“I went down to St. James Infirmary.”
Now that’s an oft taken journey given that song has been a jazz and blues standard since its first recording roughly 90 years ago. One website boasts 121 recorded versions and I’d wager the list is not comprehensive.
As a folk song, St. James Infirmary’s history goes back before the dawn of recording studios. But my history with it started as a teenager when my Dad would take me to see Sammy Duncan, a trumpeter in Atlanta whose band played St. James. It stands as the first song I ever successfully requested at a live music show.
For those unfamiliar, the song is about a man who, upon seeing his dead lover, contemplates his own mortality, including planning his own funeral and making sure he’s buried with a $20 gold piece on his watch chain. A heady story for a hormonal teenager with a coin collection.
The song is often associated with New Orleans perhaps because Louis Armstrong was one of the first to record it (December 1928) and because its often played by New Orleans musicians. However, there is no proven connection to New Orleans where there has never been a St. James Infirmary. In fact, its not clear where St. James Infirmary or Old Joe’s Bar (where the song finds the narrator of the story) are located.
Music lovers and researchers are clearly fascinated by St. James. You’ll find a lot of information on the topic on the web, including two blogs. I’d recommend Robert Harwood’s site which supports his book “I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.”
The short story is the song is believed to have descended from an 18th Century Irish song “The Unfortunate Rake,” about a dying man who laments his life choices, including an affair where he acquired a venereal disease. It’s a cautionary tale of wasted youth– a theme carried out in songs and stories throughout the world. And according to Harwood, it is not the basis for St. James Infirmary–even though its the explanation you’ll find on Wikipedia.
For Harwood, the song is clearly a product of the “folk” tradition or more accurately, the minstrel tradition that was active at the time. His smoking gun is called “Gambler’s Blues,” first recorded in 1927 by Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra (cool name) and also printed in Carl Sandburg’s “American Songbag” from 1927. This song is very similar to the Armstrong version recorded a year later.
One of the more fascinating mysteries of the song is how the singer transitions from witnessing his dead lover to contemplating his own funeral. The phrase from the Armstrong version is: “Let her go, let her go, God bless her, wherever she may be. She can look this wide world all over, but she’ll never find a sweet man like me.”
The egotistical phrase was enough to garner a wonderful rant from Sarah Vowell who coincidentally seemed to have connected to the song at about the same age as I did. “The narrator of this song is curiously so stuck up that he feels sorry for his loved one, not because she won’t be doing any more breathing, but because she just lost the grace of his presence. It’s so petty. And so human.”
The phrase is not in Gambler’s Blues. According to Harwood, you have to dig back further to a 1909 songbook to find a nearly identical phrase. “She’s Gone, Let Her Go” is sung by a jilted lover which makes the snide comment a bit more appropriate. Afterall, its okay to be bitter when your true love just stomped on your heart, right?
So St. James, like many other songs with folk origins, is a cut-and-paste mashup, notes journalist Rob Walker, author of Letters from New Orleans and who describes himself as a St.James obsessive. “Instead of trying to reconcile two disparate piece of cultural material, somebody decided to simply juxtapose them, and let a new meaning, however unsettling or strange or ambiguous, to emerge.”
Though it was opportunistically copywritten by Irving Mills, under the pseudonym Joe Primrose, the song really belongs to musicians and music lovers and should continue to evolve and change–as the many recordings since have demonstrated. I like the fact the song can be interpreted so many different ways. I’ll be playing a few on my next show.
To get you warmed up, here’s James Booker’s version and a New Orleans-created and inspired animation using an upbeat remix of a Preservation Hall Jazz Band version. Lots of inside jokes in the animation, including James Booker (with the star patch on his eye) and Morgus and his crew consoling the bereaved lover at Charity (instead of St. James) Hospital.