The Unfortunate Rake

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"The Unfortunate Rake", also known as "The Unfortunate Lad", is a traditional folk ballad[1] (Roud 2), which through the folk process has evolved into a large number of variants, of which one branch "The Cowboy's Lament", which includes the song Streets of Laredo" is perhaps currently the best known. The earliest known variant, from an 18th-century broadside, is a lament for a young man dying of syphilis. The many variants feature various young soldiers, sailors, maids and cowboys, being "cut down in their prime" and contemplating their deaths.[2]


One warm morning the narrator meets a comrade outside a hospital. Despite the weather the comrade is wrapped up in flannel. When asked why, he replies that he has been wronged by a beautiful woman, usually inferred to be a prostitute or camp follower. She failed to warn him to take the precautions needed to prevent syphilis and he is dying, complaining that he has been "cut down in his prime". He then asks the narrator to arrange for him a military funeral, for his coffin to be carried by six soldiers, accompanied by six young maids singing, and that they should not muffle their drums but "play their fifes merrily".


The majority of variants use the same melody, however one branch of the family uses the same basic story but set to a different tune to become the standard "St. James Infirmary Blues". 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.

A 1960 Folkways Records album titled the "The Unfortunate Rake" features 20 different variations of the ballad. Variants not in this album include:

  • The Bard of Armagh - this differs in not being a reflection on imminent death but a lament by an old man for lost youth
  • Only the Hearthaches/Only the Hangman is waiting for me - the narrator contemplates murdering his lover and the consequences of such an act - recorded by Rex Allen
  • Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime[3]
  • When I Was on Horseback[4] - recorded by Steeleye Span[5]

A later song that draws on elements from the ballad is the Eric Bogle song No Man's Land.


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