Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Friday, August 2, 2019

Richard Jenkins on The Unfortunate Rake, Folklore, and St. James Infirmary


Logo for The Folklore Society
London, England
The British folklorist, Richard Jenkins, first sent me an email in 2008, in which he asked, "Where, in the whole saga, would you place 'Gambling Blues,' recorded on 16 Jan 1928 by Buell Kazee, from Eastern Kentucky?" That was an important question, and led me to a reevaluation of the chronology of SJI recordings.

I was glad to hear that, earlier this year, he was chosen to deliver the annual Katharine Briggs memorial lecture for the revered Folklore Society in London, England.


Jenkins' lecture focused on the song The Unfortunate Rake, tackling it from at least three perspectives. The one most pertinent to this site: Is there a relationship between The Unfortunate Rake and St. James Infirmary? Jenkins said,"As far as I know, Harwood was the first to question the link between St. James and The Rake." He's right. And, as he suggested, this was not an easy thing to do. When the authorities, the folklorists and scholars, have settled on an explanation, who dares to question their conclusions? Jenkins investigated this conundrum.



Which leads to another of Jenkins' approaches to this Rake controversy. Can scholars lose objectivity as a result of their own desires and biases? I wrote in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary that "each folk music researcher has his own motivation for undertaking the work, and this will influence both what he looks for and how he interprets what he finds." In his lecture Jenkins went more broadly into this: "There is also the role of what psychologists call 'confirmation bias': the role of preconceptions in the selection of evidence and the encouragement of unsupported, and often unacknowledged, speculation ... people find what they are looking for and what they already believe in, even if, in extremis, doing so requires fraud or invention." His elaboration on this theme is engrossing.

Jenkins also raised the question of The Unfortunate Rake's title. He explained the history of a song known, historically, as The Unfortunate Lad, and asked why a 20th century researcher might have been tempted to alter the title to something, well, a little more rakish. His discussion about this is both involved and thought provoking.


Jenkins's piece roams over much more territory than I have suggested in these few words. You can read his lecture here: The Unfortunate Rake's Progress. Highly recommended!


Richard Jenkins can be contacted at  r.p.jenkins@sheffield.ac.uk


PS Further thanks to Dr. Jenkins for saying, during his lecture: "Harwood's is the fullest account of the history of 'St. James Infirmary' and its relationship to other songs that we have." I wish I'd had his lecture as a reference when writing I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.

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Here, a bit of fun - The Copperfield Ensemble use the word "infirmary" but, hey, it's the 21st century. Nicely done.