Pills of White Mercury

Mercury(II) Chloride.

“Streets of Laredo” (Roud 2), also known as the “Cowboy’s Lament”, is a famous American cowboy ballad in which a dying cowboy tells his story to a living one. Derived from the English folk song “The Unfortunate Lad,” it has become a folk music standard, and as such has been performed, recorded and adapted numerous times, with many variations.

The old-time cowboy Frank H. Maynard (1853-1926) of Colorado Springs, Colorado, claimed authorship of the revised Cowboy’s Lament, and his story was widely reported in 1924 by the journalism professor Elmo Scott Watson, then on the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The song is widely considered a traditional ballad, and the origins are not entirely clear. It seems to be primarily descended from a British folk song of the late 18th century called “The Unfortunate Rake,” which also evolved (with a time signature change and completely different melody) into the New Orleans standard “St. James Infirmary Blues.” The British ballad shares a melody with the British sea-song “Spanish Ladies.” The Bodleian Library, Oxford, has copies of a nineteenth-century broadside entitled “The Unfortunate Lad,” which is a version of the British ballad. Some elements of this song closely presage those in the “Streets of Laredo” and in the “St. James Infirmary Blues.”

Note that Mercury(II) chloride or mercuric chloride was an early treatment for syphilis and is a white salt.

As I was a-walking by the banks o’ the Ugie
Come, my dear friends, and this story I’ll relate
I spied a dear comrade all dressed in white flannel
Dressed in white flannel and cruel was his fate

Oh the mercury was beating, the limestone was reeking
His tongue all in flames hung over his chin
A hole in his bosom, his teeth were a-closing
Bad luck to the girlie that gied him the glim

Chorus (after each verse):
And had she but told me, oh when she dishonored me
Had she but told me of it in time
I might have been cured by those pills of white mercury
Now I’m a young man cut down in my prime

My parents, they warned me and oft times they chided
With those young flash girls do not sport and play
I never listened, no, I never heeded
I just carried on in my own wicked way

It’s down on the corner two flash girls were talking
One to the other did whisper and say
“There goes that young man who once was so jolly
Now for his sins his poor body must pay”

Oh doctor, dear doctor, before your departure
Take all these bottles of mercury away
Send for the minister to say a prayer over me
So they can lay my poor body in the clay

Now get you six fellows to carry my coffin
Six pretty fair maids to bear up my pall
Give each of them there a bunch of red roses
When they pass by me, they’ll not know the smell

Pills of White Mercury, Old Blind Dogs.

Curator: Christian Clay Columba Campbell

Christian Clay Columba Campbell is a Roman Catholic of the Anglican Use. As Senior Warden of the Cathedral of the Incarnation (Orlando, FL), he organised the process by which the parish accepted the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, petitioning to join the Catholic Church. The Anglican Cathedral is now the Church of the Incarnation in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. Personal queries should be directed to me at eccentricbliss dot com.

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