edited from essay by Max Haymes (www.earlyblues.com):
The Unfortunate Rake is the Irish source of the Dying Crapshooter’s Blues, by Blind Willie McTell. It crossed the Atlantic where it was ‘cleaned up’ by the cowboy fraternity and appeared as The Streets Of Laredo, while ‘respectable’ versions of St. James Hospital existed alongside it.
The first black recording of the latter title was by James ‘Iron Head’ Baker for the Library of Congress. Together with St. James/Joe’s Infirmary and the more respectful Rake And Rambling Boy by Gid Tanner, the net result was the ‘unholy’ blues composition by Blind Willie McTell.
James ‘Iron Head’ Baker recorded his version in 1934 for the Library of Congress and was followed some two months later by another black singer, James Wadley who had his side titled St. James Infirmary, and was recorded in Atlanta, Georgia. This was the first rural, solo example of this song by a black artist on record as far as we know.
Sometime between 1924 and 1934, a white hill-billy outfit going by the name of Gid Tannner and his Skillet Lickers recorded a song which had evolved out of The Flash Lad and The Wild and Wicked Youth, which they called Rake And Rambling Boy. The title harking back to the beginning of this chronology, The Unfortunate Rake, would appear to have roots in the nineteenth century also, probably in the last decade. The last verse closes with these lines:
“And on her breast he placed a dove,
To signify she died for love.”
Gid Tanner’s group were based in Atlanta amidst a strong white country music scene which rubbed shoulders with the equally strong black blues one. Tony Russell quite rightly says that “Interaction between black and white musicians has been one of the most stimulating forces in American folk music.”, although Russell says this is not so common today because of “‘social reasons’’,… in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties they were frequent and fertile.”
Former Columbia Record A. & R. man Frank Walker explained to Russell why this was so. “In those days, in the outskirts of a city like Atlanta, we’ll say, you had your colored section…and you had your white, but they were right close to each other. They might be swinging round in an arc, the colored people, being the left end of the arc and the white the right, but they would pass each other every day. And a little of the spiritualistic singing of the colored people worked over into the white hillbilly, and a little of the white hillbilly worked over into what the colored people did, so that you got a little combination of the two things there…They (the hillbillies) adopted little things that a colored man might be playing on his guitar, but he (the colored man) heard the white fellow across the way…and he adopted a little of that.” .
Russell also notes that a black group of bluesmen sometimes known as ‘Peg Leg Howell And His Gang’ with a line-up of a fiddle and two guitars, was similar to Tanner’s group and they even sounded similar on occasion. Further to this, Tanner’s excellent blind guitarist, Riley Puckett, declares a the beginning of his version of John Henry, which he called Darkey’s Wail, “I’m gonna play for you this time a little piece which an old southern darky I heard play, comin’ down Decatur Street the other day. ‘cause his good girl done throwed him down”.
In this cross-fertilization process, McTell could have got some inspiration for Crapshooter from Rake And Rambling Boy as he probably heard it in person as “Puckett for some years attended the State Blind School in Macon, Georgia, and while there he may have encountered the black singer Blind Willie McTell, who was a pupil from 1922 to 1925. It may have even been McTell from whom he learned his interpretation of John Henry.” Decatur Street, along with Auburn Avenue, as Paul Oliver says: “…were the ‘main stem’ in Atlanta’s Negro sector.”