Tuesday, August 18, 2015

St. James Infirmary

Any number of sources will inform you that the classic jazz composition "St. James Infirmary" is derived from an Anglo-American traditional ballad called "The Unfortunate Rake," which relates the sad end of a dissolute young man who has fallen victim to syphilis, and whose dying request consists of the instructions for his funeral procession. But are they right?

Those arguing in favor of a connection can point, first of all, to the title institution itself, which is mentioned by name in at least some of the versions of "The Unfortunate Rake," and which may allude (no one seems to be sure) to a long-vanished hospital in London. And then there are lines like the following (from "The Unfortunate Rake"):
Get six young soldiers to carry my coffin,
Six young girls to sing me a song,
And each of them carry a bunch of green laurel
So they don't smell me as they bear me along
This is evidently echoed in "St. James Infirmary" (in a version recited in a 1931 trademark infringement case) as follows:
Give me eight black horses to carry me
Eight pretty women to sing me a song
Let them sing me a song to my grave
As the bells toll on and on
Those similarities are real enough, but how much do they really tell us? The problem is that the familiar versions of "St. James Infirmary," which have been recorded countless times beginning in 1927, have nothing evident to do with an unfortunate rake dying of syphilis. In fact it's a little hard to say what the song is about. When I first learned the song, many years ago and who knows where, it began something like this:
I was down in Old Joe's barroom
On the corner by the square
The drinks were served as usual
And the usual crowd was there
The narrator then describes one of the patrons (one version calls him Joe McKennedy), who in turn sings what are no doubt the most familiar lines from the song:
I went down to St. James Infirmary
I saw my baby there
Stretched out on a long white table
So sweet... so cold... so fair...
Having described the corpse, most versions continue with something like this (I should note that the lyrics below are, deliberately, a composite, making use of both published texts and ones drawn "from memory," which may or may not match any single existing recording. In any case, the gist is clear):
Let her go, let her go, God bless her
Wherever she may be
She may search this whole wide world over
But she'll never find another man like me
Robert W. Harwood, the author of a fine book on the song which attempts to partially untangle its extremely convoluted history, confesses to finding the "Let her go" stanza "wrong, self-congratulatory, and, in this context, demented," but I think it's darkly hilarious. The speaker — McKennedy, or whoever he is — has been "jilted" by his lover because she has died; the woman will be conducting whatever searching she'll be doing in regions unknown to mortal man. I suspect, in fact, that the stanza has been interpolated into the song from an unrelated source, and originally had nothing to do with death, but if so the borrowing was a stroke of genius.

At this point, the song generally continues with the recitation of dying wishes. But whose — and why? Some observers have attempted to rationalize the lyrics, drawing on the "Unfortunate Rake" tradition, by saying that the woman has died of syphilis and her lover knows that he will soon follow. That's plausible, but it's worth asking whether whoever it was that assembled "St. James Infirmary" in its classic form would have made that connection. If not, can we really say that that is what the song is "about"?

Perhaps the best-known rendition of the song is the one first recorded in 1928 by Louis Armstrong. This version omits the frame verse ("I was down in Old Joe's barroom") and jumps directly to "I went down to St. James Infirmary..." After the "Let her go" stanza, it concludes with the following request:
When I die I want you to dress me in straight lace shoes
Boxback coat and a Stetson hat
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch-chain
So the boys'll know that I died standing pat
What if anything remains of "The Unfortunate Rake" in the Armstrong recording? Does it even matter? I would argue that the song as we are most familiar with it is so stylized — so modernized, if you like — that it no longer makes any difference if the narrative is coherent or if it follows its supposed ancestral source, that what we have is a composite made up of bits and pieces of "The Unfortunate Rake" tradition combined with other elements that were originally unconnected to it. What the song "is" now is a melody, a few familiar verses, and a public identity; all the various versions are instantly recognizable as "St. James Infirmary" (even if sometimes they bear other titles) no matter what story-line they seem to convey.

Below is a refreshingly irreverent rendition of "St. James Infirmary" recorded by Alphonso Trent and His Orchestra in 1930.

Friday, August 14, 2015

From the House of Bondage (update)

There is now a tentative publishing date as well as a cover image for the edition of Austin Reed's 19th-century prison memoir The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict. The book, which will carry an Introduction by Caleb Smith and a Foreword by David W. Blight and Robert B. Stepto, is due out from Random House on January 26, 2016; the ISBN is 9780812997095. Here's my earlier blog post.

Monday, August 10, 2015


My colleagues and I are seated around a picnic table at the edge of a farm field in the countryside. Below us, beneath some trees, is a small stream, and beside its muddy banks the neglected grave site of a German Catholic priest. I listen to the end of the presentation that precedes mine, and am about to preface my remarks with a sarcastic aside to the effect that, in our field, everything we study must be justified retrospectively by the influence it had on Bob Dylan, when two rafts come into view heading downstream. Both are jammed with trussed animals, among which we are astonished to see two live jaguars. Before we have time to react the poisoned darts come flying through the air.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Funeral Rites Revisited

In a 2013 post I juxtaposed the self-glorifying funeral instructions left by Oscar Thibault, the patriarch in Roger Martin du Gard's multi-volume novel Les Thibaults, with the intricate and preposterous obsequies commanded by the "wealthy eccentric" Grent Oude Wayl in Harry Mathews's 1962 novel The Conversions. Above is one more: Willie McTell's 1956 rendering of "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," which tells how the last wishes of the gambler Jesse Williams were carried out.

Though McTell recorded the song three times, the version above being the last, his repeated claim to have written it is open to question. Elements of the lyrics can be traced back to at least the 18th century (blues scholar Max Haymes has untangled some of the tangled strands of its prehistory), and Robert W. Harwood has attributed the song's creation in the form in which we know it to the elusive African-American composer and bandleader Porter Grainger. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that McTell's versions are the definitive performances.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Americans (V)


The image above is unlabelled, but knowing that its likely provenance was Oklahoma made it possible to take a guess at its location. It was printed in the real photo postcard format that was used by both commercial and amateur photographers to create mailable photographic prints, and the particular variety of Azo postcard stock on which it was printed is believed to have been manufactured between 1904 and 1918. There was only one historically black institute of higher education in the state of Oklahoma at that time, and that was the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. As it turns out, the guess was right; a little digging produced this photographic montage from The Oklahoma Red Book published in 1912:

Below is a closer view of the school's Mechanical Building:

Here's the same building, from the university's 1911-12 catalog:

The building in these pictures is a close fit for the one shown in the postcard, although the latter is more of a close-up and the entire smokestack is not shown. (There are no trees in the Red Book photo, which perhaps was actually taken several years earlier, before they were planted.) The identity of the young woman remains unknown, but at least we know where she was, and why she was there: she was taking advantage of one of the few opportunities for educational advancement open to African-Americans in the state of Oklahoma.

The two photos below may also possibly show Langston students, but from a later period; if so, then the family whose album this belonged to saw not just one but several members pass through Langston's doors.

The portrait photo of the male graduate is undated and unidentified, but judging by the mount it is probably later than the postcard of the young woman holding a book. The group photo is dated "Class of '33,'" and bears the inscription "From Baby to Mother Rebecca" (there is an arrow in ink over the head of the third woman from the right), which might make an identification possible (although it's not clear whether "Rebecca" was the student or the given name of "Mother Rebecca").

With these photos, or with the photo of "Laurence" from the preceding post, which might be a bit more recent, the trail grows cold. At some point, the family's careful custody of their photographic heritage came to an end. Perhaps they died out, or surviving members moved on or lost interest in their past. We don't know. Some of the photos were damaged by time and the elements or even deliberately defaced; but they survive, and even in their fragmentary fashion they carry reminders of the powerful currents of American history that formed them.

The town and university of Langston are named for John Mercer Langston, who among many other accomplishments was the first black member of the US House of Representatives from the state of Virginia. His great-nephew, the poet Langston Hughes, wrote these lines:
I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Americans (IV)

Guss Crader

Finally, a name we can trace; the reverse of this snapshot photograph bears an inscription from one Elder Guss Crader of Jennings, Louisiana.

I don't know whether Crader was the man in the dark hat and possible clerical collar at left, or the other man, or neither; the identities of both men were presumably known to the recipient. There were both black and white Craders in the Jennings area, and several alternative spellings, but the sender was probably the Gustave Crader, "negro," whom census records indicate was born in Jennings in 1879. By 1910 he had married a woman named Rosa and was living in Grayburg, Texas, but in 1920 and 1930 he and Rosa were back in Jennings again. His occupation is listed as "pastor" in the 1930 census, and he was employed by the Holiness Church. The photo is undated but I'm guessing it is from the 1920s or '30s. The inscription, with two spelling errors corrected and the Bible verses interpolated, reads:
here is 2 men you can have them if you know them now mind you they are yet Friends Looking for the hope of him that Said St. John 15:14 [Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you] and we are on the way to the Church as Said in Heb 10 C: 25 [Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching] and we are glad as Said in Psalm 1.22:1 [I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD] this Picture was taken at John your Brothers house with you and husband in mind wrote By Elder Guss Crader of Jennings La
There's an interesting border around the picture, showing what I take to be artist's palettes and easels. The number 31 has been stamped on the back.

Vivian Garrett

Though this portrait is smaller than the previous one, everything else about it suggests a common origin. The photographic paper stock is very similar, there is a border (though a different one), and a number (12) stamped on the back. I haven't been able to identify Vivian Garrett, but I suspect she was also from Jennings and would have been known to the same two men.


The dealer I obtained these photos from thought that this photo might also have come from Louisiana; I suspect it's later than the other two images. On the back, in a reminder of the fleeting nature of life and the inevitability of loss, is the following note: "this is Laurence it was taken about a week before he died"; the "u" in his name could also be a "w." There is something — it may well be a camera — slung over his shoulder. In the background, just to his left but almost invisible in this scan, is a Coca-Cola sign and another sign, almost legible, that may be for a bar or restaurant (see closeup at bottom of page). There's still a trace of a smile on Laurence's face.

Census records indicate that Guss and Rosa Crader had a son named Lawrence, born in 1901 or 1902, but I suspect that's just a coincidence.

More to come.