Club News

Musical Meetings

Musical meetings of the San Francisco Folk Music Club are held every other Friday at 885 Clayton Street, between Carl & Parnassus Streets in San Francisco. Singing and jamming in three separate rooms start at 8:00 p.m. Snacks are provided through $1 food kitty donations or finger food contributions. Guests are always welcome, no one is expected to “perform” and there is no charge.

“I don’t sing because I’m happy; I’m happy because I sing.”
—William James, psychologist
Date January 13 January 27 February 10 February 24 March 9
Setup Joel Rutledge Bob Allen Melissa Sarenac Bob Allen Debbie Klein
Bulletin Board Debbie Klein TBA Melissa Sarenac TBA Bob Allen
Host/ess Tes Welborn Mary Cryns Dave Sahn Lyla Menzel Betsy Bannerman
Host/ess Beth Dave Sahn Jean Oggins Mary Cryns Melissa Sarenac
Singing Room Yvette Tannenbaum Marisa Malvino Debbie Klein Allan Viner Estelle Freedman
Theme Foreign What Strikes Your Fancy Love Rock & Roll Women of the World
Cleanup Jim Letchworth Kim Probst Dave Sahn Kim Probst Kim Probst

Board Meetings

The SFFMC board meets on the second Tuesday of each month (usually) — potluck at 6:30 p.m., meeting at 8:00 p.m. All Club members are welcome to attend the potluck dinner and the Board meeting.

NEXT FOLKNIK FOLD-IN/FOLK SING: Sunday, February 26 at home of Joan Hall and Abe Feinberg,

The Unfortunate Rake

by Marlene McCall

Traditional ballad singers are familiar with the many songs that have come down in the oral tradition that derived—sometimes directly, sometimes not so directly—from an English song called “The Unfortunate Rake” or “The Unfortunate Lad,” with the earliest version possibly dated around 1790 or 1800.

The earlier variants of the song generally tell the story of a sailor, soldier, or other young man who is dying of venereal disease obtained from prostitutes. He bemoans his fate, often calling on parents or friends to pity his situation, and rues the fact that the woman who infected him did not tell him in enough time for him to seek medical treatment. He calls for six of his comrades to carry his coffin after he dies, and to throw laurels over his coffin. The narrator is generally a friend, who comes across him after death, cold as clay and wrapped in linen or a blanket, ready to be put in his coffin, although at least some verses are usually in the dying man’s own voice, in the first person, telling his own story.

In some of these variants, the dying person is not the man, but rather the woman, who is now suffering the consequences of her life of prostitution. These usually describe how she came to her life of sin.

Whether the unfortunate protagonist is male or female, the song usually ends with a moral—a warning to others to avoid similar life decisions.

When the song crossed the pond and came to America, the venereal disease component was usually eliminated, and lives of gambling and drinking became the most common cause of death.

One of the major variants (with a time signature change and different melody) that has been extensively recorded in America, is the New Orleans standard “St. James Infirmary.” Here, the dying woman is a patient at that hospital, and the narrator is her lover, usually telling a barman of how he found her dead at the hospital.

Another variant familiar to Americans is the cowboy ballad “Streets of Laredo” (AKA “The Cowboy’s Lament”). The cowboy is dying because he has been shot, not because of any illness. We’re not told why he was shot, but the cowboy states “I know I done wrong.”

I recently came across a CD that might be of interest to folknik readers. It is Smithsonian Folkways FW03803, titled “The Unfortunate Rake.” Recorded in 1960 (and still available for purchase on the Folkways website), it contains 20 variants of the song. The track listing shows the diversity of the songs that have evolved from this one source:

  1. The Unfortunate Rake (A. L. Lloyd & Alf Edwards) <\li>
  2. Trooper Cut Down in His Prime (Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger) <\li>
  3. The Young Sailor Cut Down in His Prime (Harry Cox) <\li>
  4. I’m a Young Man Cut Down in My Prime (Willie Mathieson) <\li>
  5. The Bad Girl’s Lament (Wade Hemsworth) <\li>
  6. One Morning in May (Hally Wood) <\li>
  7. Bright Summer Morning (Viola Penn) <\li>
  8. The Girl in the Dilger Case (D. K. Wilgus) <\li>
  9. The Cowboy’s Lament (Bruce Buckley) <\li>
  10. Streets of Laredo (Harry Jackson) <\li>
  11. St. James Hospital (Alan Lomax) <\li>
  12. Gambler’s Blues (Dave Van Ronk) <\li>
  13. I Once Was a Carman (Guthrie “Gus” Meade) <\li>
  14. The Lineman’s Hymn (Rosalie Sorrels) <\li>
  15. The Wild Lumberjack (Kenneth S. Goldstein) <\li>
  16. A Sun Valley Song (Jan Brunvand and Ellen Stekert) <\li>
  17. The Ballad of Bloody Thursday (John Greenway) <\li>
  18. Streets of Hamtramck (Bill Friedland, Mark Newman, & Morris Howarth)<\li>
  19. The Ballad of Sherman Wu (Pete Seeger)<\li>
  20. The Professor’s Lament (Roger Abrahams)<\li>

You can hear a clip of each song at

Music of the Unusual

by Robert Rodriquez

There is a tale from Sicily, collected during the early 1860s by Laura Gonzenbach, very similar in scope and plot to the Twa Sisters, in which the youngest son of a king is killed by his elder brother in a fit of envy and jealousy. A shepherd, having observed the dark deed, makes a bagpipe from parts of the corpse. Now containing the spirit of the dead youth, the bagpipe eventually unmasks the murder to the king himself as it continues to repeat a set of lyrics when it is played again and again by the shepherd. For his punishment, the murderer is invited to decorate a nearby gallows, and after that, the bagpipe never plays the tune again.

The sheer variety, diversity, and number of musical instruments that crop up in traditional tales is as endless as time and as widespread as the four corners of the world itself. Many of these tales come under the heading of pourqoi or origin tales involving either how music came to a certain cultural or ethnic group or how a particular instrument came into being. This would include such tales as how the charango came to the indigenous folk of Bolivia, how the first kantele came to the people of Finland, how the first Alpine horn came to the people of Switzerland, the origins of the balafon in the tribal rituals of West Africa, and the story of the very first butterfly harp to come to the ancient folk of Vietnam.

In another context, I have already mentioned stories involving the trumpet. These ranged from the thirteenth century Polish legend of the melody known as the hejnal of Krakow to the 17th century story of how New Amsterdam was lost to the British. The good Dutch burghers weren’t warned of the approaching British. The governor’s personal trumpeter was otherwise engaged in a race with the devil across a very treacherous body of water; he lost, the devil gained another resident for the infernal regions, and New York came into being, a pretty good folk trifecta all the way around. Ghostly bugles have been heard on such diverse battlefields as the Little Big Horn in southern Montana, Puebla in Mexico, the plains of Abraham below Quebec City, and the World War I fields of Flanders, while the sound of spectral pipes could be heard for many years on Culloden Moor attesting to the near destruction of the Highland clans by the superior British forces on that dark day in 1746.

Returning to the theme of secrets revealed, in a variant of the “king with ass’s ears,” there is a tale from India in which a trio of musical instruments, including a sitar, a sarod, and a tabla take center stage in revealing the secret that a king named Ravindra has ears shaped like umbrellas. But all ends well for everyone concerned, and even the royal barber winds up on the plus side in this little narrative drama. Leave it to the Roma to come up with a truly unusual story, involving as it does a piano haunted by the spirit of a dead musician and not allowing itself to be played by any other interested parties.

In another tale from Italy, this one from Lombardy, a soldier, returning home from the wars, befriends an old man who gives him a harmonica that has two magical properties, the first being that anyone who hears it will automatically wind up in the soldier’s sack and the second being that anyone who hears it will begin to dance and not be able to stop until the music itself stops at the soldier’s own request. From Slovenia in the former Yugoslavia comes a similar story in which the magical instrument in question is a mandolin that causes folks to dance and manages to ensnare everyone from a greedy innkeeper and a corrupt judge to both the devil and death itself. And speaking of instruments that can charm and control other-world denizens, there is a delightful Korean story in which the kayagum, an instrument somewhat like a harp, is used to defeat a pack of very nasty goblins who are tormenting a young woman, but thanks to the vigilance and bravery of her sweetheart, the nasty beasties are eventually foiled and forced to retire into a cave from which they are never again seen.

There are numerous stories about instruments that can control and pacify animals. These can be found from the southern U.S. to India and the instruments might include flutes, fiddles, and various types of pipes. One of the most intriguing comes from central France and involves a local musician named Leon who was able to charm a pack of wolves with his vielle or hurdy-gurdy. Night after night, he would wander into the forest and play his vielle for the wolves who would form a circle around him and dance the night away. They say Leon was never quite right in the head after that, but his music certainly left its mark and imprint on the forest and its nocturnal creatures for many years to come.

No matter how unusual and exotic they may be, musical instruments of all types manage quite nicely to find their way into equally interesting stories from one corner of the world to the other. The instrument might be a Turkish zurna or a Serbian gusle or a Japanese biwa or a Chinese pipa, but whatever the instrument may be, each tale is its own delightful narrative and thus part of the global story landscape. Perhaps the best way to sum it all up is through an old proverb from Haiti involving an origin story that states: every drum has its own drummer.

They have given us a musical treasure. Now, as the old Turkish saying goes, let’s go share it with others, today, tomorrow, and for a very long time to come.

Open Mic in Downtown Berkeley

Whether you are a performer or a listener, come check out a really cool open mic that takes place every Tuesday night, hosted by Wendy DeWitt at the piano, with Kirk Harwood on drums, Patty Hammond on bass, and Richard Mayers on congas. The address is Bobby G’s Pizzeria, 2072 University Ave. (between Milvia and Shattuck), Berkeley, CA. Phone is (510) 665-8866—call ahead if you want to ensure a performance spot, or just show up and take your chances.