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Young Rebel Cut Down in His Prime
(Laws 026; Roud 2)
Martin Howley
Fanore, north west Clare
Recorded 1975

Carroll Mackenzie Collection

 

Martin Howley

As I was walking down the Royal Avenue,
Dark was the morning and cold was the day.
Who did I spy there but one of my comrades
Wrapped up in a blanket far colder than clay.

He asked for a blanket to [words missing]
And likewise some flannels to wrap round his head.
His head it was aching, and his poor heart was breaking.
He was a young rebel that never done wrong.

On the top of the street you shall see two girls standing,
One to the other will whisper and say:
‘Here comes the rebel whose money we squandered;
Here comes a young rebel cut down in his prime.’

So play the pipes slowly and beat the drum lowly,
Play the dead march as we carry him along.
Take him to the graveyard and leave him down easy,
For he was a young rebel that never done wrong.

On the top of the tombstone you’ll see those words written:
Come all ye young fellows take warning by me:
Never stay talking to the flash girls of the city,
For the flash girls of the city were the ruination of me.

So play the pipes slowly and beat the drum lowly,
Play the dead march as we carry him along.
Take him to the graveyard and fire three volleys over him,
For he was a young rebel that never done wrong.

"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. 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
Saint James' Hospital sung by Tom Lenihan

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