The Unfortunate Rake

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"The Unfortunate Rake", also known as "The Unfortunate Lad", is a traditional folk ballad[1] (Roud 2; Laws Q26), which through the folk process has evolved into a large number of variants. 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".

In a variant called "Young Sailor Cut Down in his Prime", another part of the funeral arrangements is described:

But now he is dead and laid in his coffin,
Six jolly sailors walk by his side
And each of them carried a bunch of white roses
That no one might smell him as we pass them by.[3]


The majority of 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. However another branch 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 Heartaches/Only the Hangman is Waiting For Me" -belonging to the cowboy branch of the family, the narrator contemplates murdering his lover and the consequences of such an act - recorded by Rex Allen
  • "Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime"[4]
  • "When I Was on Horseback"[5] - recorded by Steeleye Span[6]
  • "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues"- This song bears a few similarities to the more famous "St. James Infirmary Blues". Similarly chronicling an amoral life gone wrong, this song's most famous interpretation was done by Blind Willie McTell, but is based around crooked gambler Jesse Williams. McTell sings of a cold hearted gambler, who becomes distressed about a relationship with "Sweet Lorene", he comes into conflict with the police, and is shot down. Like in "St. James Infirmary Blues", Williams wants "six crapshooters to be my pallbearers". Lyrical similarities signify that the song shares "The Unfortunate Rake" with "St. James Infirmary Blues" as a common ancestor.

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

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.


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