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St James’ Hospital
(Laws 026; Roud 2)
Tom Lenihan
Knockbrack, Miltown Malbay
Recorded in singer’s home, July 1976

Carroll Mackenzie Collection

 

Tom Lenihan

Once I was walking by St James’ Hospital,
Bright was the morning and clear was the day.
Who should I meet but a faithful companion,
Wrapped up in flannels all ready to die.

From her sweet lips a few words were spoken,
From her sweet lips a few words there came:
“This is a warning for young girls' protection,
Which causes their ruin and leads them astray.”

“If I had done what my old mother told me,
What a good girl would I be today.
Everyone hates me, my name does disgrace me,
Often she told me but now I am lained.”

“Daughter, dear daughter ‘tis often I told you,
Often I told you but now you are lained.
To stop your street walking and all your old talking,
Often I told you but now you are lained.”

“Show me that young man that hangs round the corner,
Show me that young man that dresses go gay.
First your true lover and now your deceiver,
Show me that young man that led you astray.”

“That is a question that I cannot answer,
He put me in a hack and he drove me away.
First by the white house, and then by the red house,
In to the black house and now to my grave.”

There lies the body of one that was handsome
There lies the body of one that was fair.
There lies the body of a lovely young lassie,
Who died from destruction one bright summer’s day.


"This song originated as a street ballad, which appeared around the end of the eighteenth century; entitled 'The Unfortunate Rake' in Ireland and 'The Unfortunate Lad' on a Such Broadside in England. Since its first appearance it has divided into two distinct songs, so much so that, in the Laws index, it is given two numbers. It has probably assumed more forms and locations than any other song despite the ‘sensitive’ nature of the subject of many of its versions, that of a man or woman dying of syphilis. The male 'Unfortunate Rake' form covers soldiers, sailors, troopers, cowboys, airmen; Fanore singer Martin Howley sings of Young Rebel Cut Down in his Prime. The female versions tell of a young woman ‘gone to the bad’ and are found as 'House of the Rising Sun', 'St James’ Infirmary', 'Bad Girl’s Lament', 'Whore’s Lament' etc.. Some of the early collectors and anthologists obviously found the theme difficult to deal with; Yorkshire collector Frank Kidson said of the version he found in Knareborough, Yorkshire:

''The Unfortunate Lad' is a ballad that will scarcely bear printing in its entirety.' Elsewhere he writes of this and similar pieces: 'I must say, I do not like the insertion of this ballad… we ought to decide how far “unclean” words should be admitted.'

Lucy Broadwood wrote of one she found in the South of England: 'A version of this was sung to me, inappropriately enough, by a little girl of seven, in a Sussex field.'

Carl Sandburg, in his note to 'Those Gamblers Blues' said, 'This may be what polite society calls a gutter song. In a foreign language, in any lingo but that of the U.S.A., it would seem less vulgar, more bizarre. Its opening realism works on towards irony and fantasy, dropping in its final lines again to blunt realism.'

The Norfolk singer, Walter Pardon, told us how everybody knew it locally when he was young, 'but nobody liked to sing of somebody dying of a disease like that'. Despite such reservations, it has taken firm root in the tradition under such titles as 'The Young Soldier, Sailor, or Trooper Cut Down in His Prime', 'The Dying Cowboy', 'The Whore’s Lament', 'St James’ Infirmary', 'The House of The Rising Sun', the list is huge. The Lomax’s recorded two magnificent blues versions in a Texas prison in the nineteen-thirties from black convicts, James ‘Iron Head’ Baker, and Moses ‘Clear Rock’ Platt. There was a set recorded in Newfoundland in 1959 in which a child is mentioned:

Mother, dear mother, take care of the baby,
Teach her and guide her along the right way
When she gets sixteen please tell her my story,
‘Twas of her young mother who was led astray.

We got a version from Kerry Travelling woman, Peggy Delaney, in which the girl is named Hannah Franklin, elsewhere she is called Annie. Tipperary Traveller, Mary Delaney’s text is set in North Long, almost certainly Knocklong, County Limerick, just over the border from Tipperary, where a shooting took place and the dying man ‘a cowboy’. A breathtakingly beautiful version called 'When I was on Horseback' was collected in Belfast from Wexford Traveller Mary Doran in 1952. Folkways Records devoted an entire album of versions to the song in the early 1960s. It is possible that the once disreputable area around Fishamble Street, adjacent to Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin, once called Copper Alley, referred to the said cure for the disease that gave life to the song – a Hampshire version entitled 'The Lass of London City' refers to ‘White Copper Alley’.
Other English nautical versions frankly instruct the pall-bearers to:

Get six young sailors to carry my coffin,
Six young girls for to sing me a song,
Let each of them carry a bunch of red roses
So they won’t smell me as they bear me along.

The songs was still being remade right up to the First World War, when 'The Dying Aviator'’s fellow pilots were instructed to:

Take the cylinders out of my kidneys
The connecting rod out of my brain
From the small of my back take the crankshaft
And assemble the engine again.

As well as being one of the most prolific ballads in the English language, it is probably one of the most beautifully tragic. Tom says he learned this from his sister living in America."

Reference:
Songs from the Collection of Mr Frank Kidson, Folk Song Journal (English), 1904.
Songs from Various Counties, Folk Song Journal (English), 1913.
An American Songbag, Carl Sandburg.
Songs of the Newfoundland Outports, Kenneth Peacock.
Airman’s Song Book, C.H. Ward Jackson.
Jim Carroll


See also
Young Rebel Cut Down in his Prime sung by Martin Howley

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