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Tracing The Origins Of Dying Crapshooters' Blues
Back To English And Irish Folksong In The Eighteenth Century

(Revised edition, 2012 - first appeared in 1989 as a dissertation for Lancaster University)
by Max Haymes

Chapter II 

As has been stated in my introduction, the song clusters that constitute (according to me) the roots and ancestry of Crapshooter are divided into five ‘family’ groups.  However, prior to that it is necessary, as a point of reference, to attempt a chronological sequence of all these songs which conversely, puts them into different groups because of the various points in time when (as far as I can tell) these songs were first noted.  So what I am aspiring to is to put a two-hundred year old-plus song into its respective time slot from its beginnings right up to the inception of Dying Crapshooter’s Blues.  To achieve this I have sought out information and where this has not been available, I have again tried to apply some amateur detective work!  Owing to the necessary haziness of the sources I seek, at best this chronology will only be a skeleton to which flesh will hopefully be added some time in the future, but I cannot even be sure of the bones!

Although McTell claims to have written this song, and this version and this title would appear to be original, it is related, via many other songs, to the far earlier Irish folksong The Unfortunate Rake and its English counterparts The Unfortunate Lad/Lass.  Two verses are quoted of this rarely-recorded song in a celebrated book by A.L. Lloyd which run thus:
  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 fifes 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!’ (9)

According to Lloyd, this ballad was extant around 1760 and “heard in Dublin in the 1790s” (10) and he continues: “but the first full text of it appeared only on a Such broadside of the 1860s,” (11).  And a few years earlier in collaboration with Ralph Vaughan Williams, he reports “At the end of the eighteenth century a homilectic street ballad spread in England  concerning the death and ceremonial funeral of a soldier ‘disordered’ by a woman.  It was called The Unfortunate Rake (in Ireland) or The Unfortunate Lad (on the broadside printed by Such).  Many singers know it as St. James Hospital.  It is still a common song [c.1959] in the British Army, though printed versions are few.” (12

Sometime before 1840 (also according to Lloyd) the swaggering song The Flash Lad appeared in Ireland (see Appendix VIII).  Known in the Emerald Isle by various titles such as Newry Town, Newlyn Town, The Newry Highwayman, and In Newry Town. In England it became (apart from The Flash Lad) The Wild and Wicked Youth, The Robber, The Sheffield Highwayman, and The Highwayman.  The Flash Lad seems to have evolved from The Unfortunate Rake, if Lloyd is correct. However, in a footnote to this song, Lloyd himself says with reference to ‘Cupid’s Garden’ in verse three, that this is “a corruption of Cuper’s Gardens, a pleasure-ground on the southside of the Thames, opposite Somerset House. It was finally closed in 1753, in consequence of the dissoluteness of its visitors; according to some reports”. (13)  If ‘Cupid’ is indeed a corruption of ‘Cuper’, as seems probable, then The Flash Lad could have been around at the same time as The Unfortunate Rake or even before the latter.  It would seem more logical for a singer to refer to what was after all a purely local amenity, Cuper’s Gardens, whilst it was still open to the public and therefore topical, or at least within a few years of its closure when it would still be in the forefront of the public’s consciousness.  Of the ‘Lord Fielding’s gang’ reference, Lloyd says that Henry Fielding and his half-brother John organized their ‘runners’ in a Bow Street office who were “the predecessors of the Metropolitan Police”. (14)  And Roy Porter tells us that Fielding was successful in “securing funds to set up the Bow Street Runners in 1749.” (15

Further to this, a version of The Flash Lad was printed by Theophilus Bloomer of Birmingham, entitled Wild And Wicked Youth. Although no date is available, another broadside of Bloomers might indicate what era he was operating in.  Called The Slap-Bum Tailor this features a tailor “consigned to prison (Limbo) for correcting a woman who has insulted him”. (16)  Palmer also mentions that the tailor was ridiculed by other male workers who regarded his trade as unmanly and “was even regarded as fair game for the press gang” .(17)  Mention of the press gang would place Bloomer somewhere in the latter half of the eighteenth century. 

In 1905  a version of In Newry Town was published and is an extended version of The Flash Lad, containing nine verses (see Appendix IX).  According to the Folk Song Society, Mr. W.P. Merrick contributed this song in December, 1899.  He got it from Mr. Henry Hills (b.1832) who learnt most of his songs in his birthplace of Lodsworth in Sussex which he left c.1863 “after the death of his father”. (18)  Merrick states: “Mr. Hills says this song was sung by a bargeman who frequented Lodsworth many years ago.” .(19)  Frank Kidson adds that: “The ballad appears to be Charley Reilly, a highwayman song, a version which, under the name of The Flash Lad, occurs in Dr. Barrett’s ‘English Folk Songs’, p.34.” (20)  

Frank Purslow included a version of The Wild And Wicked Youth in his selection of folk songs from the Hammond and Gardiner Manuscripts. (see Appendix X).  Purslow concludes “The second line of the second verse usually gives the place of execution as Stephen’s Green.  As the song became more and more Anglicised, the references to Newry and Dublin were dropped and subsequent verses remodelled to include mention of Grosvenor Square, Covent Garden, and Fielding’s Gang -presumably Henry Fielding’s Bow Street Runners.” (21

Sometime during the life-time of George Whyte-Melville, (1821-1878), he was inspired (?) by these earlier songs to write The Tarpaulin Jacket (see Appendix XII).  His double-barreled name, the genteel atmosphere of verses two and five and repeated use of the British naval slang ‘buffer’ as a term of endearment for a friend, would seem to point up Mr. Whyte-Melville as a member of the ruling class bourgeoisie, rather than part of worker-culture of say The Flash Lad. In fact this is borne out by a brief look at a ‘potted’ biography of the man, who was a novelist and a poet.  His mother was a daughter of the fifth duke of Leeds and he graduated from Eton.  Then Whyte-Melville “at the age of seventeen received a commission in the Ninety-Third Highlanders.  At twenty-four he changed to the Coldstream Guards and retired three years alter with the rank of captain. When the Crimean War broke out, he volunteered for active service and was appointed major of Turkish irregular cavalry.  While in the army he published some agreeable verse, and when the war ended he turned to writing fiction and to fox-hunting.”. (22)  Criticised “for frequenting the society of soldiers, sportsmen, and country gentlemen, rather than that of literary people”, (23) he ended up marrying the daughter of the first lord of Bateman. 

So it would seem that George Whyte-Melville wrote The Tarpaulin Jacket sometime during his army stint in the Crimean War, from “28th. March,1854-April, 1856”. (24)  This would seem to be more than a remarkable coincidence with the publication in the USA of a song entitled Dying Californian.  This has been described as “An American religious ballad, giving in the first person the dying words and wishes of a ‘forty-niner’.  It has been sung as a hymn among various religious groups all over the United States. It was published in Boston by Ditson in 1855.” (25)  

It would seem quite likely that a secular parallel to Dying Californian called The Dying Cowboy, emanated around the same time or just prior to the religious ballad. (see Appendix XIII).  This version was quoted by famous American folklorist Alan Lomax .  The footnote in part reads: “This cowboy variant of the British ‘Unfortunate Rake’ was by far the most popular of all folk songs among the cowboys.”. (26)  And also, “Numerous versions were recorded by John Lomax in the early 1900s.”. (27)  This version, as Lomax says, borrows much from The Unfortunate Rake, as can be seen in verses three and four and from its English female counterpart The Unfortunate Lass.  Alan Lomax states that “ The first cowboys were Texans who, for reasons we do not yet understand, found most of their ballad models in northern states”. (28)  This would have been in the early part of the nineteenth century, but with the advent of The Old Chisholm Trail and the trail period, 1870-1890, these ballads and songs would have reached Kansas, Montana, and Texas.  This song was even better known as The Streets Of Laredo, and sometimes called The Cowboy’s Lament. 

A.L. Lloyd, while discussing The Unfortunate Rake, says that amongst others, The Cowboy’s Lament (The Streets of Laredo) was re-created from it and finally re-appears as a Negro gambler in the ‘blues ballad’ of St. James Infirmary; we will return to this last title shortly. But meanwhile, still with Laredo, an entry for this title in an encyclopedia reads in part, as follows: “Laredo was established in 1755 by Spanish settlers,” ,(29) and also “During the Mexican War it was occupied first by the Texas Rangers in 1846 and subsequently by Texas volunteers under General Mirabeau Lamar in 1847,” .(30)  So the cowboy ‘tradition’ only started in connection with Laredo circa 1846, and by the time it takes a town to ‘arrive’ or otherwise become part of the regional community, which could take about ten years, this would bring us to the year of publication of Dying Californian - 1855; and so could also date The Streets of Laredo around the same time. 

On returning to this side of the Atlantic for a moment, we find the precursor the unholy strand of Crapshooter, in the guise of The Rakish Young Fellow.  The last two verses run thus: 

  Now when I am dead and am buried
  And past all the troubles of life,
  There shall be no more sobbing and sighing
  But do a good turn for my wife.
  There shall be no more sobbing and sighing
  But one single favour I crave,
  Wrap me up in my tarpaulin jacket
  And fiddle and dance on my grave.
  Six jolly fellows shall carry me
  And let them be terribly drunk,
  And as they are going along with me
  O let them fall down with my trunk.
  There shall be so much laughing and joking,
  Like so many young men going mad,
  They shall take a glass over my coffin
  Saying: ‘Here goes a true-hearted lad’. (31)

Included in the notes, from the same source, is the following legend: “Sung by William Nott, Meshaw, North Devon.  Collected by Cecil Sharp, 1904.  William Nott’s version of this song closely follows the printed text which was widely circulated in the nineteenth century on broadsides, turning up a few times in various parts of North America.” .(32)  Although Richards and Stubbs infer that this started life sometime in the nineteenth century, it could be a lot older.  The first and last lines in the second verse quoted, come from The Unfortunate Rake and The Flash Lad, of eighteenth century vintage.  Whatever its age, this features all the thumb-nose and devil-may-care attitudes to death that is the central theme of Blind Willie McTell’s Crapshooter.  Another division of this song cluster is the Royal Albion, Young Sailor Cut Down In His Prime, St. James Hospital, group. (see Appendix XIV).  Palmer’s footnote includes the comment that the “earliest text seems to be the eighteenth century [Young] Buck’s Elegy, set in Covent Garden, in which the onlooker’s grief is compounded by the realization that he has contracted the same disease as his comrade, from the same woman!   

  Had I but known what his disorder was,
  Had I but known it, and took it in time,
  I’d took pilia cotia, and all sorts of white mercury,
  But now I’m cut off in the height of my prime.

Pill of cochia and salts of white mercury were early remedies for venereal disease. (33)  However, Palmer says “Royal Albion is a corruption of the Royal Albert, a London dock which first opened in 1880.”. (34)  This would seem to date the Royal Albion variant at the earliest in this particular year, or sometime in the following decade.  Further to this, a part version of St. James Hospital  was noted in 1936. 

  As I was a-walking down by the Bath Hospital,
  As I was a-walking one morning in May,
  Who should I see but one of my pretty girls,
  She was wrapped up in flannel and cold blowed the day.
  I asked her what ailed her, I asked 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. 
  (verses missing)
  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’. (35)

The editor, Frank Howes, notes that this was sung “by George Sutton (aged 73) at Portishead, Somerset, in March, 1936”. (36)  Howes says that this is known to the singer as Bath Hospital which seems natural as Portishead is near Bristol, and that Sutton recalled that he sang this “in his youth without grasping what it was about.”. (37)  This would date his first recollection of it in the early 1880s not long after ‘Royal Albion’ was built.  The name and location of the hospital varied from singer to singer depending on their hometown or possible birthplace.  Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd say of The Unfortunate Rake that “Many singers know it as St. James Hospital”. (38) But whether this title evolved around the same time as Rake, I have not been able to ascertain.  It is more likely that St. James Hospital came out c.1880 along with the rest of the variants in Group Three. 

On re-crossing the Atlantic we find St. James Hospital picked up by a black singer, although retaining the ‘dying cowboy’ scenario. [Footnote 4: Within the last 20 years it has become a well-known established fact that African Americans made up a large minority of the  cowboy population in the 19th. Century-sometimes quoted as much as 25% or one in four.]  James ‘Iron Head’ Baker recorded his version in 1934  for the Library of Congress and was followed some two months later by another black singer, James Wadley who had his side titled St. James Infirmary, and was recorded in Atlanta, Georgia.  This was the first rural, solo example of this song by a black artist on record as far as we know. 

Sometime between 1924 and 1934, a white hill-billy outfit going by the name of Gid Tannner and his Skillet Lickers recorded a song which had evolved out of The Flash Lad and The Wild and Wicked Youth, which they called Rake And Rambling Boy.  The title harking back to the beginning of this chronology, The Unfortunate Rake, would appear to have roots in the nineteenth century also, probably in the last decade.  The last verse closes with these lines:

  And on her breast he placed a dove,
  To signify she died for love. (39)

There is a parallel here with a song from the music-halls of nineteenth century London. Taken from a song called simply A Sailor’s Song, it relates how a sailor comes home to find his daughter had committed suicide and had left a note including instructions on her burial.  The relevant lines are contained in the fifth verse which runs:

  And on her breast he placed a dove,
  To signify she died for love. (40)

We will be exploring this more fully in the next chapter as Rake And Rambling Boy is an important catalyst in helping create Dying Crapshooter’s Blues and not least because Gid Tanner, a Georgian chicken farmer, and his group were part of the strong white country music scene in and around Atlanta in the 1920s.  This very rough chronology then runs as follows.

Table F

Approximate Date Title Country of Origin
1760? The Unfortunate Rake Ireland
1760?  The Unfortunate Lad  England
1760? The Unfortunate Lass England
1760-1839 The Flash Lad England
1760-1839 In Newry Town Ireland
1760-1839 The Wild And Wicked Youth England
1855 The Tarpaulin Jacket England
1855 Dying Californian USA
c.1855 The Dying Cowboy USA
c.1855 The Streets of Laredo USA
c.1855 The Cowboy’s Lament USA
1855-1860? The Rakish Young Fellow England
1880-1899? Young Sailor Cut Down In His Prime England
1880-1899? Royal Albion England
1880-1899? St. James Hospital England/USA
1880s   St. James Infirmary USA
1890-1900? Rake And Rambling Boy USA
1927 Dying Crapshooter’s Blues USA


Essay (this page) © Copyright 2012 Max Haymes. All rights reserved.

Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Appendix I
"Dying Crapshooter's Blues" by Blind Willie McTell, 5/11/40, Atlanta, Ga. (L. of C.)
Appendix II
"Dying Crapshooter's Blues" by Blind Willie McTell, 1956, Atlanta, Ga. (Bluesville)
Appendix III
"Those Gambler's Blues" ("The American Songbag", Carl Sandburg)
Appendix IV
"Those Gambler's Blues" ("The American Songbag". ibid.)
Appendix V
"Dying Gambler" by Blind Willie & Kate McTell, 23/4/35. Chicago, Ill.
Appendix VI
"Lay Some Flowers On My Grave" by Blind Willie McTell, 25/4/35, Chicago, Ill.
Appendix VII
"Dying Pickpocket Blues" by Barrel House Welch, -/1/29. Chicago, Ill.
Appendix VIII
"The Flash Lad"
Appendix IX
"In Newry Town" ("Folk-Song Society Vol. 1." Ed. A. Kalisch. c. 1905.)
Appendix X
"The Wild And Wicked Youth" Vsn 2 ("The Constant Lovers" Ed. Frank Purslow. 1972.)
Appendix XI
Appendix XII
"The Tarpaulin Jacket" written by George Whyte-Melville. c. 1855.
Appendix XIII
"The Dying Cowboy" ("The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs" Alan Lomax. 1964.)
Appendix XIV
"The Young Sailor Cut Down In His Prime" ("The Everlasting Circle" J. Lee.)
Appendix XV
"The Unfortunate Lass" sung by Norma Waterson, c. 1977.
Appendix XVI
"The Unfortunate Lad" (Everyman's Book of British Ballads" Ed. Roy Palmer. 1980.)
Appendix XVII
"The Wild Cowboy" (The Dying Cowboy) ("Folk Songs of The South" John Harrington Cox. 1963.)
Appendix XVIII
"The Cowboy's Lament" ("Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. John A. Lomax. 1966.)
Appendix XIX
"The Dying Hobo" written by Bob Hughes c. early 20th century.
Appendix XX
"The Dying Hogger" (Anonymous) "A Treasure of American Ballads".
Appendix XXI
"The Newry Highwayman" ("More Irish Street Ballads" C.O. Lochlainn. 1965)
Appendix XXII
"Rake and Rambling Boy" by Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers.
Appendix XXIII
"The Young Girl Cut Down In Her Prime" sung by Frankie Armstrong. 1972.
Appendix XXIV
"The Bad Girl's Lament" ("Folk Songs of Canada" Eds. Edith Fulton Fowke & Richard Johnstone. 1955.)
Appendix XXV
"St. James' Hospital" sung by Laura V. Donald ("English Folk Songs From The Southern Appalachians Vol. II. Cecil Sharp. 1952.)
Appendix XXVI
"St. James' Hospital - "Iron Head's Version" by James (Iron Head) Baker. -/5/34. Sugerland, Texas. 1966.
Appendix XXVII
"Dying Crapshooter's Blues" by Blind Willie McTell, 1949, Atlanta, Ga. (Atlantic).


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