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 allDiscussion of "Pills"
and another one"One Morning in May"
and "The Bad Girl's Lament,"
two more variants of the female-speaker versionDiscussion 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.