Two cautionary tales this week.
This song is one of many, many variants – its cousins include Maid Struck Down In Her Prime, The Unfortunate Rake, Pills of White Mercury, Streets of Laredo, When I Was On Horseback and the St James Infirmary Blues. The plot, if that’s the word, is always the same: the song is the deathbed speech of someone who’s dying of VD. To modern ears the song seems curiously bald in the way the story is told: we hear that a young man (or woman) is suffering horribly and about to die, we hear what’s killing him or her, but all the obvious conclusions – how sad it is and what a dreadful warning – are left to us to draw. To my mind this lack of either sentiment or censoriousness is one of the key distinguishing factors of traditional songs: they may show us what to think, but they don’t tell. It can make for some incredibly powerful lines – in this song, think of the awful, casual bleakness of
Send for the doctor although it’s too late
In my experience, the contemporary songs that can stand comparison with traditional songs often have this quality, too – see today’s Richard Thompson number.
Although I’ve known When I Was On Horseback for years, I’d never heard this song until Jon Boden did it on A Folk Song A Day. As soon as I heard it I knew I was going to have to learn it. I may have slowed it down a bit, in an effort to give the 6/8 time some of the plodding grimness of the St James Infirmary Blues, but essentially this arrangement is after Jon’s.