Although “St. James Infirmary” is undoubtedly a very old song, very few traces can be found that predate Louis Armstrong’s 1928 recording. There is the Fess Williams recording of “Gambler’s Blues” the previous year, of course. And Carl Sandburg’s inclusion of two versions of “Those Gambler’s Blues” in his book The American Songbag – also from 1927. A song with lyrical similarities can be found in song collector Dorothy Scarborough’s On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs. We shall no doubt discuss that one further in a future post, but even if we acknowledge a direct connection that only takes us back to 1925, the year her book was copyrighted.
When researching “St. James Infirmary” I found anecdotal evidence that placed the song in minstrelshows around 1916, but not much that was more substantial than that. A little over two years ago, though, Rob Walker posted an interesting discussion about a song titled “In a Charleston Cabin.” It's well worth reading. "In a Charleston Cabin" was recorded – extensively – in 1924. Nothing in the lyric is reminiscent of our song, but the melody reminds one of “St. James Infirmary.” We don’t know, of course, if the melody was borrowed from SJI - but at the very least this extends our excavations back to 1924. (Since writing this over four years ago, I have uncovered much that places the SJI lyric much closer to the turn of the 20th century - RwH.)
For those of you who can read music, I am posting the sheet music to “Charleston Cabin” below. I would be most interested in any comments regarding how closely you find it resembles “St. James Infirmary.” By clicking on the images, you should be able to view larger, readable versions of the files.