Songs About Syphilis a specialty

Young Girl Cut Down In Her Prime

Gurt Western Concert, Bristol Beacon, 7th Feb 2015

Here is a whole family of songs originating from an 18th century English ballad called The Unfortunate Rake, about a young man who is dying of syphilis after being ‘disordered’ by his young lady. There are hundreds of variants, which have appeared under numerous different titles and in different countries. We call this arrangement “Evolution of an English Folk Song” because it’s a combination of 4 versions of the same song as it changed over 100 years and from the UK and USA.

In many versions of the song the genders are reversed so that it is the girl who is unjustly suffering, and the Gurt Lush arrangement brings together a number of these. English folk singer Shirley Collins recorded two quite different versions, one with her sister Dolly as Young Girl Cut Down In Her Prime and the other with guitarist Davey Graham under the title Bad Girl. The latter has much in common with a version recorded a little earlier by American folk singer Barbara Dane as When I Was A Young Girl. Dane’s interpretation was also seemingly adapted for a wonderful version by Nina Simone and has more recently been updated by Canadian singer Feist.

A couple of explanations: the references to pills of white margery or salts of white mercury concern the common use of mercury for treating syphilis in the days before penicillin, and my body’s salivating alludes to the profuse sweating caused by this medication, just one of the unpleasant side-effects.

Further mutations of the song, purged of allusions to venereal disease, appeared in other English-speaking countries. In Ireland it became popular as When I Was On Horseback, while in America the best-known derivatives are St James Hospital, Streets of Laredo (sometimes known as The Cowboy’s Lament) and the trad jazz standard St James Infirmary. The tunes vary as widely as the words.