Made one of my periodic YouTube checks over the weekend, and found this video of an entertaining performance apparently recorded at Voodoo Fest, by the Paul Sanchez and the Rolling Road Show — with Glenn David Andrews taking the vocals.
New Orleans trombonist Andrews, cousin of James Andrews and Troy (Trombone Shorty) Andrews, seems to be raising his own profile quite a bit in the last year. (Here’s an Offbeat article about/interview with him.) Anyway he pretty much goes to town on his version of “St. James Infirmary,” but the main reason I bring it up is because of the way he tweaks some of the lyrics.
When his narrator goes to Old Joe’s, for instance, it’s “just a few blocks from Congo Square.” I’m going to take that as a direct reference to Joe’s Cozy Corner. Oddly, when ticking off the list of sartorial and material funeral requests, he asks for Reebok sneakers (and, less oddly, a New Orleans Saints hat). And a six of Miller Lite. Yeah?
I was going to try to reproduce a few his other ad-libs, but they often involve jamming a huge number words into a very short amount of time, and so they’re kind of hard to decode, let alone transcribe.
Anyway, he ends riffing on pretty much every line of the lyric, adding local references, jokes, and so on. It’s a wildly hammy and totally fun performance.
Immediately after I watched it, I went back to YouTube and checked out one more video I hadn’t noticed before.
You’d be surprised how many of my “SJI” correspondents over the years have told me their favorite version is by Danny Barker. Or maybe you wouldn’t. Either way, that’s what this other YouTube video was. (In fact the person who uploaded it put this in the description: “People keep talking about their favorite version of the St. James Infirmary Blues…I have a funny feeling this’ll change your mind.”)
This is part of that category of YouTube videos wherein someone basically has one still photograph onscreen while a song plays. In this case, it’s Barker singing “SJI.”
I soon realized that Andrews’ take actually owed a lot to, or referenced, Barker’s. That was true of a couple of minor details, like both singers appending the description of the character with “eyes bloodshot red,” with the aside, “just like mine.” Also a reference to Memphis blues that’s unusual, but in both of these versions. And a joke about asking for another shot of booze “because I’m a chronic alcoholic.”
But the most striking similarity was those rapid-fire additions to the lyrics.
In Barker’s case, they come gradually. First just a few extra words, but then, when the singer gets to funeral requests, super-fast addendums between almost every line.
The YouTube uploader transcribed them, and my listening matches that transcription:
When I die I want you to dress me in straight-laced shoes
(Put my shoes on because I may have to run from the devil)
I want a boxback coat and a stetson hat
(Put my hat on because the cinders from in fire will be fallin’)
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So all my phony, whiskey-head, reefer-head friends’ll know I passed away standin’ pat
I want sixteen snow-white horses
(No mules, no ponies no jackasses all horses)…
And so on. I particularly like the editorializing bit about the friends being a bunch of chemically dependent phonies. Funny.
But my very favorite Barker addition comes when he repeats the stanza about going down to St. James Infirmary. Those lines get repeated in many versions of the tune, but this is the only one I know where the singer offers a reason for why he’s come back to them:
Went down to the Saint James Infirmary the second time, because I didn’t believe what I saw the first time…
Not only that, he adds a twist:
And sure enough my poor dead baby was still laying there with a sheet over her head
(she looked like a [??*] gown man**)
I raised up the sheet and said, “Darlin’, would you say some nice kind words of consolation to me?”
She opened up one eye and said, “Get the hell away from me. Can’t you see I’m tryin’ to pass away?”
(I said, “Forgive me darlin’.)
Not bad! And as I think you’ll agree if you give it a listen, the mix of soulfullness and deadpan is really quite effective — totally understated, but still with real feeling. A keeper for sure.
[* The YouTuber transcribes this as "doll," but seems unsure. I can't figure out what he's saying. You?]
[[** "Gown man" -- see comments for explanation.]]