders!  There were clearly many cultural links between the two countries: the man who collected the Canadian version had been educated at Harvard.  It is at least as credible, and in my view more likely, that this wording sprang up in the USA and travelled from there to Canada.

I suggest that there is a good reason why the name of the hospital was changed when the song was sung on the North American Continent: they did not have establishments called ‘lock hospitals’ there, so the wording would have made no sense.  Another detail which suggests to me a common American source for the Dewey and Novia Scotia songs is that both refer to ‘linen’, whereas the British versions have the unfortunate lad wrapped in ‘flannel’.

Goldstein refers to the song as an ‘Anglo/Irish’ homiletic ballad, but he does not define what he means by ‘Anglo/Irish’, leaving us wondering what Barry might have made of this characterisation. Definitions of identity such as ‘Irish’ and ‘Anglo Irish’ and ‘British’ vary and are contested to this day.

The liner notes then helpfully supply us with a reason why the title The Unfortunate Rake had become so widespread; the song, Goldstein asserts, has been used for educational purposes, to illustrate how songs change over time.  Goldstein hopes that the LP will provide musical illustrations for such lectures.  One might have hoped that educators were able to examine assertions and claims critically before passing them on, but, in this case, the power of the myth, the enthusiasms of the folklorists, and the rhetorical power of Goldstein’s liner notes, with their pseudo-academic presentational features such as references, seem to have been too strong for the instincts of any historians involved.

Goldstein, nicely illustrating the need to examine the claims made in the literature critically, and to go back to primary sources where possible, goes on to repeat Lodewick’s mistaken geographical assertion that My Jewel My Joy was heard in Dublin by the singer who provided it to Forde.

The liner notes then assert that the title track (or song) on the LP is a 19th century broadside version.  Since, as we have seen, none of the researchers cited by Goldstein appears to have seen such a thing, one wonders at first where this 19th century broadside had finally been found, who had printed it and where it was presently stored.  Such information is impossible to come by.  My argument, which has the benefit of following Occam’s razor principle, is that this is because there was no such thing as a 19th century broadside called The Unfortunate Rake.

What we do find on the LP is a version sung by A L Lloyd. We have learned something of Lloyd’s approach to traditional songs, and of his unapologetic attitudes to and somewhat understated accounts of the changes he made to songs before publishing them. We know of his fondness for ‘composite’ versions.  We have looked at two articles he wrote about this song and have noted that in one of these he gave a somewhat inaccurate account of the ending of the broadsheet version, an account which almost seemed designed to support an argument that St James Infirmary was linked to it.

All this information will help us to make sense of the version sung by Lloyd on this LP.   It is, I argue, a composite version, not a rendering of an original, and the literature we have looked at enables us to suggest where Lloyd found some of the elements he used to create it.

Let us start with the tune: we are in a position to guess which tune Lloyd will use, and, sure enough, he has followed his personal preferences and selected the tune Forde collected in Cork, the one to which the My Jewel My Joy fragment was sung.

Now let us move onto the words.  Has Lloyd simply used the words from the Such broadside or one of the other largely identical 19th century lock hospital Lad songs? No, he certainly has not.  Here are the words sung, and in my view, partly written by Lloyd, followed by my commentary:

As I was a-walking down by St. James’ 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.”

The first point to make (again!) is that none of the broadsheet versions I have seen, and none of the broadsheet versions referred to in the literature, including Lloyd’s own articles, contain a reference to St James’ Hospital.  (Indeed, one broadsheet version has a gap before the word ‘hospital’, as if the purchaser were expected to fill in the blank with the name of a local institution.)  Nor does this hospital feature in any of the versions collected in England by the folk-song enthusiasts whose journal articles we have reviewed.

I infer that Lloyd chose to sing the words St James Hospital either because he liked them, or, more likely perhaps, because they fitted in rather well with the story he and Goldstein wanted to tell about the British origins of the American blues song.  There is another possible reason for doing away with the ‘lock hospital’ wording:  people in modern-day Great Britain have largely forgotten what these institutions were; Lloyd’s listeners in the USA would, presumably, have had no idea at all what this term meant, or how controversial these establishments, and the laws that caused of them to be built, had been.

The first verses of the British broadsides include reference to flannel but not the ‘day/day’ rhyme used by Lloyd.  These words appear to come from some version of the Cowboy’s Lament/Streets of Loredo.  

The internal ‘ailed … failed him’ rhyme appears to be another Lloyd touch; while pleasing to the ear, it is not taken from the broadside versions.  An alert reader may be able to pinpoint the probable source of this rhyme, which is the Bath Hospital version from the December 1937 issue of the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society as discussed above.

The detail of the ‘laurel’ appears to have been taken either from My Jewel My Joy, or the Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime printed in the EFFS of 1915, or the Bath Hospital variant.  Only in the second of these is the plant stated to be intended to cover a smell, the purpose explicitly identified for it in Lloyd’s.  This detail replaces the strongly scented lavender and roses of the Such printing.  As we have seen, laurel has a symbolic Christian significance.  I imagine that Lloyd was aware of this.  However, laurel, or bay, leaves, while useful for culinary purposes, do not have a particularly strong smell, so they would not have served the purpose stated.  The poisonous sort of laurel smells of almonds when crushed which would make it difficult to make into a ‘bunch’ as per Lloyd’s lyrics.

In line, perhaps, with his early assertion that the final mood of the rake is defiant, Lloyd omits the broadsheet verse in which the lad regrets having ignored the warnings of his father. This, of course, significantly affects the overall tone of the piece.

Lloyd also replaces the muffled drums and pipes of the originals with an instruction not to muffle the drums and to play the fifes ‘merrily’.  This word reminds us of the last verse of the St James’s Hospital song collected by Sharp and Karpeles in the Appalachians and quoted in full in Sharp’s Keynote article, and of the Nova Scotia ending.

When selecting his funeral music, Lloyd picks a ‘quick march’ to replace the ‘dead march’.  The phrase ‘bright muskets’ has a pleasantly cheerful alliterative feel, and the word ‘muskets’ also sounds more olde-worlde than ‘rifles’, which may have been why Lloyd selected it.  The insertion of ‘saying’ in the last adds a degree of cohesion which is, perhaps, lacking in the Such original, and, once again, seems to be based on the Bath Hospital version, which has ‘Say’ at this point.

The overall effect of these changes by Lloyd undermine the ‘homiletic’ nature of the originals, which, put simply, had sad endings to support their moralistic message. Perhaps Lloyd simply did not like the moralistic element of the original, and did not wish to sing a moralistic version.

To sum up, it seems to me that in this song, Lloyd has once again produced an ‘improved’ composite, and, moreover, one that conveniently fits in with his theory about the origins and American descendants of the song.  He neatly provides the educators mentioned by Goldstein with just the missing link required, without which their narrative would tend to dissolve into mists: a song called The Unfortunate Rake, which includes the St James wording and has an upbeat ending similar to the blues popularised by Louis Armstrong.

Whether Goldstein realised what Lloyd had done, we shall never know.  Goldstein cites Lloyd’s article in Sing magazine, which contains two verses of the Such broadsheet referred to in several of the articles we have discussed.  Assuming Goldstein had read this article, would he not have realised that what Lloyd was singing was not the Such broadsheet version or any other identified original?  He should have known, one could argue, given the number of people who would be reading the liner notes.

Whatever the facts of the matter, Goldstein provides an example in one and the same person of the situation described by Karl Hagstrom Miller* in which the academic folklore tradition and commercial interests often worked together to influence the way in which musical traditions were perceived by the general public.  Granted, Miller is thinking of the ways in which people came to see blues and country music as two unlinked authentic sources of ‘folk’ music, but the general idea holds in this case.  ‘Folklore,’ writes Miller, ‘acquired academic authority, but it remained deeply entangled with the commercial culture scholars explicitly excoriated.’  Goldstein had a foot in both camps. And at this point in his life, it can perhaps be suggested that the commercial motivation might have been foremost.

Lloyd appears to have liked the lyrics he sang on Goldstein’s LP, for on a 1966 LP, First Person (Topic 12T118 UK, 1966), he used more or less the same ones again.  The main changes are the title, which, this time, is St James Hospital, and the last verse:

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’.

The use of the direct address, ‘me jewel, me joy’, in this version seems to me to demonstrate very clearly that Lloyd is still creating composites, and it supports my argument that he used the fragment My Jewel, My Joy collected by Forde when creating his own version of The Unfortunate Rake.  

It is unarguable that Lloyd’s Folkways version has been taken by many to be a word-for-word rendering of a 19th century broadside original.  We have seen that Wayland Hand, supposedly an expert on the song, took it at face value as such.  Often Goldstein’s liner notes, with their assertion that Lloyd is singing a broadside version, are cited as ‘essential reading’ on the topic of the Unfortunate Rake.  The academic position later achieved by Goldstein seems to confirm people in their view that the liner notes must be an authoritative guide to the history of the song.

What Lloyd would think about all this we shall never know.  Lloyd’s view was, at one time, that most broadsides contained poor-quality songs written by hacks.  Perhaps he would simply have been amused to see how many people believed that his own improved offering was an old folk original, and gratified to see how popular his creation became.

Other work by Lloyd plays a part in the dissemination of the myth.  In 1967 his Folk Song in England was published. This includes comment on The Unfortunate Rake.  The old mistake about 1790s Dublin as the source of My Jewel, My Joy, first made by Lodewick, and repeated by Goldstein, crops up yet again.  Lloyd also asserts that a version of the song was known in Czech ‘before it emerged on the London Streets.’  Regrettably, as so often, we are provided with no evidence or reference for this interesting claim.  He boldly declares that the dying soldier in the Rake ‘demands to go down with more than military honours’, when it has never been established to this writer’s satisfaction that the soldier has ever explicitly requested ‘military honours’.  Once again, an unattributed song extract is given, and once again, we have to suspect that Lloyd himself was the author.

Get six of my comrades to carry my coffin
Six girls of the city to bear me on,
And each of them carry a bunch of red roses
So they don’t smell me as they walk along.

And muffle your drums, and play your pipes lowly,
Play the dead march as you carry me on,
And fire your bright muskets all over my coffin,
Saying: ‘There goes an unfortunate rake to his doom!’

If there is a lesson to be taken from all this, it is, perhaps, that we should take anything we read on liner notes or written by A L Lloyd with several pinches of salt: this material isn’t always what it is cracked up to be.

Footnote 1

I came to this story backwards, starting with the later pieces (such as the liner notes) and working back through the references in search of the elusive Rake.  I never found him, but when I looked at the sources in chronological order, and did some background research, I could see how the myth that he existed had become so entrenched in our consciousness.

I hope you enjoyed this journey into the past, and invite you to check out the references for yourself.

A similar myth exists to the effect that the song House of the Rising Sun has been shown by documentary evidence to be about a real brothel in New Orleans.  I’m not writing that essay now, but, take it from me, it hasn’t.

Footnote 2 (Later)

Since publishing this piece I have read and thoroughly enjoyed Richard Jenkins’ academic study (see ref 28 below) which takes up some similar themes, and, in the matter of Forde and Joyce takes the story even further back in time, problematizing it even further.

There was much of interest in Jenkin’s piece; one concept he drew on that I found useful in thinking about the way that the ‘myth’ took root was ‘confirmation bias’.  But do read this piece for yourself!


1  Harwood, R W (2015) I Went Down To St James Infirmary. Canada, Harland Press. NB This is a fascinating book, with a great deal of interesting research which casts light on at least one another myth that has grown up in connection with descendants of The Unfortunate Lad.

2  Bishop, J and Roud, S (2014) The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Kindle Edition.

3  Some digitised examples, including Such’s, may be seen by searching the online Bodleian Libraries collection of Ballads Online at; This is the source of the dates I give for the Such broadsheet.

The example printed for John Carrots may be found on the excellent National Library of Scotland Web Site at this address:;

4 This dictionary is available online through most public libraries.

5 See NB If this link and the one below fail to work, enter the name William Forde or PW Joyce in the search box on the ITMA web site and you will find the information about the man and his work that I used in this piece.

6 Joyce’s work has been digitised and can be downloaded in several places including here: ;

Songs From the Collection of Mr Frank Kidson. Frank Kidson and Lucy E Broadwood. Journal of the Folk-Song Society. Vol. 1, No. 5 (1904), pp. 228-257. Available via JSTOR at;

Irish Folk Songs. Philips, Barry. The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 24, No. 93 (Jul. – Sep., 1911), pp. 332-343. Available via JSTOR at

Some Aspects of Folk Songs. Philips, Barry. The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 25, No. 97 (Jul. – Sep., 1912), pp. 274-283. Available via JSTOR at;

10 Songs from Various Counties Journal of the Folk Song Society, Vol 4, No 17, pp. 325-347.
Stable URL:;

11  Songs of Love and Country Life.  Journal of the Folk Song Society, Vol 5, No 9 pp174-203.


13 Karpeles, M (Ed) (1932) English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. Collected by Cecil J. Sharp. London: Oxford University Press.

14 W Roy MacKenzie (1928) Ballads and Sea Songs from Nova Scotia. Harvard University Press Cited in Karpeles (1932).  {NB A 1963 facsimile reprint of 1928 Edition, with foreword by Malcolm Laws, published by Folklore Associates Inc., Hatboro Pennsylvania,  is available via}.

15  Available here:;

16 Sandburg C (1927) The American Songbag.  Downloadable at;

17 Sheet music is online here:;

18  Five Folk Songs.  Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society
Vol. 3, No. 2 (Dec., 1937), pp. 126-134  Stable URL:;

19 Lloyd, A L  (1947) Background to St James Infirmary Blues, Keynote, January 1947.

20 Lloyd, A L (1956) Background to St James’ Infirmary, Sing Magazine, Vol 3, pp19-21.  Obtained through the kind help of the Janey Buchan archive, University of Glasgow.;

21 See, for example:  a) ;   and

22 Lodewick K (1955) The Unfortunate Rake and his Descendants.  Western Folklore, Vol 14, No 2. pp 98-109.;


24 Goldstein, Kenneth S (1959) Still More of the Unfortunate Rake and his Family.  Western Folklore, Vol 18, No 1. pp 35-38.;


26 Hand, Wayland (1958) The Cowboy’s Lament Western Folklore
Vol. 17, No. 3.  pp. 200-205.

27 Lloyd A L (1967) Folk Song in England. Lawrence and Wishart/Paladin Edition 1975.

28 Jenkins, R (2019) ‘The Unfortunate Rake’s Progress: A Case Study of the Construction of Folklore by Collectors and Scholars’  Folklore, Volume 130, Issue 2.

29 Hagstrom Miller, K (2010) Segregating Sound. Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow. Durham, Duke University Press. 

Further Reading

  • Contemporary comment on syphilis in the armed forces:

  • Discussion of the C D ACTs:

  • Discussion of prostitution in Victorian times:

  • Contemporary (1882) document on lock hospitals by Frederick Lowndes, surgeon, Liverpool Lock Hospital.  This includes information on the Westmoreland Lock Hospital, Dublin.

  • Discussion of military music:


NB This piece is a work in progress and may be amended from time to time.  Thank you for reading.

Karen Heath
August 2020


Karen Heath

Karen’s early interest in the blues and their origins came from her parents’ explanations of the jazz they listened to.  This was not early jazz, but mainly big band or piano music, including Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson, with Ella Fitzgerald being a favourite vocalist. Karen tried to make her own guitar from firewood and a large elastic band when Dr Who first came out, falsely thinking that the theme tune was played on one.  Old enough to remember a time before Cream and Jimi Hendrix, she is still a fan of both.  She has been trying to play guitar for about 40 years, and always secretly wanted to be in a band, a dream that finally came true when she was 60!