Tag Archives: The White Stripes

Noise Narcs goes out on a cold white table: Noise Variations on “St James Infirmary”

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.

Louis Armstrong

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.

Louis Armstrong & His Savoy Ballroom Five, “St. James Infirmary”

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.”

Louis Armstrong, “St. James Infirmary” [Buy]

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.

Allen Toussaint

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.

Allen Toussaint, ” St. James Infirmary”

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.

Bobby “Blue” Bland, “St. James Infirmary Blues” [Buy]

Lou Rawls

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.

Lou Rawls, “St. James Infirmary (Live)”

Cab Calloway

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.

Cab Calloway, “St. James Infirmary” [Buy]

Wingy Malone

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.

Wingy Malone, “St. James Infirmary” [Buy]

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?

Eric Burdon and The Animals, “St. James Infirmary” [Buy]

The White Stripes

They turn it into a White Stripes song. !Que Sorpresa!

The White Stripes, “St. James Infirmary Blues”

Pete Seeger

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.

Pete Seeger, “St. James Infirmary” [Buy]

Bob Dylan

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

Bob Dylan, “Blind Willie McTell”

Noise Narcs out.

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Hot Tub Rock Show: Trent W

This week, Noise Narcs answers the age-old question: What five bands would you travel back in time to see in their prime? To see other responses, jump in the hot tub.

5.  The White Stripes
Two years ago, I saw The Raconteurs live at the New American Music Union festival. The also-rans at that festival were Spoon, The Roots, Bob Dylan, and The Black Keys.  Surprisingly, the band known down under as The Saboteurs put on, by far, the best show of the weekend, largely on the strength of Mr. Jack White’s contribution.  For me, it was reminiscent of seeing Method Man performing with Wu-Tang:  on a stage populated by perfectly capable and charismatic musicians, White drew all attention to himself.  During a song in which his contribution was minimal, he took great pains to climb a massive speaker tower at the side of the stage.  He also requested that the audience throw joints onstage and jumped in front of other band members while they were singing to emphatically grab his crotch.

No, wait, those were all things Method Man did.

Mr. White’s enticements were far more subtle, possibly even unintentional.  For the most part, he seemed like he really wanted to function as just one part of a regular old rock band.  He was just as happy to step back into the shadows and play keys on one song as he was to be front-and-center singing lead on the next.  (Actually, he wasn’t even set up in the center; Brendan Benson was.)  Problem was, he performed with such passion and exuded such enigmatic star power that no one in the audience could help but keep one eye on Jack at all times.  Am I gushing?  I guess I am, but it’s only because that show reminded me what the term “rock star” originally meant.  I mean, it was obvious dude was really made for this purpose.

So maybe my interest in the seeing The White Stripes can be boiled down to simply an interest in seeing Jack White.  And, of course, I’ve already seen him once and I can certainly see him again.  Why then, you ask, would I waste a time machine trip just for the addition of Meg’s sloppy drumming?  Because I like The White Stripes music far more than that of Jack White’s other projects to date.  (And maybe something about the focused energy of a duo.)  I think a White Stripes show would probably be the best context in which to see him.  It’s that simple.


The White Stripes, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground (Live, Under Black Pool Lights)”

4.  The Headhunters

I fully expect that someone will include in their Hot Tub list one of the great jazz artists from the bop or post-bop eras: possibly one of the classic Miles lineups, or Coltrane, or maybe even Monk or Mingus.  And those names were also tempting for me to include.  However, if we’re talking about the sheer visceral entertainment value of a live show, nothing in jazz tops the groundbreaking funk-laden fusion of The Headhunters with Herbie Hancock.

Or without him.  While Hancock was instrumental in bringing together the musicians and providing direction for what would become The Headhunters, any of the early lineups will do for me.  It was specifically the linear interplay of bassist Paul Jackson and drummer Mike Clark (or Harvey Mason, as on the first record) that made The Headhunters sound unlike anything that came before it, and continues make me launch into unprompted monologues on the elusive concept of “pocket.” Adding to the heat that must’ve been coming off that road as they paved it were the hints of early Afro-futurism in the band’s dress and overall concept.  So, while I still might be able to catch some permutation of the group doing a lukewarm impression of itself at a festival for guys with graying ponytails, I’d gladly drop one of my time machine tokens to see them like this:


Herbie Hancock and the Headunters, “Cameleon (Live, Soundstage, San Francisco, 1975)”

See the rest of Trent’s picks after the jump…

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