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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
GUEST,Karen Help: The Unfortunate Rake (116* d) RE: Help: The Unfortunate Rake 29 Jun 18


Absolutely agree with Lighter about the essay he found. Some of it is plain wrong. The record store owner McTell sang it to was white, not African American. Admixture of knowledge and guesswork. The author gives 1940 as his birthdate on that same site, and the essay is dated at 1989. So presumably this is undergraduate work by mature student.


Also agree with Kevin's 'head aching' point.

Whatever Samuel Charters said about it, Blind Willie McTell didn't write that song. It was written by Porter Grainger, who registered the copyright in July 1927. I'm sure Grainger knew of the tradition and drew on it for the words. Not the tune though.

It seems that Samuel Charters did not do his research on that one, even if he did correctly perceive a link to Streets of Loredo!

McTell modifies the words and simplifies the harmonic structure, so that his version sounds a lot less like a professionally composed vaudeville/tin-pan alley song. Don't get me wrong: I like McTell's version, and most of his stuff, but I don't believe he wrote it. He 'made it his own', adding local colour and doing away with bits you could see as 'moralistic'. Rather like Lloyd did with his version in a way! McTell adds local colour too relating to Atlanta Georgia.


Porter Grainger also wrote the score for a Harlem African American performance of Macbeth that Orson Wells put on. Interesting character.

For more on Crapshooter, Harwood's book on St James' Infirmary seems to me to be a good source. And there is a book on McTell by Michael Gray.

The song was released in 4 different versions and, if I remember aright, a piano roll in the same year. Given that these 'Blues queens' who recorded it made their money largely by touring, not from recording, the song would likely have been taken round the country. Also sheet music would have been sold, this was a big part of the business. Grainger also wrote songs recorded by Clara Smith and Victoria Spivey.

The funeral request does seem to be the main link. I think, on the basis of reading Harwood, including his account of the St James Infirmary copyright case, and taking into account the appearance of songs in Sandburg's songbook, that various versions were being played by touring bands definitely in the early 20s and possibly before that.


This is speculative, but in Crapshooter the character begins with J (Jim Johnson) and so do other variants (Old Joe, St James). I have just this minute realised that Jim (as in Jim Johnson) is diminutive of James, so that is another link.

Another link is the embedding of a first person narrative within another narrative, though the first narrative is 3rd person not the first person of the early TUL.


Also, the early versions tend to have 'I know I done wrong' endings which this song also has. They mention the dead march in some early versions. On the Martha Copeland version the band actually plays a snatch of it. Quite a few links.

Even on the recorded versions the words differ slightly. Overall, the original words seems to me to reflect a Calvinistic predestination view of the human condition, but that is just me, on the basis of 'The devil told me what to do'.


I believe that gangster funerals in 1920s New York could be very well-attended affairs; maybe the song reflects that.

These are the words on the Martha Copeland version. You can hear it free on Spotify. Interesting to see which bits McTell added over the years and which bits he left out. (NB Mc Tell sang it slightly differently each time).

Jim Johnson gambled night and day
With crooked cards and dice.   
A simple man, without a soul,
His heart was cold as ice.

He said: ĎI feel so doggone blue
I want to die today
The devil told me what to do
But I ainít had my say

I want you all to know
The way I want to go.

I want eight crapshooters for my pall bearers
And let them all be dressed in black
Nine men going to the graveyard
And only eight men coming back.

I want a jazz band on my coffin
A chorus girl on my hearse
And donít say one good word about me
For my lifeís been a doggone curse

Send poker players to the graveyard
To dig my grave with the ace of spades.
Have police in my funeral march
While the warden leads the parade.

I want the judge who jailed me 14 times
To put a pair oí dice in my shoes.                           
Then let a deck of cards be my tombstone,
Iíve got the dying crapshooterís blues

(Spoken) Oh, I ainít never been on the level
Now Iím dying, Iím going to the devil

My headís aching, my heartís thumping.
Iím going down below, bouncing and a jumping

Donít be standing round me crying;
I want everybody to Charleston (Charleston music here) while Iím dying Ė
One foot up and a toenail dragging.

Throw me in that hoodoo wagon
Mr Devil, stand outside -
Iíve got the dying crapshooterís blues' (snatch of Dead March)


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