|Some of the characters who appear in|
I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.
(Painting and collage by the author,
with apologies to Albert Gleizes.)
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We hope to see you down at St. James Infirmary.
I Went Down to
St. James Infirmary
Investigations in the shadowy world of early jazz-blues
in the company of Blind Willie McTell, Louis Armstrong,
Don Redman, Irving Mills, Carl Moore, and a host of others,
and where did this dang song come from anyway?
Robert W. Harwood
Harland Press, Canada
© 2008, 2015 by Harland Press
ISBN 978-0-9809743-3-1 (paperback)
www.harlandpress.ca • http://www.stjamesinfirmary.ca/
All rights reserved. First edition 2008
Second revised edition 2015
The Oldest Blues I Ever Heard
St. James Infirmary
(as sung by Jack Teagarden in concert in 1941)
Oh, I went down to St. James Infirmary
Saw my baby there, baby there
Stretched out on a long white table
So cold, so still, so fair.
Let her go, let her go, God bless her
Wherever she may be
She can look this wide world all over
She’ll never find another man like me.
Now when I die I want you to dress me in straight lace shoes
A box-back coat, and a Stetson hat
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain, oh
So the boys will know I died standing pat.
“Song That Drove Many to Suicide Comes to U.S.”
THIS HEADLINE GRACED The Charleston Gazette on March 22, 1936. The occasion was the imminent publication of the sheet music to a Hungarian song called “Gloomy Sunday,” described in the article as “a melancholy song supposed to have driven 18 Hungarians to suicide since it was first heard in Budapest six months ago.”
The article continued: “Possibly to keep people from diving off skyscrapers, the American music publishers have given it a ‘happy ending,’ with the soothing line: ‘Dreaming — I was only dreaming.’”
Henry Spitzer, who handles the song for the publisher here, said sadly today: “Some of the Hungarians are supposed to have jumped into the Danube with copies of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ clenched in their fists, and some turned the gas on after they heard it over the radio for the first time....
But I believe Americans are good, sound, healthy stock, and aren’t likely to go killing themselves because a sad song haunts them. After all, this is the country where ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’ made a big hit.”
The point, of course, was that it would be difficult to find a sadder, more tragic song than “St. James Infirmary.” In the end, rather than driving North Americans to suicide, “St. James Infirmary” became one of the most successful and durable popular songs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
MOMENTS BEFORE LAUNCHING INTO A PERFORMANCE of “St. James Infirmary” in 1941, jazz great Jack Teagarden referred to it as “the oldest blues I ever heard.” The first time I heard the song, sixty years later, it sounded utterly contemporary.
I was alone in my apartment, sitting on the couch, reading a book while listening to a CD I’d recently purchased titled The Finest in Jazz Vocalists. Lou Rawls’ voice came through the speakers singing something I had never heard before, a song called “St. James Infirmary.” I had been a Lou Rawls fan in my teenage years and so I paid closer attention. Rawls began with a mournful preamble, one that — I found out later — was written by Irving Mills in 1930 and is an infrequent addition to the song:
When will I ever stop moaning?
When will I ever smile?
My baby went away and she left me
She’ll be gone for a long, long while.
I feel so blue, I feel heartbroken
What am I living for?
My baby she went away and she left me
No no no never to come back no more.
The band picked up the tempo and launched into the body of the song:
I went down to St. James Infirmary
I heard my baby groan
I felt so broken-hearted
She used to be my own.
It was then that I shot out of my chair and exclaimed out loud, “That’s ‘Blind Willie McTell’!” I can’t explain my exhilaration today, but back then it brought to mind, with a jolt, the Bob Dylan song of that name. It’s not that the Rawls melody was identical to the one Dylan used, but there were similarities. For instance, both songs use the same basic chords. Thousands of songs are based on those chords, however, so it was probably in the pulse or the phrasing that the similarities revealed themselves. I have played these two songs to friends, who often don’t hear a resemblance. For me, though, it was a revelation.
Dylan recorded “Blind Willie McTell” in the spring of 1983 for his Infidels album, which was released in November of that year. “Blind Willie McTell” did not appear on the record, however, and neither did several other songs from those New York sessions. In fact, “McTell” appeared on no official Dylan recording (bootleg records were another matter) until 1991, when Columbia released a three-CD set of alternate versions and previously unreleased material called The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1–3. This is where I first heard Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.” It was an immediate standout.
“Blind Willie McTell” is a magnificent piece of song craft in which both the poetry and the music carry us into broad terrain. Dylan accomplishes this not through conventional narrative, however, but through a series of vignettes, a cascade of images that, coupled with a compelling melody, conveys a landscape of conflict and despair. The chorus summons the musician of the title: “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” Asked why he had omitted the song from his album, Dylan said he didn’t think he had recorded it right. He didn’t perform the song in concert until August 5, 1997, at Montreal’s Du Maurier Stadium, fourteen years after recording it in the studio.
Standing there in my apartment, listening to Lou Rawls, I remembered Dylan’s words near the end of “Blind Willie McTell” — “I’m gazing out the window of the St. James Hotel.” Here, in a song melodically reminiscent of “St. James Infirmary,” Dylan seemed to be paying homage. I found that puzzling and I made up my mind to find out more about “St. James Infirmary.” Little did I know that this was the beginning of a very long journey.
THE HISTORY OF THE SONG WOULD PROVE ITSELF to be a puzzle with oddly shaped pieces, many of them missing. In late 2004 I felt I had amassed enough information to publish a small book on the subject called A Rake’s Progress. At about the same time I found online an engaging article about “St. James Infirmary.” Written by author and “St. James enthusiast” Rob Walker, it was one of a series of letters he had written to friends from his home, which at that time was in New Orleans.1 This was both the most comprehensive and the best-written overview of the song that I had encountered, a fascinating reflection and exploration. “Sad song about a man going to see the corpse of his lover,” Walker wrote, “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 beautiful and wrong at the same time.” This letter, which he titled simply “St. James Infirmary,” puzzled over the identities of Carl Moore and Phil Baxter, two musicians central to the first recording of the song. I had addressed that question myself in A Rake’s Progress and wrote Rob a letter to inform him of my findings. We have been corresponding ever since. Rob’s Letters from New Orleans was published in book form in 2005, with profits directed to victims of Hurricane Katrina, which had devastated the city that year. In the chapter “St. James Infirmary” he acknowledged my contribution to the Moore–Baxter solution, and referred to me as a “fellow ‘St. James’ obsessive.”
Obsessive? I have never thought of myself as obsessive. But I must have been. For although I had published a small book about the song, I could not let it go. Too much of the puzzle remained unfinished — there were too many questions without answers.
I soon found that much of what I had written in A Rake’s Progress was incorrect. That book was based largely upon common assumptions about “St. James Infirmary,” assumptions that I had pretty well accepted as facts. Through subsequent research I discovered much more about the song, about its history, and about the people it attracted, that had been neglected or overlooked or that was just plain incorrect. And so, in 2008, I wrote I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. In that book, I included details about the times in which the song evolved and in which it became popular. I presented a new history of the song, its origins and its evolution as one of the most successful and influential songs in American popular music. This second edition offers updated information, some of which was previously unavailable.
I Went Down to St. James Infirmary is about the times in which the song sprang up. It is about the emerging music business of the 1920s and 1930s, which, in many ways, has changed little since. It is about song ownership. It is about the people, fascinating people, who became entangled with the song.
“St. James Infirmary” has a rich and complex history. It surfaced in more or less its present form about a century ago, and has been adopted by jazz musicians, blues singers, balladeers, rock superstars, gospel singers, avant-garde ensembles, and more. The song defies boundaries. It turns up in unexpected places. It was the first song Tony Bennett recorded, in 1946, and it featured prominently in the 2012 documentary The Zen of Bennett.2 Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase danced the tune in a 1958 NBC television broadcast. In 1981 the classical composer Ezra Sims wrote a microtonal piece titled “Sextet,” based upon Louis Armstrong’s 1928 version of “St. James Infirmary.” American virtuoso accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman arranged the song for a gypsy band in Bucharest, and recorded it for his gig 365 album in 2012. Young musicians such as the New Creations Brass Band energetically reinterpret the song on the streets of New Orleans. New interpretations, performances, and recordings arise each year.
Despite some claims to the contrary, “St. James Infirmary” has always been a song of the folk, with no identifiable author. It arose; it changed shape as the world changed around it. By the time the music business took notice, it had already been transformed from a ballad into a foxtrot, from a dirge to a dance song.
And then it became a financially valuable commodity. Suddenly, its flow was impeded.
THERE IS A HISTORY OF “ST. JAMES INFIRMARY” that has long been treated as gospel. According to this history, the song owes its existence to the emigration of workers from the British Isles who brought the songs of their homeland with them. One of those songs, “The Unfortunate Rake,” served as the foundation not only of “St. James Infirmary” but also “Streets of Laredo.” “St. James Infirmary” inspired bluesman Blind Willie McTell to write “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues.” And so on. The tale is a long one, and has been repeated again and again, by musicians, in books about music, in university courses, and on countless blog entries. “These are the facts” — so we are told.
But those facts are wrong. Those facts are opinions, nothing more. And those opinions have crystallized, due to repetition, into conventional wisdom. The real story is much different and, as it turns out, much more interesting.
So where do we begin to unravel all this?
1 Rob Walker, Letters from New Orleans (New Orleans: Garrett County Press, 2005), 188.
2 The Zen of Bennett, DVD, Sony Music Canada, 2012.
Table of Contents
PREFACE / ix
INTRODUCTION: The Oldest Blues I Ever Heard 1
ONE Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues 7TWO The Unfortunate Rake 27
THREE Let Her Go, God Bless Her 43
FOUR Ding Dong Daddies 59
FIVE Gambler’s Blues 79
SIX St. James Infirmary 105
SEVEN Everything Is Hotsy Totsy Now 129
SEVEN Everything Is Hotsy Totsy Now 129
EIGHT She Used to Be My Own 155
A Note about Copyright 175
Appendix A: Comments on Some Early Recordings 181
Appendix B: Porter Grainger 193
Appendix C: A Bit More about Carl Moore 199
Appendix D: Song Variants 207
Appendix E: Record Labels 215
General Index 245
Song Index 251
Song Index 251