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...yet I'll hammer it out
a surfeit of Pumfreys (spelt Pontefracts)
a pox o'this gout! or a gout o'this pox! 
5 December 2006, 12:46 am
academic wank: sometimes it's literal
erstwhiletexan has the perfect icon for this one... ;)

Anyway, yesterday I got Eliza Carthy's Rough Music, which is, incidentally, a wonderful album, and I totally recommend it to all and sundry. It was, as it happens, an educational experience, because one of the tracks on it is a long and depressing but wonderfully performed ballad called "The Unfortunate Lass," which is all about a girl who dies from syphilis.

It was a bit surprising, though, because if you know Steeleye Span's recording of "When I Was on Horseback", you'll recognize the tune and many of the lyrics to be the same -- and even if you don't, you may know "Streets of Laredo", which is an American variant. "Unfortunate Lass" is basically the same song -- the lyrics given there aren't quite the same ones Carthy sings, but they're fairly close. There is also a very, very similar version with a male speaker.

This is apparently one of the best-known ballad families out there, and while I knew all about the Streets of Laredo/When I Was On Horseback set, I had no idea that a substantial branch of it was all about syphilis. A few more examples:

"The Trooper Cut Down In His Prime," which is somewhat more circumspect about the nature of the speaker's impending death
"Pills of White Mercury," which isn't circumspect at all
Discussion of "Pills" and another one
"One Morning in May" and "The Bad Girl's Lament," two more variants of the female-speaker version
Discussion of "The Buck's Elegy," another early version of the syphilis-related version

And of course you may also know another American variant, "St. James Infirmary."

This has been a moment of exposition and linkspam on topics you don't need to know about, but which are interesting. Because who doesn't want to know about ballads about syphilis? I know it has enriched my life to know about this rich musical tradition.

In conclusion, I must share this little gem, which is also thematically linked, though much more...upbeat.
Comments 
5 December 2006, 07:07 am (UTC)
Why did I always think the young cowboy had leprosy rather than syphilis? Must be the white linen. Syphilis makes a great deal more sense.
5 December 2006, 07:25 am (UTC)
I thought that in the Streets of Laredo version he got shot!

At any rate, there is more than you ever wanted to know about the white linen here.
5 December 2006, 07:57 am (UTC) - Gosh, I've known about the young cowboy since my teens!
I forgot what book of folklore I found out about him in, but I've known forever! As for St. James Infirmary, it's always galled me that the guy seems to think that the poor woman's worst problem is that she'd never find another man like him, not that she's dead. Male vanity!
5 December 2006, 08:33 am (UTC)
Sid the Syph says hi!
5 December 2006, 08:43 am (UTC)
There's a version, associated with Northern Irish Protestant WWI mawkishness, called "Willie McBride", which doesn't have syphilis but does have the drums and fifes chorus. And about 300 million verses.
I like Eliza Carthy's eclectic version. She mashes up individual lines in places I think (where on earth is "the Royal Albert" in the 1st line?)
5 December 2006, 09:49 am (UTC)
Eliza's ma has a west Indian version called Bright Shiny Morning, which appears on the album of the same name.
5 December 2006, 03:16 pm (UTC)
Some years back, I happened to catch a special on (methinks) Nashville Network, with John McEwen (sp?), formerly of the Dirt Band, formerly the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He was presenting cowboy songs, and one of them was the Streets of Laredo. I'm thinking I didn't tape the special, and that I regretted it. He was singing the real things, not the cleaned-up versions I've heard for all these years. Lyrics included asking for a pretty whore-girl to sing him a song, and for roses to be festooned on the coffin so he wouldn't stink too much. (I expect if I follow all the links here, I'll eventually find something close to this, but I'm in a grind for time and must deny myself.)
5 December 2006, 05:48 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for "VD is For Everybody." I especially liked the clip that implied that it can be transmitted via horse.
6 December 2006, 05:30 am (UTC)
"St. James Infirmary" is one of my favorite songs to sing at the top of my lungs while I'm on the motorcycle.
6 December 2006, 05:31 am (UTC)
P.S. Have you heard Tom Lehrer's "Don't Give a Dose to the One You Love Most"?
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