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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


This is an attempt to trace the lyrical lineage or ancestry of a particular blues, back to the folksongs of England and Ireland in the eighteenth century.  I will also be covering different sociological attitudes reflected as our exploration crosses borders in time and geography.  With the aid of (successful?) detective work I hope to add an historical slant including an approximate chronology. 

The latter needs a little elaboration.  While it would be nice as well as correct to present all the different songs which constitute the origins of Dying Crapshooter’s Blues, as recorded by Blind Willie McTell (in 1940) hereinafter called ‘Crapshooter’, in strict historical sequence, because of much overlap and uncertainty from this point in time, I have found it necessary to break these songs into groups.  Two main factors have been considered for this exercise.  First of all, where possible, the similarity of lyrics and general format; and secondly the three strands of sociological attitudes to death which are featured throughout.  These strands are religious, secular but respectful, and out and out blasphemous.  There will also be some issues such as race, class and nationality which will crop up from time to time.  These groups, five in number, all feature songs of similar dates somewhere or other and so it will be necessary to take a step back to go forward in time, and I hope this will not be too obscuring to the reader.  Cross-references are unfortunately unavoidable.

By comparison, the chronology for Crapshooter itself is fairly straight forward.  Also some tables have been set out which features related songs and some possibly related ones as well.  The only question mark is the actual date of birth of this blues, which I set out to, convincingly I hope, identify at least by the year, with McTell’s own help!

I have included song transcriptions as written appendices, with suitable links in amongst the main text at relevant points.  Unfortunately, generally speaking, in this study the singers themselves will not appear much more than names; potted biographies would take up too much space.  Although I will include a very brief ‘history of recorded blues’ in an attempt to give this study some background in general, and McTell’s blues under discussion in particular.


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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