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.

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