So, this is our final “official” post before we enter the blissful sleep of the real world. Thanks for reading. But does anyone mourn the passing of a music blog? I mean, c’mon now: this ain’t no Rolling Stone. Thank God. But if one were to mourn a music blog, there’d only be one way to do it: the immemorial NOLA dirge, “St. James Infirmary.”
It’s a song recorded by hundreds. Of unclear origins—possibly forked from the old English folk song “The Unfortunate Rake,” possibly not. “Written” in the early 20th century, but not recorded until 1928. Multiple claims to authorship, multiple disputed authors. Lyrical variations laid upon lyrical variations: some start in a bar, some in the infirmary. All end in recalcitrant sorrow. A palimpsest of heartbreak. And even the most dreadful versions cannot sully the song’s core: the sorrow of the unrepentant sinner, world-weary but defiant. Defiant but broken.
All the versions, whether they start at old Joe’s bar room or the infirmary, concern a gambling man who confronts the body of his dead lover in the titular infirmary. Thoroughly grieved, he thinks of his own death. But even through the grief, he will not give up his earthly ways. He’s to be buried in high style, with the accouterments of the gambler: a fifth of Chivas, a Stetson hat, or a 20-dollar gold piece. Head held high; heart sunk low; ready for death.
Although Armstrong was not the first to record “St. James,” Robert W. Harwood whose definitive book I Went Down to St. James Infirmary [Buy] and accompanying blog are worth checking out, describes how Satchmo formed it into perfection:
The versions that appeared in Carl Sandburg’s collection of traditional American songs (The American Songbag – ©1927) were written in 6/8 time. They were ballads. One of the significant differences between these songs and the recordings that both included and followed the 1928 Louis Armstrong recording was a change in rhythm – to 4/4 time. With this change in rhythm the song had become danceable. More specifically, one could dance the foxtrot to it. [I Went Down to St. James Infirmary]
So the next time someone says that they don’t get what jazz is all about (it happens), I’m going to give them this definition: beyond the improvisation, jazz is, at heart, grief you can dance to. You can hear it, in all fullness, in Armstrong’s first recorded version, 12/12/1928, Chicago, which for the record, jazz purists, involved no improvisation. Still hits it for me.
But if someone wants something more than a wordy definition for jazz, offer them Armstrong’s languorous version from 1959’s Satchmo Plays King Oliver. It’s possible for somebody not to “get” jazz. It’s impossible to not get this recording. Slowed down to a crawl, with aching harmonization, softly whirling trumpet, and clarinet lines that simply cannot be beat. It’s shocking to hear the difference in Armstrong’s voice; how airy it was in 1928, how effectively he uses his age-grained voice in ’59. And, when he laughs at the line, “she can look this wide world over, but she’ll never find a sweet man like me,” calling himself out as a braggard, he gets to the very heart of the song’s wounded defiance. And lucky for us, every single beat of this song gets it, too. This is the song as I first heard it, this is the song that accompanies me in every sundry sadness. This defines “dirge.”
Have you picked yourself up from the floor? Your tear holes all plugged up? Good. Although no version, in my mind, touches Armstrong’s take from 1959, there are, unsurprisingly, a multitude of excellent versions of this song.
Let’s ease our way back in with a breezy instrumental version from Allan Tuissant. Even played as a folksy jam, this song doesn’t lose its bite. And there’s nothing not to love with Tuissant’s boogying piano or that upright bass work.
Bobby “Blue” Bland
What? Sick of jazz already? What do you think this is, some sort of indie rock blog? Guess what: blog’s dead, baby, blog’s dead. But fine, we’ll move off jazz. How does a NOLA funeral dirge play as traditional soul? Quite fine, sir, quite fine. And I desperately want to be at this Bland show. Pun! Seriously, damn masterful soul.
Still sick of jazz? Well, how about some soul jazz, you philistine? Starts off a capella. That voice, man, is a devastating killer. Jesus, Lou, that voice. Then the band kicks in, and it swings. Oh boy does it swing.
Back to jazz, suckers. For years, I had this version marked down as mediocre, but on re-listen, the cartooniness that I always hated, that always seemed off-color, underscores the song’s essential deep, bleak current. There’s also a Betty Boop cartoon set to this version that I won’t link to because it’s just so goddamned racist.
Why include this song? When we already have a superior early dixeland version in Armstrong’s? When you’re already sick of jazz? Because Wingy Manone only had one arm, that’s why. Take that, Rick Allen. Also, sick clarinet solo, ya’ll. You play it so good, indeed.
Eric Burdon and the Animals
Okay. We’re done with jazz, promise. But what the hell is this? This version’s source is the branch that starts at an Irish bar. It has wailing “Oh no” background singers. And a guitar pedaled to sound like a sitar. And then goes from blues into punchy psych-pop guitar. And then ends with jazz rock piano. It’s… Jesus. What the hell is this?
The White Stripes
They turn it into a White Stripes song. !Que Sorpresa!
I’ve never been a fan of Seegar. His brand of folk always felt too pedantic to me. His voice too reedy. So I wanted to hate this version. Seegar’s thin, twisting voice seems like it’d be an odd choice. But in duet with his banjo, it strikes the core of this song’s despair. It’s plainness is relentless.
Given the palimp-cestuous nature of “St. James Infirmary,” it’s only fitting to end this post with a song that’s only derived from it. See, Blind Willie McTell was a blues guitarist from Georgia, born blind in one eye, and then had his sight fade from the other. He wrote the classic “Dyin’ Crapshoot Blues (although his authorship seems to have been, fittingly, a bit of a lie), which borrows liberally from “St. James Infirmary.”
Originally intended for Infidelds, Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” weaves the twisted history of “St. James” and “Crapshoot Blues” into this gorgeous, dazzlingly self-referential track. Dylan envisions himself travelling the earth in search of the blues, only to repeatedly find that “no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” The kicker? Dylan forms the melody from “St. James Infirmary.” A self-portrait of the artist as a copy. An unending circle of borrowing, of the meaningless of authenticity, of genius. And at the end of the song’s fruitless search for authenticity, Dylan, envisioning himself back in his North Country hearth, winks, pointing out the window of Minneapolis’ St. James Hotel. Bring it all—this post, this blog, “St. James Infirmary’—back home, Bobby:
Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
Noise Narcs out.