So: November 1998. We were visiting the city with a bunch of friends, sharing a house in Gentilly for Thanksgiving. One night some of us went to Donna's, in the Quarter, where the Hot Eight was playing. They did a version of "St. James Infirmary." I had heard "St. James Infirmary" a number of times, and liked it quite a bit. But this was the first time I'd really thought about the curious lyrics.
The leader of the Hot Eight was a wild young trumpet player, alleged age 18, with glasses and big, baggy jeans. He seemed to blow with all his strength, with all his savvy, sometimes letting his left hand dangle and arching his body back and forcing out the notes. I got the impression that the Hot Eight might be an unruly bunch in general, one reason being that we saw them a couple of times and there were never eight of them -- only six or seven showed up at a time.
Anyway, he sang the opening stanza in a rather subdued and mournful tone, which the other players matched. Those lyrics went like this:
I went down to St. James Infirmary,
Saw my baby there.
She was stretched out on a long white table, so sweet,
So cold, so bare.
Let her go, let her go, God bless her,
Wherever she may be,
She can search this whole wide world over,
She ain't never gonna find another man like me.
So I'd heard the lyrics before, but now I was thinking about them. Sad song about a man going to see the corpse of his lover ... . And will she go to heaven or will she go to hell ... . And whatever the answer, she "ain't never gonna find another man like me." Wow. That's something. That's beautiful and wrong at the same time.
The music continued, and the way the Hot Eight did it, they eventually came back around and repeated this opening verse. But now the funeral march pace was gone and it was a wailing dance, a celebration, an affirmation -- body arched back, left hand dangling, forcing out those notes -- she ain't never gonna find another man like me.
SO THAT STUCK WITH ME. After I moved here, and was in a position to hear a lot of the local standards in a variety of settings -- outdoor festivals, small clubs, parades, jazz funerals -- "St. James Infirmary" became my favorite. I got mildly curious about it one day. I knew there was a very famous Louis Armstrong recording, which I happened to have on some best-of CD reissue. The notes there said it was recorded on December 12, 1928, in Chicago, and listed the writer as J. Primrose. Armstrong did the lyrics pretty much as the Hot Eight were doing them 70 years later. Now I paid more attention to the next verse, which (in Armstrong's rendition) goes:
When I die, I want you to dress me in straight-laced shoes
Box-back coat and a Stetson hat
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain,
So the boys will know that I died standin' pat.
I liked that, too. It was odd that the singer would abruptly start addressing his own funeral arrangements while looking at his lover's body, but I found it charming somehow. I'm not saying I admire the narrator, who seems overly pleased with himself and dishonest besides. But I do admire something in his matter-of-fact, fearless taunting of the fates. That just seems very New Orleans to me.
I WAS PLEASED TO DISCOVER THAT SARAH VOWELL, whose work on This American Life I have enjoyed, had written about "St. James Infirmary," in an October 6, 1999, piece for Salon.com. I've since found that some of the specifics in that article are off, but she is certainly right in identifying the source of the song's curious pull in that jarring moment when the singer turns away from the horror of death and abruptly starts bragging about his own superiority to all men in this world or any other.
Vowell's take is that the shift "doesn't make any sense unless you take into account the selfish way the living regard the dead. ... [T]he 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." Not only that, the song also "shoots down the idea of love as a true possibility. If you need love in part to know you'll be missed when you're gone, what does it mean if your sweetheart stands over your icy corpse and -- instead of wishing to rejoin you on some astral plane -- fantasizes about impressing his buddies with a big dumb coin?"
Well, okay, that's intriguing, but also a little harsh, and it's not how I see things. And I couldn't stop thinking about the song. What did it mean? Where did it come from? I began to concoct theories that would perhaps redeem the singer. My most clever interpretation, I think, was that perhaps the singer had killed his lover in a jealous rage. Perhaps she'd been cheating on him, and he caught her in the act. That would explain both his strange insistence on informing her corpse that he's the best man she'll ever have, and also his preoccupation with his own death, perhaps by execution.
Anyway, fast forward a few months and I own several dozen versions of "St. James Infirmary," which is a fair indication of the intensity that my interest in the song would eventually reach. I have renditions by Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, the Hall Johnson Negro Choir, Red Garland, Harry Connick, Jr., The Animals, Bobby "Blue" Bland, The Ventures, The White Stripes, and Marc Ribot. As Vowell notes, the song is sometimes listed as traditional, but is more often attributed to Joe Primrose or to Irving Mills, "an associate of Duke Ellington."
Actually Joe Primrose is Irving Mills. I eventually confirmed this with EMI Music, the song's publisher. According to EMI, Mills, using the pseudonym Joe Primrose, took the copyright on the song in 1929. This seemed odd, if it's right that the Armstrong recording was actually made in late 1928. A knowledgeable reader has suggested that Mills probably published the song in 1928 and deposited the copyright the following year; publishers, my correspondent added, often sent artists advance copies of their tunes.
A lot has been written about (and by) Louis Armstrong, and I certainly have not read it all, but I have looked through many books for clues to how he might have come to record this particular number. I've found nothing solid. I was reading through a book called Storyville, New Orleans by Al Rose, in particular a passage about the corner of Bienville and Marais streets. (This corner no longer exists; there's a housing project where Storyville used to be.) Jelly Roll Morton hung out at one of the bars on that corner, and across the street stood St. James Methodist Church. "According to a common legend," Rose writes, "the church offered first-aid services and modest hospital facilities and thus became the inspiration for the widely performed St. James Infirmary Blues."
But no. The next line: "Unfortunately, this colorful and imaginative legend is not true; indeed, the song has no connection with New Orleans." After this crushing sentence, Rose moves on to his next topic, without a footnote or a backward glance. But I now have a pretty good idea what he meant, because this particular story really begins, at the very latest, in 1790.
"ST. JAMES INFIRMARY," IT TURNS OUT, is an offshoot of an extraordinary song cycle that is the subject of a 1960 Folkways Records release called The Unfortunate Rake: A Study in the Evolution of a Ballad, containing 20 songs and extensive notes by Kenneth S. Goldstein. I have, needless to say, purchased this item. Goldstein writes that the oldest published text from the "Rake" cycle was "collected" in 1848 in County Cork, Ireland, "from a singer who had learned it in Dublin in 1790." The song may have been "in tradition" for years prior to that, but it's obviously impossible to say. (He also notes that St. James Hospital was in London, and treated lepers.)
The disc includes one recording based on lyrics printed on a 19th century broadside. The singer recounts "a-walking down by St. James Hospital" one day and running into a friend, who was "wrapped up in flannel," despite the warm weather. The friend blames his troubled health on "a handsome young woman." It seems that he knew this woman rather well, but there was something she didn't tell him, and if only she had, "I might have got the pills and salts of white mercury." This refers to a treatment for venereal disease. "Now I'm cut down in the height of my prime," the unfortunate rake explains, proceeding to make requests relating to his funeral ("Get six of your soldiers to carry my coffin, six young girls to sing me a song ...").
The next several tunes on the disc are variations on this story, with the lyrics rearranged in various ways. One difference is that most are explicit that the young man is a soldier or sailor, and none are anywhere near so explicit about what exactly his problem is. In fact they're all extremely vague -- it's just a young man who is "cut down in his prime" for reasons that aren't clear. Sometimes, as in "Bad Girl's Lament," the ballad is about the woman, but basically follows the same pattern (an early mention of St. James' Hospital, a closing request for "Six pretty maidens with a bunch of red roses, six pretty maidens to sing me a song ..."). You won't find many of these exact same words in the most typically played version of "St. James Infirmary" today, but this at least is a back story that makes some of the latter's sentiments perfectly logical: The singer makes a jealousy-tinged boast and turns quickly to thoughts of his own death because his "baby" just died of VD. Dig?
THE BALLAD TRAVELED THE WORLD. There is a black West Indian version from the 19th century. And there's one from Kentucky (dated to 1915) that seems to have been adapted to refer to a specific local scandal involving a former policeman caught up in a brothel-based slaying that led to his own execution. Another version of the ballad traveled west with pioneers as "The Cowboy's Lament." It's basically the same story again, but the linen-wrapped fellow is a cowboy found on a Laredo street. ("Get sixteen cowboys to carry my coffin; get sixteen pretty ladies to bear up my pall ..."). Sometimes the request is for a bunch of gamblers to carry the coffin.
Alan Lomax appears on the Folkways disc -- singing. He contributes a "Negro version" of the ballad that he and his father collected in 1934 from a prisoner in Sugar Land, Texas. It's called "St. James Hospital." Here it's worth noting that up to this point on the disc, none of the versions has the melody of the modern "St. James Infirmary." (It's also worth noting that Lomax is not much of a singer.) Instead they use the melody closer to the one we know today as "Streets of Laredo," which has been recorded by Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Arlo Guthrie, and many others. The "Rake" cycle splits in two directions, one leading to Laredo, the other to the St. James Infirmary. In Goldstein's notes, Lomax is quoted saying this version "provides the link between the folk ballad and the pop tune" -- between "The Unfortunate Rake" and "St. James Infirmary."
The actual recording of the prisoner (James "Ironhead" Baker) singing "St. James Hospital" appears on a Rounder CD of material collected by Lomax and his father John A. Lomax called Black Texicans. This is an interesting set, exploring and documenting black variations on and contributions to the cowboy ballad form. (The Lomaxes seem to have been particularly interested in prisoners who'd had little contact with the outside world, and thus with popular recordings and recent musical trends and so forth, for decades.) Oddly, despite the title, the words "St. James hospital" appear in Lomax's rendition, but not in Baker's. The melody may not be quite the same as the "Rake" melody, but despite what Lomax implies, it's hardly identical to "St. James Infirmary," which of course had been recorded by Armstrong about five years before "Ironhead" Baker's performance in Sugar Land.
THIS RAISED MORE QUESTIONS, and trying to answer them has been an interesting, if ultimately frustrating, process. We live in a moment of very intense documentation. Every cultural event -- hell, every wedding -- is captured on video, in photographs, written up in web logs and emails. The historians of the future will have an embarrassment of riches to work with, no matter how trivial their inquiries may be. And I sometimes wonder if they'll have much left to inquire about, given how few secrets are left in our real-time culture. It's startling to look back less than 100 years in search of answers, only to confront the alien idea of the unknowable.
We know that Irving Mills was born in New York, the son of immigrants from Odessa, Russia. As young men, he and his brother Jack worked as "song pluggers" (promoters), and in about 1920 they set up their own music-publishing firm, Mills Music. At the time, such firms made money by selling sheet music. Live performances and even recordings were basically seen as a way of promoting such sales. Jazz was commercially popular; Mills Music also sold novelty rags and blues. They would buy songs from musician-writers for a flat fee, and own them outright. They once bought all rights to 21 Fats Waller songs for $500.
The forward-looking Irving did a pretty good job getting involved with new technologies like radio, and was apparently a pioneer in sending free recordings to publications to garner publicity. (Recording sales overtook sheet music in the mid 1930s.) He also started working as an agent, most famously for Duke Ellington, under an arrangement that allowed him to take partial writing credit on dozens of early Ellington tunes, many of which he probably did not contribute to at all. For this reason, Mills is generally recalled as a bit of a scoundrel; just about every time I've read some passing mention of him in liner notes or jazz books, it's dismissive at best. There's so much more to say about Mills, but seeing as how he had little to do with New Orleans, I'll get to the point.
The point is this. In 1927, the poet Carl Sandburg published a book called American Songbag, a collection of 280 songs (music and lyrics and very short explanatory introductions) from "all regions of America." About 100 of these he describes as "strictly folk songs," never before published. "Though meant to be sung, [the book] can be read as a glorious anthology of the songs that men have sung in the making of America." One of the songs is called "Those Gambler's Blues." Two sets of lyrics are given for the melody, one collected from someone at the University of Alabama, the other given by two sources, one in Los Angeles and one in Fort Worth. There's no mention of a composer, which rather strongly implies that this is one of the folk songs with no known author, which these days we would see credited to "Traditional." The lyrics contain much of what we hear as "St. James Infirmary" today; the melody (I confirmed with a friend who reads music) is basically the same.
Again it's worth noting how the world has changed. Can you imagine someone today getting away with taking credit for writing a song that had actually been published in a collection -- one compiled by a famous poet -- two years earlier? Anyway, I don't know where Irving Mills heard the tune. I don't know why he used the name Joe Primrose in claiming it, as he never seems to have used that pseudonym again. I can tell you that the Harlem Hot Chocolates recorded a version in New York in March 1930, with a singer identified as Sunny Smith. This was actually Duke Ellington's band, with Mills, under another pseudonym, on vocals. He's not a great singer, but he's better than Alan Lomax.
The only recording I've been able to find that pre-dates Armstrong's is a performance by Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra, made February 25, 1927, in New York City. On the CD version, the song is listed as "Gambler's Blues," and, maddeningly, the writer credit is "Moore-Baxter." Reader and fellow "St. James" obsessive Robert W. Harwood, in his cool self-published book A Rake's Progress, explains that drummer Carl "Squeakin' Deacon" Moore and bandleader Phil Baxter essentially gave a lightly comic spin to the traditional tune. Even more maddeningly, I also came across a single stray reference to Don Redman as the song's writer. Jorma Kaukonen (formerly of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna) covered the song not long ago and credited it to Jimmie Rodgers, who cut a version under the title "Those Gambler's Blues" in 1930. I don't know what to make of these outliers. Maybe they are just mistakes.
The jazz reference books I've seen that address the question of the song's authorship tend to offer no specific name, but say that it dates back to 1910, or maybe the late 1890s, etc. In other words, they don't help. Maybe the most definitive thing we can assert is that somebody who was at least partly inspired by "The Unfortunate Rake" laid down the blueprint for the song we now know as "St. James Infirmary" sometime prior to 1927, and that in 1929, "Joe Primrose" was granted the copyright.
NOW, I'M GENERALLY SKEPTICAL OF MUSIC writing that focuses on analyzing lyrics, and I deplore attempts to treat lyrics like poetry. However, I am obviously very interested in that one lyrical passage -- the one in which the singer suddenly shifts from lamenting his lover's death to bragging that: "She can search this whole wide world over; she ain't never gonna find another man like me."
There's a lot of tweaking and futzing and rearranging of lyrics in various recorded versions of "St. James Infirmary" that I've heard. In the "Rake" songs the singer was a third-party narrator, relating a tale he heard from the stricken man himself. The oldest "Rake" songs downplay the woman, who is merely an undifferentiated "flash girl," not the unfortunate protagonist's true love.
This is even true of "Gambler's Blues." In the most prevalent version, the narrator is in a bar and hears the tale of woe from Big Joe McKennedy (or something similar), who is just back from having visited his lover's corpse at the St. James Infirmary. (This is how Eric Burden did it, old school blues poseur that he is, in what I have to admit would be a great rendition if not for the backup singers going "oh-ooh-whoa" over and over.) But this scene of gazing at the woman's lifeless body is an addition to the storyline of the "Rake" songs, and suggests that the deceased was, in fact, the singer's true love, or at least main squeeze, not just an ill-advised fling.
Occasionally, the woman is immaterial or even eliminated. Dr. John reworked "St. James Infirmary" into "Touro Infirmary," a lament for the death of his hard-living "runnin' partner," who had requested "the finest whores on Bourbon Street" and Professor Longhair for his funeral, before he ended up dead on arrival at Touro (a real New Orleans hospital). One of the most extraordinary variations is Blind Willie McTell's "The Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues." McTell had done some recording -- and like Mills was fond of pseudonyms, from Pig 'n' Whistle Red to Barrelhouse Sammy -- but was reduced to singing in the street when an Atlanta recording shop owner came upon him in 1956 and made what turned out to be the last recordings of a gifted bluesman. At one point McTell sets up his next number by saying he started writing it in 1929 and finished it in 1932. It concerns a gambler friend named Jesse Williams, who was shot in the street, taken home by McTell, and as he died proceeded to give McTell a number of funeral-related requests -- 16 crapshooter pallbearers, 16 bootlegers to sing him a song, and so on (plus a pair of dice in his shoes, a deck of cards as his tombstone, and a wish for "everybody to do the Charleston while he's dyin'"). The fact that Williams' woman had left him is a mere aside; the song has him killed by police for unspecified reasons. Williams, McTell relates, asked him to sing about all this at the funeral itself. "That I did," McTell asserts. "See, I had to steal music from every which a-way to get it, get it to fit." (Bob Dylan later wrote a song called "Blind Willie McTell," and an extensive deconstruction of that tune by Michael Gray in Song & Dance Man III is how I came to McTell and then to "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues." Dylan's song, too, includes echoes from the "Rake," and ends, "I am gazing out the window of the St. James Hotel, and I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.")
Most of the more modern jazz versions (Armstrong forward) omit this narrative device and make it a first-person story. That passage I'm so obsessed with does not appear in the old English "Rake" songs, nor is it in either version of the lyrics provided by Sandburg, or in McTell's version. In one of the sets of lyrics that Sandburg offers, the line is replaced with, "There'll never be another like her; there'll never be another for me." This is the way the Hall Johnson Negro Choir did it in December 1931, and it's also the reading that Bobby Bland went with decades later. It's certainly a more traditional and less jarring sentiment. And it's much less interesting.
The line is omitted from Fess Williams' 1927 take, which skips straight from the image of the dead woman to the narrator discussing his own funeral. The version that Mills (as Sunny Smith) sang in 1930 basically has it both ways: After seeing his baby on that long white table, he first "wish[es] it was me instead," and then throws in the "search this whole world over" verse right afterward. Another version that Mills was involved with, recorded by Mills Merry Makers in January 1930, has Charlie Teagarden (younger brother of Jack) on vocals, and delivers a take that works so hard to get the verb tense right that it sounds like a grammar teacher delivered it: "She could have looked this wide world all over, she'd never have found a sweet man like me." (Emphasis added.) It's actually a nicely done vocal, but that reading of the line is ridiculous, and completely misses the mysticism and the nastiness of the eternal vengeance implied by saying that even in the afterlife she'll never find such a man. It also waters down the sense that the singer is affirming his own life with a certain proud desperation. Which to me is the whole point.
IN NEW ORLEANS, THE LYRICS ARE pretty much always performed the way Armstrong did them. The most recent recorded version I know of is on 2002's The Marsalis Family, with patriarch Ellis and all four of his musician sons. Harry Connick sings -- and uses the lyrics that Armstrong did.
How did the song come to Mills' attention? Did he hear a recording? A live performance somewhere? Where did Armstrong pick it up? Was it being played in New Orleans when he was growing up, hanging around Storyville? Who added that key lyrical phrase, "She'll never find another man like me"?
I don't know, I don't know. Maybe I never will. That Bob Dylan book I mentioned earlier led me, through its footnotes, to a 1975 book called The Electric Muse: The Story of Folk Into Rock. One section, by a writer named Karl Dallas, deals with "St. James Infirmary" and "The Unfortunate Rake," and marvels at how "the soldier dying of syphilis in eighteenth century London crosses oceans, changes sex, becomes a cowboy dying of gunshot wounds on the streets of Laredo, coming to rest finally in New Orleans as the black hero of ...''St. James Infirmary.'" Putting aside Dallas' unflinching association of the song with New Orleans, which obviously pleases me, I was interested in his point that the common bond is the dying protagonist in one way or another calling the shots of his own funeral. The requests, by and large, are not modest, despite the fact that in pretty much every case that protagonist admits that his pending death is the result of his own bad behavior (whether a single aberration or a lifetime of sin). "Though the identity of the hero and the cause of death changes, one thing remains -- the triumphant laugh in the face of death." I actually think that overstates things for the earlier "Rake" versions, but it's right on target for "St. James Infirmary" as the Hot Eight performed it that night in 1998 -- both in the specific words chosen, the way those words were sung, and the force of the music that accompanied them.
Since that key line in the Armstrong version does not have a precedent that I am aware of, I can at least pretend that this is the way he had heard it performed in New Orleans, before he left for Chicago in 1922. I have no proof of this at all, of course, but I think it is still too soon to say that the song has "no connection with New Orleans whatever." Because every time I hear some local brass band playing the tune, I always say to myself: "No connection with New Orleans? That just can't be right."